Learn more about Existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that negates the premise that life has an inherent, or a priori meaning, and hence requires each existing individual to posit his own subjective values. Existentialism, unlike other fields of philosophy, does not treat the individual as a concept, and values individual subjectivity over objectivity. As a result, questions regarding existence and subjective experience are seen as being of paramount importance, above all other scientific and philosophical pursuits.
There are several philosophical positions, all related to existential philosophy, but the main identifiable common proposition is that existence precedes essence, i.e. that a man exists before his existence has value or meaning. Man defines the value or meaning of both his existence and the world around him in his own subjectivity, and wanders between choice, freedom, and existential angst. Existentialism often is associated with anxiety, dread, awareness of death, and freedom. Famous existentialists include Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, Fanon, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Existentialism emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence; and is fundamentally opposed to the rationalist tradition and to positivism. That is, it argues against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. More generally it rejects all of the Western rationalist definitions of "being" in terms of a rational principle or essence, or as the most general feature that all existing things share in common. Camus posits, in his essay "An Absurd Reasoning," that society and religion falsely teach man that "the other" (i.e. the world of observable phenomena outside the self) has order and structure. In fact, all attempts by the individual, termed "consciousness," to attempt to map an order or purpose onto "the other" will be met with failure, as "the other" is non-rational and random. When "consciousness" longing for order collides with "the other's" lack of order, a third element is born, "the absurd."
It then follows that, Existentialism tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often 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 beings' actions and interpretations.
Although there are certain common tendencies amongst existentialist thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them, and not all of them even affiliate themselves with or accept the validity of the term "existentialism". In German, the phrase Existenzphilosophie (philosophy of existence) is also used.
 Historical background
Existential themes have been hinted at throughout history in Western philosophy, Abrahamic philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. Examples include Socrates and his life, Gautama Buddha's teachings, the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, Saint Augustine in his Confessions, Mulla Sadra's writings, and Descartes' Meditations. Individualist politics, such as those advanced by John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination rather than the state ruling over the individual. This kind of political philosophy, although not existential in nature, provides a welcoming climate for existentialism.
In 1670, Blaise Pascal's unfinished notes were published in the form of the poem, Pensées. In the work, he described many fundamental themes of existentialism. Pascal argued that without a God, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, since people would eventually die. This was good enough reason not to choose to become an atheist according to Pascal.
Existentialism, in its currently recognizable 20th century form, was inspired by Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. It became popular in the mid-20th century through the works of the French writer-philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whose versions of it were set out in a popular form in Sartre's 1946 Existentialism is a Humanism and Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity.
Gabriel Marcel pursued theological versions of existentialism, most notably Christian existentialism. Other theological existentialists include Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Miguel de Unamuno, Thomas Hora and Martin Buber. Moreover, one-time Marxist, Nikolai Berdyaev, developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer are also important influences on the development of existentialism (although not precursors) because the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were written in response or opposition to Hegel and Schopenhauer, respectively.
 Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
The first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement are Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, even though neither used the term 'existentialism'. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, what Pascal did not write about was that people can create and change their fundamental values and beliefs. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote that human nature and human identity vary depending on what values and beliefs humans hold. <ref name="Lup1">Luper, Steven. "Existing". Mayfield Publishing, 2000, p.4-5</ref> <ref name="Lup2">Ibid, p. 11</ref> Objective truths (e.g. mathematical truths) are important, but detached or observational modes of thought can never truly comprehend human experience. Nietzsche argued that human existence is the "will to power", a desire to create and destroy as we please, in an artistic sense. Great individuals invent their own values and create the very terms under which they excel. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are examples of those who define the nature of their own existence. In contrast, Pascal did not reason that human nature and identity are constituted by the free decisions and choices of people.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche died too soon to be a part of the 20th century existentialist movement. They were unique philosophers and their works and influence are not limited to existentialism. They have been appropriated and seen as precursors to many other intellectual movements, including postmodernism and various strands of psychology. Thus, it is unknown whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century or accepted tenets of Jean-Paul Sartre's version of it. Nevertheless, their works are precursors to many later developments in existentialist thought.
