Existentialism is a philosophical movement that arose in the twentieth century. It includes a number of thinkers who emphasize common themes, but whose ultimate metaphysical views often diverge radically because they believe the universe is unfathomable. Philosophically the term “existentialism” came to be associated primarily with the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Many other philosophers who are often tied to the existential movement, such as Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Karl Jaspers, rejected the term “existentialism,” though they continued to deal with existential themes broadly construed. In German, the phrase Existenzphilosophie (philosophy of existence) is also used. Some of the common themes that unite these various existential thinkers are anxiety, boredom, freedom, will, subjectivity, awareness of death, risk, responsibility, and consciousness of existing. Perhaps the central issue that draws these thinkers together, however, is their emphasis upon the primacy of existence in philosophical questioning and the importance of responsible human action in the face of uncertainty.
Although, as a movement, existentialism is considered a twentieth-century phenomenon, its roots go back to earlier existential thinkers, such as Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century, and particularly Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche emphasized the subjective element in thinking and the primacy of the will over purely logical or conceptual objectivity. In the twentieth century, Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world” and Sartre’s idea of “existence preceding essence” became two of the most important themes in existential thought. Other more Christian or theistic existential perspectives were also developed. Moreover, existential ideas became very influential in areas outside of philosophy, such as in psychology and the popular arts.
The emphasis on existence by existential thinkers is often summarized in Sartre’s famous assertion that “existence precedes essence.” Although the various philosophers differ in regard to the nature of this priority and the reasons for it, their thought can all be called existential in the broad sense because of the priority they give to existence or being. For this reason, these thinkers share the assumption that existence precedes essence in that existence or being exceeds all rational conceptions and objective or scientific knowledge of it. Or, to paraphrase the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is more in heaven and earth than in all of philosophy. This leads some of the more radical existentialists to take what opponents consider to be an irrational or anti-philosophic position.
Another aspect of “existence preceding essence” is the idea that human beings are in Heidegger's phrase "thrown" into existence. Existential thought, therefore, differs from the modern Western rationalist tradition extending from Descartes to Husserl in that it rejects the idea that the most certain and primary reality is rational consciousness. Descartes argued that humans could think away everything that exists and so doubt its reality, but they could not think away or doubt the thinking consciousness itself. This reality of consciousness is more certain than any other reality. Existentialism decisively rejects this argument. Instead, it asserts that humans always already find themselves in a world. That is, they find themselves in a prior context and history that is given to and situated within their consciousness. The priority, or a priori and a posteriori, therefore, is not thinking consciousness, but according to Heidegger, "being-in-the-world." Many existentialists consider this “being thrown into existence” as prior to, and the horizon or context of, all other thoughts or ideas about who human beings are. For Heidegger, this “facticity” of being thrown into existence means a supreme being determines who and what humans are, while for Sartre it means that the definitions of what it means to be human is something humans choose and create.
The recognition of human freedom leads existential philosophers to emphasize will over reason. Many of them view action and decision, therefore, as fundamental to human existence. This position is opposed to rationalism and positivism, where reason is the sufficient means of determining “what we should do.” Existentialists argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational, knowing subjects who relate to reality as an object of knowledge. Moreover, they deny human actions can or ought to be regulated strictly by rational principles or laws. They also reject the notion that human beings can be defined in terms of their behavior as in empirical science. They stress, then, the ambiguity and risk of life and the anxiety of having to choose in existential situations. This leads some of the atheistic existentialists to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent and absurd universe where meaning is not provided by the natural order. Meaning, then, must be created, however provisionally and unstably, by the actions and interpretations of individuals. They emphasize the authenticity that is needed in accepting responsibility for decisions. More theistic interpretations will likewise emphasize freedom, risk, and decision not by denying any ultimate or absolute Truth, but by arguing that the individual must appropriate and so subjectively discover the Truth for oneself. In turn, only by living the truth can one be said to know the truth. Both atheistic and theistic versions of existentialism share the view that the individual must pursue the question of the meaning of existence, and that this question is above all other scientific and philosophic pursuits.
