- 1. a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.
Powered by Oxford Dictionaries
- existentialism. 1. the doctrine that man forms his essence in the course of the life resulting from his personal choices. 2. an emphasis upon man’s creating his own nature as well as the importance of personal freedom, decision, and commitment. Also called philosophical existentialism.
People also ask
What is the difference between existence and existentialism?
Can you explain existentialism in simple terms?
What is the more simple meaning of existentialism?
What is existentialism in a nutshell?
Definition of existentialism : a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad
Existentialism (/ ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃəlɪzəm / or / ˌɛksəˈstɛntʃəˌlɪzəm /) is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the lived experience of the thinking, feeling, acting individual.
May 14, 2009 · A movement in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, with some forerunners in earlier centuries. Existentialism stresses that people are entirely free and therefore responsible for what they make of themselves. With this responsibility comes a profound anguish or dread.
Like rationalism and empiricism, existentialism is a term that belongs to intellectual history. Its definition is thus to some extent one of historical convenience. The term was explicitly adopted as a self-description by Jean-Paul Sartre, and through the wide dissemination of the postwar literary and philosophical output of Sartre and his associatesnotably Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camusexistentialism became identified with a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. Among the major philosophers identified as existentialists (many of whomfor instance Camus and Heideggerrepudiated the label) were Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, and Martin Buber in Germany, Jean Wahl and Gabriel Marcel in France, the Spaniards José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, and the Russians Nikolai Berdyaev and Lev Shestov. The nineteenth century philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, came to be seen as precursors of the movement. Existentialism was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one. Sartre's own ideas were and are better known through his fictional works (such as Nausea and No Exit) than through his more purely philosophical ones (such as Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reason), and the postwar years found a very diverse coterie of writers and artists linked under the term: retrospectively, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and Kafka were conscripted; in Paris there were Jean Genet, André Gide, André Malraux, and the expatriate Samuel Beckett; the Norwegian Knut Hamsun and the Romanian Eugene Ionesco belong to the club; artists such as Alberto Giacometti and even Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning, and filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman were understood in existential terms. By the mid 1970s the cultural image of existentialism had become a cliché, parodized in countless books and films by Woody Allen. Sartre's existentialism drew its immediate inspiration from the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's 1927 Being and Time, an inquiry into the being that we ourselves are (which he termed Dasein, a German word for existence), introduced most of the motifs that would characterize later existentialist thinking: the tension between the individual and the public; an emphasis on the worldly or situated character of human thought and reason; a fascination with liminal experiences of anxiety, death, the nothing and nihilism; the rejection of science (and above all, causal explanation) as an adequate framework for understanding human being; and the introduction of authenticity as the norm of self-identity, tied to the project of self-definition through freedom, choice, and commitment. Though in 1946 Heidegger would repudiate the retrospective labelling of his earlier work as existentialism, it is in that work that the relevant concept of existence finds its first systematic philosophical formulation. As Sartre and Merleau-Ponty would later do, Heidegger pursued these issues with the somewhat unlikely resources of Edmund Husserl's phenomenological method. And while not all existential philosophers were influenced by phenomenology (for instance Jaspers and Marcel), the philosophical legacy of existentialism is largely tied to the form it took as an existential version of phenomenology. Husserl's efforts in the first decades of the twentieth century had been directed toward establishing a descriptive science of consciousness, by which he understood not the object of the natural science of psychology but the transcendental field of intentionality, i.e., that whereby our experience is meaningful, an experience of something as something. The existentialists welcomed Husserl's doctrine of intentionality as a refutation of the Cartesian view according to which consciousness relates immediately only to its own representations, ideas, sensations. According to Husserl, consciousness is our direct openness to the world, one that is governed categorially (normatively) rather than causally; that is, intentionality is not a property of the individual mind but the categorial framework in which mind and world become intelligible. A phenomenology of consciousness, then, explores neither the metaphysical composition nor the causal genesis of things, but the constitution of their meaning. Husserl employed this method to clarify our experience of nature, the socio-cultural world, logic, and mathematics, but Heidegger argued that he had failed to raise the most fundamental question, that of the meaning of being as such. In turning phenomenology toward the question of what it means to be, Heidegger insists that the question be raised concretely: it is not at first some academic exercise but a burning concern arising from life itself, the question of what it means for me to be. Existential themes take on salience when one sees that the general question of the meaning of being involves first becoming clear about one's own being as an inquirer. According to Heidegger, the categories bequeathed by the philosophical tradition for understanding a being who can question his or her being are insufficient: traditional concepts of a substance decked out with reason, or of a subject blessed with self-consciousness, misconstrue our fundamental character as being-in-the-world. In his phenomenological pursuit of the categories that govern being-in-the-world, Heidegger became the reluctant father of existentialism because he drew inspiration from two seminal, though in academic circles then relatively unknown, nineteenth-century writers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. One can find anticipations of existential thought in many places (for instance, in Socratic irony, Augustine, Pascal, or the late Schelling), but the roots of the problem of existence in its contemporary significance lie in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard developed this problem in the context of his radical approach to Christian faith; Nietzsche did so in light of his thesis of the death of God. Subsequent existential thought reflects this difference: while some writerssuch as Sartre and Beauvoirwere resolutely atheist in outlook, otherssuch as Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Bubervariously explored the implications of the concept authentic existence for religious consciousness. Though neither Nietzsche's nor Kierkegaard's thought can be reduced to a single strand, both took an interest in what Kierkegaard termed the single individual. Both were convinced that this singularity, what is most my own, me, could be meaningfully reflected upon while yet, precisely because of its singularity, remain invisible to traditional philosophy, with its emphasis either on what follows unerring objective laws of nature or else conforms to the universal standards of moral reason. A focus on existence thus led, in both, to unique textual strategies quite alien to the philosophy of their time. In Kierkegaard, the singularity of existence comes to light at the moment of conflict between ethics and religious faith. Suppose it is my sense of doing God's will that makes my life meaningful. How does philosophy conceive this meaning? Drawing here on Hegel as emblematic of the entire tradition, Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, argues that for philosophy my life becomes meaningful when I raise myself to the universal by bringing my immediate (natural) desires and inclinations under the moral law, which represents my telos or what I ought to be. In doing so I lose my individuality (since the law holds for all) but my actions become meaningful in the sense of understandable, governed by a norm. Now a person whose sense of doing God's will is what gives her life meaning will be intelligible just to the extent that her action conforms to the universal dictates of ethics. But what if, as in case of Abraham's sacrifice of his son, the action contradicts what ethics demands? Kierkegaard believes both that Abraham's life is supremely meaningful (it is not simply a matter of some immediate desire or meaningless tic that overcomes Abraham's ethical consciousness; on the contrary, doing the moral thing is itself in this case his tempting inclination) and that philosophy cannot understand it, thus condemning it in the name of ethics. God's command here cannot be seen as a law that would pertain to all; it addresses Abraham in his singularity. If Abraham's life is meaningful, it represents, from a philosophical point of view, the paradox that through faith the single individual is higher than the universal. Existence as a philosophical problem appears at this point: if there is a dimension to my being that is both meaningful and yet not governed by the rational standard of morality, by what standard is it governed? For unless there is some standard it is idle to speak of meaning. To solve this problem there must be a norm inherent in singularity itself, and, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard tries to express such a norm in his claim that subjectivity is the truth, an idea that prefigures the existential concept of authenticity. Abraham has no objective reason to think that the command he hears comes from God; indeed, based on the content of the command he has every reason, as Kant pointed out in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, to think that it cannot come from God. His sole justification is what Kierkegaard calls the passion of faith. Such faith is, rationally speaking, absurd, a leap, so if there is to be any talk of truth here it is a standard that measures not the content of Abraham's act, but the way in which he accomplishes it. To perform the movement of faith subjectively is to embrace the paradox as normative for me in spite of its absurdity, rather than to seek an escape from it by means of objective textual exegesis, historical criticism, or some other strategy for translating the singularity of my situation into the universal. Because my reason cannot help here, the normative appropriation is a function of my inwardness or passion. In this way I truly become what I nominally already am. To say that subjectivity is the truth is to highlight a way of being, then, and not a mode of knowing; truth measures the attitude (passion) with which I appropriate, or make my own, an objective uncertainty (the voice of God) in a process of highest inwardness. In contrast to the singularity of this movement, for Kierkegaard, stands the crowd: the crowd is untruth. The crowd is, roughly, public opinion in the widest sensethe ideas that a given age takes for granted; the ordinary and accepted way of doing things; the complacent attitude that comes from the conformity necessary for social lifeand what condemns it to untruth in Kierkegaard's eyes is the way that it insinuates itself into an individual's own sense of who she is, relieving her of the burden of being herself: if everyone is a Christian there is no need for me to become one. Since it is a measure not of knowing but of being, one can see how Kierkegaard answers those who object that his concept of subjectivity as truth is based on an equivocation: the objective truths of science and history, however well-established, are in themselves matters of indifference; they belong to the crowd. It is not insofar as truth can be established objectively that it takes on meaning, but rather insofar as it is appropriated passionately in its very uncertainty. To exist is always to be confronted with this question of meaning. The truths that matter to who one is cannot, like Descartes' morale definitif, be something to be attained only when objective science has completed its task. For Kierkegaard existence emerges as a philosophical problem in the struggle to think the paradoxical presence of God; for Nietzsche it is found in the reverberations of the phrase God is dead, in the challenge of nihilism. Sartre's sloganexistence precedes essencemay serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is self-making-in-a-situation (Fackenheim 1961: 37). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human beingwhat makes her who she isis not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one's identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to exist is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood. At first, it seems hard to understand how one can say much about existence as such. Traditionally, philosophers have connected the concept of existence with that of essence in such a way that the former signifies merely the instantiation of the latter. If essence designates what a thing is and existence that it is, it follows that what is intelligible about any given thing, what can be thought about it, will belong to its essence. It is from essence in this sensesay, human being as rational animal or imago Deithat ancient philosophy drew its prescriptions for an individual's way of life, its estimation of the meaning and value of existence. Having an essence meant that human beings could be placed within a larger whole, a kosmos, that provided the standard for human flourishing. Modern philosophy retained this framework even as it abandoned the idea of a natural place for man in the face of the scientific picture of an infinite, labyrinthine universe. In what looks like a proto-existential move, Descartes rejected the traditional essential definitions of man in favor of a radical, first-person reflection on his own existence, the I am. Nevertheless, he quickly reinstated the old model by characterizing his existence as that of a substance determined by an essential property, thinking. In contrast, Heidegger proposes that I am an entity whose what [essence] is precisely to be and nothing but to be (Heidegger 1985: 110; 1962: 67). Such an entity's existing cannot, therefore, be thought as the instantiation of an essence, and consequently what it means to be such an entity cannot be determined by appeal to pre-given frameworks or systemswhether scientific, historical, or philosophical. Thus existentialism's focus on authenticity leads to a distinctive stance toward ethics and value-theory generally. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom, and it is through freedom that existentialism approaches questions of value, leading to many of its most recognizable doctrines. Existentialism did not develop much in the way of a normative ethics; however, a certain approach to the theory of value and to moral psychology, deriving from the idea of existence as self-making in situation, are distinctive marks of the existentialist tradition. In value theory, existentialists tend to emphasize the conventionality or groundlessness of values, their ideality, the fact that they arise entirely through the projects of human beings against the background of an otherwise meaningless and indifferent world. Existential moral psychology emphasizes human freedom and focuses on the sources of mendacity, self-deception, and hypocrisy in moral consciousness. The familiar existential themes of anxiety, nothingness, and the absurd must be understood in this context. At the same time, there is deep concern to foster an authentic stance toward the human, groundless, values without which no project is possible, a concern that gets expressed in the notions of engagement and commitment. As a predicate of existence, the concept of freedom is not initially established on the basis of arguments against determinism; nor is it, in Kantian fashion, taken simply as a given of practical self-consciousness. Rather, it is located in the breakdown of direct practical activity. The evidence of freedom is a matter neither of theoretical nor of practical consciousness but arises from the self-understanding that accompanies a certain mood into which I may fall, namely, anxiety (Angst, angoisse). Both Heidegger and Sartre believe that phenomenological analysis of the kind of intentionality that belongs to moods does not merely register a passing modification of the psyche but reveals fundamental aspects of the self. Fear, for instance, reveals some region of the world as threatening, some element in it as a threat, and myself as vulnerable. In anxiety, as in fear, I grasp myself as threatened or as vulnerable; but unlike fear, anxiety has no direct object, there is nothing in the world that is threatening. This is because anxiety pulls me altogether out of the circuit of those projects thanks to which things are there for me in meaningful ways; I can no longer gear into the world. And with this collapse of my practical immersion in roles and projects, I also lose the basic sense of who I am that is provided by these roles. In thus robbing me of the possibility of practical self-identification, anxiety teaches me that I do not coincide with anything that I factically am. Further, since the identity bound up with such roles and practices is always typical and public, the collapse of this identity reveals an ultimately first-personal aspect of myself that is irreducible to das Man. As Heidegger puts it, anxiety testifies to a kind of existential solipsism. It is this reluctant, because disorienting and dispossessing, retreat into myself in anxiety that yields the existential figure of the outsider, the isolated one who sees through the phoniness of those who, unaware of what the breakdown of anxiety portends, live their lives complacently identifying with their roles as though these roles thoroughly defined them. While this outsider stance may be easy to ridicule as adolescent self-absorption, it is also solidly supported by the phenomenology (or moral psychology) of first-person experience. As Sartre points out in great detail, anguish, as the consciousness of freedom, is not something that human beings welcome; rather, we seek stability, identity, and adopt the language of freedom only when it suits us: those acts are considered by me to be my free acts which exactly match the self I want others to take me to be. We are condemned to be free, which means that we can never simply be who we are but are separated from ourselves by the nothingness of having perpetually to re-choose, or re-commit, ourselves to what we do. Characteristic of the existentialist outlook is the idea that we spend much of lives devising strategies for denying or evading the anguish of freedom. One of these strategies is bad faith. Another is the appeal to values. The idea that freedom is the origin of valuewhere freedom is defined not in terms of acting rationally (Kant) but rather existentially, as choice and transcendenceis the idea perhaps most closely associated with existentialism. So influential was this general outlook on value that Karl-Otto Apel (1973: 235) came to speak of a kind of official complementarity of existentialism and scientism in Western philosophy, according to which what can be justified rationally falls under the value-free objectivism of science while all other validity claims become matters for an existential subjectivism of religious faith and ethical decisions. Positivism attempted to provide a theory of cognitive meaning based on what it took to be the inner logic of scientific thought, and it relegated questions of value to cognitive meaninglessness, reducing them to issues of emotive response and subjective preference. While it does not explain evaluative language solely as a function of affective attitudes, existential thought, like positivism, denies that values can be grounded in beingthat is, that they can become the theme of a scientific investigation capable of distinguishing true (or valid) from false values. In this regard Sartre speaks of the ideality of values, by which he means not that they have some sort of timeless validity but that they have no real authority and cannot be used to underwrite or justify my behavior. For Sartre, values derive their meaning from an original projection of myself which stands as my choice of myself in the world. But if that is so, then I cannot, without circularity, appeal to values in order to justify this very choice: I make my decision concerning themwithout justification and without excuse (Sartre 1992: 78). This so-called decisionism has been a hotly contested legacy of existentialism and deserves a closer look here.
