The lesser-known philosopher George Clinton, of Parliament-Funkadelic fame, often met journalists in his stage costumes. This gave them something to write about and also threw them off-guard. When your interviewee is sporting a diamante-encrusted jumpsuit and multi-coloured dreadlocks, challenging them for flouting social convention makes little sense. Hans Hauge’s survey of existentialisms past and present has a similar effect on the reader, insofar as it eschews all manner of academic formalities with flagrant disregard: assertions are made without evidence, ad hominem are indulged in with glee, and often the pile-up of footnotes seem to serve no other purpose than to sharpen a snide remark. Surely, only a life-long academic philosopher liberated from the need to improve his department’s research ratings could write like this, and therein lies its charm.
Firstly, some caveats. Hans Hauge is an institution in the Danish humanities, a prolific author who has churned out works with a speed surpassed only by a Schelling or a Slavoj Žižek. Obviously, it’s absurd to judge his career as a philosopher based on this book alone, which, alas, is what I am about to do here. Furthermore, in Denmark, you are only ever about six feet away from a humanities graduate and, given that Hauge is the personal friend of a good colleague, writing this review feels a bit like chastising your grandfather for a poorly-judged after-dinner speech. Especially if that speech was delivered in a language you can only just about grasp. So rather than a catalogue of quibbles, it might be better to ask what this book is supposed to do, and take my claims about what it actually does with a pinch of what the Danes call 'salt'.
The book began as a lecture course pursuing Hauge’s own conception of existentialism from his first research paper on Alan Sillitoe to his most recent monograph on Martin Heidegger. On the surface, it would appear to be a light survey of existentialism from a contemporary Danish perspective, told in a faintly picaresque manner and which sometimes reads like a campus romp. Many of the jokes seem designed to impress younger students with its studied irreverence for big name philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who, according to Hauge ‘was apolitical before the war, an opportunist under the occupation, and supported every tyrant afterwards.’ (p36) Such a politicised denigration wouldn’t be so cutting if it came after a neutral exposition of the philosophical ideas, but the scope of this work doesn’t allow for much of this. Those words are needed to inform us that Sartre and his life-long partner de Beauvoir had an open relationship (p24), that Sartre was ‘a ladies man’ (p70), that Sartre read Heidegger in translation (p77), that Sartre once had a ‘cosy time’ with Heidegger in Freiberg (p74), presumably before their split over humanism, and that Gilles Deleuze was greatly impressed by Sartre (p74), but without saying why or to what effect. This last point is indicative of the work as a whole. Hauge namedrops Deleuze, a thinker who, together with Félix Guattari, did much to challenge the privileging of the subject in phenomenology, and who would renounce his earliest Sartrean essay, ‘Description of Woman’, from his list of published works. Why did Deleuze do this? What are Hauge’s views on Deleuze’s critique of existentialism? Neither question is asked or addressed, but we are informed that it is ‘not without meaning that Deleuze returned to Bergson.’ (p62) What that meaning might be is never made apparent.
Sometimes Hauge slips into simple bad taste. Entitling a section, ‘Hannah Arendt—is she a Nazi?’, as a provocation to her critics in 2019 is unpleasant, especially when the purpose of the section is to show the philosophical continuity of her thinking with that of Heidegger’s, which coincided with their ‘love affair’ (p47). Hauge is on more dangerous ground when he saunters into a defence of Heidegger’s political involvements. To my mind, Hauge’s discussion of the antisemitic charges brought against Heidegger is brave and at least has the merit of challenging the mainstream orthodoxy on the subject. Perhaps the excision of Husserl’s name from the dedication in ‘Being and Time’ wasn’t motivated by antisemitism, and Husserl was not such an influence on Heidegger’s thought as is often claimed. Perhaps, as Hauge implies, Heidegger’s antisemitic remarks in the black notebooks written ten years after WWII are no worse than the antisemitic remarks that can be found in Goethe, Bach or Luther. If not, then why is he more subject to condemnation? The idea that a post-Holocaust 20th century thinker should be held to higher standards than those in the 19th, 17th and 15th century isn’t considered, nor is the means by which philosophical theories might be distinguished from political involvements.
