ExistentialismExistentialism is a philosophical movement that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the first things one may notice about existentialism is the confusion and disagreement of what it actually is. This is because those who developed it have conflicting ideas. Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars says, Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists, Heidegger, and Sartre — are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism. Therefore, a precise definition is impossible; however, it suggests one major theme: a stress on individual existence and the subsequent development of personal essence. Man is the only known being, according to existentialists, that defines itself merely through the act of living. In other words, first you exist, and then the individual emerges as life decisions are made. Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates their own nature, is one of the basic themes. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued that they must accept the risk and responsibility of their actions.
Every person spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self. In other words, we define ourselves by living; killing yourself would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning. Existentialists believe in living — in fact fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they had a strong belief in fighting for the survival of their respective countries.
In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term is credited to Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies, but it was actually coined by Kierkegaard when he described his existential dialectic. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.
Existentialism maintains that life is a series of choices, creating stress. Few decisions are without any negative consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. Beyond this short list of concepts, the label existentialist is applied broadly. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist writings, or at least the writings of people labeled as such. Blaise Pascal, for example, spent the last years of his life writing in support of predetermination, the theory that is better known as fate.
First, there is the basic existentialist standpoint, that existence precedes essence. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as a conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, or system. Existentialism says I am nothing but my own conscious existence.
A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, and a fear or dread that is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the emptiness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard is within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain ideas in Judaism and Christianity, which see human existence as fallen from grace, and humans have lived in suffering, guilt, and anxiety. This dark and depressing view of human life leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence.
A third existentialist theme is that of absurdity. An existentialist would say I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place—but why now? Why here? Kierkegaard asked. For no reason, without necessary connection, my life is an absurd fact.
It is common for people to associate a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential thought. Existentialism has little to do with faith or the lack thereof. Religion is merely another choice you make in weaving your essence. Existentialism is not a singular school of thought, devoid of any and all forms of faith.
It may surprise laypersons that many of the existentialists were religious. Pascal and Kierkegaard were dedicated Christians. Pascal spent the end of his life in a monastery. Kierkegaard was a passionate Protestant, and supporter of Luther’s teachings. Despite his famous (infamous?) God is dead quote, Nietzsche also appears to have been a believer in a Creator, though he branded organized religion as a manipulative tool to control the masses. He often insulted the Church merely to cause a stir. Some, notably Walter Kaufmann, call Nietzsche the anti-Christian existentialist, because he believed the organized Christian churches were the most destructive influences of his time. For clarification, Nietzsche did write that the Creator had no influence on humanity, which indicates a deistic view of creation. Nietzsche did not worry about the afterlife. Dostoevsky was Russian-Orthodox, to the point of being fanatical, though evidence shows that he did not live by these morals (he was a bad boy, if you will). Kafka was Jewish, so he cannot be considered secular, either. His family was not as religious as Kafka himself might have liked, but when you take into consideration that his family died in concentration camps, it is obvious why his father might not have been very public with his faith. Hegel, the German idealist from whose theories many existentialists drew
from, (despite their vehement denials of his work) was very religious. He wrote that all authority must be derived from the divine right. Hegel’s system of ethics was based on the existence of a supreme creator and this creator’s will. We are then left with Camus and Sartre, and of these two, only Sartre can be seen to consistently deny any and all belief in a divine creator. Sartre was raised with religion, but World War II and the constant suffering of the world drove him away from faith.
Many existentialists believe the greatest victory of the individual is to realize the absurdity of life and to accept it. In short, you live a miserable life, for which you may or may not be rewarded by a greater force. If this force exists, why do men suffer? If it does not exist, why not commit suicide and shorten your suffering? These questions indicate the confusion of existentialism.
Personally, I agree with many of the basic tenets of existentialism. Personal accountability for the decisions and actions made seems to be something that is fading from public opinion. Excuses seem to be replacing responsibility. Existentialism is liberating for those of us who do not rely on fate, God, or chance to guide us through the path of life. One aspect that is questionable is our ability to continuously reinvent ourselves through our actions. While this is wholly possible, the vast majority of people stick to old ways of doing things, or follow others blindly.
Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple. Mankind has free will. Life is a series of choices, creating stress. Few decisions are without any negative
consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. The decisions you make are whom you are, so decide accordingly.
Grene, Marjorie. Introduction To Existentialism. Chicago: The University of Chicago,
Sanborn, Patricia F. Existentialism. New York: Pegasus, 1968.
Solomon, Robert C. Introducing the Existentialists. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing,