Introduction to Existentialism

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Introduction to Existentialism

Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are forerunners of existentialism. There were others before them, but most texts on existentialism seem to firmly place them at the foundation. Nietzsche believed our natures dictated some of our choices and faith in a omniscient Creator imposed limits on free will. Kierkegaard challenged the ritualized nature of Christianity.

Sartre’s interests were more in politics than pure philosophical theory. It could be argued that living authentically, possibly using Socrates as a model, we should do more than think about philosophy — it must be lived

What is Not Existential?

There is no one answer to what is existential, so I am going to present what is not in an attempt to clarify things through the fog. By first understanding what existentialism excludes, discussions of what might be included become possible.

Existentialism does not support any of the following:

  • The good life is one of wealth, pleasure, or honor.

  • Social approval and social structure trump the individual.

  • Accept what is and that is enough in life.

  • Science can and will make everything better.

  • People are good by nature, ruined by society or external forces.

Existential Thoughts : There are, according to existentialism and its predecessor, phenomenology, some problems with Western philosophical traditions. The basic problem is that humans are not good, sharing, generous creatures. Children are what we remain our entire lives… greedy and manipulative. Society is unnatural. Rules are difficult. Existentialism assumes we are best when we struggle against our nature. Mankind is best challenging itself to improve, yet knowing perfection is not possible. Religions present rules, yet the believers know they cannot live by all of those rules. The “sin-free” life is beyond human nature.

Questions to Ponder

Philosophy and religion exist to answer “why?” when we want an excuse for human nature. Do humans need their pain? Is suffering what makes us stronger, as Nietzsche suspected?

Some questions posed by the thinkers profiled on this site:

  • If something worth living for is worth dying for, what about something not worth dying for? (Camus)

  • Did man create God to have a reason to live? (Dostoevsky)

  • Does society make women and men different or do we choose our roles? (Beauvoir)

  • Would living forever add meaning to life? (Heidegger)

  • How do you really act in private? (Sartre)

  • Without love, without people, what is a person? (Kafka)

Language, Essence, and Existence

  • Most visitors to this site have heard Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement from Being and Nothingness, “Existence precedes and rules essence.” In general, it is accepted that people create an essence while all other things have an essence and are then created or understood by people. If you have a new idea for a tool, the idea exists before the object you intend to create. However, you can understand your idea only via words or symbols already known. This means all comprehension of “essense” is limited by existing language.

  • Likewise, how we relate to people and each other is limited by language, even if we accept the idea that first a person exists, then he or she is free to define a “self” in the world. The concepts of language and symbols complicate the existence-essence relationship because how we describe something affects how others perceive that thing or person.

A Quick Lesson


ponder and write your thoughts on what I have written.

What did some of you write?

Blue is the English word for a wavelength in the visible light spectrum. We use it to symbolize many things…

Anyone else?

I don’t know. It is the word “blue” written in white chalk on a blackboard.

Bravo! That is exactly the problem we face when studying anything. There are 20 definitions for “blue” in the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Until I write a sentence, “blue” is only a word. Alone, most things lack meaning — even people. We isolate things, even ourselves, to appreciate them and undertand them better. Isolated, the meaning is somehow lost. It is a paradox Kafka explored in short stories and Sartre examined ad nauseam.

Existentialism is Living

Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, we define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.

In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of three political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.

Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are considered:

  • Mankind has free will.

  • Life is a series of choices, creating stress.

  • Few decisions are without any negative consequences.

  • Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.

  • If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.

Existentialism, broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us — and made without an objective form of truth. There are no “universal” guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe. Instead, even trusting science is often a “leap of faith.”

The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions. Because individuals make their own choices, they are free; but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedom — and therefore their responsibility — thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free.”

For existentialism, responsibility is the dark side of freedom. When individuals realize that they are completely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, they are overcome by anxiety. They try to escape from this anxiety by ignoring or denying their freedom and their responsibility. But because this amounts to ignoring or denying their actual situation, they succeed only in deceiving themselves. The existentialists criticize this flight from freedom and responsibility into self-deception. They insist that individuals must accept full responsibility for their behavior, no matter how difficult. If an individual is to live meaningfully and authentically, he or she must become fully aware of the true character of the human situation and bravely accept it.
World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Individualist, Anti-Christian

Ideas influenced Heidegger and Sartre.
E.T.: Developed concepts of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence and Overman.