On the existential view, to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural scienceincluding the science of psychologycould tell us. The dualist who holds that human beings are composed of independent substancesmind and bodyis no better off in this regard than is the physicalist, who holds that human existence can be adequately explained in terms of the fundamental physical constituents of the universe. Existentialism does not deny the validity of the basic categories of physics, biology, psychology, and the other sciences (categories such as matter, causality, force, function, organism, development, motivation, and so on). It claims only that human beings cannot be fully understood in terms of them. Nor can such an understanding be gained by supplementing our scientific picture with a moral one. Categories of moral theory such as intention, blame, responsibility, character, duty, virtue, and the like do capture important aspects of the human condition, but neither moral thinking (governed by the norms of the good and the right) nor scientific thinking (governed by the norm of truth) suffices. Existentialists tend to describe the perspective of engaged agency in terms of choice, and they are sometimes criticized for this. It may bethe argument runsthat I can be said to choose a course of action at the conclusion of a process of deliberation, but there seems to be no choice involved when, in the heat of the moment, I toss the useless pen aside in frustration. Can its being useless be traced back to my choice to be frustrated? But the point in using such language is simply to insist that in the first-person perspective of agency I cannot conceive myself as determined by anything that is available to me only in third-person terms. Behind the existentialist's insistence that facticity and transcendence remain irreducible aspects of one and the same being is the insight that, for a being who can say I, the third-person perspective on who one is has no more authority than the first-person (agent's) perspective.
Of course, there is a sense in which human beings do instantiate essences, as Heidegger's phrase already admits. But what matters for existential thought is the manner of such instantiation, the way of existing. What this means can be seen by contrasting human existence with the modes of being Heidegger terms the available (or ready-to-hand, zuhanden) and the occurrent (or present-at-hand, vorhanden). Entities of the first sort, exemplified by tools as they present themselves in use, are defined by the social practices in which they are employed, and their properties are established in relation to the norms of those practices. A saw is sharp, for instance, in relation to what counts as successful cutting. Entities of the second sort, exemplified by objects of perceptual contemplation or scientific investigation, are defined by the norms governing perceptual givenness or scientific theory-construction. An available or occurrent entity instantiates some property if that property is truly predicated of it. Human beings can be considered in this way as well. However, in contrast to the previous cases, the fact that natural and social properties can truly be predicated of human beings is not sufficient to determine what it is for me to be a human being. This, the existentialists argue, is because such properties are never merely brute determinations of who I am but are always in question. Who I am depends on what I make of my properties; they matter to me in a way that is impossible for merely available and occurrent entities. As Heidegger puts it, existence is care (Sorge): to exist is not simply to be, but to be an issue for oneself. In Sartre's terms, while other entities exist in themselves (en soi) and are what they are, human reality is also for itself (pour soi) and thus is not exhausted by any of its determinations. It is what it is not and is not what it is (Sartre 1992: 112).
Human existence, then, cannot be thought through categories appropriate to things: substance, event, process. There is something of an internal distinction in existence that undermines such attempts, a distinction that existential philosophers try to capture in the categories of facticity and transcendence. To be is to co-ordinate these opposed moments in some way, and who I am, my essence, is nothing but my manner of co-ordinating them. In this sense human beings make themselves in situation: what I am cannot be separated from what I take myself to be. In Charles Taylor's phrase, human beings are self-interpreting animals (Taylor 1985: 45), where the interpretation is constitutive of the interpreter. If such a view is not to collapse into contradiction the notions of facticity and transcendence must be elucidated. Risking some oversimplification, they can be approached as the correlates of the two attitudes I can take toward myself: the attitude of third-person theoretical observer and the attitude of first-person practical agent.
Transcendence refers to that attitude toward myself characteristic of my practical engagement in the world, the agent's perspective. An agent is oriented by the task at hand as something to be brought about through its own will or agency. Such orientation does not take itself as a theme but loses itself in what is to be done. Thereby, things present themselves not as indifferent givens, facts, but as meaningful: salient, expedient, obstructive, and so on. To speak of transcendence here is to indicate that the agent goes beyond what simply is toward what can be: the factualincluding the agent's own propertiesalways emerges in light of the possible, where the possible is not a function of anonymous forces (third-person or logical possibility) but a function of the agent's choice and decision. Just as this suddenly empty pen is either a nettlesome impediment to my finishing this article, or a welcome occasion for doing something else, depending on how I determine my behavior in relation to it, so too my own factic propertiessuch as irrascibility, laziness, or bourgeois workaholismtake on meaning (become functioning reasons) on the basis of how I endorse or disavow them in the present action.
Because existence is co-constituted by facticity and transcendence, the self cannot be conceived as a Cartesian ego but is embodied being-in-the-world, a self-making in situation. It is through transcendenceor what the existentialists also refer to as my projectsthat the world is revealed, takes on meaning; but such projects are themselves factic or situatednot the product of some antecedently constituted person or intelligible character but embedded in a world that is decidedly not my representation. Because my projects are who I am in the mode of engaged agency (and not like plans that I merely represent to myself in reflective deliberation), the world in a certain sense reveals to me who I am. For reasons to be explored in the next section, the meaning of my choice is not always transparent to me. Nevertheless, because it necessarily reveals the world in a certain way, that meaning, my own identity, can be discovered by what Sartre calls existential psychoanalysis. By understanding an individual's patterns of behaviorthat is, by reconstructing the meaningful world that such behavior revealsone can uncover the fundamental project or basic choice of oneself that gives distinctive shape to an individual life. Existential psychoanalysis represents a kind of compromise between the first- and third-person perspectives: like the latter, it objectifies the person and treats its open-ended practical horizons as in a certain sense closed; like the former, however, it seeks to understand the choices from the inside, to grasp the identity of the individual as a matter of the first-person meaning that haunts him, rather than as a function of inert psychic mechanisms with which the individual has no acquaintance.
