Existentialism is a term applied to the work of several 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.
The early 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom.
Subsequent existentialist philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God. Existentialism became fashionable in the post-World War years as a way to reassert the importance of human individuality and freedom.
- 1 History
- 2 What is existentialism?
- 3 Concepts
- 4 Relation to Nihilism
- 5 Criticism
- 6 Influence outside philosophy
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Existentialism is, foreshadowed most notably by 19th century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though it had forerunners in earlier centuries. In the 20th century, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (starting from Husserl's phenomenology) influenced other existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and (absurdist) Albert Camus. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka also described existentialist themes in their literary works. Although there are some common tendencies among "existentialist" thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them (for example, the divide between atheist existentialists like Sartre and theistic existentialists like Martin Buber and Paul Tillich); not all of them accept the validity of the term as applied to their own work.
The term "existentialism" seems to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s and adopted by Jean-Paul Sartre who, on October 29, 1945, discussed his own existentialist position in a lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris. The lecture was published as L'existentialisme est un humanisme, a short book which did much to popularize existentialist thought.
The label has been applied retrospectively to other philosophers for whom existence and, in particular, human existence were key philosophical topics. Martin Heidegger had made human existence (Dasein) the focus of his work since the 1920s, and Karl Jaspers had called his philosophy "Existenzphilosophie" in the 1930s. Both Heidegger and Jaspers had been influenced by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, the crisis of human existence had been a major theme. He came to be regarded as the first existentialist, and has been called the "father of existentialism". In fact he was the first to explicitly make existential questions a primary focus in his philosophy. In retrospect, other writers have also implicitly discussed existentialist themes throughout the history of philosophy and literature. Due to the exposure of existentialist themes over the decades, when society was officially introduced to existentialism, the term became quite popular almost immediately.
Examples of works by philosophers, writers and theologians who might be considered forerunners of existentialism include:
- Buddha's teachings,
- Saint Augustine in his Confessions,
- William Shakespeare's Hamlet,
- Blaise Pascal's Pensées, which examined "nothingness", not just in science, but with regard to the human condition.
- Voltaire's Candide
- Henry David Thoreau's Walden
The 19th centuryWhat I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. 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. ... I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.—Søren Kierkegaard, Letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund dated August 31, 1835, emphasis added
The early thoughts of Kierkegaard would be formalized in his prolific philosophical and theological writings, many of which would later form the modern foundation of 20th century existentialism.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Unlike Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are representative of people who exhibit Freedom, in that they define the nature of their own existence. Nietzsche's idealized individual invents his or her own values and creates the very terms under which they excel. By contrast, Kierkegaard was a Christian, but one who argued that objective certainty of religious truths was not only impossible, but would eliminate the passionate life required of a Christian who must make a leap of faith to believe in the paradox of the God-man Christ. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism, nihilism, and various strands of psychology.
Dostoyevsky and Kafka
Two of the first literary authors important to existentialism were the Czech Franz Kafka and the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground portrays a man unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book on existentialism Existentialism is a Humanism, quoted Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as an example of existential crisis. Sartre attributes Ivan Karamazov's claim, "If God did not exist, all things would be permitted," to Dostoyevsky himself. Others of Dostoyevsky's novels covered issues raised in existentialist philosophy while presenting story lines divergent from secular existentialism: for example, in Crime and Punishment the protagonist Raskolnikov experiences an existential crisis and then moves toward a Christian Orthodox worldview similar to that advocated by Dostoyevsky himself.
Early 20th century
In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of philosophers and writers had explored existentialist ideas, the only difference was in the name. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, in his 1913 book The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, emphasized the life of "flesh and bone" as opposed to that of abstract rationalism. Unamuno rejected systematic philosophy in favor of the individual's quest for faith. He retained a sense of the tragic, even absurd nature of the quest, symbolized by his enduring interest in Cervantes' fictional character Don Quixote. A novelist, poet and dramatist as well as philosophy professor at the University of Salamanca, Unamuno's short story about a priest's crisis of faith, "Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr" has been collected in anthologies of existentialist fiction. Another Spanish thinker, Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1914, held that the human existence must always be defined as the individual person combined with the concrete circumstances of his life: "Yo soy yo y mis circunstancias" ("I am myself and my circumstances"). Sartre likewise believed that human existence is not an abstract matter, but is always situated ("en situación").
