Monday 30 October 2017

Existence and Subsistence: The Power of Concepts

The Weeping Woman. Pablo Picasso 1937.
By Christian Sötemann
Imagine a married couple, Laura and Audrey.  Both have regular work. Then, Laura loses her job, and Audrey’s mother dies.  The couple are now in a double predicament.  On the one hand, they will struggle to pay the rent.  On the other hand, they will have to work through Audrey’s mother’s death.
Now imagine an alternative situation, again involving Laura and Audrey.  Laura and Audrey now both lose their jobs.  This deepens their struggle with the rent.  Yet Audrey’s mother is still alive and well.

We would be somewhat justified in calling both situations ‘existential crises’, since both have to do with human existence.  Yet we might also apply two different terms to Laura and Audrey’s experiences – one being a problem of ‘existence’, the other a problem of ‘subsistence’.  It may not be an exact distinction, but it can point to two different – and at times overlapping – spheres.

In the first example, Audrey and Laura undergo problems of ‘existence’ (Audrey’s mother) as well as problems of ‘subsistence’ (Laura’s job).  In the second example, it can be construed as a problem of how to subsist at all.  Now, we might ask wherein the difference lies, more exactly.

Deepening our Meanings

Subsistence, here, concerns physiological survival, and the provision of basic material needs.  One does not have to subscribe to Marxism to agree with Marx when he pointed out that ‘life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things.’  The psychologist Abraham Maslow has suggested that basic needs such as these precede more complex ones such as appreciation by others or self-actualisation.

One might be tempted to state that their problems of subsistence are about material necessities, to continue their existence on biological and economic levels.  And yet – it would be fruitful to reserve the term ‘existence’ for certain phenomena inextricably interwoven with human life, which go beyond self-conservation and material safety.

‘Existence’ may further be differentiated from ‘being’.  One may discern this in a human death.  When we die, we do not turn into nothingness.  There is always still something there: ashes, or a lifeless body dissolving into dust.  To quote Sartre, there is not less – ‘there is something else.’  However, human life – a unique existence – is lost.

Being turns into different being. Something remains on one level – but on the existential level, a most drastic change occurs when a human being dies. And that is regardless of whether one takes an atheist stance or postulates an immortal soul, since the latter would still indicate an existential transformation.

Philosophers like Heidegger saw a difference here, and even though one can be critical of the ideas which led to this distinction, there is some merit to the idea of reserving the term ‘existence’ for human beings, in that it enables us to contemplate the existential dimension of human life.

In this understanding, ‘existence’ goes beyond the mere ‘being there’ of something, in spite of all changes, and instead points to the existential – to questions of death, one’s take on the meaning of the world, loneliness and freedom and responsibility.  These are the ‘ultimate concerns’ that the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has identified.

Differentiating our Meanings

Whatever the case may be, there is something that shows us that the spheres of ‘existence’ and ‘subsistence’ cannot be identical.  Even if one has all that is needed for physiological and economic survival, one is still confronted with the inescapability of death and the task of committing to a meaning of one’s own life, among other things. No material protection can relieve existential issues, once they come under scrutiny.

Granted, with rare exceptions, one has to achieve a certain level of material security to ponder the questions of ‘existence’ at all. The philosopher who ponders the meaning of the world is unlikely to be able to do so without access to food and drinking water and a place for nightly recuperation. Even Diogenes resorted to his tub, after all.  The sphere of existence requires the opportunity to go beyond questions of daily survival.

Thus, if one accepts this distinction between ‘subsistence’ and ‘existence’, one could shine a light on economic struggles and perceived injustice on the one hand, and discuss issues of a human being’s general position in the world from a more contemplative point of view on the other.  By defining ‘subsistence’ and ‘existence’, one may now employ these terms to powerful effect in philosophical debate as well as psychotherapy and psychological counselling.


docmartincohen said...