In keeping with entertaining a younger, non-professional audience, the most enjoyable pages in the survey derive from his lampooning of two popular lifestyle pundits, Svend Brinkmann and Peter Lund Madsen. Based on what I can gather from Hauge’s account, Svend Brinkmann seems like a steely-eyed Alain de Botton, whose self-help books cajole readers into accepting the things they cannot change, and do something about the things they can. Brinkmann gives hope in a nihilistic age through his postulation of ‘small islands’ of stable aesthetic value, and, not without humour, Hauge revokes Brinkmann’s existentialist pass for countenancing such metaphysical essences. Then there’s Hauge’s set-piece dismissal of Peter Lund Madsen’s positivism, a thinker whose ideas remind me of a less inflammatory Sam Harris. Hauge is at his best when conjuring up Madsen’s theory of the brain as ‘a six-armed monster’ grasping at sense impressions, and unsurprisingly, Madsen is also excluded from the existentialist club, but by now it’s looking like a fairly unfriendly place, where only Karl Jaspers hangs on muttering to himself at the bar. By addressing these contemporary figures directly, Hauge perhaps intends to do away with academic aloofness and engage with popular culture as it stands. Sometimes, however, it feels a little like shooting fish in a barrel. No doubt Madsen and Brinkmann will thrive on the banter and we needn’t feel cruel for enjoying the jokes.
Hauge is on the money in his stipulation that new strands of naturalism are rapidly encroaching upon the humanities. In its cruder forms, we witness biologists arguing that human ideas evolve according to natural selection, or must give ear to evolutionary psychologists who assure us that we like horror films because it provokes our flight or fight response. Such truisms reduce things to the point of stupidity and Hauge is right to signal this failing. Yet in order to persuade anyone intellectually curious, Hauge would need to take on the best versions of philosophical naturalism as well as deal objectively with the potential weaknesses of his own under-defined existentialist position. In regards to the former, anyone hoping for a head-to-head with the Churchlands, or with Metzinger’s neo-Kantian neuro-science, or Ray Brassier’s transcendental realism will be disappointed. As for the latter, Hauge never bothers to tackle the obvious rejoinders to both existentialism and phenomenology. Just as advances in science can explain phenomena in a manner more nuanced and profound than phenomenology’s eidetic reduction, so social and historical movements can be said to condition what an individual subject can and should do. What does existentialism have to say to this, other than postulate free will as its own secular version of the serenity prayer? Perhaps Hauge has addressed this elsewhere, but their absence here weakens the argument of this book.
Hauge’s fondness for dated forms of existentialism, phenomenology, and literary theory is evidenced in his partial understanding of modern university literature departments. Hauge would have us believe that the theoretical debates of the past are largely over and that, in parallel with naturalism’s naïve positivism, humanities departments are back to a kind of crude empiricism of literary reading where, according to Rita Felski, we simply follow the ‘thought-streams of others.’ (p105) Hauge, to my mind rightly, laments Felski’s pre-linguistic turn notions of the subject, yet he is grateful for having studied the English classics through the methods of the American new critics. Now Hauge’s knowledge of the private life of T. S. Eliot makes it difficult for him to read his poetry (p106). Despite professing an admiration for Alan Sinfield’s ‘Society and Literature 1945-1970’ (p88), the lesson that we can only pretend our readings are not influenced by factors outside the text seems lost on Hauge. Who comes to Shakespeare with no prior knowledge whatsoever? Even if that knowledge was only a historically constructed term for literary analysis, e.g. ‘bathos’, then we still bring in ‘background’ to our reading.
Overall, beyond the surface jollity, there’s an unmistakable note of resignation. ‘Ensomhedparathed’: the term is never elaborated. By the end of the work, we can guess that Hauge is ‘ready’ to be ‘lonely’ by voicing unpopular views which go against the grain. Yet ‘Ensomhedparathed’ is also the voice of a life-long academic determined to have the last word. If, as Hauge proposes, the ’after-theory’ paradigm is taking over Danish humanities departments thanks to a mercantile social trend determining all education should become useful (p104), we can take hope in the mass-commodification of university courses in the Anglophone world, where nuances are magnified in order to generate rare desirable ‘theories’ students will be willing to pay for. An effective marketing strategy for such theories is to show how your approach differs from others through making sensationalist claims. Being a little flip with academic protocol can also go down well with the youth. Add to this an insider’s extensive knowledge, a lively anecdotal style, and a penchant for making contrarian statements, and we might say with some confidence that Hans Hauge’s academic enterprise needn’t fear insolvency.