German philosopher who reasoned that Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife makes its believers less able to cope with earthly life.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, the opposition to philosophic systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life — all this is eminently characteristic of Nietzsche.

Franz Kafka
Absurdist, Jewish

Similar to Camus, Sartre, in depictions of cruel fate.

Kafka presents a world that is at once real and dreamlike and in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation.

Kafka stands between Nietzsche and the existentialists: he pictures the world into which Heidegger’s man, in Sein und Zeit, is “thrown,” the godless world of Sartre, the “absurd” world of Camus.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialist, Atheist

Student of Heidegger, colleague and lover of de Beauvoir.

French philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Influenced by German philosophy, particularly that of Heidegger, Sartre was a leading exponent of 20th-century existentialism. His writings examine man as a responsible but lonely being, burdened with a terrifying freedom to choose, and set adrift in a meaningless universe.

It is mainly through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre that existentialism has come to the attention of a wide international audience. Sartre is a philosopher in the French tradition… at the borderline of philosophy and literature.

The Existential Lexicon

defining the vague

The doctrine that existence takes precedence over essence and holding that man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of dread and anguish that encompass mankind.
- Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition; William Collins Publishers, Inc.; Cleveland, Ohio; 1979

A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, and other European philosophers were affected by World War II deeply. The war left many Europeans disillusioned with traditional philosophies, science, and faith.

Existentialism is largely a revolt against traditional European philosophy, which reached its climax during the late 1700s and early 1800s in the impressive systems of the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Traditional philosophers tended to consider philosophy as a science. They tried to produce principles of knowledge that would be objective, universally true, and certain. The existentialists reject the methods and ideals of science as being improper for philosophy. They argue that objective, universal, and certain knowledge is an unattainable ideal.

Existentialism became influential in the mid-1900s. World War II (1939–1945) gave rise to widespread feelings of despair and of separation from the established order. These feelings led to the idea that people have to create their own values in a world in which traditional values no longer govern. Existentialism insists that choices have to be made arbitrarily by individuals, who thus create themselves, because there are no objective standards to determine choice. The most famous of the Existentialist philosophers is the French author Jean-Paul Sartre.

anguish - (from NDE) (Latin angere to tighten, choke) One of the key terms in existential philosophy, anguish (or dread) reveals the character of human life and illuminates the nature of the world. In Kierkegaard’s conception, dread (Angest) is not fear, caused by some external threat. Rather, dread is an inward passion, either a continuous melancholy or a sudden and terrifying emotion.

Sartre treats anguish (angoises) as the reflective apprehension of the Self as freedom. Anguish is the realization that a nothingness slips in between my Self and my past and future so that nothing relieves me from the necessity of continually choosing myself and nothing guarantees the validity of the values which I choose.

Being-for-Itself - Sartre’s terms for sentient existence, namely human existence. A form of consciousness that entertains itself as possibility rather than as terminal fact. The recognition that a being can change itself.
Being-for-Others - The act of existing as an object external to other beings. We all exist in a state of being-for-others at various moments.
Being-in-Itself - Reality prior to human intervention. What is, without mankind.
Being-in-Itself-for-Itself - An impossible form of being attributed to God. A completely realized existence while at the same time a void waiting to be filled… complete freedom.
Being-in-the-Midst - A form of bad faith in which one chooses the self merely as an inert presence, as a thing. In other words, the treatment of the self as without the ability to change freely.
Being-in-the-World - Choosing the self as a sentient, real being as manifested by thoughts, actions, and meaning. This is the existential existence, recognizing that at least in humans existence does precede essence. Being-in-the-World is a contrast to Being-in-the-Midst.

- World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

collective - Any organized set of human relationship, however temporary. According to Sartre, any collective exists only for brief instants. “We” is not the natural state of humans, who think in terms of individuality.

conscience - (from NDE) (Latin conscientia: feeling, knowledge) Existentialists are divided in their view of conscience. Some consider conscience to be the moral voice within the individual, helpful and necessary. Others believe conscience to be the product of society and thus completely relative.

You and conscience are one. It knows all that you know, and it knows that you know it. — Kierkegaard, Purity of the Heart Is to Will One Thing

If we train our conscience, it kisses us while it hurts us. — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

death - (from NDE) (Indo-European dheu: to become senseless) One of the preoccupations of existential philosophy, death for Sartre proves the absurdity of life. Existential thinkers on the whole are concerned to define and interpret death properly so that man is encouraged to face death with reckless freedom, embracing its absurdity yet not permitting death to rob life of all meaning and freedom.

When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life; but when one becomes acquainted with an even more dreadful danger, one hopes for death. — Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

The thought of death can give rise to the fear of not living authentically. One glimpse of the void within and without, and we take refuge in ceaseless activity, eschewing reflection. But the secret restlessness remains. The life force delivers us from it only in appearance; only the sheer force of the thought of death itself frees us in truth. It affirms that other than merely vital significance of man: the eternal weight of his love. Peace in the face of death springs from the awareness of what no death can take away. — Jaspers, Philosophy Is for Everyman

When Heidegger speaks about the anticipation of one’s own death it is not the question of immortality which concerns him but the questions of what the anticipation of death means for the human situation. — Tillich, The Courage to Be

Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. — Frankl, From Death Camp to Existentialism
despair - (from NDE) (Latin de + spes: without hope) For existential thinkers, particularly Kierkegaard, despair is one of the most significant human emotions which provides the spur to fruitful thought about the nature of the human condition. Tillich later repeats the same estimate, adding the qualification that the emotion of despair itself is not necessarily experienced by all or even the majority of people.

Not to be one’s own self is despair. … To despair is to lose the eternal. — Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

All human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. — Tillich, The Courage to Be

essence - The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things. Phenomenology and existentialism aim to observe the essence of objects. In existentialism, one’s essence is his or her role in the universe. This essence changes constantly with each decision made.
ethics - In existential works, ethics refers to a system, a formalized method for determining “right and wrong” in any situation. Morals are practices dictated by probability, producing a conformity of behavior among a community.
existence - The state of being, usually in the material, scientific sense. In existentialism, the existence of a person does not define the individual; the individual is defined by his or her actions and thoughts.

(from NDE) (Latin existere: to stand forth) Existential thinkers write of existence as it is in its factuality as opposed to idealistic philosophy (such as Hegelianism) which equated essence with existence to the detriment of existence. Passion and responsibility are two of the most significant aspects of existence as viewed by Kierkegaard and Sartre.
existentialism - (You skipped the introduction, didn’t you? Scroll back and read this page completely.) The doctrine that among sentient beings, especially humanity, existence takes precedence over essence and holding that man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of dread and anguish that encompass mankind.

An existential system is impossible. An existential system cannot be formulated. Does this mean that no such system exists? By no means; nor is this implied in our assertion. Reality itself is a system — for God; but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit. System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality. — Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

freedom - The condition leading to both human accomplishment and anguish. I differ from existentialists in that I support the “freedom to” while Sartre and his socialist colleagues supported a “freedom from” certain conditions. I worry that we sacrifice our freedom to do things and express thoughts in return for “freedoms from” various concerns.

(from NDE) (Anglo-Saxon freo: not in bondage, noble) Man is essentially free and not determined by any external factor whatever, according to existential thought. Jean-Paul Sartre has formulated the most radical doctrine of freedom in the history of western thought. Accordingly, no limit to human freedom is admitted, neither temporal nor divine.

Sartre wants men to accept their own absolute responsibility for their lives. Thus he opposes any reliance upon the divine. All of man’s alibis are unacceptable: no gods are responsible for man’s condition, no original sin, no heredity or environment, no race, no caste, no father, no mother, no wrong-headed education, no impulse or disposition, no complex, no childhood trauma. Man is completely free. Man is condemned to be free.