 Heidegger and the German existentialists
One of the first German existentialists was Karl Jaspers. Jaspers recognized the importance of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and attempted to build an "existenz" philosophy around the two. Heidegger, who was influenced by Jaspers and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, wrote his most influential work Being and Time which postulates Dasein, literally being there, a being that is constituted by its temporality, illuminates and interprets the meaning of being in time. Dasein is sometimes considered the human subject, but Heidegger denies the Cartesian dualism of subject-object/mind-body.
Although existentialists view Heidegger to be an important philosopher in the movement, he vehemently denied being an "existentialist" in the Sartrean sense, and responded to Sartre in "A Letter about Humanism" denying his philosophy was existentialism.
 Sartre and the French existentialists
Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist and is one of the few to have accepted being called an "existentialist". Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and Heidegger. Being and Nothingness is perhaps his most important work about existentialism. Sartre was also talented in his ability to espouse his ideas in different mediums, including philosophical essays, novels, plays and the theatre. No Exit and Nausea are two of his celebrated works. In the 1960s, he attempted to reconcile Existentialism and Marxism in his work the Critique of Dialectical Reason.
Albert Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. He, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be absurdist. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, but when he reaches the summit the rock will roll back to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless, but he feels Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an often overlooked existentialist, was a companion of Sartre's. His understanding of Husserl's phenomenology was far greater than that of his fellow existentialists. His work, Humanism and Terror, greatly influenced Sartre.
Michel Foucault would also be considered an existentialist through his use of history to reveal the constant alterations of created meaning, thus proving its failure to produce a cohesive form of reality.
 Dostoevsky, Kafka, and the literary existentialists
Many writers who are not usually considered philosophers have also had a major influence on existentialism. Franz Kafka created characters who struggle with hopelessness and absurdity. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian literary writer, wrote such novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Notes from Underground details the story of a man who is unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself. Many of Dostyevsky's novels, such as Crime and Punishment have covered issues pertinent to existential philosophy while simultaneously refuting the validity of the claims of existentialism (notably the 'superman' theory advocated by Nietzsche). Throughout Crime and Punishment we see the protagonist, Raskolnikov, and his character develop away from existential ideas and beliefs in favour of more traditionally Christian ones.
In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a resurgence in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), sold well in the West. In addition, "arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers.
Existentialist novelists were generally seen as a mid-1950s phenomenon that continued until the mid- to late 1970s. Most of the major writers were either French or from French African colonies. Small circles of other Europeans were seen as literary existential precursors by the existentialists themselves, however, literary history increasingly has questioned the accuracy of this idealism for earlier models.
There is overlap between the expatriate American beat generation writers who found Paris their spiritual home, and writers of road novels. This also extends to the delayed action of the French permanent enamorment with U.S.' hard boiled, which, as Truffaut and others in the Cahiers du Cinéma indicated, influenced novels and plays. To some extent as well, the surrealist movement of Andre Breton and others, which questioned the established reality, made possible the isolation of non-academic novels protagonised by amoral anti-heroes. This curriculum is known to be taught by aspiring monk Jack Keithley.
 Existentialism since 1970
One should not, however, confuse postmodernism with existentialism. Existential cinema deals more with the themes of:
- Retaining authenticity in an apathetic, mechanical world -- something postmodernism would staunchly reject, as authenticity is related to a non-existent "reality".
- The consciousness of death; e.g. Heidegger's 'being towards death', exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" (1957).
- The feelings of alienation and loneliness consequent to being unique in a world of indifferent others, or, in Kierkegaard phrase, "the crowd" or Nietzsche's "the herd"
- The concept Alltägliche selbstsein ("Everyday-ness," or ennui) which Heidegger explicated in his book Sein und Zeit (1927), (English translation Being and Time).
Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodern and existential elements, which, ironically, would support the postmodern thesis of "borderlessness between concepts". Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (now republished as "Blade Runner"), by Philip K. Dick, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and Toilet: The Novel by Michael Szymczyk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existential themes. Ideas from such thinkers as Foucault, Kafka, Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse and Eduard von Hartmann permeate the works of writers such as Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Szymczyk, and Charles Bukowski, and one often finds in such works a delicate balance between distastefulness and beauty.
In cinema, postmodern editing techniques, showing the displacement, discontinuity, and temporal perspective of postmodernism, can go hand-in-hand with a purely existential story, thus synthesizing technique and function to give meaning. Moreover, this has created the neologism "Neo-Existentialism"--combining postmodernism's epistemology with the reflective ontological belief of existentialism. Andrew Mixon is also a prime example of an existentialist. Mixon's DGAF ways prove him to be the epitome of an existentialist.
