Karl, I am looking forward to reading the Heidegger essay. I have very mixed feelings about Hegel, only because of the ways that contrary philosophers such as Neitzche and Engels turned it upside down, and, borrowing from Kant, created the idea of the "Hegelian Dialectic," which has been used for nefarious purposes. Yet I value his position of the subjectivity of history, and the idea that out of thesis and antithesis comes synthesis. I shall try to be open minded as I read the work.
Well, so philosophy is sort of my refuge. I admit I don't know a lot about Hegel. I need to read some of his accessible work. What mainly interests me is the 19th century rupture in philosophy between two camps. The first camp consists of the mainstream of european philosophy devoted to understanding what is "real" while the second camp consists of those, like me, who cannot get far beyond the "is" of reality - who, what, how does the reality we experience get assigned this "is-ness" by philosophers.
Most prominent figureheads of the first camp are the rational dualists (like Descartes who founded the subject-object duality and then placed us as the observer-subject and reality as any object properly observed), the rational empiricists (like Hume, who didn't believe in anything he couldn't touch or measure) and the rational idealists (like Kant, who synthesized Descartes and Hume by turning every "thing" into a formalized idea-thing). These three strands of thought, among other varieties of rational philosophy, then influenced the rest of history down to today, decisively.
The second camp arose in the following generations and consisted of the earliest existentialists, the thinkers who questioned the primacy of rationality, and who have served to subtly bend our current reality, where absolute confidence in science and technology is coupled with the most bizarre forms of irrational entertainment as evidenced by TV shows and commercials, music, the internet, etc.
So the critical difference is one's faith in the rational faculty. The earlier thinkers (and the majority of ordinary people today, including most of the scientists who dominate our view of reality) believe that rationality is somehow the basis of truth. Ultimately, that boils down to the statement that all truth can be mathematically expressed. Stephen Wolfram says that the universe is "calculable". It's his faith statement.
Existentialists do not deny rationality as one of the many human faculties that become apparent to any observer. However, they would claim that there is something deeper and more fundamental than a sort of mathematical truth, or logical order, in the universe. They would say that us living in the world is the basis for everything else. That is, lived experience presupposes everything else. This seems trivial, but it becomes a powerful antidote for an unbalanced way of thinking, in which rationality becomes the ultimate end instead of an occasional means. So what exactly is this alternative state, "lived experience"? Think of everything you do without thinking (note the paradox - by thinking about it you destroy the unthinking thing you are trying to evaluate). Things like breathing, walking, eating, sleeping, dreaming, humming, doodling, glancing to and fro, and most work, once you get into a routine. What is foremost in all such activities is not discrete thoughts, but rather vague feelings, intuitions, instinct.
Let's assume for a moment that moods, emotions, hunches, and vague feelings are the opposite from what we mean by rational. Reductionists would simply dismiss this premise, saying that moods are chemical alignments in the body and brain, and therefore perfectly predictable and rational if we could only measure them well enough. But nevertheless, in the ordinary way we talk about them, moods are rarely rational. Now, do moods come before thinking rationally, or after? Which is a more fundamental aspect of human-ness? It seems a person has to "overcome" their moods and feelings in order to get into a rational frame of mind. But once there, that rational person likely says that rationality must be the fundamental aspect of reality, the raw truth about things. Feelings are merely the fog that obscures reason. We come from this tendency to say the universe is built on orderly laws - it is a rational universe. The laws of the universe must have been in place before humans ever existed. Many religious folks then deduce that God must be rational, despite His many seemingly irrational acts.
The existentialist turns it around and says that moods are the fundamental basis for everything else. They would say, more or less, that rationality is a certain kind of mood, or better yet, it is a mood wherein the natural flow of human action has broken down. This breakdown picture, to me, is the key observation of the existentialists, and the one thing most non-existentialist, rationalist outsiders simply cannot see, or cannot accept. In this picture, most "thinking" - including their own philosophical thinking on either side - must be labelled as abnormal, as suspect, as a sort of tool of last resort when all else fails. This is the opposite of everything we are taught by our culture and education system. We are taught that thinking is good, that it leads to truth, that it is a precondition of success. But existentialists think (note the paradox of thinking about thinking again) that thinking is often bad. This is Dostoevsky's key insight, and why he is considered one of the founders of existentialism. In his novels, every one of his characters who thinks more than he/she feels, ends up with far worse consequences than those who feel more than they think! He writes about evil, and he recognizes two kinds - brute evil, which is what animals do as well as humans, and intellectual evil, which is uniquely human, but often drives humans to behave worse than animals.
I am thoroughly Dostoevskian, at this point in my life. Love is not rational. Beauty cannot be adequately defined and calculated. Hope and faith utterly defy reason. The best in us, as humans, emerges when we have not broken down and fallen into a process of logical thought. Rationality is an emergency measure. We must accept it, carry it around with us like some societal life preserver, and deploy it when lived experience and the natural flow it adheres to have met some difficulty too great to live through alive. And given the violence and uncertainty we see in studying history, that is often enough. For the rest, we should concentrate on existing well.