Although Martin Buber wrote his major philosophical works in German, and studied and taught at the Universities of Berlin and Frankfurt, he stands apart from the mainstream of German philosophy. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1878, he was also a scholar of Jewish culture and involved at various times in Zionism and Hasidism. In 1938, he moved permanently to Jerusalem. His best-known philosophical work was the short book I and Thou, published in 1922. For Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is "man with man", a dialogue which takes place in the so-called "sphere of between" ("das Zwischenmenschliche").
Two Ukrainian/Russian thinkers, Lev Shestov and Nikolai Berdyaev, became well known as existentialist thinkers during their post-Revolutionary exiles in Paris. Shestov, born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family in Kiev, had launched an attack on rationalism and systematization in philosophy as early as 1905 in his book of aphorisms All Things Are Possible.
Berdyaev, also from Kiev but with a background in the Eastern Orthodox Church, drew a radical distinction between the world of spirit and the everyday world of objects. Human freedom, for Berdyaev, is rooted in the realm of spirit, a realm independent of scientific notions of causation. To the extent the individual human being lives in the objective world, he is estranged from authentic spiritual freedom. "Man" is not to be interpreted naturalistically, but as a being created in God's image, an originator of free, creative acts. He published a major work on these themes, The Destiny of Man, in 1931.
Gabriel Marcel, long before coining the term "existentialism", introduced important existentialist themes to a French audience in his early essay "Existence and Objectivity" (1925) and in his Metaphysical Journal (1927). A dramatist as well as a philosopher, Marcel found his philosophical starting point in a condition of metaphysical alienation; the human individual searching for harmony in a transient life. Harmony, for Marcel, was to be sought through "secondary reflection", a "dialogical" rather than "dialectical" approach to the world, characterized by "wonder and astonishment" and open to the "presence" of other people and of God rather than merely to "information" about them. For Marcel, such presence implied more than simply being there (as one thing might be in the presence of another thing); it connoted "extravagant" availability, and the willingness to put oneself at the disposal of the other.
Marcel contrasted "secondary reflection" with abstract, scientific-technical "primary reflection" which he associated with the activity of the abstract Cartesian ego. For Marcel, philosophy was a concrete activity undertaken by a sensing, feeling human being incarnate — embodied — in a concrete world. Although Jean-Paul Sartre adopted the term "existentialism" for his own philosophy in the 1940s, Marcel's thought has been described as "almost diametrically opposed" to that of Sartre. Unlike Sartre, Marcel was a Christian, and became a Catholic convert in 1929.
In Germany, the psychologist and philosopher Karl Jaspers — who later described existentialism as a "phantom" created by the public, — called his own thought, heavily influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche — Existenzphilosophie. For Jaspers, "Existenz-philosophy is the way of thought by means of which man seeks to become himself...This way of thought does not cognize objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker."
Jaspers, a professor at the University of Heidelberg, was acquainted with Martin Heidegger, who held a professorship at Marburg before acceding to Husserl's chair at Freiburg in 1928. They held many philosophical discussions, but later became estranged over Heidegger's support of National Socialism. They shared an admiration for Kierkegaard, and in the 1930s Heidegger lectured extensively on Nietzsche. Nevertheless, the extent to which Heidegger should be considered an existentialist is debatable. In Being and Time he presented a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence (Dasein) to be analysed in terms of existential categories (existentiale); and this has led many commentators to treat him as an important figure in the existentialist movement.
After the Second World War
Following the Second World War, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement, mainly through the public prominence of two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who wrote best-selling novels, plays and widely read journalism as well as theoretical texts. These years also saw the growing reputation of Heidegger's book Being and Time outside of Germany.