The acclaimed 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro, is perhaps one of the most widely known existential films. The film was heavily influenced by Dosteovsky's Notes from Underground and even quotes Dosteovsky in the line: "I'm God's lonely man." The 2004 film The Machinist is also influenced by Dosteovsky's work, especially The Double: A Petersburg Poem, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. In one scene in the film, star Christian Bale is seen reading a copy of The Idiot. The 1972 film Deliverance, as well as the 1970 book of the same name, has also been credited as existentialist, as have the 1999 film Fight Club and 2001 film Donnie Darko.
 Major concepts in existentialism
Existentialism differentiates itself from the modern Western rationalist tradition of philosophers such as Descartes and Husserl in rejecting the idea that the most certain and primary reality is rational consciousness. Descartes believed humans could doubt all existence, but could not will away or doubt the thinking consciousness, whose reality is therefore more certain than any other reality. Existentialism decisively rejects this argument, asserting instead that as conscious beings, humans would always find themselves already in a world, a prior context and a history that is given to consciousness, and that humans cannot think away that world. It is inherent and indubitably linked to consciousness. In other words, the ultimate, certain, indubitable reality is not thinking consciousness but, according to Heidegger, "being in the world". This is a radicalization of the notion of intentionality that comes from Brentano and Husserl, which asserts that, even in its barest form, consciousness is always conscious of something. Existentialists also believe existence precedes essence, rather than essence preceding existence, man defines his own reality.
Sartre, unlike Kierkegaard, denies the existence of God. Sartre argues that without God, there is no higher power to define man. However, there are versions of existentialism that are religious. Theological existentialism as advocated by philosophers and theologians like Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber posits God's existence, as well as accepting many tenets of atheistic existentialism. Belief in God is a personal choice made on the basis of a passion, of faith, an observation or experience. Just as atheistic existentialists can freely choose not to believe, theistic existentialists can freely choose to believe in God and could, despite one's doubt, have faith that God exists and that God is good.
A third type of existentialism is agnostic existentialism. Again, it is a matter of choice to be agnostic. The agnostic existentialist makes no claim to know, or not know, if there is a "greater picture" in play; rather, he simply recognizes that the greatest truth is that which he chooses to act upon. The agnostic existentialist feels that to know the "greater picture", whether there is one or not, is impossible for human minds--or if it is not impossible, that at least he has not found it yet. Like Christian existentialists, the agnostic believes existence is subjective. However one feels about the issue, through the agnostic existentialist's perspective, the act of finding knowledge of the existence of God often has little value because he feels it to be impossible, and/or believes it to be useless.
As mentioned above, opinions of philosophers associated with existentialism vary, sometimes greatly, over what "existentialism" is, and even if there is such a thing as "existentialism". One version, Sartrean existentialism, is elaborated below.
 Sartrean existentialism
Some of the tenets associated with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre include:
- Existence precedes essence: This is a reversal of the Aristotlean premise that essence precedes existence, where man is created to fulfil some telos and life consists of fulfilling that goal. Unlike tools that are created to fulfill a purpose (e.g. a pair of scissors is created for the express purpose of cutting things), Sartrean existentialism argues man exists without purpose, finds himself in the world and defines the meaning of his existence.
- Identities are constructed by the individual consciousness only: As an extension of the first tenet, the individual consciousness constructs a "self" or "identity" for itself. An "identity" can include beliefs, projects, and various other things of value. Sartre argues that no one else, including God (if He exists), can choose your "identity" for you. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are some such examples of those who create their own "identity".
- Values are subjective: Sartre accepts the premise that something is valuable because the individual consciousness chooses to value it. Sartre denies there are any objective standards on which to base values.
- Here, existentialists draw on psychological concepts to investigate feelings such as angst and despair that arise by being in bad faith. Kierkegaard's works The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness Unto Death are works that deal with such feelings.
- Condemned to be free: Because our actions and choices are ours and ours alone, we are condemned to be responsible for our free choices.
There are several terms Sartre uses in his works. Being in-itself are objects that are not free and cannot change its essence. Being for-itself are free: it does not need to be what it is and can change into what it is not. Consciousness is usually considered being for-itself. Sartre distinguishes between positional and non-positional consciousness. Non-positional consciousness is being merely conscious of one's surroundings. Positional consciousness puts consciousness into relation of one's surroundings. This entails an explicit awareness of being conscious of one's surroundings. Sartre argues identity is constructed by this explicit awareness of consciousness.