Our description of freedom, since it does not distinguish between choosing and doing, compels us to abandon at once the distinction between the intention and the act. The intention can no more be separated from the act than thought can be separated from the language which expresses it. — Sartre, Being and Nothingness

How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech. — Kierkegaard (Victor Eremita), Either/Or

Freedom wills itself, because it already possesses a grasp of its possibility. — Jaspers, The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers

Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility — that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them. — Heidegger, Being and Time
[CSW: Can anyone untangle Heidegger? His writings are as clear as a legal filing.]

god / God - (from NDE) (Unknown origin, goth or guth: to call out) Existential philosophers are divided into atheistic and theistic schools of thought, according to Sartre. The atheistic existentialists are Nietzsche, Sartre and the French school of existentialism, and Heidegger. The theistic existentialists are Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Tillich. More important than this formal division is each thinker’s conception of God and the place assigned to God within his thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the “death of God,” by which he meant the loss of the culture’s base values.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who also speaks of the death of God, means that it is necessary for man to invent his own values, to freely choose oneself as an image of man for all men.

Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

Existentialism is not atheistic in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that it would make no difference from its point of view. — Sartre, essay: “Existentialism”

The best proof of the soul’s immortality, that God exists, etc., actually is the impression once received thereof in childhood, namely the proof which, differing from the many learned and grandiloquent proofs, could be summarized thus: It is absolutely true, because my father told me so. — Kierkegaard, The Diary

God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him. — Tillich, Systematic Theology

ideal - (from NDE) An important concept for Kierkegaard’s later thought. As he sought to apply his concepts to social and religious conditions, he made extensive use of the category of the ideal. Not defined, it was considered a self-evident idea, the ideal being contrasted with the actual.

The ideal means hatred of man. What man naturally loves is finitude. To face him with the ideal is the most dreadful torture. Certainly, when the ideal is produced in the most exalted poetic fashion, like an enchanting vision of the imagination, he accepts this pleasure. … (¶) But when the ideal is produces as the ethico-religious demand, it is the most dreadful torture of man. — Kierkegaard, The Last Years

All ideals of man are impossible, because man’s potentialities are infinite. There can be no perfect man. This has important philosophical consequences.

Conscious of his freedom, man desires to become what he can and should be. He conceives an ideal of his nature. As on the plane of cognition, the idea of man as an object of scientific inquiry may lead to a falsely definitive image of him, so on the plane of freedom he may falsely choose a path leading to an absolute ideal. From helpless questioning and bewilderment, he thus aspires to take refuge in a universal that he can imitate in its concrete forms. — Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy

individual - (from NDE) One of the key Existential themes, originating with Kierkegaard, expressing the opposition to idealism, to any tyranny whether rational or legal over the right of the existing person to choose the course and nature of his own life.

The individual is opposed to universal laws, norms, necessities; untragically, he represents mere willfulness opposing the law; tragically, he represents the genuine exception which, though opposing the law, yet has truth on his side. — Jaspers, Tragedy Is Not Enough

The very term “individual” points to the interdependence of self-relatedness and individualization. A self-centered being cannot be divided. It can be destroyed, or it can be deprived of certain parts out of which new self-centered beings emerge… Man not only is completely self-centered; he also is completely individualized. — Tillich, Systematic Theology

The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. — Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

law - (from NDE) (Norman laq: due place) Every law is a tyranny over the living man. As an objective and universal thing, law seeks to control the individual and impair his freedom. The particular view taken of law by the various Existential thinkers will depend on their view of the more general term, “good.”

The ethics of law is the expression of herd morality. It organizes the life of the average man, of the human herd, and leaves altogether out of account the creative human personality which rises above the common level. It deals with personality in the abstract; the concrete person does not exist for it. — Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man

[CSW: Complying with laws is a choice. Ideally, the existentialist tries to balance the need for individual freedom with order in a society.]

With us, law is no longer custom, it can only command and be compulsion; none of us any longer possesses a traditional sense of justice; we must therefore content ourselves with arbitrary laws, which are the expressions of the necessity that there must be law. The most logical is then in any case the most acceptable, because it is the most impartial, granting even that in every case the smallest unit of measure in the relation of crime and punishment is arbitrarily fixed. — Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human

nihilism - Often viewed as "amoral" by some, nihilism is amoral in the existential sense. Nihilism is the rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief. Politically, nihilism is the belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.