Sartre dealt with existentialist themes in his 1938 novel Nausea and the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall, and had published his treatise on existentialism, Being and Nothingness in 1943, but it was in the two years following the liberation of Paris from the German occupying forces that he and his close associates — Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others — became internationally famous as the leading figures of a movement known as existentialism. In a very short space of time, Camus and Sartre in particular became the leading public intellectuals of post-war France, achieving by the end of 1945 "a fame that reached across all audiences." Camus was an editor of the most popular leftist (former French Resistance) newspaper Combat; Sartre launched his journal of leftist thought, Les Temps Modernes, and two weeks later gave the widely reported lecture on existentialism and secular humanism to a packed meeting of the Club Maintenant. Beauvoir wrote that "not a week passed without the newspapers discussing us"; existentialism became "the first media craze of the postwar era."
By the end of 1947, Camus' earlier fiction and plays had been reprinted, his new play Caligula had been performed and his novel The Plague published; the first two novels of Sartre's The Roads to Freedom trilogy had appeared, as had Beauvoir's novel The Blood of Others. Works by Camus and Sartre were already appearing in foreign editions. The Paris-based existentialists had become famous.
Sartre had traveled to Germany in 1930 to study the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and he included critical comments on their work in his major treatise Being and Nothingness. Heidegger's thought had also become known in French philosophical circles through its use by Alexandre Kojève in explicating Hegel in a series of lectures given in Paris in the 1930s. The lectures were highly influential; members of the audience included not only Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but Raymond Queneau, Georges Bataille, Louis Althusser, André Breton and Jacques Lacan. A selection from Heidegger's Being and Time was published in French in 1938, and his essays began to appear in French philosophy journals.
Heidegger read Sartre's work and was initially impressed, commenting: "Here for the first time I encountered an independent thinker who, from the foundations up, has experienced the area out of which I think. Your work shows such an immediate comprehension of my philosophy as I have never before encountered." Later, however, in response to a question posed by his French follower Jean Beaufret, Heidegger distanced himself from Sartre's position and existentialism in general in his Letter on Humanism. Heidegger's reputation continued to grow in France during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s, Sartre attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason. A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility.
Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Summer in Algiers. Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be concerned with facing the absurd. In the titular book, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it. The first half of the book contains an extended rebuttal of what Camus took to be existentialist philosophy in the works of Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, and Jaspers.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life as Sartre's partner, wrote about feminist and existentialist ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre, de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time, resulting in alienation from fellow writers such as Camus.
Paul Tillich, an important existentialist theologian following Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, applied existentialist concepts to Christian theology, and helped introduce existential theology to the general public. His seminal work The Courage to Be follows Kierkegaard's analysis of anxiety and life's absurdity, but puts forward the thesis that modern humans must, via God, achieve selfhood in spite of life's absurdity. Rudolf Bultmann used Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's philosophy of existence to demythologize Christianity by interpreting Christian mythical concepts into existentialist concepts.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an existential phenomenologist, was for a time a companion of Sartre. His understanding of Husserl's phenomenology was far greater than that of Merleau-Ponty's fellow existentialists.[vague] It has been said that his work Humanism and Terror greatly influenced Sartre. However, in later years they were to disagree irreparably, dividing many existentialists such as de Beauvoir, who sided with Sartre.
Colin Wilson, an English writer, published his study The Outsider in 1956, initially to critical acclaim. In this book and others (e.g. Introduction to the New Existentialism), he attempted to reinvigorate what he perceived as a pessimistic philosophy and bring it to a wider audience. He was not, however, academically trained, and his work was attacked by professional philosophers for lack of rigor and critical standards.
What is existentialism?
Existentialism refers to a set of ideas about human existence, beyond the terms used in ancient philosophy and objective science. The term "existentialism" is used both for philosophical concepts and for literary works, as well as being a label applied to various works by others. The exact meaning depends on the particular writer, and some writers objected to the notion of being called "existentialists" as an attempt to restrict their ideas into a pre-defined category.
The early 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that the individual has the sole responsibility for giving one's own life meaning and with living life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, choice, boredom, and death. Subsequent existential philosophers retain the emphasis on the subjective individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God. Some existentialists considered the meaning of life to be based in faith, while others noted self-determined goals. Existentialism became fashionable after World War II, as a way to reassert the importance of human individuality and freedom. As such, many existential philosophers did not consider themselves existentialists as they did not want to be associated to or typecast with other philosophers' conception of existentialism.
