From Modernism to Existentialism

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From Modernism to Existentialism

Before one can understand the basics of existentialism, we must understand the thoughts and ideas that came before it. Franz Kafka, among many others, has been said to be a "precursor" to such philosophy. The way Kafka questions what makes us human and what is necessary for happy existence in his writings puts him clearly in the vein of existentialist thinking.

Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that flourished primarily during the two decades after World War II, although it had been developing during the previous two decades, and continued to be influential in later years. Jean-Paul Sartre became its best known writer and spokesman. His philosophical writings, as well as his numerous plays and novels, did much to spread existentialist thinking, and to make Existentialism one of the schools of thought with which the reading public was more or less familiar. Other well-known writers associated with the movement were Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Miguel de Unamuno. Søren Kierkegaard, Fjodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche are usually added to the list as important 19th century forerunners. 

Although Existentialism is usually referred to as a distinct philosophy, it is almost impossible to give an exact definition of it as a unified and identifiable school of thought. There is, in fact, not a single doctrine on which all of the above thinkers would actually agree, and several of the writers included in the movement have rejected the "Existentialist" label. Some of the above thinkers, for example, are self-declared Christians, while others maintain that a staunch kind of atheism is at the very heart of a genuine Existentialist outlook. Several of the leading writers of the movement have also changed some of their basic pronouncements in the course of their lives, thus making it difficult to decide which part of their work should be considered most properly "Existentialist." 

If it makes nevertheless sense to talk about an Existentialist movement or philosophy, it is because all the above writers are struggling with more or less the same fundamental problem: the idea of an “authentic” existence. In one way or another all Existentialists belabor the notion that most people do not live a real life, but some sort of pseudo-life that fails to get to the heart of a genuine human existence. Most people, as the point is also put, fail to be truly themselves--by thoughtlessly accepting the precepts and patterns of their native culture, by automatically conforming to what "one" is supposed to do, by excessively busying themselves with mundane matters and trivial concerns, or by seeking shelter from the threatening emptiness and nihilism of modern life in some established cult or religion. An authentic life, according to typical Existentialists, cannot be lived by following the run of any kind of "herd" and its collective beliefs and preoccupations, but only by resolutely living out of a profoundly personal self—out of the recognized and accepted loneliness of an individuality that finds itself in a dark and meaningless universe. 

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre (1905–1980) is arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century. His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown, if not admiration. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War.

Albert Camus (1913–1960) was a journalist, editor and editorialist, playwright and director, novelist and author of short stories, political essayist and activist—and arguably, although he came to deny it, a philosopher. He ignored or opposed systematic philosophy, had little faith in rationalism, asserted rather than argued many of his main ideas, presented others in metaphors, was preoccupied with immediate and personal experience, and brooded over such questions as the meaning of life in the face of death. Although he forcefully separated himself from existentialism, Camus posed one of the twentieth century's best-known existentialist questions, which launches The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3). And his philosophy of the absurd has left us with a striking image of the human fate: Sisyphus endlessly pushing his rock up the mountain only to see it roll back down each time he gains the top. Camus's philosophy found political expression in The Rebel, which along with his newspaper editorials, political essays, plays, and fiction earned him a reputation as a great moralist. It also embroiled him in conflict with his friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, provoking the major political-intellectual divide of the Cold-War era as Camus and Sartre became, respectively, the leading intellectual voices of the anti-Communist and pro-Communist left. Furthermore, in posing and answering urgent philosophical questions of the day, Camus articulated a critique of religion and of the Enlightenment and all its projects, including Marxism. In 1957 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in a car accident in January, 1960, at the age of 46.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus first met in June 1943, at the opening of Sartre's play The Flies. When Sartre was standing in the lobby, according to Simone de Beauvoir, "a dark-skinned young man came up and introduced himself: it was Albert Camus." His novel The Stranger, published a year earlier, was a literary sensation, and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus had appeared six months previously. The young man from Algiers (Camus) was marooned in France by the war. While convalescing from an exacerbation of his chronic tuberculosis in Le Panelier, near Chambon, Camus had been cut off from his wife by the Allied conquest of French North Africa and the resulting German invasion of unoccupied France in November 1942. He wanted to meet the increasingly well-known novelist and philosopher—and now playwright—whose fiction he had reviewed years earlier and who had just published a long article on Camus's own books. It was a brief encounter. "I'm Camus," he said. Sartre immediately "found him a most likeable personality."

