Introduction to Existing, edited by Steven Luper (back to homepage)
Human beings have always shared their lives with others. We are social animals, as Aristotle claimed (or “herding animals,” as Nietzsche preferred to say), and we identify ourselves, at least in part, with various groups, such as families, teams, nations, and so on. We might even say that while community life has always been prominent, the life of the individual has largely been nonexistent, until the last several centuries. In recent history, the urge to develop and cultivate our own separate lives has been felt more and more profoundly. It works against our default practice of remaining immersed in the group, but for most of us both forces are at work in our psyches; sometimes one dominates, sometimes the other. A similar pattern can be found in the history of ideas: during some periods of time there are writers who recommend individuality, while during other periods there is a return to the comforting view that in truth the self just is the community, so to “strike out on our own” is to pursue a lifestyle in which we are alienated from ourselves.
So far as the history of ideas goes, it is probably accurate to say that force is gathering behind the view that it is best not to think of ourselves as separate from the group. In the last several decades, writers identified with the label “communitarianism” (Roberto Unger, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor Michael Sandel, and others) have been busy rediscovering the ancient view that our identities are deeply rooted in the community. It is an idea whose time has come, gone, and is back again. But it is remarkable that the communitarians are on the defensive. The ancient emphasis on the importance of the community at the expense of the individual has been reversed, at least for the time being, and communitarians are unable simply to presuppose the preeminence of the community. They find themselves carrying the burden of showing that the individual should defer to the community. In an individualistic age like ours, the communitarians must also show how a community identity might be created. It is one thing to remain immersed in (that is, to refrain from distinguishing oneself as against) a closely-knit community such as a Greek polis that was shaped by ancient forces. One does this by not acting, by not choosing to cultivate individuality. But how does one go about creating unity within a nation such as the United States, in which a collection of very different people is intent on going in very different directions?
That the communitarian-style view needs defense is remarkable when we consider how little challenge it received until very recently in human affairs. There was always some opposition from religious traditions that posited the existence of the individual soul, but this opposition has developed very slowly. Over the centuries the belief that each of us has a soul gave rise to the idea that each of us, and not some authority such as a Church leader, is the custodian of his or her individual soul. That idea, in turn, led some to think of people as self-determining and as individually responsible (to God) for their own decisions and beliefs. Not until roughly the 17th Century did these ideas really take life. At that time influential philosophers began to spell out reasons people have for taking charge of their lives, and reasons others have for letting people take charge of their lives. One 17th Century writer of the first sort, Blaise Pascal, was especially important in the development of existentialism, for reasons we shall sketch. First, however, let us consider a strand of 17th Century political philosophy, which indirectly contributed to the advent of existentialism by helping to create the climate of opinion in which people were allowed control over their lives.
17th Century political philosophers such as John Locke began to defend the individual’s moral right (as against the community) to freedom from governmental restraint. Roughly until Locke’s day it was assumed that the state had legitimate authority to rule over the individual. This presumption had many sources of support, not least among them the Platonic-Aristotelian idea that only a few people know the nature of the good life, and it is they who should run human affairs. But Locke suggested that each of us is as well positioned as anyone else to run our own affairs since everyone (except children and the mentally incompetent) is capable of identifying the requirements of morality and abiding by them. Hence all should have the freedom (from restraint) necessary for self-determination and individual responsibility. We should all take responsibility for our own lives and should be free to do so.
The politics of individualism were endorsed by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century but also drew powerful opposition from others. In his own style the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau defended the predominance of the community over the individual, as did the British writer Edmund Burke, and in the early 19th Century the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel gave the communitarian view one of the most influential defenses it has ever received. Nor are communitarians the only thinkers that drew from Hegel. As is well known, Karl Marx also owed much to Hegel’s writings, and some of the 20th century existentialists found the ideas of Hegel and Marx as attractive as the ideas of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and worked hard to achieve a reconciliation. But the individualist political philosophy initiated in the 17th century gained momentum in the next centuries in spite of the backlash against it, and prominent philosophers such as John Stuart Mill carried it into the 19th century.