An early forerunner of existentialism was Blaise Pascal. In 1670, his book Pensées was published; in the work he described many fundamental existential themes. Pascal argued that life without God is meaningless and miserable. When people are exposed to their own emptiness, they create obstacles in order to overcome them and in this way attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories are merely diversions people use to distract themselves from their spiritual poverty and the recognition that one day they will die. According to Pascal this recognition of the reality of mortal existence is good reason for humans not to be atheistic. Thus, he presented his famous “wager” where the gambling believer has everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting his chips on the hope that there is a God, while the gambling unbeliever has nothing to gain and everything to lose by his unbelief. Sartre and other later atheistic existentialists will view this attempt at avoiding the inevitability of death as “bad faith” and as a refusal to accept the truth of human condition.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) is often called the "father of existentialism." Kierkegaard is commonly considered more of a religious thinker (or “religious poet” as he sometimes called himself) than a philosopher, for he never practiced or espoused a systematic or methodical way of thinking. In fact, in large part, his works were a polemic against modern philosophical rationalism with its emphasis on method, which had begun with Descartes and culminated in Hegel. Given Kierkegaard’s suspicion regarding the absolute reliability of reason, he often wrote under pseudonymous names. The reason for this was not to conceal his true identity but to distance himself (as an existential person) from the concepts and ideas contained in his works (as a thinker). Moreover, much of his work is ironic, in imitation of his mentor Socrates, and so these pseudonymous works should be read more like literature than straightforward philosophy (just as a reader of a novel should not mistake the ideas of a character with those of the author herself).
Nevertheless, Kierkegaard is often associated with the ideas of his pseudonyms and in particular the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus who said that "truth is subjectivity" and that the person of faith must make a kind of “leap.” Although the conflation of Kierkegaard with Climacus is a mistake, it cannot be denied the philosophical tenets of Climacus did have a major influence on the twentieth-century existential movement. Furthermore, the term “leap of faith” is frequently employed by both defenders and critics of twentieth-century existentialism who view the idea as signifying the need for choice and risk by the individual in deciding life’s ultimate meaning.
For Kierkegaard the idea of subjectivity signified the infinite depth dimension of human beings and so should not be understood as opposed to rational objectivity but rather as going beyond it. Understanding is always finite and so it can never fully grasp who or what people are as human beings. Or to put it another way, the apprehension of human’s existential selfhood extends beyond any philosophical definition of what a human being is. For this reason, the full extent of being human can only be apprehended from the inside, in terms of lived experience, and not from the outside, in terms of any scientific or objective definition, be it biological, psychological, or any other scientific theory of human nature.
Friedrich Nietzsche was also a forerunner of the existential movement in his critique of Western culture and philosophy, in particular Plato and Christianity (which he called “Platonism for the masses”). Nietzsche realized that human nature and human identity vary depending on what values and beliefs humans hold. Although Nietzsche’s work, like Kierkegaard’s, is often ironic and ambiguous (and so open to different interpretations), he did frequently write about the capacity of human beings to create or recreate themselves. In this sense, then, Nietzsche influenced later existential thinkers such as Sartre (in his emphasis on freedom and choice) and Heidegger (in his emphasis on creativity and history).
In literature, the most famous nineteenth-century existential writer was Fyodor Dostoevsky. The statement by one of his characters that “without God everything is permissible” was taken up by both theistic and atheistic twentieth-century existential thinkers.