In general, existentialism has been described as a set of ideas to categorize human existence, beyond the traditional ancient philosophies and scientific method. Specific variations of those ideas are described below, under: Concepts.
Focus on concrete existence
Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence, stressing that the human essence is determined through life choices. However, even though the concrete individual existence must have priority in existentialism, certain conditions are commonly held to be "endemic" to human existence.
What these conditions are is better understood in light of the meaning of the word "existence," which comes from the Latin "existere," meaning "to stand out" (according to the OED, "existere" translates as "come into being"; the other definition presented here allows for a slanted view and false implications as seen in the following passage.) Humans exist in a state of distance from the world that they nonetheless remain in the midst of. This distance is what enables humans to project meaning into the disinterested world of in-itselfs. This projected meaning remains fragile, constantly facing breakdown for any reason — from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment. In such a breakdown, humans are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, and the results can be devastating.
It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although "prescriptions" against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism, which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy. It has been said that the possibility of suicide makes all humans existentialists.
Existence precedes essence
A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called his or her "essence" instead of there being a predetermined essence that defines what it is to be a human. Thus, the human beings – through their own consciousness – create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the phrase, similar notions can be found in the thought of many existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard, to Heidegger.
It is often claimed in this context that a person defines him or herself, which is often perceived as stating that they can "wish" to be something — anything, a bird, for instance — and then be it. According to most existentialist philosophers, however, this would constitute an inauthentic existence. Instead, the phrase should be taken to say that the person is (1) defined only insofar as he or she acts and (2) that he or she is responsible for his or her actions. For example, someone who acts cruelly towards other people is, by that act, defined as a cruel person. Furthermore, by this action of cruelty such persons are themselves responsible for their new identity (a cruel person). This is as opposed to their genes, or 'human nature', bearing the blame.
As Sartre puts it in his Existentialism is a Humanism: "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards." Of course, the more positive, therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: A person can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person. Here it is also clear that since humans can choose to be either cruel or good, they are, in fact, neither of these things essentially. 
"Existential" Angst, sometimes called dread, anxiety or even anguish is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that "nothing is holding me back", one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one's own freedom.
It can also be seen in relation to the previous point how angst is before nothing, and this is what sets it apart from fear which has an object. While in the case of fear, one can take definitive measures to remove the object of fear, in the case of angst, no such "constructive" measures are possible. The use of the word "nothing" in this context relates both to the inherent insecurity about the consequences of one's actions, and to the fact that, in experiencing one's freedom as angst, one also realizes that one will be fully responsible for these consequences; there is no thing in a person (their genes, for instance) that acts in their stead, and that they can "blame" if something goes wrong.
Not every choice is perceived as having dreadful possible consequences (and, it can be claimed, human lives would be unbearable if every choice facilitated dread), but that doesn't change the fact that freedom remains a condition of every action. One of the most extensive treatments of the existentialist notion of Angst is found in Søren Kierkegaard's monumental work Begrebet Angest.
The existentialist concept of freedom is often misunderstood as a sort of liberum arbitrium where almost anything is possible and where values are inconsequential to choice and action. This interpretation of the concept is often related to the insistence on the absurdity of the world and the assumption that there exists no relevant or absolutely good or bad values. However, that there are no values to be found in the world in-itself does not mean that there are no values: We are usually brought up with certain values, and even though we cannot justify them ultimately, they will be "our" values.
In Kierkegaard's Judge Vilhelm's account in Either/Or, making choices without allowing one's values to confer differing values to the alternatives, is, in fact, choosing not to make a choice — to flip a coin, as it were, and to leave everything to chance. This is considered to be a refusal to live in the consequence of one's freedom; an inauthentic existence. As such, existentialist freedom isn't situated in some kind of abstract space where everything is possible: since people are free, and since they already exist in the world, it is implied that their freedom is only in this world, and that it, too, is restricted by it.