It was in this climate that the first genuinely existentialist thinkers began to write: the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Writing in the mid-19th Century, Kierkegaard had been influenced by Hegelianism but firmly opposed himself to Hegel’s philosophy. By contrast, Nietzsche, whose work appeared at about the same time as Kierkegaard’s, ignored the work of Hegel. Nietzsche began his work influenced by and then radically opposed to the writings of a contemporary of Hegel’s who had also constructed a powerful attack on the importance of the individual: the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Now, existentialism is not a form of political philosophy, or at least not directly so. And although much in the Hegelian system of thought was political philosophy, it was not specifically to Hegel’s political views that Kierkegaard reacted. What drew Kierkegaard’s fire was the invisibility of the individual and the individual life within Hegel’s system. Writing in his Journals, Kierkegaard said:
The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. . . . .What good would it do me to be able to develop a theory of the state and combine all the details into a single whole, and so construct a world in which I did not live. . . ; what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion?1
A similar point can be made about Nietzsche: he was not a political philosopher, or in any case not primarily so. (Indeed, neither was Schopenhauer.) Instead, a great deal of Nietzsche’s work was written in opposition to Schopenhauer’s unfavorable assessment of the individual and the individual’s life. In their ways, both Hegel and Schopenhauer supported the idea that in its most important sense our identity is the identity we share with others, and life as an individual is at best of derivative importance. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both argued that just the opposite is the case.
While existentialism is not political philosophy, individualist political philosophy helped created the climate necessary for existentialism to flourish, for individualist political philosophy suggested that people should be left responsible for their own lives and argued that self-determination should be protected. The suggestion that our self-determination should be protected does not tell us what we should do with our lives after they are in our hands, however, and the individualist political philosophers had little to say about the matter, having assumed that the individual’s affairs are a private matter. But the existentialists are very much interested in the private affairs of people. In particular they want to convince people to take charge of their own lives, and they want to help people overcome obstacles barring the way.
The reader might well find the proposition that we should seize life banal. The reader might also think that seizing life is a straightforward matter. Why, you might ask, do such obvious matters need discussing? In response, the existentialists would attempt to convince you that there are powerful mechanisms in play that prevent individuals from recognizing the nature and importance of their existence. To get an idea of how this argument might go, let us refer to the writings of Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century figure who seems to have been the first to argue in this way.
Pascal and Seizing Life
It was Pascal who first defended a point that would later be developed in detail by the existentialists: the remarkable fact that many if not most people do not even value, much less take charge of, their own existence. Instead, they are filling their lives with various activities so as to divert their attention away from their own unfavorable attitude toward individual existence:
Diversion.—When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, . . .I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. . . .
But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely. (Pensèes, Sect. 139)
According to Pascal, most people lose themselves in “diversions” so as to avoid thinking about “the natural poverty of [their] feeble and mortal condition. . . .” By doing this, they escape the necessity of explicitly deciding whether their lives are worth living. Escaping this judgment is important to them because it seems overwhelmingly clear that their lives are not worth living. Pascal went on to point out an important upshot of diversion: in escaping the necessity of evaluating their lives, people also abandon themselves in an important sense: they give up any chance they might have of approaching life in such a way that they can affirm and embrace it.
Here is no real and lasting satisfaction; . . .our evils are infinite. . . . Let us reflect on this, and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another. . . . (Sect. 194)
Now, Pascal himself believed that “there is no good in this life but in the hope of another.” The only worthwhile existence was one centered in the afterlife, on his view. The reader may well find this assessment extreme. But notice that Pascal’s main point stands even if his assessment is exaggerated: if we fear that we might be in for substantial misfortune in the course of life, and our fear leads us to divert ourselves from facing life and the question of its value, we will never overcome that fear, and never embrace life.
Pascal did not initiate existentialism, but his Pensèes helped to usher it in. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche agreed with Pascal’s point that people typically conceal from themselves the importance of their own existence and end up not owning their lives. But Kierkegaard’s story about the way the diversion works differs sharply from Nietzsche’s. As a Christian, Kierkegaard’s story was naturally closer to Pascal’s. Kierkegaard thought that many different sorts of reasons lead people to the despair of not valuing their existence, and prevent people from arriving at the religious faith that is necessary for overcoming despair. Nietzsche, by contrast, would have said that religious faith itself is perhaps the most powerful cause of contempt for existence.
In spite of the considerable differences between them, both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard emphasized that people are immersed in inaccurate views about human existence, and both emphasized the importance of penetrating through to the truth about ourselves. Our surface beliefs and values cannot be trusted, for they are often the product of despair or the effort to avoid despair or other mechanisms that mislead people. Hence both philosophers launched into two of Pascal’s projects: clarifying these mechanisms and accurately portraying human existence. The completion of both projects would then make it possible to get an accurate view of the type of human existence worth having, and pave the way for self-determination.