The anti-Cartesian view of the self as in situation yields the familiar existential theme of the alienated self, the estrangement of the self both from the world and from itself. In the first place, though it is through my projects that world takes on meaning, the world itself is not brought into being through my projects; it retains its otherness and thus can come forth as utterly alien, as unheimlich. Sometimes translated as uncanny, this Heideggerian word's stem (Heim, home) points, instead, to the strangeness of a world in which I precisely do not feel at home. (see the section on The Ideality of Values below). This experience, basic to existential thought, contrasts most sharply with the ancient notion of a kosmos in which human beings have a well-ordered place, and it connects existential thought tightly to the modern experience of a meaningless universe.
In the second place, the world includes other people, and as a consequence I am not merely the revealer of the world but something revealed in the projects of those others. Thus who I am is not merely a function of my own projects, but is also a matter of my being-for-others. Sartre (1992: 340-58) brings out this form of alienation in his famous analysis of the Look. So long as I am engaged unreflectively in a certain practice I am nothing but that first-person perspective which constitutes things as having a distinctive salience in light of what I am doing. I am absorbed in the world and do not experience myself as having an outside; that is, I do not understand my action through some third-person description, as an instance of some general behavior. However, when I become aware of being looked at (that is, when my subjectivity is invaded by the subjectivity of another for whom I am merely part of the world, an item for her projects ), I become aware of having a nature, a character, of being or doing something. I am not merely looking through a keyhole; I am a voyeur. I cannot originally experience myself as somethinga voyeur, for instance. Only the other can give rise to this mode of my being, a mode that I acknowledge as mine (and not merely the other's opinion of me) in the shame in which I register it. It is because there are others in the world that I can take a third-person perspective on myself; but this reveals the extent to which I am alienated from a dimension of my being: who I am in an objective sense can be originally revealed only by the Other. This has implications for existential social theory (see the section on Sartre: Existentialism and Marxism below). Finally, the self-understanding, or project, thanks to which the world is there for me in a meaningful way, already belongs to that world, derives from it, from the tradition or society in which I find myself. Though it is me, it is not me as my own. My very engagement in the world alienates me from my authentic possibility. This theme is brought out most clearly by Heidegger: the anti-Cartesian idea that the self is defined first of all by its practical engagement entails that this self is not properly individual but rather indisinguishable from anyone else (das Man) who engages in such practices: such a they-self does what one does. The idea is something like this: Practices can allow things to show up as meaningfulas hammers, dollar bills, or artworksbecause practices involve aims that carry with them norms, satisfaction conditions, for what shows up in them. But norms and rules, as Wittgenstein has shown, are essentially public, and that means that when I engage in practices I must be essentially interchangeable with anyone else who does: I eat as one eats; I drive as one drives; I even protest as one protests. To the extent that my activity is to be an instance of such a practice, I must do it in the normal way. Deviations can be recognized as deviations only against this norm, and if they deviate too far they can't be recognized at all. Thus, if who I am is defined through existing, this who is normally pre-defined by what is average, by the roles available to me in my culture, and so on. The I that gets defined is thereby anonymous, or anyone; self-making is largely a function of not distinguishing myself from others. If there is nevertheless good sense in talking of the singularity of my existence, it will not be something with which one starts but something that gets achieved in recovering oneself from alienation or lostness in the crowd. If the normative is first of all the normal, however, it might seem that talk about a norm for the singularity of existence, a standard for thinking about what is my ownmost just as I myself, would be incoherent. It is here that the idea of authenticity must come into focus. By what standard are we to think our efforts to be, our manner of being a self? If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiatesthis hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to beand if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought? Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life. Nevertheless, there remains the distinction between what I do as myself and as anyone, so in this sense existing is something at which I can succeed or fail. Authenticityin German, Eigentlichkeitnames that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own (eigen). What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally (according to Kant) because I am acting for the sake of duty. But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. My moral act is inauthentic if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, I do so because that is what one does (what moral people do). But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own, something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself. Similarly, doing the right thing from a fixed and stable characterwhich virtue ethics considers a condition of the goodis not beyond the reach of existential evaluation: such character may simply be a product of my tendency to do what one does, including feeling the right way about things and betaking myself in appropriate ways as one is expected to do. But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, a commitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself. Thus the norm of authenticity refers to a kind of transparency with regard to my situation, a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am. In choosing in light of this norm I can be said to recover myself from alienation, from my absorption in the anonymous one-self that characterizes me in my everyday engagement in the world. Authenticity thus indicates a certain kind of integritynot that of a pre-given whole, an identity waiting to be discovered, but that of a project to which I can either commit myself (and thus become what it entails) or else simply occupy for a time, inauthentically drifting in and out of various affairs. Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative, that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual (Nehamas 1998; Ricoeur 1992). In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard's version of the legend. Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Thus to be authentic can also be thought as a way of being autonomous. In choosing resolutelythat is, in commiting myself to a certain course of action, a certain way of being in the worldI have given myself the rule that belongs to the role I come to adopt. The inauthentic person, in contrast, merely occupies such a role, and may do so irresolutely, without commitment. