Existentialism is the belief that thinking on a philosophical level starts with the human subject; the feeling, acting, thinking human individual.
Existentialists believe that our human essence or nature (way of being in the world) is entirely and simply existence (being in the world). This means that the only nature we as humans have is the nature we make for ourselves. As a result of this, existentialists think that the actions or choices that a person makes are paramount.
They believe that every person has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and what is good and bad.
Existentialism is not Nihilism- this is a common mistake. For information on Nihilism, read a previous post of mine at: http://alu5.ojsbujojt2oyegzg.qjtv.e.s1.incloak.com/read_post.html?post=392259
Though nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another. A primary cause of confusion is that Friedrich Nietzsche is an important philosopher in both fields, but also the existentialist insistence on the absurd and the inherent meaninglessness of the world.
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.
Soren Kierkegaard is thought to be the 'father' of existentialism. He believed that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom.
Subsequent existentialist philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God.
Examples of works by philosophers, writers and theologians who might be considered forerunners of existentialism include:
Saint Augustine in his Confessions
William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Blaise Pascal's Pensees, which examined "nothingness", not just in science, but with regard to the human condition.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden
Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence, stressing that the human essence is determined through life choices. However, even though the concrete individual existence must have priority in existentialism, certain conditions are commonly held to be "endemic" to human existence.
What these conditions are is better understood in light of the meaning of the word "existence,''; the other definition presented here allows for a slanted view and false implications as seen in the following passage.) Humans exist in a state of distance from the world that they nonetheless remain in the midst of. This distance is what enables humans to project meaning into the disinterested world of in-itselfs.
This projected meaning remains fragile, constantly facing breakdown for any reason, from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment. In such a breakdown, humans are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, and the results can be devastating.
It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although "prescriptions" against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers.
The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism, which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy.
It has been said that the possibility of suicide makes all humans existentialists.
A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called his or her "essence" instead of there being a predetermined essence that defines what it is to be a human. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life. Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the phrase, similar notions can be found in the thought of many existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard, to Heidegger.
It is often claimed in this context that a person defines him or herself, which is often perceived as stating that they can "wish" to be something- anything, a bird, for instance- and then be it. According to most existentialist philosophers, however, this would constitute an inauthentic existence. Instead, the phrase should be taken to say that the person is
(1) defined only insofar as he or she acts, and:
(2) that he or she is responsible for his or her actions.
For example, someone who acts cruelly towards other people is, by that act, defined as a cruel person. Furthermore, by this action of cruelty such persons are themselves responsible for their new identity (a cruel person). This is as opposed to their genes, or 'human nature', bearing the blame.
As Sartre puts it in his Existentialism is a Humanism: "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards." Of course, the more positive, therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: A person can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person. Here it is also clear that since humans can choose to be either cruel or good, they are, in fact, neither of these things essentially.
"Existential angst", sometimes called dread, anxiety or even anguish, is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility.
The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that "nothing is holding me back", one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one's own freedom.
It can also be seen in relation to the previous point how angst is before nothing, and this is what sets it apart from fear which has an object. While in the case of fear, one can take definitive measures to remove the object of fear, in the case of angst, no such "constructive" measures are possible. The use of the word "nothing" in this context relates both to the inherent insecurity about the consequences of one's actions, and to the fact that, in experiencing one's freedom as angst, one also realizes that one will be fully responsible for these consequences; there is no thing in a person (their genes, for instance) that acts in their stead, and that they can "blame" if something goes wrong.
Not every choice is perceived as having dreadful possible consequences (and, it can be claimed, human lives would be unbearable if every choice facilitated dread), but that doesn't change the fact that freedom remains a condition of every action.
One of the most extensive treatments of the existentialist notion of Angst is found in Soren Kierkegaard's monumental work Begrebet Angest.
The existentialist concept of freedom is often misunderstood as a sort of liberum arbitrium where almost anything is possible and where values are inconsequential to choice and action. This interpretation of the concept is often related to the insistence on the absurdity of the world and the assumption that there exists no relevant or absolutely good or bad values. However, that there are no values to be found in the world in-itself does not mean that there are no values: We are usually brought up with certain values, and even though we cannot justify them ultimately, they will be "our" values.