Although both wrote important works of philosophy and fiction and successfully tackled a number of other genres, by temperament Sartre was primarily a philosopher, absorbed with theories and general ideas, Camus primarily a novelist, most comfortably capturing concrete situations—Camus's distinction between "intelligence" and the "instinctive element." The brilliant young philosopher took absurdity as his starting point and explored how human activity constitutes a meaningful world from brute, meaningless existence. The philosophizing novelist built an entire worldview on the sense that absurdity is an unsurpassable given of human experience.

Despite these differences, the two writers' initial admiration for each other sprang from the closeness of their starting points and the similarity of their projects. Each was trying make his mark in fields kept quite distinct in French education and culture. Each one immediately noticed that the other was writing both philosophy and literature. And each immediately saw how much they shared. Their writing, with its unconventional plots and seemingly unmotivated characters, stressed that existence was absurd. They faced this absurdity honestly and lucidly, and they agreed that most people (including philosophers) did not do so. They prized living authentically.

Sartre’s Existentialism

I. Absolute Individuality and Absolute Freedom.

The Existentialist conceptions of freedom and value arise from their view of the individual. Since we are all ultimately alone, isolated islands of subjectivity in an objective world, we have absolute freedom over our internal nature, and the source of our value can only be internal.

II. The Existentialist View of Human Nature.

Existentialism is defined by the slogan Existence precedes Essence. This means:

1. We have no predetermined nature or essence that controls what we are, what we do, or what is valuable for us.

2. We are radically free to act independently of determination by outside influences.

3. We create our own human nature through these free choices.

4. We also create our values through these choices.

The Existentialist View (We create our own nature.): We are thrown into existence first without a predetermined nature and only later do we construct our nature or essence through our actions.


This slogan is opposed to the traditional view that Essence precedes Existence, according to which we are seen as having a given nature that determines what we are and what our ultimate purpose or value is. We are understood by analogy to artifacts which are made with a pre-existing idea or concept of what they will be and what they will be good for.

The Traditional View (which Sartre argues against):


The human situation for the Existentialist is thus characterized by:

1. Facticity (throwness): We find ourselves existing in a world not of our own making and indifferent to our concerns. We are not the source of our existence, but find ourselves thrown into a world we don't control and didn't choose.

2. Anxiety: We are faced with the lack of any external source of value and determination. We are faced with the responsibility of choosing our own nature and values, and, in doing so, we are faced we must face the awesome responsibility of choosing human nature and values for all men in our free choices.

3. Despair: In seeing the contrast between the world we re thrown into and which we cannot control and the absolute freedom we have to create ourselves, we must despair of any hope of external value or determination and restrict ourselves to what is under our own control.

If you want more, keep reading. If your brain is full, you can stop here

III. Objections and Replies:

A. What is Freedom?

1. The problem: How can we be free if our bodies, our abilities, and our environment are determined?

2. The solution: (a) Even though all these factors may be determined, we are more than simply these things. Our real self lies beyond the reach of external determination in virtue of its absolute individuality.

(b) Our freedom is a freedom of synthesis: even though the many factors that go into making us and our experience are determined, we can arrange them as we like. We are free to make of them, and ourselves, whatever we will.

B. What is Happiness?

1. The problem: How can man be happy in a world devoid of external significance and meaning?

2. The solution: The loss of external value allows us to get value from within ourselves, a value that is greater because it cannot be taken away by external forces.

C. How ought we to act?

1. The problem: If our only moral rule is to act authentically, to choose our own values instead of taking them from external sources, can't we really do anything we want, no matter how evil or selfish?

2. The solution:

a. In choosing our own nature we must choose human nature for all humanity. In order to act freely, we must not let our action be determined by any of our particular desires or interests. We must act as any free agent would act, hence we must act as we would like other people to act.

b. In order to be free ourselves, we must desire the freedom of other people. To treat another person merely as an object for my use is to make an object of myself. To be free I must respect the freedom of others.

c. Even though my actions are free, they are not completely arbitrary. Just as the artist, while free to create, follows the constraints imposed by her medium, so our actions, while not governed by rules, are constrained by the choices we and others have made.

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