Existential Perplexity: Between Transcendental Hope & Nihilistic Despair


I wonder if all “intellectually passionate types” are not at least slightly “obsessive-compulsive” when it comes to what Sam Keen calls the “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” that have burned their way into the very depths of their being — body and soul.

Different “intellectual types” will be passionately preoccupied with different primal experiences and mythic questions. Those differences in experiences and questions may influence whether they are principally drawn to the variety of questions, methods, meanings and values that are alternately associated with the domains of philosophy, religion, history, mythology, literature, art, science, psychology, sociology, enterprise, ecology, economics, politics, or still other domains, in their quest for existential meaning, cognitive coherence, and personal fulfillment.

Some are drawn not by one domain but by many, or even by the ideal of the multidisciplinary polymath, thus attempting to “hold court” with many intellectual domains sitting as friends and colleagues around the table of intellectual and cultural discourse that alternates between constructive dialogue and critical debate.

I have asked myself which “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” have set my mind on fire. While there are several primal experiences and questions that come to mind, one that seems to make its appearance again and again as a “leit motif” is the question of the tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, with “existential perplexity” mediating between them. It is an experience of being “of two minds.” It is an experience that includes both ecstatic experiences of wonder and agonizing encounters with horror. Whole ideologies of philosophy and genres of literature have been based on either the primal experience of wonder or the primal experience of horror as their starting  point. Each view has its own partisans. The “existentially perplexed” live between these polarities — attempting to “take in” and “be taken in” by as much of the Mystery of Reality as they can handle.

Over the years I’ve collected quotes, aphorisms, essays and books by various writers, some who are clearly on the side of transcendental hope while others are clearly on the side of nihilistic despair. And then I’ve collected a third group who appear to live in the “betwixt and between” place of existential perplexity, oscillating from time to time between hope and despair. Still others seem never to have asked the question, a fact I find most astonishing.  I won’t attempt to cite various quote, aphorisms, essays and books in this blog, but you will not have difficulty finding all points of view represented once the right questions are on the mental radar.

Ask yourself these questions: “Do the authors I read and the thought leaders I follow see the supreme reality, whatever they conceive it to be, as friendly, hostile, ambivalent, inscrutable or indifferent?

Do they see it as ultimately meaningful and sublime, meaningless and absurd, or obscure and incomprehensible?

Do they counsel indefatigable hope or unyielding despair?  Or do they talk one minute about hope but then seem to sink back into despair, or begin with despair but gradually wind their way toward hope? If you ask someone who “talks like” an optimist or a pessimist if he “actually” is an optimist or a pessimist and he vigorously denies it, what do you make of that? If someone says he is a “personal optimist but a historical pessimist,” how does that play out in the living of a life which is, after all, embedded in history?

And what do you think when you are told by a “linguistic ironist” that the philosophical question of “existential meaning” is not itself “a meaningful question” because we live in an absurd naturalistic universe in which humans falsely reify nominal abstractions like “meaningful” and “meaningless” that have no objective reality or ontological substance?

What is the supreme reality? Is it the physical universe alone or is there “something more”, something more like “mind” than “matter”, or an integral combination of the two as co-emergent (the neutral monist view), in which “we live and move and have our being?” How did you come to this intuitive and/or analytical conclusion? What are its consequences for you?

What do you make of the fact that most people prefer to simply change the conversation rather than think about these ultimate concerns, to talk instead about matters more instrumental and mundane interest like “what’s for lunch?” or “who’s gonna win the Superbowl?”

Do your preferred “thought leaders” see human existence as primarily influenced and shaped by existential freedom, impersonal  forces, deterministic fate, causal chains or whimsical caprice? To what extent do they feel they have the freedom to re-imagine and re-create their situated lives?

Do they believe, and do you believe, that the conclusions they have arrived at, if any, are primarily the result of their intuitive and embodied access to the tacit dimension or of their rational and scientific analysis of the explicit dimension (See Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension and Personal Knowledge)? How do subjective, objective, and inter-sublective “ways of knowing” all come into play?

Is the dialectical tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair one of your primal human experiences and mythic questions? It has long been one of mine. There is a complex  idiosyncratic personal story beyond my own preoccupation with existential questions that I’ll save for another occasion. How do you live in the midst of existential perplexity? If you decide to “settle” on either ultimate hope or ultimate despair as your “final vocabulary,” how did you get there?

To what extent was your decision, or even your decision not to decide, primarily informed by tacit knowledge or explicit knowing, or more likely some combination of the two? What formative events in your own life experience have conditioned your response to this question? How aware are you of those formative experiences and the ways you have framed them into a normative paradigm not only for your life but for all of life?

Finally, if you are one of those “passionately preoccupied” intellectual types who finds himself “existentially perplexed” between the polarities of transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, how then do you endeavor to live a thoughtful, creative, graceful and fulfilling life from day-to-day? How do you translate a conscious and reflexive life of limitations and possibilities into the practical art of living?

4 thoughts on “Existential Perplexity: Between Transcendental Hope & Nihilistic Despair”

  1. I am one of those whom lives in a state of oscillation between existential opposites. I bounce between nihilistic understanding and humanistic evaluation. Before explaining how my dichotomy is able to exist somewhat harmonious, I should mention that I don’t believe your existential dilemma exists to rigidly. Existentialism was created as an approach to combat nihilism’s validity. In a world absent of objective truth, Sartre sought out a system of evaluation. That of course is a simplistic understanding of existentialism. Personally I find the absence of objective truth to be trivially true, the validity of truth lies in its pragmatic capabilities. Once something is pronounced true we become incapable of allowing ourselves to understand that thing any further, nihilistic understanding. As for humanistic evaluation, why do we feel the necessity for some sense of objective meaning? Life itself already possesses more than enough meaning in itself, and our quest for objective truths divert our attention from all the subjective truths that lie right in front of us. It was good ole Ludwig W. who said the most important aspects of life are often disguised by their simplicity and familiarity. In short, I allow nihilism to perpetuate my search for understanding and humanism to instill full meaning in all of the half truths. A kernel of how I distort fundamental philosophies to a point in which they are able to coexist.

    1. Thanks, Manny. Good insights, a creative dialectic. In some ways American Pragmatism as well as Ludwig W’s analytical linguistic philosophy were attempts to get rid of the problem, to transcend the dichotomy between such polarities as objectivity and subjectivity, existential hope and nihilistic despair. Richard Rorty commends humanistic solidarity in the midst of existential contingency and linguistic irony. Richard Kearney (Anatheism) commends the five pragmatic values of imagination, humor, commitment, discernment and hospitality. What finally matters is life-enhancing praxis, saying “yes” to life, even in the face of perplexity and negation. Thanks again for your comments.

  2. This is one of the best pieces of work that I have read. Demonstrated by the fact that I created an account to thank a writer that I will likely never meet.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Bryce. Isn’t it marvelous that persons who will likely never meet may yet have, if not a full exchange of ideas within the richer context of asking their questions, telling their stories and sharing their humanity, an indirect meeting of minds. All the best to you on your life journey. I only blog occasionally these days but kind comments like yours incline me to write more often. Rich

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