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern. It is here that existentialism locates the singularity of existence and identifies what is irreducible in the first-person stance. At the same time, authenticity does not hold out some specific way of life as a norm; that is, it does not distinguish between the projects that I might choose. Instead, it governs the manner in which I am engaged in such projectseither as my own or as what one does, transparently or opaquely. How is it that values are supposed to be grounded in freedom? By value Sartre means those aspects of my experience that do not merely causally effectuate something but rather make a claim on me: I do not just see the homeless person but encounter him as to be helped; I do not just hear the other's voice but register a question to be answered honestly; I do not simply happen to sit quietly in Church but attend reverently; I do not merely hear the alarm clock but am summoned to get up. Values, then, as Sartre writes, appear with the character of demands and as such they lay claim to a foundation or justification (Sartre 1992: 76). Why ought I help the homeless, answer honestly, sit reverently, or get up? Sartre does not claim that there is no answer to these questions but only that the answer depends, finally, on my choice of myself which cannot in turn be justfied by appeal to a value. As he puts it, value derives its being from its exigency and not its exigency from its being. The exigency of value cannot be grounded in being itself, since it would thereby lose its character as an ought; it would cease even to be value since it would have the kind of exigency (contrary to freedom) possessed by a mere cause. Thus, against then-current value-theoretical intuitionism, Sartre denies that value can deliver itself to a contemplative intuition which would apprehend it as being value and thereby would derive from it its right over my freedom. Instead, it can be revealed only to an active freedom which makes it exist as a value by the sole fact of recognizing it as such (Sartre 1992: 76). Thus value judgments can be justified, but only relative to some concrete and specific project. The pattern of behavior of the typical bourgeois defines the meaning of respectability (Sartre 1992: 77), and so it is true of some particular bit of behavior that it is either respectable or not. For this reason I can be in error about what I ought to do. It may be that something that appears exigent during the course of my unreflective engagement in the world is something that I ought not to give in to. If, thanks to my commitment to the Resistance, a given official appears to me as to be shot, I might nevertheless be wrong to shoot himif, for instance, the official was not who I thought he was, or if killing him would in fact prove counter-productive given my longer-term goals. Sartre's fictional works are full of explorations of moral psychology of this sort. But I cannot extend these hypothetical justifications to a point where some purely theoretical consideration of my obligationswhether derived from the will of God, from Reason, or from the situation itselfcould underwrite my freedom in such a way as to relieve it of responsibility. For in order for such considerations to count I would have to make myself the sort of person for whom God's will, abstract Reason, or the current situation is decisive. For existentialists like Sartre, then, I am the one who finally makes values exist in order to determine [my] actions by their demands. Commitmentor engagementis thus ultimately the basis for an authentically meaningful life, that is, one that answers to the existential condition of being human and does not flee that condition by appeal to an abstract system of reason or divine will. Yet though I alone can commit myself to some way of life, some project, I am never alone when I do so; nor do I do so in a social, historical, or political vaccuum. If transcendence represents my radical freedom to define myself, facticitythat other aspect of my beingrepresents the situated character of this self-making. Because freedom as transcendence undermines the idea of a stable, timeless system of moral norms, it is little wonder that existential philosophers (with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir) devoted scant energy to questions of normative moral theory. However, because this freedom is always socially (and thereby historically) situated, it is equally unsurprising that their writings are greatly concerned with how our choices and commitments are concretely contextualized in terms of political struggles and historical reality. For the existentialists engagement is the source of meaning and value; in choosing myself I in a certain sense make my world. On the other hand, I always choose myself in a context where there are others doing the same thing, and in a world that has always already been there. In short, my acting is situated, both socially and historically. Thus, in choosing myself in the first-person singular, I am also choosing in such a way that a first-person plural, a we, is simultaneously constituted. Such choices make up the domain of social reality: they fit into a pre-determined context of roles and practices that go largely unquestioned and may be thought of as a kind of collective identity. In social action my identity takes shape against a background (the collective identity of the social formation) that remains fixed. On the other hand, it can happen that my choice puts this social formation or collective identity itself into question: who I am to be is thus inseperable from the question of who we are to be. Here the first-person plural is itself the issue, and the action that results from such choices constitutes the field of the political. If authenticity is the category by which I am able to think about what it means to exist, then, the account of authenticity cannot neglect the social, historical, and political aspects of that existence. Thus it is not merely because twentieth-century existentialism flourished at a time when European history appeared to collapse and political affairs loomed especially large that existential philosophers devoted much attention to these matters; rather, the demand for an account of the situation stems from the very character of existence itself, which, unlike the classical rational subject, is what it is only in relation to its time. This is not to say, however, that existential philosophers are unanimous in their account of the importance of historical factors or in their estimation of the political in relation to other aspects of existence. Emmanuel Levinas, for example, whose early work belonged within the orbit of existential philosophy, opposed to the horizontal temporality of political history a vertical or eschatological temporality that radically challenged all historical meaning, while Sartre, in contrast, produced a version of Marxist historical materialism in which existentialism itself became a mere ideology. But we cannot stop to examine all such differences here. Instead, we shall look at the positions of Heidegger and Sartre, who provide opposing examples of how an authentic relation to history and politics can be understood. That this choice has a political dimension stems from the fact that existence is always being-with-others. Though authenticity arises on the basis of my being alienated, in anxiety, from the claims made by norms belonging to the everyday life of das Man, any concrete commitment that I make in the movement to recover myself will enlist those norms in two ways. First, what I commit myself to will always be derived from (though not reducible to) some possibility of Dasein that has been there (Heidegger 1962: 438): I cannot make my identity from whole cloth; I will always understand myself in terms of some way of existing that has been handed down within my tradition. I choose my hero (Heidegger 1962: 437) by, for instance, committing myself to a philosophical life, which I understand on the model of Socrates, or to a religious life, which I understand on the model of St. Francis. The point is that I must understand myself in terms of something, and these possibilities for understanding come from the historical heritage and the norms that belong to it. Heidegger thinks of this historical dimension as a kind of fate (Schicksal): not something inevitable that controls my choice but something that, inherited from my historical situation, claims me, holds a kind of authority for me. The second way in which the everyday norms of das Man are enlisted in authentic choice stems from the fact that when I commit myself to my fate I do so in and with my generation (Heidegger 1962: 436). The idea here seems roughly to be this: To opt for a way of going on is to affirm the norms that belong to it; and because of the nature of normativity it is not possible to affirm norms that would hold only for me. There is a kind of publicity and scope in the normative such that, when I choose, I exemplify a standard for others as well. Similarly, Heidegger holds that the sociality of my historizing restricts what can be a genuine fate or choice for me. Acting is always with othersmore specifically, with a community or a people (Volk)and together this co-historizing responds to a destiny (Geschick) which has guided our fates in advance (Heidegger 1962: 436). Not everything is really possible for us, and an authentic choice must strive to respond to the claim that history makes on the people with whom one belongs, to seize its destiny. Along this communitarian axis, then, existential historicality can open out onto the question of politics: who are we to be?