Introduction to Existential Ethics

systemizing ethics from within

Existentialists are not generally atheists, though Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed he was. In fact, most writers and philosophers embracing existentialism hold to at least some form of faith. Holding to a faith dictates following, if one is to be authentic, the ethical system of the religion accepted. Likewise, accepting a political theory demands accepting that theory’s ethical constructs. Existentialists did not develop ethical systems or constructs in a vacuum — philosophy is an evolution of theories.

Morality and Existentialism

Scopes of Morality

One of the problems posed by morality in existentialism is that morality must be understood in relation to the realm of a decision. The scope of a moral decision refers to the number and types of individuals affected by the decision. There are four primary scopes ranging from the individual to the world’s population. Because morality is defined by generalizations within a social group, morality changes as the scope increases to include more individuals. Sometimes the additional people expand what is acceptable, while the opposite can also be true.

  1. Personal morality: How true are you to your values?

  2. Regional or group morality: How true are you to the morals of your region or social group?

  3. National morality: How true are you to the morals of your nation?

  4. International morality: How true are you to the morals of this planet?

Personal Morality

Personal morality has no external guidelines. Personal morality and authenticity form the core of existentialism. A person is alone in determining what he or she would do without any external influences. The test of personal morality is what one might do if no others would know.

The focus on personal morality is not unique to existentialism, but it does separate it from most moral traditions. National and “Universal” morality pose a problem for existentialists, since nations and even smaller social groups make poor decisions. Personal freedom and choice determine a course of action.

What do you do alone? What do you do when certain you will not be detected?

Regional or Group Morality

Social regions and groups decide the bounds of regional or group morality. Regions develop moralities based upon dominant religions, resources, and lifestyles within these geographical areas. Between the region and the individual morality exists various group moralities. These moralities tend to embrace most of the regional system, but with conditions — frequently relating to loyalty to the group.

During the American Civil War, the U.S. South had a different morality than the North. This was a regional morality until the South formed the Confederate States. At that moment, one could argue two national moralities were in conflict. It can and should be argued the issue of survival was also considered, as the South was economically threatened by industrialization in the North.

National Morality

Legal systems often illustrate national morality. When wondering what a nation considers moral, consider the form of government and the legal system of the nation. What constitutes a criminal act within a nation exemplifies the morality of the population, assuming the country is not an unpopular dictatorship.

International Morality

International morality shifts constantly, making it difficult to document. Every nation and religion differs on what constitutes moral acts. The United Nations and the World Court are attempts to define international morality

Existentialism’s basis is a simple set of truths relating to sentient life, as discussed in the opening paragraphs of this document:

  • First, sentient beings exist, then they spend a lifetime defining an individual essence;

  • All sentient life forms, namely humans, have free will;

  • Every action, expression, or thought is the result of a decision;

  • Decision making is a stressful, solitary act, even when part of a group; and

  • Any decision can and usually does have negative aspects.

These “truths” form the foundation of existentialism. Existential values are those values recognizing the importance of free will, the anxiety experienced by others, and the potential consequences of decisions upon other beings, sentient and not. The foundations of any ethical system employed by existentialists can be reduced to the following statements:

  1. Existentialism requires constant thought, expression, and action — the active development of one’s essence.

  2. All decisions are individual, with each being responsible for his or her choices.

  3. The most important decisions are those affecting the free will of other individuals, other matters are less important.

  4. Some may be affected negatively, their choices reduced by a decision, so decisions must promote freedom among the greatest number of beings.

  5. Limiting the number of options available to an individual in any situation reduces that being’s freedom to express a free will.

  6. There is no such thing as a demand, since one can always accept death as a choice.

Notice the emphasis is upon freedom and free will. How existentialists understand freedom varies, so the implementation of these principles also varies. For example, Sartre viewed Soviet Communism as allowing men to be free from the basic pursuit of needs, such as food and shelter. Anarchists or democrats would argue the freedom to make mistakes and suffer is more important than a freedom from suffering. The implementation of existential ethics therefore depends upon one’s understanding of freedom, yet all existentialists have the same goal: beings must be free or they lack the essence of being.

Personal Responsibility Taking action requires accepting the consequences of that act. Personal responsibility is a basic principle in existentialism. An individual’s decisions belong exclusively to that being — no matter the external circumstances. It is not ethical to avoid consequences. Existentialists accept risks, knowing some actions can result in personal suffering.

