Existentialism is the title of the set of philosophical ideals that emphasizes the existence of the human being, the lack of meaning and purpose in life, and the solitude of human existence. Existentialism maintains existence precedes essence: This implies that the human being has no essence, no essential self, and is no more that what he is. He is only the sum of life is so far he has created and achieved for himself. Existentialism acquires its name from insisting that existence precedes essence.
Existentialist thinkers are of the view that the metaphysical explanation of existence as given by the traditional schools of philosophy fails to produce satisfactory results. They also maintain that the problem of being ought to take precedence in all philosophical inquiry. Existence is always particular, unique and individual. Existentialist are opposed to the view laws explaining human freedom and activity can be formulated. Existence is essential and fundamental: Being cannot be made a topic of objective study. Being is revealed to and felt by the human being through his own experience and his situation. So it is maintained existence is the first and central problem.
Existentialism stresses the risk, the voidness of human reality and admits that the human being is thrown into the world, the world in which pain, frustration, sickness, contempt, malaise and death dominates. It was during the Second World War, when
Existentialism as a contemporary philosophical trend reached the zenith of its popularity in the years following the war, the time when Europe was in a despairing mood, perhaps not without the hope of social reconstruction but pessimistic and morbid enough to accept the existentialist outlook of the lack of design and intention in the universe and the nausea of human existence and its frustration. The most important philosopher of existentialist in its celebrated form was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), recognized as the most powerful intellectual force in
Existentialism originated from the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevoski (1821-1881). Kierkegaard had reacted against the idealism of G. F. W. Hegel (1770--1831), whose doctrines developed from the classical idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The existentialist stand that is opposed to the view of reducing existence to reason can be seen in the polemic of the idealist F. W. J. von Schelling, a contemporary of Hegel. Nietzche was influenced deeply by Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860), whose views were strikingly pessimistic. The influence of Blaise Pascal (1632-1662) on the existentialists should also not be overlooked.
In fact in very much diffused and different form this bleak view of human existence can be traced back to St. Augustine (354-430) and Duns Scotus (1266-1308), both Catholic philosophers. Perhaps the preoccupation with existence can be traced back even further to the works of the Pre-Socratics. In literary influence, both Dostoyevoski and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) contributed significantly. Dostoyevoski in his novels presented the defeat of man in the face of choices and the result of their consequences, and, finally, in the enigmas of himself. Kafka in his novels like The Castle and The Trial, presented the fate of human destiny graphically.
The development of modern existentialism was preceded by the works of the German phehomenologist Frenz Brento (1838-1917), and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). They were immediately followed by the modern existentialists. In this century, German existentialism was represented by Martin Heidegger (1889-1979) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), French existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre; French phenomenology by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961); Spanish existentialism by Jose Ortego y Gasset (1883-1955); and Italian existentialism by Nicola Abbagnano (b. 1910). An important aspect of the existentialism movement was its popularization due to the ramification of existentialist philosophy in literature, psychology, religion, politics, and culture. The most forceful voice of existentialist thought were the works of the French existentialists: Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus (1913-1960). No one has contributed more to the popularization of existentialism of this philosophical trend than Sartre. Gabriel Marcel, a Christian existentialist, wrote plays. Camus' semi-philosophical essays won sympathizers. In the arts, various schools of existentialism viewed the role of art not as reflection of objective and external reality to man but as the free projection of the human being. Through the works of Karl Jaspers and Luwid Binswagner (1881-1966), a Swiss, existentialism diffused into the arena of psychiatry. Christian existentialism, inspired by Kierkegaard, is a creed of its own kind. Among its noteworthy exponents were Marcel Karl Bath (1886-1968) and Rudolf Bulymann (1884-1976). The leading Jewish existentialist was Martin Buber (1878-1965). Somewhat surprisingly there are also Islamic existentialists; famous among its exponents are A. R. Badawi and Rene Hana Chi. The religious existentialist had some mark on theology and religion. Though not surprisingly
The fundamental problem of existentialism is concerned with ontology, the study of being. The human being's existence is the first and basic fact; the human being has no essence that comes before his existence. The human being as a being is nothing. This nothingness and the non-existence of an essence is the central source of the freedom the human being faces in each and every moment. The human being has liberty in view of his situation, in decisions which makes himself and sets himself to solves his problems and live in the world.
