Opinion: In world of divisive politics, extreme views and fake news, what would some philosophers make of today's crop of populists? 

By Manus CharletonSligo Institute of Technology

Deep-rooted divisive relations between supporters and opponents of populist nationalism and authoritarian government in the United States and some European countries suggest the relations have an existential basis. Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were existentialist philosophers who lived through the extreme divisions of 1930s and 1940s in the shape of fascism, communism and liberal democracy.

For Sartre, our relations with others are inherently divided. For Merleau-Ponty, they are inherently connected and responsive. Both place personal experience, not ideas and theories, at the heart of understanding ourselves and others, and the main feature of our experience is a sense of personal freedom. 

For Sartre, personal freedom lies in our separation from the world while always being conscious of it in one way or another. And our freedom is radical in that we make ourselves into who we are by our choices. But facing up fully to freedom and responsibility for our choices is daunting. We are more likely to attach ourselves to some available identity, whether related to nationality, social role, occupation or political and religious beliefs. 

Jean Paul Sartre at the Russell Tribunal in Stockholm in 1967 which investigated American foreign policy and military intervention in Vietnam. Photo: Marka/UIG via Getty Images

At the same time, we have a sense of our freedom as irreducible. When other people gaze at us, we feel they are taking away from our freedom by identifying us for themselves without our consent or control. They make us feel more like an object than a free person. We feel identified as something in ourselves rather than a freedom for ourselves.

This arouses feelings of fear and shame: fear from "the feeling of being in danger before the other’s freedom"; and shame from feeling their gaze strip us of our freedom through fixing us in some understanding of who they think we are. We also relate to others by objectifying them in some way. This mutual objectifying tendency divides us in our ordinary relations, as it does in how we regard political opponents. 

We are naturally inclined to give our own perspective special weight.

But Sartre also regarded existentialism as a humanism and believed division could be ameliorated through accepting we had a responsibility to create a human community which would provide for freedom in practice. The fact that many are kept down by poverty, oppression and inequality led him to support a Marxist approach. But Marxism was, and remains, one contentious political philosophy among others. 

For Merleau-Ponty, our freedom is less clear cut and more closely knit into the world than for Sartre. Our body places us in the world and freedom shows itself in and through our consciousness of the things we perceive. Freedom runs through and powers our shifting perceptions. We experience it as that which is "perpetually tearing itself" away from whatever we attend to in a continuous movement of changing engagements. But we are neither completely free nor totally determined by what acts on us. Instead, our freedom is situated in a reciprocal relation between what we bring to our perception and understanding through our body and mind and the things we perceive and think about. Both interact, binding our freedom in particular with the freedom of others. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "our freedom is less clear cut and more closely knit into the world". Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Division occurs only if we withdraw "into an inhuman gaze, if each of us feels his actions to be not taken up and understood, but observed as if they were an insect’s". At an immediate level we see the other’s face as "that expressive instrument" which carries his existence as "my own existence is carried by my body, that knowledge-acquiring apparatus".

In particular, when we see distress in someone we glimpse behind his eyes into another internal "private world" besides our own where "minute by minute life is being lived". And we can relate their expression of distress to our own experience. It enables us to see desperation in the face of a refugee, or apprehension and fear in people who feel their traditional way of life is threatened. How we respond is another matter, but it shows we belong with others in a human world.

The same world from which we all draw provides the ground for validating our views in the context of the views of others

We are naturally inclined to give our own perspective special weight. But its centrality is open to being challenged by someone else’s. This is because, where there are differences, we are constantly referred "to the same world in which we coexist and where our views intersect". The same world from which we all draw provides the ground for validating our views in the context of the views of others. And it can lead us to change our views from recognising in the other person’s something we hadn’t known or realised sufficiently. 

Merleau-Ponty’s account of interconnection in same world is a reminder that the basis for public discourse on contentious issues is shared participation not entrenched division. It exposes the disconnection of fake news, misinformation and alternative facts. It brings us back to how we are in our existential condition of developing knowledge and understanding through co-operation. 

Manus Charleton lectures in Ethics, Politics and Morality & Social Policy at Sligo Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