What would a captured member of the French resistance say when interrogated? If truth is all important and personal responsibility a mandate of existentialism, how would a captured Sartre or Camus handle questions? By stating, “I am a member of the resistance. I will not compromise others.” There is no lie, responsibility is accepted, and others are not harmed. Of course, an existentialist might not make a very good spy — deception is not part of the general philosophy.

War offers extremes for philosophical debate, so one must consider “every day” life when discussing existentialism. Children quickly learn to avoid responsibility and blame; they learn to lie to protect the self. Existentialism requires one accept negative as well as positive consequences, which does not appear to be a natural tendency among humans. Even minor matters, such as trying to avoid a traffic ticket, run counter to existential ethics.

Accepting a ticket, however, if far different from obeying the law. An existentialists is free to disregard a law, as long as the consequences are accepted. Many existentialists practiced civil disobedience, especially during the 1960s. Recall that action is to be respected, while passivity is rejected by existentialists as cowardly.

The Ultimate Free Will

According to existentialism, the ultimate choice is death. Usually death is an absurd choice, existentialism recognizes, but sometimes it might be the only ethical choice. An existentialist would be willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice” if doing so would protect the existence and freedom of many others.

The Individual Versus Society

Existentialists tend to depict life as a series of struggles between the individual and everything. The individual is forced to make decisions; often any choice is a bad choice. In the writings of some existentialists, it seems that freedom and personal choice are the seeds of misery. The curse of free will was of particular interest to the theological and Christian existentialists. By giving man free will, the Creator was punishing mankind in the worst possible way.

Societal structures are the result of men and women attempting to limit their own choices. This theory works like a 12-step recovery program: society exerts needed peer pressure to ease the decision-making process. Accordingly, the more structured a society, the more functional it should be. Adoption of this anthropological theory might explain why the existentialists tended to favor authoritarian or rigid forms of government, such as communism, socialism, and fascism. This possibility is discussed in more detail in the section regarding the political existentialists. Having one political party, one strong leader, one source of direction makes it easy to function.

Existentialists would explain why some people are attracted to military careers based on the challenge of making decisions. Following orders is easy; it requires little emotional effort to do as one is told. If the order is not logical, it is not for the soldier to question. In this way, wars can be explained, mass genocides understood. People were only doing as they were told.

How can a philosophy that focuses upon the individual embrace such anti-individual social theories? In effect, Sartre and Heidegger both believed that men freed from basic decisions, such as how to obtain food, shelter, and security, could concentrate on more important decisions. Heidegger, a supporter of Hitler, and Sartre, a supporter of the Soviet Union, both saw in authoritarian governments the promise of greater individual freedom to pursue the arts, science, et cetera. When utopia was achieved and people were doing what they did best, the individual would benefit and the society as a whole would benefit.

The Core of Sartre's Existentialism

Trying to define the core of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism is beyond my abilities. Instead, I have chosen to rely upon the efforts of others. As previously mentioned, I place the confusion concerning Sartre's works at the philosopher's own feet -- I could easily tangle his various definitions of "existentialism" into an incoherent mass of words. Still, Sartre popularized the term. Sartre's influence upon the school of philosophy broadly known as "existentialism" has been summarized by professor Walter Kaufmann as follows:

It is mainly through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre that existentialism has come to the attention of a wide international audience. Even Heidegger's great prestige in Germany after the second World War is due, in no small part, to his tremendous impact on French Thought. Nevertheless, Sartre is widely considered a mere littérateur, and in the nineteen hundred and fifties is has become much more fashionable to criticize him, or rather dismiss him, than to take him seriously, let alone praise him. Oddly, it is widely argued against him that he is in some way strikingly unacademic, as it academic existentialism were not a contradiction in terms.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 40

What often troubles academic audiences is that Sartre defined existentialism in a simplistic manner. One must question if something must be complex to be accepted by this audience. However, the over-simplification of Sartre's own philosophical system is often apparent:

Existentialism maintains that in man, and in man alone, existence preceded essence.

