In The Challenge of Existentialism John Wild praises existentialists for pioneering the phenomenological method of observing the world. He thinks this method is the way philosophy should go about its business. He contrasts the scientific method with this.
The scientific method is necessarily reductionistic. In other words it is only interested in one kind of thing. It has to filter out questions of meaning or the personal. It uses instruments to observe and measure the things it is interested in. But philosophy seeks to grasp the structure of things as a whole. So it must use a method that takes every aspect of existence into account. It must have its own methods of observation.
It must pay attention to the “vast, confused, primordial, world of concrete life.” This introduces us to Wild’s concept of the Lebenswelt. This is a German word for the actual world in which we live. This idea breaks us out of the confined mental world of Descartes’ thinker. Existence consists of way more than thinking. Kierkegaard and other existentialists sought to carefully observe this world of concrete existence. Another existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, said, “I participate, therefore I am.”
So, if the existentialist pays attention to himself or herself, it is not necessarily an egotistical thing. The existentialist pays attention to himself as a participant in the Lebenswelt. Life as it actually gets experienced by real people is the object of attention. To the scientific mind, the data of actual experience is “sloppy data”. There is a tendency to discredit it or think it unworthy of attention. But this impoverishes our thought, for the data of actual life is rich. Even though this data may be “sloppy”, we neglect it at the peril of becoming one sided and constricted in our thought.
The scientific method is highly functional and useful. Wild does not want to be unscientific. What he wants is for us to recognize that there is room for other methods along with science. If we make science our exclusive way of seeing the world, we leave out a vast amount of the data available to us.
Phenomenology tries to take the sloppy out of the sloppy data of existence. It means a careful and disciplined observation of existence. Wild attempts to draw upon the best of existential and phenomenological accounts of life and the world. The world he sees contrasts sharply with that of rationalists and idealists who fuss about whether we can really know anything outside of ourselves. He sees a vast, kaleidoscopic, changing world. He goes beyond some existentialists and many other modern philosophers by concluding that such a world cannot account for itself. So he thinks he is warranted in saying that there exists a first cause: God.
To evaluate Wild’s thought a bit, I have to say I really tried to apply his method in making a sociological analysis of the community where I was serving as pastor in the 1980s. The analysis was a requirement for my doctoral program. I think I did a good job. My professor called it interesting and creative. However, he was a Marxist and wanted a social-conflict type analysis. I had to do it over again with more emphasis on social stratification. (Did I mention that I never was exactly a teacher’s pet?)
Wild was an American trying to work with existentialism and phenomenology, overlapping European schools of philosophy. So we Americans don’t have quite the same mind-set. Wild is more optimistic and his philosophy is realist at heart. He eventually brings in William James as an ally of existentialism. James did react to the idealism of his teacher, Josiah Royce, with some of the same reservations that Kierkegaard had for Hegel. Again, though, it is difficult to overcome the fact that the mind-set is very different.
But this is what makes Wild interesting to me. I cannot get on the same page with any of the European existentialists. The one I like best is Gabriel Marcel, but he has this very French anti-technology side that I don’t understand. In the walled-off confines of some American Universities, European cultural attitudes thrive. But I am a country preacher. I live where I need someone like Wild to filter what is useful from these philosophies through some American realism and optimism.