The Unacknowledged Malleability of Nature and the Self
Much of the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was devoted to Pascal’s two projects. Yet the pursuit of these projects is not really what made their work distinctively existential. Of course, the term “existentialism” is notoriously difficult to define, for the views of writers who called themselves existentialists differ in important ways and in some cases are closely aligned with the views of writers who spurned the label. Nonetheless, Pascal was not an existentialist in spite of his groundbreaking work in the Pensèes. It is true that the Pensèes was an incomplete manuscript; he was working on it when he died. But there is no reason to think that he would have been an existentialist even if he had had time to complete his work. The point is that his work completely lacked an element present in the writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the first existentialist philosophers. It was after taking on Pascal’s projects that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were led to the view that lies at the heart of existentialism.
While analyzing the psychology of self-deception each was struck by the facility with which people change their fundamental values, commitments and beliefs when such changes appear to help them avoid suffering. And while attempting to penetrate to the true nature of human existence, each was struck by the fact that our conception of human nature and our identities vary depending on our fundamental values, commitments and beliefs. Already these observations suggested something Pascal did not see: that human nature and individual identities are to some extent matters we freely decide for ourselves.
Further lines of thought reinforced the suggestion that much about the nature of people is determined by our free choice. These lines of thought were outgrowths of the work of Immanuel Kant, who himself was influenced by David Hume, an 18th Century Scotsman.
Hume had demolished the ordinary conception of the self, demoted reason from master to servant of the passions, and reduced knowledge to mere belief caused by the observation of repeated patterns. Moreover, Hume had offered the most persuasive argument yet that the real nature of the world and of the self are beyond our ken. Kant’s response to Hume was a “Copernican Revolution” that blurred the line between subjective accounts of the world according to which its features are dependent upon minds, and objective accounts of the world according to which its features are independent of minds. According to Kant, the world of things as they are in themselves is not knowable. But we can know the world and the self as they inevitably will appear (as phenomena) because “the mind” is active in giving them the shape they take. Is the idea that the mind shapes the world and the self a subjectivist view or an objectivist view? It is possible to argue that Kant’s revolutionary idea is consistent with both subjectivist and objectivist accounts of the world. The perceivable world can be viewed subjectively, as mind-dependent, because the mind is indeed active in ordering the experienced world. Nonetheless, the world can be viewed objectively, given the specific way in which it is shaped by the mind: the mind orders experience along causal, spatial, and temporal lines, and the world one individual perceives is structured in the same ways as the world another individual perceives. Hence the perceivable or phenomenal world presents itself to each individual as a spatio-temporal manifold of causally interacting objects. The world the mind shapes is the same causal order for each of us—in this sense “mind” shapes an “objective” world that does not vary from mind to mind.
Not long after Kant introduced his revolutionary idea, others began to modify it so as to support further subjectivist ideas. From Kantianism short steps led first to the view that individual minds shape individual worlds-as-they-appear-to-the-individual, and then to the view that the world and the human being could be shaped, interpreted and assigned significance or value in multiple ways that vary from person to person. Moreover, none of these individual perspectives is rationally defensible as against the others. These ideas suggested to some existentialist thinkers that not just human nature but all of nature is malleable in a way that is entirely inconsistent with the classical objectivist view that facts and values are determined by features of the world itself, not shaped by minds and human interests.
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were familiar with the work of Hume and Kant, but neither unequivocally accepted the view we just sketched in all its subjectivist radicalness. From the start Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both were committed to uncovering the truth about human beings, a commitment that carried a powerful realist presumption, although this presumption was undermined more and more as each explored ways in which human reality is a human creation. Later phenomenalist existentialists emphasized the malleability of the natural world far more than did Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both held that there are dimensions of persons that cannot be altered by individuals. Kierkegaard claimed, for example, that our dependence upon God is an inescapable element of our identities, and Nietzsche suggested that human beings have inbuilt motivations with which we must identify and for which we must find outlets or else they will find their own outlets and influence our lives in ways we do not control. These essential dimensions simply must be accepted if we are to affirm our existence. Nonetheless, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche found themselves inclined to think that there is very little about human nature and the identities of people that is not malleable, and later existentialists cultivated the seeds of this radical view. The human being, it turns out, is largely free to create the human being. Largely, people are freely self-creating beings--here, finally, is the insight that is most characteristic of existentialism, an insight absent from the writings of Pascal. By contrast, the idea that the entire natural world is largely shaped by the human mind is the central idea of phenomenalism, a philosophical approach initiated in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl that developed alongside of, and merged with, 20th century existential thought.
That existentialism as a philosophy is centered around the view that we are freely self-creating beings can be confirmed by the influential definition of “existentialism” given by Jean-Paul Sartre. According to Sartre, existentialism is the doctrine that our existence precedes our essence. It is the view that we are alive long before we acquire an essence. Now, to say that something has an essence is to say that it has a definitive attribute, or a feature that makes it the kind of thing it is. In the case of a human being, our essence would be the attributes by virtue of which we are human beings. However, it is the existentialist’s view that each of us freely decides what human nature shall consist in; we decide what our essence is.
