[We are] condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, [we are] responsible for everything [we do.] ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialism is a philosophical movement whose origins are in the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). Other major figures in the movement include: Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969), Martin Heidegger (1899 – 1976), Albert Camus (1917-1960) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980.) Existential philosophy is incredibly rich and diverse and its proponents include communists, socialists, atheists, theists, and nihilists. Despite this diversity, almost all existentialists share a few basic ideas that are relevant for our discussion.
Kierkegaard’s rejection of a “rational and philosophical” Christianity serves as a starting point for our deliberation. He believed that Christianity erred by trying to be reasonable, when it should be based on faith and trust. Faith isn’t a matter of affirming certain rational propositions, but of acting in a certain way. Kierkegaard made this point in his famous retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. It wasn’t reasonable for Abraham to sacrifice his son simply because God asked him to; instead, following his God’s orders was an act of faith. From an ethical point of view Abraham action was immoral, but for Kierkegaard faith and religion transcend reason and ethics.
These considerations lead to the first basic idea of existentialism: reason is an inadequate instrument with which to comprehend the depth, mystery, and meaning of life. Reason’s limitations were poignantly described by the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky who said that while reason satisfies our rational selves, desire is the real manifestation of life. But as we saw in the first chapter, Western philosophy began when the Greeks used reason to understand the world. Greek rationalism led to a search for the rational and objective foundations of knowledge, meaning, truth, and value.
The existentialists reject this tradition. They repudiate the abstract, obtuse, specialized, esoteric, and formal subtlety which divorces the intellect from life. They maintain that life isn’t an equation or riddle to be rationally resolved; it’s more of a mystery to be lived. Reason can’t resolve our most pressing existential concerns; for example, it can’t tell us the meaning of life. Theory, speculation, and metaphysical and moral abstraction are worth less than concrete reality. Thus existentialism emphasizes concrete, personal experience over rational abstractions. This is its second basic idea.
The emphasis on the concrete is captured in the existential dictum “existence precedes essence.” This means that we exist first, as particular, concrete, human subjects before we are defined by any universal, objective form or essence. Existence refers to ‘that a thing is,” while essence refers to “what a thing is.” For instance, the essence of the four-legged, tail-wagging thing we often see is “dogness.” That is what is! But the existentialist denies that there is any human nature or essence that tells us what we are or what we ought to do; rather, we exist first as concrete human subjects and then proceed to create our essence. Fate or a God don’t determine us, we determine ourselves. It is up to us whether we become saints or sinners, and moral theories can’t tell us what to do. Intellectual theories are too detached from life to provide guidance in our concrete lives. Theories may provide the rationale for human actions, but they can’t command our assent.
We can easily see how moral theories can’t make us do anything. The prescriptions of natural law, a social contract, the categorical imperative, or the net utility can’t command our conduct because we can always ask, “Why follow these theories?” Moral theories may define our moral duties and obligations, but they mean nothing without personal commitment. Action “x” may violate the natural law, the social contract, the categorical imperative, and the greatest happiness principle but, “so what?” That violation doesn’t tell us we shouldn’t do “x.” These theories assume ethics is objective, that some actions really are right or wrong. By contrast, existentialism emphasizes the human subject as the only ultimate source of morality. Only when we commit ourselves to some course of action do we act as moral agents.
The emphasis on personal commitment brings us to a third basic idea of existentialism: human beings are radically free. We are the ones who create the meaning, truth, and value in our lives, and we are totally responsible for our lives. We often claim to be unable to do certain things, but in fact, we don’t do them because we don’t want to. If we wanted to do them we would. For instance, the fact that it’s wrong to steal doesn’t prevent us from doing it, only we can do that. True, we can’t do everything—we can’t fly—but we can choose from our available options and, in the process, create our selves. Thus existentialists claims that moral theories which derive from rational thinking are defective because they emphasize personal abstraction over experience, and they can’t account for the role that human freedom—manifested by personal commitment—plays in the moral domain.
(Existentialism is a deep and rich philosophy which I urge my readers to further investigate. The best introduction to existentialism for the general reader that I know of is William Barrett’s, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. I taught out of it years ago.)