restricted access The Challenge of Existentialism, Then and Now
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The Challenge of Existentialism, Then and Now

John Wild’s highly successful book The Challenge of Existentialism dates from 1955;1 it was published by Indiana University Press and based on his 1953 Mahlon Powell Lectures at Indiana University. Wild was then still teaching at Harvard, where he had been for many years, but was to remain there for only five years more, at which point, in 1960, he left—the first tenured philosopher to do so in modern times in what was still, after all, a relatively recent history, the system of graduate philosophy education as we know it having developed only in the late nineteenth century. It behooves [End Page 255] us to reflect on the fact that when John Wild left Harvard for Northwestern, for what were to be just a few years before his subsequent move to Yale, and organized the first Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) meeting in 1961 with the assistance of his younger protégé, James Edie, the span of time that had passed since those modern beginnings, years before Wild himself first entered Harvard, was only slightly greater than the subsequent fifty-year period that we are commemorating here. In other words, the wisdom of the ancients that we are here attempting to invoke is not very ancient, after all.

Wild’s interest in existentialism or, as he would not have minded my calling it, existential phenomenology had been stimulated by a postwar trip to Europe, where he had first encountered the thought especially of Husserl and Heidegger during a research leave in the mid-1930s. How much had transpired during the intervening decade or so! Such massive destruction, for example, of the major German cities, such as Munich, which at that time and for some years to come still bore some of the scars of war. So it was fitting that I began to write this essay while seated in a tranquil park in Munich, looking up from my paper from time to time to stare at a chestnut tree with massive roots. But I digress—or perhaps I am becoming a bit confused. I myself did not attend the two earliest SPEP meetings, though I began to participate in SPEP immediately thereafter, but I first saw John Wild even before SPEP had come into existence, when he delivered the Presidential Address of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division in December 1960. That meeting, the last of its kind to be held on a university campus, took place at Yale, where I was a first-year graduate student, having myself just spent my immediate postcollege year in Europe, in France, with my principal scholarly focus having been existentialism, specifically Sartrean existentialism.

By the time of his American Philosophical Association presidency, John Wild had become a missionary, a zealot, for existentialism to a degree that took him far beyond what one finds in his book. In the latter, it is true, he already indicated his strong belief that the analytic trend in philosophy, the increasing dominance of which at Harvard was to be his main announced reason for leaving there, was rendering our discipline increasingly irrelevant, whereas existentialism dealt with real-world issues. But in The Challenge of Existentialism Wild still suggests that certain aspects of metaphysical realism, the modernized version of the Western philosophia perennis to which Wild had subscribed in earlier times, continued to have [End Page 256] some correctives to offer in areas in which the existentialists had had too little to say. By the time of SPEP’s founding, Wild was no longer given to offering such conciliatory remarks.

Now, I have begun by focusing on John Wild and his book not so much for their own sakes, and not even primarily because of the historical link between Wild and the fiftieth anniversary of SPEP, but because I think that his enthusiasm for existentialism had a solid basis when he first gave it expression,2 and it still does now. Of course, existentialism is far from being a single doctrine. For Wild, it was Kierkegaard, it was Jaspers, it was Heidegger, it was Marcel, and it was Sartre—hardly a homogeneous group...