After the introduction of the idea that people are largely freely self-creating, existentialist writers led by Martin Heidegger drew on the work of Husserl in order to give the term “existence” an entirely new meaning. The notion of existence has varied over the years. Throughout much of Western history people have been influenced by the neo-Platonic idea that some things are more real than others, starting with God, who has the greatest degree of reality of all. Famously, this spectrum is described by Arthur Lovejoy as “the great chain of being.” But twentieth-century readers are unlikely to think of being in this grandiose way. For most of us, to be is to be an object or an attribute of an object, so that everything that is real has one of these two unremarkable kinds of reality.
But the existentialists argue that this modern view is an oversimplification. They attempt to carve out a sense in which human existence is unlike that of other items in the world. Existentialists remind us that most things in the world are not free. Most things are incapable of choice and hence incapable of choosing their essential attributes. Such things are passive with respect to their defining attributes, and they exist by default—they exist so long as nothing outside of them deprives them of their essential attributes. Some things have an essence before they exist. For example, tools are designed so as to play some pre-conceived role, and that role is their essence. Thus a knife’s essential attribute is the capacity to cut, and it exists just so long as that attribute remains intact. Break a knife into small pieces, or melt it down, and the knife ceases to exist. But human beings, according to existentialists, are permanently capable of deciding, at least in part, what constitutes the nature of a human being, that is, which attributes are definitively important for being a human being. And this permanent capacity is so basic to humanity that we should mark it off by saying that people exist in a different sense than other sorts of beings. The definitively important attribute of humanity is our freedom largely to decide what shall be the definitively important attribute of humanity.
Consider an application of this conception of human existence. Suppose we say, as some of the existentialists urge us to, that human beings are creatures with individual identities, that having an individual identity or self is what is definitively important if we are to be a human being. In that case we will say that to exist as a human being is to exist as an individual self, and we will understand the nature of human existence in terms of the existence of the individual self. Our attention will then turn to the concept of the self; to analyze human existence any further, we must grapple with identity.
Now, when existentialist writers such as Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre examine the nature of the self, they come to a conclusion that might surprise the modern reader. According to Kierkegaard and Sartre, our identities are something we must construct. Different existentialist writers say different things about how this construction works, but most existentialists agree that a being who fails to construct an identity may be alive, but does not exist as a self. Unlike most things, an individual self does not exist by default; indeed, the default would be not to exist as an individual self. To exist as an individual self requires an effort: the effort of constructing an identity and freely reaffirming it over time.
Notice what happens when we add this view of the self to the conception of human existence as we are attempting to understand it, namely as having an identity, or being someone. On this view, we do not exist unless we are individuals. So far as human existence is concerned, unless we are someone, we simply are not there.
Let us immediately add that some of us might have a different view about being human. Perhaps something other than being someone is definitively important if we are to be a human being. Many views are possible, and many are discussed by the existentialists. Consider just one alternative. If we live in a community which provides clearly specified social roles, we might take playing our appointed role, and thus participating in the group, as what makes us human. If we take this collectivist attitude, then we will understand human existence in terms of participating in the community rather than as being an individual, and our conception of existence will be radically opposed to the conception of existence as being an individual. In fact, on the collectivist approach, those who attempt to separate themselves from the community and cultivate individuality are trying to end their existence. Anyone who succeeded in becoming a separate individual simply would not be there.
Having noticed that many views of human existence are possible, the existentialists speak of the alternatives as individually possible (but mutually exclusive) modes of human existence. Thus, for example, while the collectivist’s is incompatible with the individualist’s stance, both define possible modes of human existence. However, the fact that a mode of existence is possible does not entail that it is desirable, and some of the existentialists, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, are deeply critical of some modes of existence. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, are officially neutral on the relative value of competing modes of existence. But all of the existentialists emphasize two things about making a conscious, individual decision about our mode of existence: we are permanently free to make this decision, and permanently responsible for doing so.
Angst, Absurdity and Authenticity
In saying that we are responsible for deciding what is definitively important in human existence, the existentialists mean to emphasize that whatever our view about what is important, it is we who chose to adopt that view. We are the cause of our own decision, and however we decide we are free to choose differently. But this is not all existentialists have in mind. They mean to say that it is important for us to embrace our distinctive form of being, to self-consciously choose for ourselves what is definitively important in human existence, and to live accordingly. They mean to condemn those who refuse to face the decision, and even Heidegger says that unless we make a conscious, individual choice as to our mode of existence, our existence will be “inauthentic”.
