Notes on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life.
Unamuno’s 1912 book Tragic Sense of Life is an early expression of Spanish & European existentialism. Why do we propose Unamuno is an existentialist?—because he was concerned with existence, our corporeal existence. To conclude that a thinker is existentialist, we make the claim that their philosophy bases itself in the concerns of existence. If we are to come to an understanding of our lives as an existentialist, we must come to that understanding within the context of our own living & breathing existence.
In Unamuno’s 2nd chapter, he clearly defines what he means by the term a ‘tragic sense of life,’ “For living is one thing and knowing is another; and, as we shall see, perhaps there is such an opposition between the two that we may say that everything vital is anti-rational, not merely irrational, and that everything rational is anti-vital.” This diagram separates Unamuno’s opposition with notes on what this must imply [my additions]:
Now let’s unfold this seemingly simple proposition. On one hand we have that which is vital & anti-rational, life-force (indeed the life force named by Spinoza, a.k.a. conatus), existence, & the like. On the other hand, we have that which is rational which is not corporeal, it is objective, universal & timeless. Given these two polarities, we must not forget that they are opposed, they are in contradiction. If these two elements are in opposition, this opposition is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life.’
The ever-present well-worn philosophical opposition between the mind & the body is where we should center our attention. This is Descartes’ dualism. The mind is separate from the body. As Unamuno demonstrates, Descartes “cogito ergo sum” is not so much a direction toward the ego, rather “I am thinking” first & foremost. I am thinking beyond the body when I am engaged in rational thought. Descartes’ certainty rests in rational thought, not in the body (since for Descartes, the two were distinctly separate, notwithstanding the complexity of trying to justify how the two intermix, that’s somewhere in another paper).
For Unamuno, we reason through an understanding of our existence something like this:
Rational thought sets up a way of thinking about death whereby we find ourselves in a “tragic” bind between “irredeemable despair” or the redemption of dying otherwise. Perhaps this is the promise of an eternal afterlife? We cannot know either way & hence our mortal despair. Rational thought pulls us away from the body by way of such philosophical thinking, objective, mathematical & scientific ways of thinking.
Another way of thinking about this would be to posit that the thinking person wishes to sees her mind as beyond the body & at the time of death if that mind moves on through the soul into eternity then she should aspire to this aim throughout her life until her death. This is found in religious practice & also by way of philosophical thinking. Why wouldn’t we aspire for eternity? Nevertheless, our fallible bodies are flesh & blood & not eternal. Reason posits eternity & we want eternity with our corporeal bodies & cannot have it. This is Unamuno’s ‘tragic sense of life,’ a problem of our embodied existence with this strange admixture of conatus + the body vs. reason + eternity, without resolution, a contradiction, a problem of our existential finitude.
 Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch (Sophia Omni, 2014), 47.