Thrown into the world, the human being is condemned to be free. The human being must take this freedom of being and the responsibility and guilt of his actions. Each action negates the other possible courses of action and their consequences; so the human being must be accountable without excuse. The human being must not slip away from his responsibilities. The human being must take decisions and assume responsibilities. There is no significance in this world, this universe. The human being cannot find any purpose in life; his existence is only a contingent fact. His being does not emerge from necessity. If a human being rejects the false pretensions, the illusions of his existence having a meaning, he encounters the absurdity, the futility of life. The human being's role in the world is not predetermined or fixed; every person is compelled to make a choice. Choice is one thing the human being must make. The trouble is that most often the human being refuses to choose. Hence, he cannot realize his freedom and the futility of his existence.
Basically existence is of two types: authentic and inauthentic forms of existence. Authentic existence is contrasted with dynamic and is the being-for-itself, rising from the human being's bad faith, by which the human being moves away from the burden of responsibility, through this beliefs in dogma and by regarding himself as subject to outside influences and his actions to be predetermined.
There is a striking contrast between the authentic and the inauthentic forms of being; the authentic being is the being of the human being and the inauthentic being is the being for things. Yet, authentic being is only rarely attained by the human being; still it is what the human being must strive to gain. The inauthentic being-in-itself is characteristically distinctive of things; it is what the human being is diseased with for his failure to see himself as and act according as a free agent and his impotency to reject bad faith. Things are only what they are. But the human being is what can be. Things are determined, fixed, and rigid; the human being is free; he can add essence to his life in the course of his life and he is in a constant state of flux and is able to comprehend his situation. The human being does not live in a pre-determined world; the human being is free to realize his aims, to materialize his dreams; hence, he has only the destiny he forges for himself because in this world nothing happens out of necessity.
The human being hides himself from freedom by self-deception, acting like a thing, as if he is a passive subject, instead of realizing the authentic being for the human being; this is bad faith. In bad faith, the human being shelter himself from responsibility by not noticing the dimensions of alternative courses of action facing him; in bad faith, the human being behaves as others demand of him by conforming to the standards of accepted values and by adopting roles designed for him; in bad faith, the human being loses the autonomy of his moral will, his freedom to decide; in bad faith, the human being imprisons himself within inauthenticity for he has refused to take the challenge of responsibility and the anxiety that comes along with his freedom.
Anxiety ascends from the human being's realization that the human being's destiny is not fixed but is open to an undetermined future of infinite possibilities and limitless scope: The voidness of future destiny must be filled by making choices for which he alone will assume responsibility and blame. This anxiety is present at every moment of the human being's existence; anxiety is part and parcel of authentic existence. Anxiety leads the human being to take decisions and be committed. The human being tries to avoid this anguish through bad faith. But the free human being, in his authenticity, must be involved; for his own actions are only his, his responsibility is to himself, his being is his own. The human being must be committed. To be committed means not to support this in place of that, but to attach a human being's totality to a cause; it is the human being's existential freedom that leads to total commitment.
Existentialist thinkers begin from the human situation in the world; the condition of despair, the modes of existence, the human being's tendency to avoid authentic existence, his relation to things, his own body, and to other beings, with whom he cannot come into genuine communication, and the sufferings of life. Starting from the study of being, each existentialist thinkers originate their own doctrines, with their own emphasis on particular aspects. Very often their viewpoints is conflicting and sometimes contradictory; yet this philosophical attitude of being, as a whole, can be described as the existentialist movement, which stresses upon the "being" of the human being.