Another term for the groundlessness of the world of meaning is nothingness. Heidegger introduced this term to indicate the kind of self- and world-understanding that emerges in anxiety: because my practical identity is constituted by the practices I engage in, when these collapse I am not anything. In a manner of speaking I am thus brought face-to-face with my own finitude, my death as the possibility in which I am no longer able to be anything. This experience of my own death, or nothingness, in anxiety can act as a spur to authenticity: I come to see that I am not anything but must make myself be through my choice. In commiting myself in the face of deaththat is, aware of the nothingness of my identity if not supported by me right up to the endthe roles that I have hitherto thoughtlessly engaged in as one does now become something that I myself own up to, become responsible for. Heidegger termed this mode of self-awarenessawareness of the ultimate nothingness of my practical identityfreedom, and Sartre developed this existential concept of freedom in rich detail. This is not to say that Heidegger's and Sartre's views on freedom are identical. Heidegger, for instance, will emphasize that freedom is always thrown into an historical situation from which it draws its possibilities, while Sartre (who is equally aware of the facticity of our choices) will emphasize that such possibilities nevertheless underdetermine choice. But the theory of radical freedom that Sartre develops is nevertheless directly rooted in Heidegger's account of the nothingness of my practical identity.
Sartre (1992: 70) argues that anxiety provides a lucid experience of that freedom which, though often concealed, characterizes human existence as such. For him, freedom is the dislocation of consciousness from its object, the fundamental nihilation or negation by means of which consciousness can grasp its object without losing itself in it: to be conscious of something is to be conscious of not being it, a not that arises in the very structure of consciousness as being for-itself. Because nothingness (or nihilation) is just what consciousness is, there can be no objects in consciousness, but only objects for consciousness. This means that consciousness is radically free, since its structure precludes that it either contain or be acted on by things. For instance, because it is not thing-like, consciousness is free with regard to its own prior states. Motives, instincts, psychic forces, and the like cannot be understood as inhabitants of consciousness that might infect freedom from within, inducing one to act in ways for which one is not responsible; rather, they can exist only for consciousness as matters of choice. I must either reject their claims or avow them. For Sartre, the ontological freedom of existence entails that determinism is an excuse before it is a theory: though through its structure of nihilation consciousness escapes that which would define itincluding its own past choices and behaviorthere are times when I may wish to deny my freedom. Thus I may attempt to constitute these aspects of my being as objective forces which hold sway over me in the manner of relations between things. This is to adopt the third-person stance on myself, in which what is originally structured in terms of freedom appears as a causal property of myself. I can try to look upon myself as the Other does, but as an excuse this flight from freedom is shown to fail, according to Sartre, in the experience of anguish.
