Existential worries in politics

Ah, P.D. has blogged about our chat already (Existential notes from the campaign), so why write it myself?

…Ron mentions to me that he’s been noticing the phrase “existential threat” coming up in the campaign; as in the sentence, “A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel.” The OED informs me that the sense of “existential” meaning simply pertaining to existence dates back at least to 1693. It does seem a bit archaic or jargony, though. In the 21st-century, the word raises connotations of angst, berets, and black turtlenecks. (Unbidden, one imagines a nuclear Iran laying siege to Israeli cafes. Those guys take up tables all day, never tip, and nihilate their own Nothingness.) I’m not sure why “existential threat” is being used rather than “a threat to the existence of”, but puzzling out political idioms is like writing a blog post on a Sunday in October.

sartre_threat I wondered whether the strangeness of this use to our ears might be an artifact of our intimacy with the academic use of “existential”, so I’ve polled a few relatively literate non-academic non-philosophers in the last few days. They all have reported a similar oddness to the expression for them as well. So maybe it’s not an ivory tower distortion, but really that there’s a strange bit of trying to fancy-up the political language here.

I will refrain from the temptation to go on an extended riff of jokes that combine geopolitical positioning with quasi-technical characterizations of Sartre or Heidegger. For this, you should be grateful.

12. October 2008 by Ron
Categories: philosophy | Leave a comment

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