The existentialists go out of their way to condemn the inauthentic way of life for much the same reason that Pascal condemned the life lost in diversion: when we live inauthentically we fail to make our lives our own. Like Pascal, the existentialists also say that an inauthentic existence is likely to result from fleeing anxiety. But what did Pascal and the existentialists think we are so anxious about? What are we ignoring so intently that we end up ignoring the fact that we exist?
As we have said, Pascal himself had already pointed out features of the human situation that lead people away from life because they refuse to notice them. These features include our mortality and the transience of human affairs. They also include the apparent insignificance and meaninglessness of life as viewed from the objective, impersonal, perspective reached by abstracting away from the subjective, person point of view. Like Pascal, the existentialists believe that these aspects of life cause Angst or anxiety which we escape ultimately by escaping life. And they want to show that even these aspects of life can be dealt with in an honest way that will be consistent with affirming our existence. But existentialists also think that the challenges identified by Pascal are not our only sources of anxiety. Our very nature as self-creating beings is also a source of Angst, and hence something people refuse to notice. This anxiety, too, must be assimilated if we are to affirm life. But first we must get clear about why our nature is so alarming.
To say that we are by nature freely self-defining is to say that we are permanently confronted with the decision as to what shall be definitively important in human existence and in our own lives in particular. But this decision is like no other we face, for it cannot be grounded. Normally decisions are made on the basis of assumptions and values we take for granted. When I decide to write a paragraph, for example, my decision comes in the context of ongoing projects whose importance I take for granted: having assumed that it is important to work out the implications of my mortality, I decide to put together a book about existentialism, and in the midst of putting together that book, I decide to write a paragraph. Each decision provides a sensible rationale for the next. But my decision as to what shall be definitively important in human existence is not like these derivative ones. It is the decision that establishes the context for all other decisions. In making it, I freely decide what finally is important, and then other decisions can fall into place.
The decision is made especially difficult if we follow most of the existentialists and say that there are no such things as objective values and that the only values there are are values we create ourselves by freely choosing what finally we shall regard as important. If objective values do not exist, my decision cannot be based on them, and then the decision can rest on nothing. In that sense it must be arbitrary. If our most basic, life-guiding decision is arbitrary, then it can be hard to resist saying that our lives are absurd or ultimately senseless: they are the result of a complex web of decisions that ultimately rest on nothing. This encounter with the absurd causes us anxiety, according to the existentialists.
Another daunting aspect of human existence results from the facts that (1) we are permanently free to change our decisions, and that (2) our identities are inextricably bound up with these decisions. If who we are is determined by what we take to be important, and we are permanently free to change our minds about the latter, then our very existence as individuals is insecure. Being who we are is not only something we must decide for ourselves, but also something we must continuously reaffirm, or else we cease to be. It is anguishing to knowing that our freedom is so far reaching as to leave our existence permanently unsettled in this way.
A final point: it is sometimes said that the existentialists are a morbid bunch, dwelling as they do on such themes as death, despair, anxiety, anguish, nausea, dread, absurdity, meaninglessness, nothingness, and so on, and ignoring the majestic aspects of life. This criticism is misguided, however. Their ambition is to enable us to embrace our existence while honestly facing up to the entirety of the human situation no matter how disappointing it might seem initially. Life is full of grandeur and mystery, and the existentialists know this well, but it is not the uplifting aspects of life that make it difficult to affirm. If the existentialists are correct, most people lose their grip on life long before they appreciate its splendor. All too often rosy advice such as “always look at the bright side of life” conceals a less rosy unstated judgment, such as: it is too dangerous to look at the dark side, for if we do we will be horrified, and when we recall that life has the one side as fully as it has the other, we risk having to conclude that life in all of its shades, bright and dark, is not worth having.
Introductory works on Existentialism
Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1962.
Blackham, J.J. Six Existentialist Thinkers. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1952.
Cooper, David. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Macquarrie, John. Existentialism. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
Olafson, Frederick. Principles and Persons: An Ethical Interpretation of Existentialism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.
Soloman, Robert. From Rationalism to Existentialism. Lanham: University Press of America, 1985.
Warnock, Mary. Existentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Contemporary Analytic Work on Existentialist Themes
Nagel, Thomas. “Death.” In Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Fischer, J. M., ed. The Metaphysics of Death. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Freedom of the Will:
Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Watson, Gary. Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Fingarette, Herbert. Self-Deception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.
Haight, M. R. A Study of Self-Deception. Brighton: Harvester, 1980.
Dennett, Daniel. “Self-Made Selves.” In Elbow Room. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.
On Contingency and Absurdity:
Nagel, Thomas. “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life.” In The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.