"basic needs such as these precede more complex ones such as appreciation by others or self-actualisation" ... well yes, but ? It is *true* that you have to be alive to resent, say, the government taxing you, or worry about the weeds in the garden... but the literal truth does not take us very far. Marx was as ever being hypocritical when he put material things ahead of ideological ones. The snows of Stalingrad are surely testimony to that!

Unknown said...

Well, Martin, personally I do think that the hypocrisy is even more evident in those who interpreted Marx in ways that suited them. The quote by Marx can be seen as a reaction to the dominant interpretations of Hegel-style idealism prevalent in Germany in the 19th century. The words you mentioned, however, are a quote from the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (not a Marxist).

Keith said...

Your definitions, Christian, of ‘subsistence’ and ‘existence’, and how they’re differentiated, make fundamental sense. And, as your essay points out, ‘No material protection [though necessary in its own right] can relieve existential issues’. (A dazzling multimillion-dollar mansion, with all the accouterments, in Beverley Hills won’t deflate those thorny ‘existential issues’.) What’s puzzling, however, is why humankind — or more particularly, why each individual — submits to the irresistible, unquenchable urge to keep circling back to the fundamentally existential question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And in the process, so often to place the putative (yet uneasy) answer in any number of either theistic or secular-humanistic — or interestingly hybrid — constructs.

The question about meaning seems an itch that can never be satisfyingly scratched, regardless of personal philosophy — the last few millennia being a testament. I wonder what compels us to ask about life’s meaning, anyway. And why we presume there might be a satisfactory (convincing) answer lurking out there, ready to wipe away the needling torment and lead to unqualified peace of mind. As well as, to your point, what brings some people back to the psychologist’s couch in that anxious search. Your essay refers to our being haunted by our own mortality — as you put it, the ‘inescapability of death’ — as at least a partial answer. Which is, of course, true. It’s odd, though, that we fear death with such passion. Our sophisticated consciousness (the inimitable complexities that make up our sense of ‘personhood’) is perhaps a little too clever for its own good, hubristically fearing its demise — its unavoidably going from someone to no one.

Maybe Woody Allen, who lacks for nothing materially, deserves a hosanna for getting to the crux, confessing his anxiety: ‘I don’t fear death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The philosopher CEM Joad was famous for the line, 'It all depends on what you mean by [a word].' What would interest me is the application of 'existence' and 'subsistence'.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your insightful comment, Keith. I have always loved the Woody Allen quote you mentioned. In existential psychotherapy, there is a differentiation between an "objectivist" and a "constructivist" answer to that fundamental question of the meaning of our lives. I personally subscribe to the latter variant, although I agree with you, Keith, that we will most likely continue to be haunted by this perennial question.

Unknown said...

Good question, Thomas. One field of application is, in my opinion, existential counselling and therapy, for example. So it might be a very individualised application. Questions of subsistence, I would conjecture, might lead to more generalised ideas. That is why I think the question of an unconditional basic income should be discussed more thoroughly.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear gentlemen,
All boundaries are held in common, said Allen W. Watts. I always think of that as quite a mind opening phrase, and would that not apply for both existence and subsistence?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The entities we call 'things' are merely aspects of the whole?

Tessa den Uyl said...

That is what I understand of such a phrase, yes.

Unknown said...

If I understand that quote correctly, Tessa, I would like to think that Schopenhauer alluded to something similar in his philosophy, and in his ethics of compassion. Certainly, considering this could help to be more aware of every person's need for subsistence to be able to get to a situation of coming up with one's own answer to the existential issues.

docmartincohen said...

Don't worry, Mr. Allen, you won't be!

docmartincohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tessa den Uyl said...

Yes, I think Schopenhauer touched upon this Christian. Maybe the bottom line is that identity involves difference, we just do not know how to get around with difference. Seen how things are, the idea of subsistence would help many persons although I do think that if existential issues would be resolved, the subsistence would flow out of that as a natural succeeding.

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