This simply means that man first is, and only subsequently is this or that. In a word, man must create his own essence: it is in throwing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, that he gradually defines himself. And the definition always remains open ended: we cannot say what this man is before he dies, or what mankind is before it has disappeared.
- From "A propos de l'existentialisme: Mise au point,"
Action Magazine, December 29, 1944

the Buddha, too, opposed any reliance on the divine because he wanted men to realize their complete responsibility. His final, and perhaps most characteristic, words, according to tradition were: "Work out your own salvation with diligence." And if the diligence is rather uncharacteristic of the existentialists, the Buddha's still more radical dictum with which the Dhammapada opens is nothing less than the quintessence of Sartre's thought: "All that we are is the result of what we have thought."

Few words in world literature equal the impact of this saying. All man's alibis are unacceptable: no gods are responsible for his condition; no original sin; no heredity and no environment....
Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 46

If you can think, you have free will. Sartre viewed this as the human condition. While concerned primarily with human beings -- or at least sentient beings -- Sartre's existentialism does address other creatures and objects. It is obvious that to understand humans one must first understand other objects. Sartre's study of the universe grew from the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Take Sartre's notion that "in man, and in man alone" there is first the body, then an essence is defined through actions. Now, reverse this for all other objects and Sartre's view of the universe is clear: essence precedes existence for all objects; they have meaning then form.

Being and Nothingness

All human actions are equivalent... and... all are on principle doomed to failure. Being and Nothingness, "Conclusion, sct. 2" (1943)

I am responsible for everything... except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world... in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant. Being and Nothingness, "Being and Doing: Freedom," sct. 3 (1943)

Generosity is nothing else than a craze to possess. All which I abandon, all which I give, I enjoy in a higher manner through the fact that I give it away.... To give is to enjoy possessively the object which one gives. Being and Nothingness, "Doing and Having," sct. 2 (1943)

Hell is other people. No Exit, Garcin, in scene 5.

To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death of one's own free choice, death at the proper time, with a clear head and with joyfulness, consummated in the midst of children and witnesses: so that an actual leave-taking is possible while he who is leaving is still there. Twilight of the Idols, "Expeditions of an Untimely Man," aph. 36 (1889)


The idealist is incorrigible: if he is thrown out of his heaven he makes an ideal of his hell. Miscellaneous Maxims and Opinions, no. 23 (1879)

The strongest knowledge (that of the total unfreedom of the human will) is nonetheless the poorest in successes: for it always has the strongest opponent, human vanity. Assorted Opinions and Maxims, aph. 50 (1879)

The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw. The Wanderer and His Shadow, aph. 278 (1880)

To exercise power costs effort and demands courage. That is why so many fail to assert rights to which they are perfectly entitled -- because a right is a kind of power but they are too lazy or too cowardly to exercise it. The virtues which cloak these faults are called patience and forbearance. The Wanderer and His Shadow, aph. 251 (1880)

Existence really is an imperfect tense that never becomes a present. The Use and Abuse of History, sct. 1 (1874)

Not necessity, not desire -- no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything -- health, food, a place to live, entertainment -- they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied. Daybreak, aph. 262 (1881)

The Difficulty of Definition
    One of existentialism's problems is that it is difficult to define or categorize concisely. Philosopher Walter Kaufmann comments: 
Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living "existentialists" have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add to the confusion, many writers of the past have frequently been hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are consigned. In view of this, it might be argued that the label "existentialism" ought to be abandoned altogether. 
    Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of "existentialists" – Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre – are not in agreement on essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts while Kierkegaard was a Protestant's Protestant. If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism. 
    The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life – that is the heart of existentialism (Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, NY: The World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 11, 12). 

Their major and differentiating thesis is the metaphysical pronouncement that "existence is prior to essence," while in the established tradition "essence is prior to existence." What this means for the existentialist is that human nature is determined by the course of life rather than life by human nature (B. A. G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955,  p. 603). 
    To summarize Bochenski, he identifies six major themes of existentialism: 1) experience as the ground of discovery;  2,) existence as the supreme object of inquiry; 3) existence preceding essence; 4) man as pure subjectivity and not part of a cosmic life process; 5) the interdependence of man and his world; and 6) a devaluation of intellectual knowledge. 

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