For instance, Sartre writes of a gambler who, after losing all and fearing for himself and his family, retreats to the reflective behavior of resolving never to gamble again. This motive thus enters into his facticity as a choice he has made; and, as long as he retains his fear, his living sense of himself as being threatened, it may appear to him that this resolve actually has causal force in keeping him from gambling. However, one evening he confronts the gaming tables and is overcome with anguish at the recognition that his resolve, while still there, retains none of its power: it is an object for consciousness but is not (and never could have been) something in consciousness that was determining his actions. In order for it to influence his behavior he has to avow it afresh, but this is just what he cannot do; indeed, just this is what he hoped the original resolve would spare him from having to do. He will have to remake the self who was in the original situation of fear and threat. At this point, perhaps, he will try to relieve himself of freedom by giving in to the urge to gamble and chalking it up to deeper motives that overcame the initial resolve, problems from his childhood perhaps. But anguish can recur with regard to this strategy as wellfor instance, if he needs a loan to continue gambling and must convince someone that he is as good as his word. The possibilities for self-deception in such cases are endless. For instance, I do not grasp the exigency of the alarm clock (its character as a demand) in a kind of disinterested perception but only in the very act of responding to it, of getting up. If I fail to get up the alarm has, to that very extent, lost its exigency. Why must I get up? At this point I may attempt to justify its demand by appeal to other elements of the situation with which the alarm is bound up: I must get up because I must go to work. From this point of view the alarm's demand appearsand isjustified, and such justification will often suffice to get me going again. But the question of the foundation of value has simply been displaced: now it is my job that, in my active engagement, takes on the unquestioned exigency of a demand or value. But it too derives its being as a value from its exigencythat is, from my unreflective engagement in the overall practice of going to work. Ought I go to work? Why not be irresponsible? If a man's got to eat, why not rather take up a life of crime? If these questions have answers that are themselves exigent it can only be because, at a still deeper level, I am engaged as having chosen myself as a person of a certain sort: respectable, responsible. From within that choice there is an answer of what I ought to do, but outside that choice there is nonewhy should I be respectable, law-abiding?for it is only because some choice has been made that anything at all can appear as compelling, as making a claim on me. Only if I am at some level engaged do values (and so justification in terms of them) appear at all. The more I pull out of engagement toward reflection on and questioning of my situation, the more I am threatened by ethical anguishwhich is the recognition of the ideality of values (Sartre 1992: 76). And, as with all anguish, I do not escape this situation by discovering the true order of values but by plunging back into action. If the idea that values are without foundation in being can be understood as a form of nihilism, the existential response to this condition of the modern world is to point out that meaning, value, is not first of all a matter of contemplative theory but a consequence of engagement and commitment.
/ ˌeɡ.zɪˈsten.ʃ ə l.ɪ.z ə m / a system of ideas made famous by Jean Paul Sartre in the 1940s in which the world has no meaning and each person is alone and completely responsible for their own actions, by which they make their own character SMART Vocabulary: related words and phrases
existentialism 1. the doctrine that man forms his essence in the course of the life resulting from his personal choices. 2. an emphasis upon man’s creating his own nature as well as the importance of personal freedom, decision, and commitment. Also called philosophical existentialism.
Existentialism, any of various philosophies, most influential in continental Europe from about 1930 to the mid-20th century, that have in common an interpretation of human existence in the world that stresses its concreteness and its problematic character. Nature of existentialist thought and manner
- Definitional Issues and Background
- Opposition to Positivism and Rationalism
- Confusion with Nihilism
- Influence Outside Philosophy
The labels existentialism and existentialist are often seen as historical conveniences in as much as they were first applied to many philosophers in hindsight, long after they had died. In fact, while existentialism is generally considered to have originated with Kierkegaard, the first prominent existentialist philosopher to adopt the term as a self-description was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre posits the idea that “what all existentialists have in common is the fundamental doctrine that existence precedes essence”, as scholar Frederick Copleston explains. According to philosopher Steven Crowell, defining existentialism has been relatively difficult, and he argues that it is better understood as a general approach used to reject certain systematic philosophies rather than as a systematic philosophy itself.Sartre himself, in a lecture delivered in 1945, described existentialism as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”. Although many outside Scand...
Existence precedes essence
Sartre argued that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there...
The notion of the absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or “unfairness” of the world. This conceptualization can be highlighted in the way it opposes the traditional Abrahamic religious perspective, which establishes that life’s purpose is about the fulfillment of God’s commandments. Such a purpose is what gives meaning to people’s lives. To live the life of the absurd means rejecting...
Facticity is a concept defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness as the in-itself, which delineates for humans the modalities of being and not being. This can be more easily understood when considering facticity in relation to the temporal dimension of our 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 significant part of reality (the present and the future), while saying that one’s past is only w...
Existentialists oppose definitions of human beings as primarily rational, and, therefore, oppose positivism and rationalism. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on subjective meaning rather than pure rationality. 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 advocated rationality as a 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 f...
An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that they are an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of “truths” that 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 these commandments upon them, but as though they are inside them and guiding them 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?” Atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which strongly diverged from the Christian existential works of Søren Kierkegaard and developed within the context of an atheistic world view. The philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche provided existentialism’s theor...
Although nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another as both are rooted in the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the apparent meaninglessness of a world in which humans are compelled to find or create meaning. A primary cause of confusion is that Friedrich Nietzsche is an important philosopher in both fields. 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 et...
Early 20th century
In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of philosophers and writers explored existentialist ideas. 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...
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 Timeoutside Germany. By the end of 1947, Camus’ earlier fiction and plays had been reprinted, his new play Caligul...
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 as a young man. His logotherapy can be regarded as a form of existentialist therapy. The existentialists would also influence...
Walter Kaufmann criticized ‘the profoundly unsound methods and the dangerous contempt for reason that have been so prominent in existentialism.’ Logical positivist philosophers, such as Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer, assert that existentialists are often confused about the verb “to be” in their analyses of “being”. Specifically, they argue that the verb “is” is transitive and pre-fixed to a predicate (e.g., an apple is red) (without a predicate, the word “is” is meaningless), and that existent...
Many critics argue Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy is contradictory. Specifically, they argue that Sartre makes metaphysical arguments despite his claiming that his philosophical views ignore metaphysics. Herbert Marcuse criticized Sartre’s 1943 Being and Nothingness 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 exis...
- related to: existentialism definition
discount99.us has been visited by 1M+ users in the past month