In Repetition, Kierkegaard's literary character Young Man laments:
- How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn't it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint? <ref name="rep">Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition in Kierkegaard's Writings, vol. 6, Princeton University Press, 1983</ref>
Building on this, Heidegger, and later Sartre, dubbed the term "throwness" to describe this idea that human beings are exposed to or "thrown" into, existence - in that we have no choice to come into existence. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the horizon or context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create.
This explanation of existentialism strongly favors a non-religious approach. Even in quoting Kierkegaard, a Christian existentialist, his words are used to support the anxiety and nothingness of the philosophy- which are definitely two fundamental elements, but not any more important than free will and decision.
 Criticisms of existentialism
Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism, especially in Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting certain features of living in a modern, oppressive society, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, 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" <ref>Marcuse, Herbert. "Sartre's Existentialism". Printed in Studies in Critical Philosophy. Translated by Joris De Bres. London: NLB, 1972. p. 161</ref>.
Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heidegger's philosophy, with special attention to his use of language, 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; both deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide 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.
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 Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, they argue that existence is not a property.
 Existentialism in psychotherapy
Many of the theories of Sigmund Freud, whom Sartre refuted systematically, were influenced by Nietzsche. Some have supposed that Thanatos and Eros were closely related to Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of Nietzsche philosophy.
One of the major offshoots of Existentialism as a philosophy is Existential Psychology. Sometimes termed the Third Force Psychology, this branch of psychology was initiated by Viktor Frankl who had studied with Freud and Jung when young. Then early in his career he was sent to the Nazi Concentration camps where he survived from 1941 through 1945. In the camps he mentally re-wrote his first book whose manuscript had been confiscated at the time of his arrest. He called his theory Logotherapy and the book was Man's Search for Meaning. Speaking at a seminar in Anahiem, California in the early 90's, Frankl stated that in the camps he would, at times, pretend to himself that he was actually in the future, remembering his experiences and noting how he was able to survive them. His years of suffering took him to the conclusion that even in the worst imaginable of circumstances, life can be assigned a worthwhile meaning. This conclusion was the heart of Frankl's psychological orientation. 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.
One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of Existential Psychology is Irvin D. Yalom.
With complete freedom to decide, and through being responsible for the outcome of said decisions, comes anxiety--or angst--about the choices made. Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that the patient can harness his or her 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.
Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existential psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets.
 Terror management theory
Terror management theory is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people, when they are confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die.
 Existentialism in popular culture
- During the witty introduction sequence of the 1957 film Love in the Afternoon it is said that "even existentialists" make love in Paris.
- The 2004 film I ♥ Huckabees revolved around two existential detectives, who aimed to help people solve their personal existential crises.
- The band the Exies is named after existentialism.
- The band Straylight Run was made famous almost overnight by their popular single Existentialism on Prom Night, a song that does in fact deal with the basic existential issues common to the teenage experience.
- The burlesque existentialist is a stock character of the popular imagination, dressed in black and uttering gnomic assertions about life and the universe.
- THOM PAIN (based on nothing) by Will Eno.
- Much of Jhonen Vasquez's work contain heavy tones of Existentialism.
 Further reading
- Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate (2001). Introducing Existentialism. Cambridge, UK: Icon. ISBN 1840462663.
- Cooper, David E. (1999). Existentialism: A Reconstruction, 2nd ed., Oxford, UK: Blackwell. ISBN 0631213228.
- Luper, Steven (ed.) (2000). Existing: An Introduction to Existential Thought. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield. ISBN 0767405870.
- Marino, Gordon (ed.) (2004). Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0375759891.
- Pirsig, Robert M. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0688002307.
- Solomon, Robert C. (ed.) (2005). Existentialism, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195174631.
 External links
- Friesian interpretation of Existentialism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Existentialism
- "Existentialism is a Humanism", a lecture given by Jean-Paul Sartre
- An Introduction to Existential Counselling
- The Existential Primer
- Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature
- www.theister.com: The Ister is a film inspired by the work of Martin Heidegger, featuring extensive interviews with the philosophers Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and the filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
- Existential Psychotherapy
- The Logic of Existential Meaning
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