What is not implied in this account of existential freedom, however, is that one's values are immutable; a consideration of one's values may cause one to reconsider and change them. A consequence of this fact is that one is not only responsible for one's actions, but also for the values one holds. This entails that a reference to common values doesn't excuse the individual's actions: Even though these are the values of the society the individual is part of, they are also her/his own in the sense that she/he could choose them to be different at any time. Thus, the focus on freedom in existentialism is related to the limits of the responsibility one bears as a result of one's freedom: the relationship between freedom and responsibility is one of interdependency, and a clarification of freedom also clarifies that for which one is responsible.
A concept closely related to freedom is that of facticity, a concept defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness as that "in-itself" of which humans are in the mode of not being. This can be more easily understood when considering it in relation to the temporal dimension of past: One's past is what one is in the sense that it co-constitutes oneself. However, to say that one is only one's past would be to ignore a large part of reality (the present and the future), while saying that one's past is only what one was would entirely detach it from them now. A denial of one's own concrete past constitutes an inauthentic lifestyle, and the same goes for all other kinds of facticity (having a body (e.g. one that doesn't allow a person to run faster than the speed of sound), identity, values, etc.).
Facticity is both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one's facticity consists of things one couldn't have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition in the sense that one's values most likely will depend on it. However, even though one's facticity is "set in stone" (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one's facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. As an example, consider two men, one of whom has no memory of his past and the other remembers everything. They have both committed many crimes, but the first man, knowing nothing about this, leads a rather normal life while the second man, feeling trapped by his own past, continues a life of crime, blaming his own past for "trapping" him in this life. There is nothing essential about his committing crimes, but he ascribes this meaning to his past.
However, to disregard one's facticity when one, in the continual process of self-making, projects oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and would thus be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one's projection will still have to be one's facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially). Another aspect of facticity is that it entails angst, both in the sense that freedom "produces" angst when limited by facticity, and in the sense that the lack of the possibility of having facticity to "step in" for one to take responsibility for something one has done also produces angst.
Authenticity and inauthenticity
The theme of authentic existence is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is often taken to mean that one has to "find oneself" and then live in accordance with this self. A common misunderstanding is that the self is something one can find if one looks hard enough, that one's true self is substantial.
What is meant by authenticity is that in acting, one should act as oneself, not as One acts or as one's genes or any other essence require. The authentic act is one that is in accordance with one's freedom. Of course, as a condition of freedom is facticity, this includes one's facticity, but not to the degree that this facticity can in any way determine one's choices (in the sense that one could then blame one's background for making the choice one made). The role of facticity in relation to authenticity involves letting one's actual values come into play when one makes a choice (instead of, like Kierkegaard's Aesthete, "choosing" randomly), so that one also takes responsibility for the act instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values.
In contrast to this, the inauthentic is the denial to live in accordance with one's freedom. This can take many forms, from pretending choices are meaningless or random, through convincing oneself that some form of determinism is true, to a sort of "mimicry" where one acts as "One should." How "One" should act is often determined by an image one has of how one such as oneself (say, a bank manager, lion tamer, prostitute, etc.) acts. This image usually corresponds to some sort of social norm, but this does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is inauthentic: The main point is the attitude one takes to one's own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which one acts in accordance with this freedom.
Commonly defined as a loss of hope, Despair in existentialism is more specifically related to the reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. If a person is invested in being a particular thing, such as a bus driver or an upstanding citizen, and then finds their being-thing compromised, they would normally be found in state of despair—a hopeless state. For example, an athlete who loses his legs in an accident may despair if he has nothing else to fall back on, nothing on which to rely for his identity. He finds himself unable to be that which defined his being.
What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the dictionary definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when they aren't overtly in despair. So long as a person's identity depends on qualities that can crumble, they are considered to be in perpetual despair. And as there is, in Sartrean terms, no human essence found in conventional reality on which to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition. As Kierkegaard defines it in his Either/or: "Any life-view with a condition outside it is despair." In other words, it is possible to be in despair without despairing.
The Other and the Look
This concept of the 'Other' has been most comprehensively used by feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. She used this concept in great detail in her feminist book The Second Sex to show how, despite women's sincere efforts at proving themselves as human beings firmly established in their own rights, men continue to relegate to them a status of a lower, inferior "other". It is in this context that this feminist-existential term has to be understood.
