It is one of the pillars of existentialism that human beings are burdened with the constant need to make choices. “I can always choose,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism, “but I must also realize that, if I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice.” One university-relevant example is the unprecedented amount of knowledge that is available to us nowadays. The consequences of living in the age of knowledge are in many ways positive; it has the potential to keep well-informed anyone with an access to books and the internet, and it makes it harder to fool us, at least in some respects. But what about the information multitude itself? What would Sartre say?
A short while ago I paid a visit to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. While I consider myself as having a relatively long attention span, museums always pose an interesting challenge for me. The first couple of rooms see me staring meditatively at almost every painting, reading titles, even the occasional description. But this state is short-lived and I soon find myself scanning the rooms only to stop at a selected few pieces in each. It’s a curious reaction. I am not bored; if that were the case I could just leave. Instead, I am overwhelmed with the vast amount of visual information asking to be processed. Not unlike desensitization to violence which many researchers connect with exposure to action films and video games, I find myself becoming desensitized to art. My brain filters the different pictures and statues, drawing my attention only to stimuli I would be most interested in.
I would hardly say that a visit to the museum leaves me existentially depressed, but it does raise some unsettling emotions. Why do I find it so difficult to focus on all paintings equally? I probably missed quite a lot, and who’s to say that the paintings I chose to focus on were the ones with the most potential to contribute to my knowledge or my aesthetic enjoyment? When faced with a choice, explains Sartre, moral doctrines tend to be too hazy and can be manipulated to support either possible path. “If values are vague and if they are always too broad in scope to apply to the specific and concrete case under consideration, we have no choice but to rely on our instincts.” This introduces a whole new set of problems. We now need to define emotional intuition in order to use it. However, the only way to measure the strength of a certain emotion is by behaving in a manner that confirms it, says Sartre, and “since [we are] depending on this [emotion] to justify [our] action”, we find ourselves “caught in a vicious circle.”
Considering this vicious circle helps clear why freedom is in itself a burden. Every day we are called upon to make choices which we cannot avoid (as earlier discussed, even remaining neutral is in itself a choice and a statement.) Though it is true that most of our choices are hardly life-altering, this is beside the point; little is contingent upon which pictures we choose too look at, but it is the constant and pressing need to find justification for our choices — an endlessly elusive concept — that is burdensome. This feeling should be familiar, whether you are a student trying to compile a reading list for your essay or a soon-to-be graduate trying to decide where to go next.
However, not all is grim. Existentialism, promises Sartre, in fact shows “sternness of optimism.” It calls for action, asserting that “reality alone counts … that [we are] the sum, organization, and aggregate of the relations that constitute [our] enterprises.” It is far easier to run away from decisions and to blame our misery on circumstance, or greater forces working against us. In many instances this might be justified – for instance, children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are in a significantly higher risk for criminality and substance abuse. But we need not go so far: within our personal set of circumstances we are each faced with endless decisions all the time. As Sartre would suggest, we ought to see this as empowering. Existentialism “is the only theory that endows man with any dignity, and the only one that does not turn him into an object … [into] a set of predetermined reactions.”
When it comes to knowledge, we are faced today with challenges our ancestors could never have imagined. In the National Gallery, in the university library, and before the might of an omniscient Google, we must constantly choose which information to retain and which to ignore. We are condemned to freedom, as Sartre would say. But rejoice: making that choice is the ultimate expressions of our own humanity, because taking action and seeking goals outside of one’s self is the only way that “man will realize himself as truly human.” Be brave and embrace the overwhelming multitude of information. Happy citing!