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Existentialism is a philosophical movement that views human existence as havin a set of underlying themes and characteristics, such as anxiety, dread, freedom, awareness of death, and consciousness of existing. Existentialism is also an outlook, or a perspective, on life that pursues the question of the meaning of life or the meaning of existence. It is this question that is seen of paramount importance, above both scientific and other philosophical pursuits.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the "father of existentialism," asserted that "truth is subjectivity": human beings can be understood only from the inside, in terms of their lived and experienced reality and dilemmas, not from the outside, in terms of a biological, psychological, or other scientific theory of human nature. Existentialism emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence and is fundamentally opposed to the rationalist tradition and to positivism. That is, it argues against definitions of human beings either as primarily rational, knowing beings who relate to reality primarily as an object of knowledge or whose action can or ought to be regulated by rational principles, or as beings who can be defined in terms of their behavior as it looks to or is studied by others. More generally it rejects all of the Western rationalist definitions of Being in terms of a rational principle or essence or as the most general feature that all existing things share in common. Existentialism tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and "absurd" universe in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations.
Human beings are exposed to or, to use the philosopher Martin Heidegger's phrase, "thrown" into, existence. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the horizon or context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create. This is part of the meaning of the assertion of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the founders of existentialism, "existence is prior to essence." Existentialism conceives of Being itself as something that can only be understood through and in relation to these basic characteristics of human existence.
In terms of the existence and relevance of God, there are three schools of existentialist thought: atheistic existentialism (Sartre), Christian existentialism (Kierkegaard) and a third school, agnostic existentialism, which proposes that whether God exists or not is irrelevant to the issue of human existence - God may or may not exist (Heidegger).
Although there are certain common tendencies among existentialist thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them, and not all of them even affiliate themselves with or accept the validity of the term "existentialism", which was coined by Gabriel Marcel and popularized especially by Sartre. In German the phrase Existenzphilosophie (philosophy of existence) is also used.
Existentialism was inspired by the works of Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. It became popular in the mid-20th century through the works of the French writer-philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir whose versions of existentialism are set out in a popular form in Sartre's 1946 L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.
Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel pursued theological versions of existentialism, most notably Christian existentialism. Other theological existentialists include Paul Tillich, Miguel de Unamuno, and Martin Buber. Moreover, one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer are also important influences on the development of existentialism (although not direct precursors) because the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were written in response or opposition to Hegel and Schopenhauer, respectively.
Major concepts in existentialism
Existentialism differentiates itself from the modern Western rationalist tradition extending from Descartes to Husserl by rejecting the idea that the most certain and primary reality is rational consciousness. Descartes argued that humans could think away everything that exists and doubt its reality but that humans could not think away or doubt the thinking consciousness, whose reality is therefore more certain than any other reality. Existentialism decisively rejects this argument, asserting instead that as conscious beings humans always find themselves already in a world, a prior context and history that is given to consciousness and in which it is situated, and that humans cannot think away that world. It is inherent and indubitably linked to consciousness. In other words, the ultimate, certain, indubitable reality is not thinking consciousness but, according to Heidegger, "being in the world." This is a radicalization of the notion of intentionality that comes from Brentano and Husserl, which asserts that, even in its barest form, consciousness is always conscious of something.
Sartre's dictum, "Existence precedes and rules essence," is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity, except that which people make for themselves. Since Sartrean existentialism does not acknowledge the existence of a god, or of any other determining principle, human beings are free to act as they choose; his abovementioned essay is the most programmatic and straightforward statement of this principle. Even if an individual believes that he has an essence -- such as a soul or rationality or a psychological type -- that essence is a choice that he is making rather than something pre-existing that is imposed on him.
In contrast to Sartre's atheism, Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism focused on the relationship between the self and God. Kierkegaard never posited or thought it possible to prove the existence of God. However, he argued that an individual could, despite one's doubt, have faith that God exists and that God is good. This leap of faith was for Kierkegaard a choice that an individual must make in defining his or her life. The leap of faith signifies an individual's choice to embrace meaning in life. As with atheistic existentialism, Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism does not impose a reality or meaning on the individual; rather, the individual makes the choice to take meaning in life and to define his or her life. Kierkegaard wrote that the individual person is infinite in depth, and ultimately, "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity" (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments).
Since there is no predefined human nature (or even if there was, that human nature would be infinite), nor any ultimate evaluation of life beyond that which humans project onto the world, individuals may only be judged or defined by their actions and choices.
Existentialism before 1970
An early forerunner of existentialism was Blaise Pascal. In 1670, he published the Pensées, in which he described many fundamental themes of existentialism. Pascal argued that without a God, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, since people would eventually die. This was good enough reason not to choose to become an atheist according to Pascal. Sartre takes this idea of avoiding the inevitable death as bad faith. Camus embraces the idea that without a God ultimately everything is meaningless, and tries to find meaning within it.
The first philosophers considered existentialists are Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, even though the term had not yet come into use. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of life and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, what Pascal did not write about was that people can create and change their fundamental values and beliefs. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche realized that human nature and human identity varies depending on what values and beliefs humans hold. In contrast Pascal did not reason that human nature and identity are constituted by the free decisions and choices of people. Sartre builds strongly on that idea with his existence precedes essence dictum.