The thought of the major existential philosophers of the twentieth century grew out of the phenomenology of Husserl, which attempted to critique positivism and psychologism by grounding all perception, experience, and knowledge in structures of human consciousness. Husserl stressed that being is always being for a consciousness, or that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Heidegger transformed this into the core existential notion that being is always being, not for a pure consciousness, but rather for a concrete existence. This means that consciousness is a property of human existence (Dasein), which has "being-in-the-world" and so exists in a historical context. Heidegger, however, came to reject the idea that his philosophy was “existentialist.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, embraced the term existentialism. His version of existentialism is set out in popular form in his 1946 essay L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In the essay he asserts his famous dictum, "Existence precedes essence," which is generally taken to mean that there is no predefined essence to humanity and so people must decide for themselves the meaning of existence. Sartrean existentialism takes it for granted that there is no God, and so for this reason essence or the nature of human beings cannot precede their existence. For how could there be an idea or definition of what human nature essentially is if there is no Creator or Divine Mind who created it? Sartre holds that human beings are not only free to act as they choose, but they have a responsibility to do so. They must accept the forlornness of their condition in that there is no God and so no preexisting moral principles, nature, or laws that can tell them what to do. Instead, they are on their own and so must decide for themselves. But in choosing for themselves “[they] choose all humanity.” Moreover, for Sartre it is human actions that determine who humans are. They cannot blame their environment, circumstance, or chance for their successes and failures. Rather it is their actions that make them who they are and these are determined by their own choices.
Albert Camus was another well-known writer and thinker associated with existentialism. Camus famously compared human condition to the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned each day to roll a rock up a hill only to have the rock, once it is almost to the top, roll back down. The next day Sisyphus must start all over despite knowing the result will be the same. Likewise, human beings must stoically roll the rock up the hill each day by creating their own meaning despite knowing the universe is essentially absurd and meaningless. Camus depicted many of his existential themes in fiction and drama, such as The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall, and The Possessed.
Gabriel Marcel developed a kind of Christian existentialism, though he, like Heidegger, rejected the term and instead preferred to call himself a “Christian Socratic.” Other theistic existentialists include Paul Tillich, Miguel de Unamuno, and Martin Buber. Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II. Though these existential theists did not accept Sartre’s and Camus’ notion that the universe is absurd and meaning must be created by the individual, they nevertheless also distanced themselves from rationalist philosophies and insisted that the individual must participate in being or existence in order to come to a deeper appreciation and fuller understanding of it. Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson in a different way developed an existential Thomism, which took many of the insights and approaches of the existential movement, but applied and attributed them to the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism from a Marxist perspective, especially Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting certain features, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, which really derive from the modern experience of living in an oppressive society, onto the nature of existence itself:
In so far as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypothesizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory (Marcuse 1972, 161).
Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heidegger's philosophy, and in particular Heidegger’s use of language. Adorno viewed this as a mystifying ideology of advanced industrial society and its power structure.
Roger Scruton claimed, in his book From Descartes to Wittgenstein, that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith were incoherent. For both Heidegger and Sartre deny any universal moral creed, yet they speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide by them. In chapter 18, he writes:
In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force.
Familiar with this sort of argument, Sartre claimed that bad and good faith do not represent moral ideas; rather, they are ways of being. Heidegger would also claim authenticity as an ontological rather than an ethical way of being.
Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being." The verb is prefixed to a predicate and to use the word without any predicate is meaningless. Borrowing from Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, they argue that existence is not a property.
With complete freedom to decide and be responsible for the outcome of their decisions comes anxiety about the choices humans make. Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists employ an existential approach by encouraging their patients to harness their anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his or her full potential in life.
Logotherapy asserts that all human beings have a will to find meaning, and that serious behavioral problems develop when they cannot find it. The therapy helps patients handle the responsibility of choices and the pain of unavoidable suffering by helping them decide to give life meaning.
In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a surge of interest in popular art forms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf was based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), and "arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers. Simultaneously, in Sartre, Parisian university students found a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, and others were appropriating the themes found in Camus and Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the anxiety of the unknowing self featured prominently in cinema and novels.
Existentialist films deal with existential concepts that are familiar to the average person, such as free will, personal identity, individuality, responsibility, mind versus reality, and what "really matters." The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn't There, Linklater's Waking Life, Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, are good examples of existential films. Woody Allen films tend to touch the subject in a humorous manner, though his Match Point (2005) provides a more serious consideration of some existentialist themes. Existential cinema also explores themes such as retaining authenticity in an apathetic, mechanical world; the consciousness of death, e.g., Heidegger's “being towards death”—exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal (1957); and the feelings of alienation and loneliness consequent to being unique in a world of mass media and consumerism.
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