Martin Heidegger is generally acknowledged as the leading existentialist thinker; despite that, he himself denied having anything to do with the existentialist movement. Deeply influenced by Husserl, whose pupil he was, his ideas constitute the basis of existentialism. It is from the impact on Sartre that Heidegger contributes to this trend of though. For him the principal object of investigation is the search for being (sein) and more particularly, man's being (dasein). His main work is Being and Time, a book no one completely understands (except, perhaps, Heidegger himself). Being, he says, is felt by the difference of non-being and being. Death is the ultimate of non-being. Death, serving as a limit, calls for authenticity in human existence. The human being for the most part "falls" from the authentic way of being. The human being is continually falling till his death. But in freedom there is dread and anxiety (angst) that compels the human being to select and take charge of his being. Anxiety shows the light of dynamic existence. The whole of Heidegger is made notoriously difficult by his indulgence in forming newer terminology; he also places considerable interest on language and stresses on the importance of being silent. He hints that the study of being may be equally well carried out by the poet.
Karl Jaspers, a leading founder of modern existentialism, also denies having anything to do with this movement, perhaps, because of his dislike of the French existentialists. He was influenced by his study of medicine and research in clinical psychiatry; on the other hand, existentialist psychiatry was definitely inspired by his remarkable book on the subject. He is more concerned with the sociopolitical problems than Heidegger. He applied his philosophical views to politics. For Jaspers, the human being's freedom of being is existence, not man's being in the world. He laid two distinction of being: Dasein is the ordinary being is open to the objective inquiry of science; and existenz is the mode of authentic existence of freedom, infinite possibilities, loneliness, and responsibilities. These are, what he describes, "boundary conditions" of human conditions in death, agony, and suffering. The authentic self of the human being is outside the scope of science. Because the human being is open to boundless possibilities, the human being must take up both credit and guilt of his actions. Jaspers views the communication with others as promoting man's loneliness, the other remaining a distant being. His works, unlike most other existentialist, is systematic and pays attention to science.
Gabriel Marcel was a French existentialist who preferred the name neo-Socratic. He was a playwright and critic. Philosophical problems for him originated first in his plays. Later he took to writing treatises.
The most famous representative of existentialism is Jean-Paul Sartre. He had studied the works of Edmund Husserl and Heidegger; he was greatly influenced by their works. In his principal work, the voluminous Being and Nothingness, he investigates the nature of existence. He investigates the nature of existence. He distinguishes two type of being: En-soi and Pour-soi. En-soi is the being of an object: Fixed and static. Pour-soi is the being of the human being: Fluid and free. It is open towards the future. The human being is nothing at birth and in life he is just the sum of life. To refuge in bad faith is to despair freedom. The human being, Sartre declares, is the maker of his destiny and is condemned to make his own decision. The human being exists but is only a contingent matter of fact, as there is no more reason for non-existence. He at times seems desperate about the contingency of human existence. Yet, in this hopeless world, the human being can develop his own essence; for the human being is what he projects himself as in actuality. Hence, the human being is responsible for what he is. The human being uses his freedom to create and to be committed. The psychological problems of life are portrayed with an incomparable literary brilliance, creativity, and imagination in Sartre's philosophical essays, novels, short stories and plays. This made him one of the most influential author of the contemporary times.
Sartre was imprisoned in
Standing very close to the philosophical outlook of Sartre is his life-long companion and intellectual associate Simone de Beauvoir. But to suggest that because she was close to Sartre, her thoughts is a mere duplicate of Sartre would be a mistake. She giver an original and independent interpretation of existentialism, though not radically different from Sartre's. Unlike him, she chooses to concentrate on the personal and moral aspects of life. Sartre, it should be remembered, failed to produce his promised work on ethics. Beauvoir treats existentialism from very much a feminist point of view. In her book, The Second Sex, she takes the position that the history of attitudes of women has determined her own views. In her novels, she illustrates her philosophy. She gives a full account of her life and intellectual development in several volumes of her autobiographies.
