Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.
Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore emphasizes action, freedom and decision as fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice (a complete rejection of Determinism).
Often, Existentialism as a movement is used to describe those who refuse to belong to any school of thought, repudiating of the adequacy of any body of beliefs or systems, claiming them to be superficial, academic and remote from life. Although it has much in common with Nihilism, Existentialism is more a reaction against traditional philosophies, such as Rationalism, Empiricism and Positivism, that seek to discover an ultimate order and universal meaning in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world. It asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning to them, rather than what is rational.
Existentialism originated with the 19th Century philosophers S�ren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither used the term in their work. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 - 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes, such as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and nothingness.
Unlike Ren� Descartes, who believed in the primacy of conciousness, Existentialists assert that a human being is "thrown into" into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be "thought away", and therefore existence ("being in the world") precedes consciousness, and is the ultimate reality. Existence, then, is prior to essence (essence is the meaning that may be ascribed to life), contrary to traditional philosophical views dating back to the ancient Greeks. As Sartre put it: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be."
Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world. Sartre saw rationality as a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally irrational and random world of phenomena ("the other"). This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom, and confines us within everyday experience.
Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth, and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer (similar to the concept of Subjectivism).
According to Camus, when an individual's longing for order collides with the real world's lack of order, the result is absurdity. Human beings are therefore subjects in an indifferent, ambiguous and absurd universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created (however provisionally and unstably) by human actions and interpretations.
Existentialism can be atheistic, theological (or theistic) or agnostic. Some Existentialists, like Nietzsche, proclaimed that "God is dead" and that the concept of God is obsolete. Others, like Kierkegaard, were intensely religious, even if they did not feel able to justify it. The important factor for Existentialists is the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe.
Existentialist-type themes appear in early Buddhist and Christian writings (including those of St. Augustine and St.Thomas Aquinas). In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal suggested that, without a God, life would be meaningless, boring and miserable, much as later Existentialists believed, although, unlike them, Pascal saw this as a reason for the existence of a God. His near-contemporary, John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination, but in the positive pursuit of Liberalism and Individualism rather than in response to an Existentialist experience.
Existentialism in its currently recognizable form was inspired by the 19th Century Danish philosopher S�ren Kierkegaard, the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) and Edmund Husserl, and writers like the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) and the Czech Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924). It can be argued that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer were also important influences on the development of Existentialism, because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or in opposition to them.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, like Pascal before them, were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, unlike Pascal, they considered the role of making free choices on fundamental values and beliefs to be essential in the attempt to change the nature and identity of the chooser. In Kierkegaard's case, this results in the "knight of faith", who puts complete faith in himself and in God, as described in his 1843 work "Fear and Trembling". In Nietzsche's case, the much maligned "�bermensch" (or "Superman") attains superiority and transcendence without resorting to the "other-worldliness" of Christianity, in his books "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (1885) and "Beyond Good and Evil" (1887).
Martin Heidegger was an important early philosopher in the movement, particularly his influential 1927 work "Being and Time", although he himself vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense. His discussion of ontology is rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings, and his analysis of authenticity and anxiety in modern culture make him very much an Existentialist in the usual modern usage.
Existentialism came of age in the mid-20th Century, largely through the scholarly and fictional works of the French existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986). Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) is another influential and often overlooked French Existentialist of the period.
Sartre is perhaps the most well-known, as well as one of the few to have actually accepted being called an "existentialist". "Being and Nothingness" (1943) is his most important work, and his novels and plays, including "Nausea" (1938) and "No Exit (1944), helped to popularize the movement.
In "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942), Albert Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus (who is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again each time) to exemplify the pointlessness of existence, but shows that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including "The Second Sex" (1949) and "The Ethics of Ambiguity" (1947).
Although Sartre is considered by most to be the pre-eminent Existentialist, and by many to be an important and innovative philosopher in his own right, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought that Sartre had merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy of Descartes and Husserl, which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) as a better Existentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our way of being in the world, and for his more complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger's work is often seen as deficient).