The Other (when written with a capital "o") is a concept more properly belonging to phenomenology and its account of intersubjectivity. However, the concept has seen widespread use in existentialist writings, and the conclusions drawn from it differ slightly from the phenomenological accounts. The experience of the Other is the experience of another free subject who inhabits the same world as a person does. In its most basic form, it is this experience of the Other that constitutes intersubjectivity and objectivity. To clarify, when one experiences someone else, and this Other person experiences the world (the same world that a person experiences), only from "over there", the world itself is constituted as objective in that it is something that is "there" as identical for both of the subjects; a person experiences the other person as experiencing the same as them. This experience of the Other's look is what is termed the Look (sometimes the Gaze).
While this experience, in its basic phenomenological sense, constitutes the world as objective, and oneself as objectively existing subjectivity (one experiences oneself as seen in the Others Look in precisely the same way that one experiences the Other as seen by them, as subjectivity), in existentialism, it also acts as a kind of limitation of one's freedom. This is because the Look tends to objectify what it sees. As such, when one experiences oneself in the Look, one doesn't experience oneself as nothing (no thing), but as something. Sartre's own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: at first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom. The Look is then co-constitutive of one's facticity.
Another characteristic feature of the Look is that no Other really needs to have been there: It is quite possible that the creaking floorboard was nothing but the movement of an old house; the Look isn't some kind of mystical telepathic experience of the actual way the other sees one (there may also have been someone there, but he could have not noticed that the person was there). It is only one's perception of the way another might perceive them.
Emphasizing action, freedom, and decision as fundamental, existentialists oppose themselves to rationalism and positivism. That is, they argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. Rather, existentialists look at where people find meaning. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on the meaning to them rather than rationally. The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. Kierkegaard saw strong rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world: "If I can believe that I am rational and everyone else is rational then I have nothing to fear and no reason to feel anxious about being free." However, Kierkegaard advocated rationality as means to interact with the objective world (e.g. in the natural sciences), but when it comes to existential problems, reason is insufficient: "Human reason has boundaries".
Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena — "the Other" — that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder people from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress their feelings of anxiety and dread, people confine themselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing their freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the Look" of "the Other" (i.e. possessed by another person — or at least one's idea of that other person). In a similar vein, Camus believed that society and religion falsely teach humans that "the Other" has order and structure. For Camus, when an individual's consciousness, longing for order, collides with the Other's lack of order, a third element is born: absurdity.
The notion of the Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or "unfairness" of the world. This contrasts with "karmic" ways of thinking in which "bad things don't happen to good people"; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad thing; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a "good" person as to a "bad" person.
Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Søren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many of the literary works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world. Albert Camus studied the issue of "the absurd" in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Relation to Nihilism
Though nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another. A primary cause of confusion is that Friedrich Nietzsche is an important philosopher in both fields, but also the existentialist insistence on the absurd and the inherent meaninglessness of the world. Existentialist philosophers often stress the importance of Angst as signifying the absolute lack of any objective ground for action, a move that is often reduced to a moral or an existential nihilism. A pervasive theme in the works of existentialist philosophy, however, is to persist through encounters with the absurd, as seen in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus ("One must imagine Sisyphus happy"), and it is only very rarely that existentialist philosophers dismiss morality or one's self-created meaning: Kierkegaard regained a sort of morality in the religious (although he wouldn't himself agree that it was ethical; the religious suspends the ethical), and Sartre's final words in Being and Nothingness are "All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory (or impure) reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work." Hence, existentialists believe that one can create value and meaning, whilst nihilists will deny this.
Herbert Marcuse criticised Existentialism, especially Being and Nothingness (1943), by Jean-Paul Sartre, for projecting anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself: "Insofar as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypostatizes 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". In 1946, Sartre already had replied to Marxist criticism of Existentialism in the lecture Existentialism is a humanism. In Jargon of Authenticity, Theodor Adorno criticised Heidegger's philosophy, especially his use of language, as a mystifying ideology of advanced, industrial society, and its power structure.