In Kierkegaard's Judge Vilhelm's account in Either/Or, making choices without allowing one's values to confer differing values to the alternatives, is, in fact, choosing not to make a choice ? to flip a coin, as it were, and to leave everything to chance. This is considered to be a refusal to live in the consequence of one's freedom; an inauthentic existence.
As such, existentialist freedom isn't situated in some kind of abstract space where everything is possible: since people are free, and since they already exist in the world, it is implied that their freedom is only in this world, and that it, too, is restricted by it.
What is not implied in this account of existential freedom, however, is that one's values are immutable; a consideration of one's values may cause one to reconsider and change them. A consequence of this fact is that one is not only responsible for one's actions, but also for the values one holds. This entails that a reference to common values doesn't excuse the individual's actions: Even though these are the values of the society the individual is part of, they are also her/his own in the sense that she/he could choose them to be different at any time.
Thus, the focus on freedom in existentialism is related to the limits of the responsibility one bears as a result of one's freedom: the relationship between freedom and responsibility is one of interdependency, and a clarification of freedom also clarifies that for which one is responsible.
A concept closely related to freedom is that of facticity, a concept defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness as that "in-itself" of which humans are in the mode of not being. This can be more easily understood when considering it in relation to the temporal dimension of 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 large part of reality (the present and the future), while saying that one's past is only what one was would entirely detach it from them now. A denial of one's own concrete past constitutes an inauthentic lifestyle, and the same goes for all other kinds of facticity (having a body (e.g. one that doesn't allow a person to run faster than the speed of sound), identity, values, etc.).
Facticity is both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one's facticity consists of things one couldn't have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition in the sense that one's values most likely will depend on it. However, even though one's facticity is "set in stone" (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one's facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person.
As an example, consider two men, one of whom has no memory of his past and the other remembers everything. They have both committed many crimes, but the first man, knowing nothing about this, leads a rather normal life while the second man, feeling trapped by his own past, continues a life of crime, blaming his own past for "trapping" him in this life. There is nothing essential about his committing crimes, but he ascribes this meaning to his past.
However, to disregard one's facticity when one, in the continual process of self-making, projects oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and would thus be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one's projection will still have to be one's facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially).
Another aspect of facticity is that it entails angst, both in the sense that freedom "produces" angst when limited by facticity, and in the sense that the lack of the possibility of having facticity to "step in" for one to take responsibility for something one has done also produces angst.
The theme of authentic existence is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is often taken to mean that one has to "find oneself" and then live in accordance with this self.
What is meant by authenticity is that in acting, one should act as oneself, not as one acts or as one's genes or any other essence require. The authentic act is one that is in accordance with one's freedom. Of course, as a condition of freedom is facticity, this includes one's facticity, but not to the degree that this facticity can in any way determine one's choices (in the sense that one could then blame one's background for making the choice one made).
The role of facticity in relation to authenticity involves letting one's actual values come into play when one makes a choice (instead of, like Kierkegaard's Aesthete, "choosing" randomly), so that one also takes responsibility for the act instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values.
In contrast to this, the inauthentic is the denial to live in accordance with one's freedom. This can take many forms, from pretending choices are meaningless or random, through convincing oneself that some form of determinism is true, to a sort of "mimicry" where one acts as "One should." How "One" should act is often determined by an image one has of how one such as oneself (say, a bank manager, lion tamer, prostitute, etc.) acts.
This image usually corresponds to some sort of social norm, but this does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is inauthentic: The main point is the attitude one takes to one's own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which one acts in accordance with this freedom.
Commonly defined as a loss of hope, despair in existentialism is more specifically related to the reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. If a person is invested in being a particular thing, such as a bus driver or an upstanding citizen, and then finds his being-thing compromised, they would normally be found in state of despair, a hopeless state.
For example, a singer who loses their ability to sing may despair if he has nothing else to fall back on, nothing on which to rely for his identity. He finds himself unable to be that which defined his being.
