Summary of Existentialism

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[We are] condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, [we are] responsible for everything [we do.] ~ Jean-Paul Sartre

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

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. 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 (kill) his son simply because God asked him to. Instead, following the orders of his God 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 Western philosophy began when the Greeks used reason to understand the world, and Greek rationalism sought 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 existentialists deny 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, heroes or villains, 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, existentialists emphasize the human subject as the ultimate source of morality. Only when we commit ourselves to some course of action do we fully 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 claim 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.

In modern parlance, the word existential also refers to philosophical concerns with our quest for answers to questions about life, death, and meaning. But existentialism is much more. It 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 and learned much from it.


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6 thoughts on “Summary of Existentialism

  1. I’m pretty much a hardcore rationalist, so I don’t have much truck with existentialism. It strikes me as the Western version of Eastern mysticism. While I concede that rationalism will never provide all the answers to the mysteries of life, I hold that mysticism doesn’t provide answers to ANY of the mysteries of life. However, I recognize that the answers to such questions are profoundly subjective, so I cannot recommend my own ideas to anybody else.

    I’ll add that, at the very limits of my rational understanding of reality lies a thick fog that tickles my mystical inclinations.

  2. If the choice is between rationalism and mysticism I’m clearly on the side of rationalism too. However, existentialism’s critique of western philosophy doesn’t come from that angle. Perhaps I emphasized the rejection of rationalism too much in my summary. What they do think is that reason can’t get to the core of what it is to be human, to be anxious, to suffer, to contemplate our deaths, to understand the meaning of life, etc. But they don’t generally advance any kind of mysticism, or any kind of metaphysics much beyond saying we are responsible for our actions and should live authentically. What they are responding to is the entire history of western philosophy that they believe largely ignored existential issues about life and death.

    However, my own interest in existential questions is informed by more of an analytical approach. So I’m engaged in a kind of analytical existentialism. But they are as a group profound thinkers, especially, in my view, Nietzsche and Sartre.

  3. This is wonderful. Please can i get a proposal on this topic: Heideggers ‘s environmental ethics and the question of environmental restoration

  4. thanks for your comments. Protecting the environment is crucial to our survival and in the USA the EPA is under assault. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write much about this as this is so much to learn and my time is limited. But perhaps you will investigate it further. Good luck. JGM

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