The thought of the major existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger and Sartre, grew out of the phenomenology of Husserl, which attempted to critique positivism and psychologism by grounding all perception, experience, and knowledge in structures of human consciousness. Husserl stressed that all Being is always being for a consciousness. Heidegger transformed this into the core existentialist notion that Being is always being, not for a pure consciousness, but rather for a concrete existence, that is that consciousness is a property of a (human) existence (Dasein) that has "being-in-the-world," and exists in a concrete historical context. Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and Heidegger.
In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a resurgence of interest in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), sold well in the West, and "arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers. Simultaneously, in Sartre, Paris university students found a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, and others were appropriating the thematic pessimism found in Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the despair of the unknowing self featured prominently (often in pidgin form) in cinema and novels.
Existentialism since 1970
Although postmodernist thought became the focus of intellectuals in the 1970s and thereafter (whether the movement is strong today, and what, if anything, has replaced it, still is debated), much postmodern writing is existential--unsurprising, since postmodernism evolved from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger (two of the greatest proto-existential philosophers), despite Heidegger's rejecting the existentialist label.
One should, however, not confuse postmodernism with existentialism. Thematically postmodern films such as The Matrix posit the idea of simulacrum, dealing with reality and appearance, and of how the latter renders the former indistinguishable, if the artificial can sufficiently mimic the real (see Jean Baudrillard, the philosopher whose work was a primary influence on the film). Alternatively, existential cinema deals more with the themes of:
- Retaining authenticity in an apathetic, mechanical world, something post-modernism would staunchly reject--as authenticity is related to a non-existent "reality".
- The consciousness of death; e.g. Heidegger's 'being towards death'--exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" (1957).
- The feelings of alienation and loneliness consequent to being unique in a world of many, or, in Nietzsche's phrase, "herd-animals".
- The concept Alltägliche selbstsein (Everyday-ness) which Heidegger explicated in his book Sein und Zeit (1927), (English translation Being and Time).
Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodern and existential elements, which, ironically, would support the postmodern thesis of "borderlessness between concepts". Films such as Fight Club, based on the book by Palahniuk. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, and Toilet: The Novel, by Michael Szymczyk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existential themes.
In cinema, postmodern editing techniques (showing the displacement, discontinuity, and temporal perspective of postmodernism) can go hand-in-hand with a purely existential story, thus synthesizing technique and function to give meaning. Moreover, this has created the neologism "Neo-Existentialism"--combining postmodernism's epistemology with the reflective ontological belief of existentialism.
Criticisms of existentialism
Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism, especially in Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting certain features, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, of the modern experience of living in an oppressive society, onto the nature of existence itself: "In so far as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypothesizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory" (Herbert Marcuse, "Sartre's Existentialism", p. 161).
Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heideggers's philosophy, with special attention to his use of language, as a mystifying ideology of advanced industrial society and its power structure.
Roger Scruton claimed, in his book From Descartes to Wittgenstein, that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith were incoherent; both deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide them. In chapter 18, he writes,"In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force." Familiar with this sort of argument, Sartre claimed that bad and good faith do not represent moral ideas, rather, they are ways of being.
Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being". The verb is prefixed to a predicate and to use the word without any predicate is meaningless. Borrowing from Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, they argue that existence is not a property.
Existentialism in psychotherapy
With complete freedom to decide and being responsible for the outcome of said decisions comes anxiety--or angst--about the choices made. Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that the patient can harness his or her anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his or her full potential in life.
Logotherapy asserts that all human beings have a will to find meaning, and that serious behavioral problems develop when they cannot find it. The therapy helps patients handle the responsibility of choices and the pain of unavoidable suffering by helping them decide to give life meaning.
- Ingmar Bergman
- Michel Gondry
- Eric Rohmer
- Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Richard Linklater
- David O. Russell
- Michelangelo Antonioni
- Jean-Luc Godard
- François Truffaut
- Mamoru Oshii
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Nikolai Berdyaev
- Henri Bergson
- E. M. Cioran
- José Ortega y Gasset
- Martin Heidegger (Like Camus, Heidegger rejected the label 'existentialist'.)
- Karl Jaspers
- Hans Jonas
- Søren Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard died too soon to be a part of the existentialist movement, and it is probable he would have rejected many tenets of Sartre's existentialism. Yet, he was of the first philosophers dealing with the problems of human existence in ways recognizable as forerunners of Sartrean existentialism.)
- Walter Kaufmann
- Ladislav Klíma
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Gabriel Marcel
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- Friedrich Nietzsche (Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche died too soon to be part of the existentialist movement, and, in many ways differs from the existentialism we know. Yet, his work is precursor to many of the developments in later existentialist thought.)
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Ramond Quole
- Lev Shestov
- Max Stirner
- Miguel de Unamuno
- Peter Wessel Zapffe
- Colin Wilson.
- Ernest Becker
- Ludwig Binswanger
- Medard Boss
- Frantz Fanon
- Viktor Frankl
- R. D. Laing
- Abraham H. Maslow
- Rollo May
- Theodore Shanks
- Fritz Perls
- Otto Rank
- Kazimierz Dabrowski
- Irvin Yalom
- Rudolf Bultmann
- John Macquarrie
- Gabriel Marcel
- Paul Tillich
- Herbert Marcuse, "Sartre's Existentialism", in Studies in Critical Philosophy, translated by Joris De Bres (London: NLB, 1972)
- Essays on Existentialism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Existentialism
- "Existentialism is a Humanism," a lecture given by Jean-Paul Sartre
- An Introduction to Existential Counselling
- "The Existentialism Primer"
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