Now I am the first to concede that a pass in Philosophy One at the University of Tasmania back all those years ago when Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr was sidelined over allegations of a relationship with a female student does not make me an expert on Soren Kierkagaard and existentialism. For students like me it was the soft option where the solitary lecturer was so grateful to have any students that nobody failed. But refreshing my hazy memory on the subject this morning still leaves me puzzled as to what Hillary Clinton is actually talking about: Pakistan's fragile government is facing an "existential threat", she said last week, from Islamic militants who are now operating within a few hours of the capital. Just what is an "existential threat" supposed to be?
To we students of the late 1950s and early 60s mention existential and thoughts turn, as Jan Freeman put it so nicely writing in the Boston Globe last year, to "Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist's couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe." Clearly that is not what the American Secretary of State has in mind nor is it what former Vice President Dick Cheney meant when he declared of the war on terror that "this is an existential conflict" that must be won.
The philosophy Kierkegaard founded has been reduced by politicians like these - Britain's Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton's predecessor Condoleezza Rice were also worriers about existential threats - to shorthand for "threats to the existence of".