Herbert Marcuse (1898 - 1979) has criticized Existentialism, especially Sartre's "Being and Nothingness", for projecting some features of living in a modern oppressive society (features such as anxiety and meaninglessness) onto the nature of existence itself.
Roger Scruton (1944 - ) has claimed that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith are both self-inconsistent, in that they deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone is bound to abide by them.Logical Positivists, such as A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb "to be" (which is meaningless if used without a predicate) and by the word "nothing" (which is the negation of existence and therefore cannot be assummed to refer to something).
Marxists, especially in post-War France, found Existentialism to run counter to their emphasis on the solidarity of human beings and their theory of economic determinism. They further argued that Existentialism's emphasis on individual choice leads to contemplation rather than to action, and that only the bourgeoisie has the luxury to make themselves what they are through their choices, so they considered Existentialism to be a bourgeois philosophy.
Christian critics complain that Existentialism portrays humanity in the worst possible light, overlooking the dignity and grace that comes from being made in the image of God. Also, according to Christian critics, Existentialists are unable to account for the moral dimension of human life, and have no basis for an ethical theory if they deny that humans are bound by the commands of God. On the other hand, some commentators have objected to Kierkegaard's continued espousal of Christianity, despite his inability to effectively justify it.
In more general terms, the common use of pseudonymous characters in existentialist writing can make it seem like the authors are unwilling to own their insights, and are confusing philosophy with literature.
Author: Addison Ellis
Category: Phenomenology and Existentialism
Word Count: 1000
Mr. White is many things—a teacher, a husband, a father, a college graduate, and a medical patient, to name a few. Some of his features may be counted as accomplishments, others failures, and yet others unlucky accidents thrust upon him by the world. But is this all there is to Mr. White? According to the philosophical tradition of Existentialism, something is missing in this characterization. For the existentialist, we are not merely a collection of facts; we are also self-conscious, living,caring beings. While trees, seagulls, and fish are all similarly alive, they do not live the same sorts of lives that we do. Existentialism is the philosophical science of our peculiar sorts of lives.1
Our lives are ongoing activities. Mr. White’s existence, just like the existence of every similarly self-conscious, caring being, is more than a series of events or a set of facts. In providing such an understanding, Existentialism breathes new life into old ideas about the nature of value, freedom, and even more broadly into questions about the nature of reality and knowledge. In this essay, we will restrict our focus to what existentialists have to say about human nature and living a meaningful life.2
Existence Precedes Essence
Many philosophers, both historical and contemporary, believe that the way something is is determined by its essence. That is, essences are fixed determinants of the way things are. Those who follow this line of thought may take essences to be the non-physical and eternal standards to which things conform.3 Thus, the essence of a table is what determines table-like behavior. Likewise, the essence of a human being is what determines what a human being is like. These fixed determinants can range from principles given by God to those we attribute to society. Martin Heidegger helpfully points out that we often speak of the way “one” does things, referring to no one in particular. We say things like “this is the way one does x,” because doing x correctly means doing it in accordance with some pre-established standard.4 But Heidegger believes that this way of thinking should not extend to our ways of living. That is, we should not understand ourselves as living correctly only when we live “as one lives.” Existentialism reverses this picture by suggesting that it is our living which determines our essence, and not the other way around.
Let’s go back to Mr. White. In order to understand what sort of being he is, we must understand that who he is is not a fact he was born with, nor is it a fact that was established merely after some important events in his life unfolded. He is who he is because of what he chooses, and one can never stop choosing. For even by trying to decide that I will no longer make choices, I am making the choice not to choose. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous of the historical existentialists, expresses the idea that we are who we make ourselves, and not who we are pre-determined to be, with a concise slogan: “existence precedes essence.”5
Freedom & Authenticity
If Sartre is right and our lives are essentially up to us, then existentialists must also be committed to a robust kind of freedom, since we are not determined by what happens to us. But if Mr. White’s essence is up to him, and he’s free to craft his essence as he pleases, then on what standards does he draw to guide himself in his crafting? It would seem that existentialists cannot simply draw from a set of independently existing standards. If this were so, then who we are is again simply a matter of conforming to some pre-established standards.