What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the dictionary definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when he isn't overtly in despair. So long as a person's identity depends on qualities that can crumble, he is considered to be in perpetual despair. And as there is, in Sartrean terms, no human essence found in conventional reality on which to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition. As Kierkegaard defines it in his Either/or: "Any life-view with a condition outside it is despair." In other words, it is possible to be in despair without despairing.
This concept of the 'Other' has been most comprehensively used by feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir. She used this concept in great detail in her feminist book "The Second Sex" to show how, despite women's sincere efforts at proving themselves as human beings firmly established in their own rights, men continue to relegate to them a status of a lower, inferior "other". It is in this context that this feminist-existential term has to be understood.
The Other (when written with a capital "o") is a concept more properly belonging to phenomenology and its account of intersubjectivity. However, the concept has seen widespread use in existentialist writings, and the conclusions drawn from it differ slightly from the phenomenological accounts.
The experience of the Other is the experience of another free subject who inhabits the same world as a person does. In its most basic form, it is this experience of the Other that constitutes intersubjectivity and objectivity.
To clarify, when one experiences someone else, and this Other person experiences the world (the same world that a person experiences), only from "over there", the world itself is constituted as objective in that it is something that is "there" as identical for both of the subjects; a person experiences the other person as experiencing the same as he or she does. This experience of the Other's look is what is termed the Look (sometimes the Gaze).
While this experience, in its basic phenomenological sense, constitutes the world as objective, and oneself as objectively existing subjectivity (one experiences oneself as seen in the Other's Look in precisely the same way that one experiences the Other as seen by him, as subjectivity), in existentialism, it also acts as a kind of limitation of one's freedom. This is because the Look tends to objectify what it sees.
As such, when one experiences oneself in the Look, one doesn't experience oneself as nothing (no thing), but as something.
Sartre's own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: at first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom. The Look is then co-constitutive of one's facticity.
Another characteristic feature of the Look is that no Other really needs to have been there: It is quite possible that the creaking floorboard was nothing but the movement of an old house; the Look isn't some kind of mystical telepathic experience of the actual way the other sees one (there may also have been someone there, but he could have not noticed that the person was there). It is only one's perception of the way another might perceive him.
Emphasizing action, freedom, and decision as fundamental, existentialists oppose themselves to rationalism and positivism. That is, they argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. Rather, existentialists look at where people find meaning.
Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on the meaning to them rather than rationally. 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 saw strong rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world: "If I can believe that I am rational and everyone else is rational then I have nothing to fear and no reason to feel anxious about being free." However, Kierkegaard advocated rationality as 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 freedom.
To try to suppress their feelings of anxiety and dread, people confine themselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing their freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the Look" of "the Other" (i.e. possessed by another person, or at least one's idea of another person.)
In a similar vein, Camus believed that society and religion falsely teach humans that "the Other" has order and structure.
For Camus, when an individual's consciousness, longing for order, collides with the Other's lack of order, a third element is born: absurdity.
The notion of the Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or "unfairness" of the world. This contrasts with "karmic" ways of thinking in which "bad things don't happen to good people"; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad thing; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a "good" person as to a "bad" person.
Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than hypothesizing a human essence, stressing that the human essence is determined through life choices. However, even though the concrete individual existence must have priority in existentialism, certain conditions are commonly held to be "endemic" to human existence.
What these conditions are is better understood in light of the meaning of the word "existence," which comes from the Latin "existere," meaning "to stand out" (according to the OED, "existere" translates as "come into being"; the other definition presented here allows for a slanted view and false implications as seen in the following passage.) Humans exist in a state of distance from the world that they nonetheless remain in the midst of. This distance is what enables humans to project meaning into the disinterested world of in-itselfs. This projected meaning remains fragile, constantly facing breakdown for any reason, from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment.
In such a breakdown, humans are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, and the results can be devastating.
It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although "prescriptions" against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism, which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy.
The notion of the absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Soren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many of the literary works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world. Albert Camus studied the issue of "the absurd" in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Alber Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Soren Kierkegaard's workings
Friedrich Nietzsche's workings
Jean-Paul Sartre's workings, particularly 'Existentialism is a Humanism'
Gordon Marino, Basic Writings of Existentialism
Michael Weston, Kierkegaard and Modern Continental Philosophy.