In Letter on Humanism, Heidegger criticized Sartre's existentialism:
Existentialism says existence precedes essence. In this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which, from Plato's time on, has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it, he stays with metaphysics, in oblivion of the truth of Being.
Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, say Existentialists frequently are confused about the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being". They argue that the verb is transitive, and pre-fixed to a predicate (e.g., an apple is red): without a predicate, the word is meaningless.
Influence outside philosophy
Cultural movement and influence
The term existentialism was first adopted as a self-reference in the 1940s and 1950s by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the widespread use of literature as a means of disseminating their ideas by Sartre and his associates (notably novelist Albert Camus) meant existentialism "was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one." Among existentialist writers were Parisians Jean Genet, André Gide, André Malraux, and playwright Samuel Beckett, the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, and the Romanian friends Eugène Ionesco and Emil Cioran. Prominent artists such as the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning have been understood in existentialist terms, as have filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman.
Film and video
The French director Jean Genet's 1950 fantasy-erotic film Un chant d'amour shows two inmates in solitary cells whose only contact is through a hole in their cell wall, who are spied on by the prison warden. Reviewer James Travers calls the film a "...visual poem evoking homosexual desire and existentialist suffering" which "... conveys the bleakness of an existence in a godless universe with painful believability"; he calls it "... probably the most effective fusion of existentialist philosophy and cinema."
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory "illustrates, and even illuminates...existentialism" by examining the "necessary absurdity of the human condition" and the "horror of war". The film tells the story of a fictional World War I French army regiment which is ordered to attack an impregnable German stronghold; when the attack fails, three soldiers are chosen at random, court-martialed by a "kangaroo court", and executed by firing squad. The film examines existentialist ethics, such as the issue of whether objectivity is possible and the "problem of authenticity".
On the lighter side, the British comedy troupe Monty Python have explored existentialist themes throughout their works, from many of the sketches in their original television show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, to their 1983 film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Of the many adjectives (some listed in the introduction above) that might indicate an existential tone, the one utilized the most by the group is that of the absurd. Another related comedy would be Office Space.
Some contemporary films dealing with existentialist issues include Fight Club, I ♥ Huckabees, Waking Life, The Matrix, and Ordinary People. Likewise, films throughout the 20th century such as The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, Taxi Driver, High Noon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Groundhog Day, Apocalypse Now, Badlands, and Blade Runner also have existentialist qualities. Notable directors known for their existentialist films include Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hideaki Anno and Woody Allen. Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York focuses on the protagonist's desire to find existential meaning as he sees its end.
Existentialist perspectives are also found in literature to varying degrees. Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea was "steeped in Existential ideas", and is considered an accessible way of grasping his philosophical stance. Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodernist and existentialist elements. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (now republished as Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existentialist themes. Ideas from such thinkers as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Michel Foucault, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, Gilles Deleuze, and Eduard von Hartmann permeate the works of artists such as Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Crispin Glover, and Charles Bukowski, and one often finds in their works a delicate balance between distastefulness and beauty.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning In Camera or "behind closed doors") which is the source of the popular quote, "Hell is other people." (In French, "l'enfer, c'est les autres"). The play begins with a Valet leading a man into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell. Eventually he is joined by two women. After their entry, the Valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All three expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively, by probing each other's sins, desires, and unpleasant memories.
Existentialist themes are displayed in the Theatre of the Absurd, notably in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two men divert themselves while they wait expectantly for someone (or something) named Godot who never arrives. They claim Godot to be an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting they would not recognize him if they saw him. Samuel Beckett, once asked who or what Godot is, replied, "If I knew, I would have said so in the play." To occupy themselves they eat, sleep, talk, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide—anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay". The play "exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos." The play also illustrates an attitude toward human experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in mind and art of the absurdist. The play examines questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in human existence.
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist tragicomedy first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Comparisons have also been drawn to Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, for the presence of two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character. Many plot features are similar as well: the characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time. The two characters are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding. They stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications, and muse on the irrationality and randomness of the world.