Another proponent of French existentialism was Albert Camus. He himself laid no claims to be an existentialist. He played an active role in the Resistance. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. For him, the absurdity of life is the first concept. His famous novel, The Stranger, concentrates on the alienation of the human being in the midst of the silent universe, the failure of the human being to comprehend his situation and his inability to find values to shape his life; thus, the human being remains an outsider. The human being, he maintains however, must not set out to destroy the absurdity, for there is no scope to "leap" towards a God or optimism but face the absurd with courage. Life, Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, is a kind o hopeless, endless, uphill labor. Hence, the only true problem is that of suicide. Yet, he rejects nihilism; for the human being must fight and never accept defeat. The problem is to be saint without a God. The last judgment takes place everyday. The human being must do his best, try for what he can within the confinements of his situation. Camus views had close affinity with Sartre's but they later broke and were involved in a bitter controversy.
In their treatment of freedom, existentialists seem to imply that the human being is free to do whatever he pleases. This is surely not the case; the human being's freedom is not only curtailed by the objective reality he confronts but also by his own limitations and inclinations. He is, to a large extent, the outcome of his own situation. His being in the world is something he had no choice over. Sartre argues that the freedom not to be free is not freedom. But only rarely in the world does the human being choose the negative course of non-being through suicide. The human being's freedom is based upon his political freedom; this is certainly linked to his social status and class origin. The existentialists fail to attach importance to the objective conditions that determine the human being's state of being. They only draw the picture of the human being's subjective attitude toward freedom. The extent of the openness of futurity for the human being lies in his present position and the objective reality the human being confronts.
Logical positivists rightly accuse the existentialists of treating nothingness as an entity. Nothingness, for all that it is, is a non-entity; the treatment of nothingness as an entity is the beginning of folly. So muddled are the existentialists' pronouncements about nothingness that it should be regarded as nothing else other than nonsensical. To regard a non-entity as an entity is undoubtedly an elementary mistake, nonetheless a gross and fatal mistake. It is alleged that the logical positivist miss the point but no explanation is given for endowing the status of an entity to nothingness.
Pessimism towers over the works of the existentialists. Pessimism, taking the depressing view of life, makes claim that the world is bad rather than good. Optimism, on the other hand, views the world as ordered for the best. The world is the case and there is no more to it. The world does not exist either for good or evil. Hence, both these outlooks are equally mistaken. There is no reason to regret the contingency of the human existence in the world, not would there be anything to rejoice if the human being's existence in the world came from necessity. Both pessimism and optimism deserves to be rejected. There is nothing tragic in the human existence in the world without meaning, nor would there be much to cheer had human existence in the world been inherent with a purpose.
Existentialists make endless claims. They never bother to show how they reached their claims or if these are, indeed, true. The existentialists when he pretends to present a representation of reality provides no cognition; unverifiable assertions may well express powerful and even necessary emotions and passions, but that's best left to the arts and literature. The existentialists, in the same strain of vogue associated with Wittgenstein, make a hopeless effort to say what cannot be said, or pretend to say there are things of some importance which cannot be said. But what can be said, can be said and clearly too.
At any rate, as a popular movement, existentialism lost its vogue. However, the rise and ramification of this brand of philosophical thought should not be regarded as trivial; existentialism does deserve serious consideration. It is not, as some Marxists accuse, an effort, allegedly the last effort, to construct a system. Existentialism is a highly passionate philosophy and, from the outset, seems to aim at a dynamic and fashionable life-style. Also it is mostly unsystematic and pays little attention to logic or science. Whatever one makes of its metaphysical claims, one cannot deny that existentialism was able to provide a moving account of the spirit of the contemporary world and the nausea and frustration of survival. Indeed, it is basically for its richness in psychological insight and its impact on culture that existentialist philosophy will continued to be studied.