If the standards are up to us, then why should we choose any one set of standards over any other? That is, how can we make sense of the idea that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live if there is no external standard for judging whether we have made the right choice?6 This is a difficult issue in Existentialism, one that is grappled with by all the major figures in the tradition. The answer we will entertain here is that it is possible to find a standard within our own activities that determines whether they are being performed well or poorly. This is what existentialists refer to as authenticity.7
Mr. White, knowing that he has terminal lung cancer, can arrange the final years of his life in a variety of ways; it is up to him how he will structure his remaining time. But there are two ways in which he can choose: (i) he can see his choices as simply thrust upon him by the world—i.e., he can believe that he really doesn’t have a choice at all, or (ii) he can see his choices ashis own while taking full responsibility for them. Only by acting in this way is Mr. White acting authentically, since it is only under these conditions that he is true to himself. Acting inauthentically, then, involves excusing oneself from responsibility by ignoring one’s freedom. The existentialist hopes to have shown that despite the lack of external guidance, we are perfectly capable of telling from within our own activities whether we are acting authentically or inauthentically.8
Existentialism gives us some tools for understanding (i) our essence, and (ii) how it is possible to live a meaningful life. The ideas defended by existentialists have been thought to have both positive and negative implications for us. On the one hand, our lives are not determined by God, society, or contingent circumstances; on the other hand, absolute freedom can be a burden. As Sartre puts it, “man is condemned to be free.”9 That is, it was never up to us to be free, and we cannot cease to be free. Since we must be free, and because freedom entails responsibility, we can never opt out of being responsible. Thus we are simultaneously unencumbered and encumbered by our freedom to choose who we will be.
1This is not to denigrate the lives of things radically different from us, but merely to point out that paradigm human creatures live peculiar sorts of lives. The demarcating line here between lives like ours and lives unlike ours needn’t be drawn along purely biological lines. There are potentially things—certain non-human animals, futuristic artificially intelligent systems—that have lives like ours, and whose lives are properly studied by Existentialism. Similarly, there are some biological humans—the very young, the severely mentally handicapped—whose lives are not like ours, and hence, whose lives are not properly studied by Existentialism.
2Existential themes can be traced as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions. Most philosophers today agree, however, that 19th-Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and 19th-Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did much to provide the framework for what Existentialism would become in its more definitive era. The major figures of Existentialism include not only Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also (perhaps more importantly) Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, in the 20th century.
3What Plato calls “forms.”
4This is an expression of what Heidegger calls the They-self, Being and Time Section 129
5Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism (20)
6There is some debate about whether Existentialism is actually a moral theory. One reason for the doubt is precisely this one – that there is nothing action-guiding about Existentialism.
7Steven Crowell makes this point in his SEP article when discussing Nietzsche’s idea of a ‘ruling instinct.’
8There is a serious worry here that must be addressed by the existentialist, and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader. While it seems better to act authentically than to act inauthentically, don’t we need to meet even more standards in order to count as living a truly good life? In other words, we might worry about whether authenticity is the only guiding principle that we really need. Perhaps it is possible to be an authentic genocidal dictator. If so, then perhaps Existentialism does not, on its own, suffice as a moral theory.
9Sartre, op. cit. (29)
Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie. Ed. Edward Robinson. New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism = (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme) ; Including, a Commentary on The Stranger (Explication De L’Étranger). Ed. John Kulka and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.
About the Author
Addison is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a B.A. in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently interested in philosophy of mind (especially problems of intentionality), epistemology (especially the role of philosophical intuitions in philosophical practice), Kant, and post-Kantian philosophy. Apart from philosophy, he is interested in playing good music, hanging out with his dog, Chessie, and watching/thinking about movies.