Jean Anouilh's Antigone also presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas. It is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and the play of the same name (Antigone, by Sophocles) from the 5th century B.C. In English, it is often distinguished from its antecedent by being pronounced in its original French form, approximately "Ante-GŌN." The play was first performed in Paris on 6 February 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regards to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation have been drawn. Antigone rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The crux of the play is the lengthy dialogue concerning the nature of power, fate, and choice, during which Antigone says that she is "... disgusted with [the]...promise of a humdrum happiness"; she states that she would rather die than live a mediocre existence.
Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existentialist belief that we are absurd beings loose in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled "Absurdist" (based on Esslin's book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example Ionesco often claimed he identified more with 'Pataphysics or with Surrealism than with existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to existentialism based on Esslin's observation.
Existentialism and Christianity
Christ's teachings had an indirect style, in which his point is often left unsaid for the purpose of letting the single individual confront the truth on their own. This is evident in his parables, which are a response to a question he is asked. After he tells the parable, he returns the question to the individual.
An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that he is an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of possible events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" which are outside and unrelated to the reader, but may develop a sense of reality/God. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon him, but as though they are inside him and guiding him from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life-or the learner who should put it to use?" From an existentialist perspective, the Bible would not become an authority in an individual's life until that individual authorizes the Bible to be such. Existentialism has had a significant influence on theology, notably on postmodern Christianity and on theologians and religious thinkers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Wilfrid Desan and John Macquarrie.
Existentialist psychoanalysis and psychotherapy
A major offshoot of existentialism as a philosophy is existentialist psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Otto Rank, Freud's closest associate for 20 years. Without awareness of the writings of Rank, Ludwig Binswanger was influenced by Freud, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who briefly met Freud and studied with Jung as a young man. His logotherapy can be regarded as a form of existentialist therapy. The existentialists would also influence social psychology, antipositivist micro-sociology, symbolic interactionism, and post-structuralism, with the work of thinkers such as Georg Simmel and Michel Foucault.
An early contributor to existentialist psychology in the United States was Rollo May, who was strongly influenced by Kierkegaard and Otto Rank. One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of existentialist psychology in the USA is Irvin D. Yalom. Yalom states that
Aside from their reaction against Freud's mechanistic, deterministic model of the mind and their assumption of a phenomenological approach in therapy, the existentialist analysts have little in common and have never been regarded as a cohesive ideological school. These thinkers - who include Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Eugène Minkowski, V.E. Gebsattel, Roland Kuhn, G. Caruso, F.T. Buytendijk, G. Bally and Victor Frankl - were almost entirely unknown to the American psychotherapeutic community until Rollo May's highly influential 1985 book Existence - and especially his introductory essay - introduced their work into this country.
A more recent contributor to the development of a European version of existentialist psychotherapy is the British-based Emmy van Deurzen.
Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often offer existentialist philosophy as an explanation for anxiety. The assertion is that anxiety is manifested of an individual's complete freedom to decide, and complete responsibility for the outcome of such decisions. Psychotherapists using an existentialist approach believe that a patient can harness his 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 full potential in life. Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existentialist psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets. Terror management theory, based on the writings of Ernest Becker and Otto Rank, 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 that occur when they are confronted with the knowledge they will eventually die.
- Abandonment (existentialism)
- Human, All Too Human (TV series)
- The Ister (film)
- List of existentialists
- Meaning (existential)
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- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1945). Existentialism and Humanism.
- Stewart, Jon (ed.) (2011). Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Farnham, England: Ashgate. ISBN 978-1-4094-2641-7.
- Solomon, Robert C. (ed.) (2005). Existentialism (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517463-1.
- Wartenberg, Thomas E.. Existentialism: A Beginner's Guide.
- Existentialism on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
- Friesian interpretation of Existentialism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Existentialism
- "Existentialism is a Humanism", a lecture given by Jean-Paul Sartre
- The Existential Primer
- Buddhists, Existentialists and Situationists: Waking up in Waking Life
- Journals and articles
- Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature
- Existential Analysis published by The Society for Existential Analysis
- Existential psychotherapy
- International Society for Existential Therapy
- HPSY.RU — Existential & humanistic psychology History of existential psychology's development in former Soviet nations
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