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Existentialism in the 40’s & 50’s Essay

Existentialism aimed to explore and encourage personal sensory detail via the thought processes of human beings. “Existentialism stressed the special character of personal, subjective experience and it insisted on the freedom and the autonomy of the individual” (Wolf). The philosophy of existentialism, and one of its greatest philosophers Jean Paul Sartre, were the motivation and inspiration to the arts and humanities during the 1940’s and 1950’s. First allow me to elaborate on the definition of existentialism and France at the start of 1940.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement oriented toward two major themes, the analysis of human existence and the centrality of human choice. Existentialism’s chief theoretical energies are thus devoted to questions about ontology and decision. It traces its roots to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. As a philosophy of human existence, existentialism found its best 20th-century exponent in Karl Jaspers; as a philosophy of human decision, its foremost representative was Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre finds the essence of human existence in freedom—in the duty of self-determination and the freedom of choice—and therefore spends much time describing the human tendency toward “bad faith,” reflected in humanity’s perverse attempts to deny its own responsibility and flee from the truth of its inescapable freedom ( Encyclopedia Britannica) Although Existentialism is usually referred to as a distinct philosophy, it is almost impossible to give an exact definition of it as a unified and identifiable school of thought.

Sartre was born in Paris in 1905. He was an outstanding student of Philosophy mainly, and he graduated from the illustrious Ecole Normale Superieure . He made a living teaching Philosophy at high schools. In 1938 he published his first and most famous novel, Nausea. It describes the philosophical and intensively personal life of a man who could be called an “Existentialist. ”? During the early 1940’s the world had been experiencing it’s Second World War. From 1940 until 1944 France had been under the occupation of Nazi Germany.

“Ten’s of thousands were sent to their deaths simply because they were Jewish and the others for their political and philosophical viewpoints or involvement in the Resistance” (SNCFhighspeedrail. com) During World War II Sartre became a prisoner of war for a short time. After his release he lived in Paris, While the city was occupied by Nazi German, Sartre joined the underground resistance movement. He became a prolific writer at this time, producing novels and plays, as well as philosophical work. In 1943 he published his most important philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (NoblePrize.

Org). It was significantly influenced by Heidegger’s writings, and it contains extensive analyses concerning the conditions of existence. In 1946 he would transcribe a speech he had given years prior. The sole purpose of Sartre’s essay was to explain his understanding of existentialism and his own interpretation of the philosophy. Sartre’s expectation is that he may clear the philosophers bad public image by clarifying its assumptions. According to Sartre “My purpose here is to offer a defense of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against”(Sartre).

Sartre’s primary target of opposition was Edmund Husserl, but you might also include Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, all of whom claim that rationality and the capacity to reflect on one’s existence are the defining features of subjectivity. For Sartre, any philosopher who is guilty of putting “theory of knowledge”, epistemology, before all other philosophical approaches are guilty of giving priority to essence where with essence we mean the capacity to reflect on what is essential to the human experience.

For Sartre, human action is futile and impossible, while the existential perception makes life something that should not be taken passively, but rather one should take control and be affirmative. He defined this belief as “Helpless Pacifism”(Sartre). He also elaborates on the idea that human nature forces life to become negative and and focuses on the darkness in one’s life. The idea would be defined as “Disappointing Negativity” (Sartre). With the idea of “Individual Isolationism”, Sartre argues that by treating man as a sole entity, one disregards the character traits of man as a whole and man’s natural want to be isolated.

Lastly is the argument of “Dangerous Permissiveness”. With dangerous permissiveness if one chooses to reject the notion of God and other external deities, human beings are in complete control of the happenings in ones life, opposed to the concept of predestination or the idea that a higher authority is in complete control of all of our happenings. These ideas of promoting humanness and personal perception inspired many artists and authors during the post World War II period in France. One artist in particular whose work was influenced by existential philosophy was Alberto Giacometti.

Many artists, such as Giacometti and Francis Bacon, were inspired and influenced by existentialistic ideas about perception. “The philosophy touched on how human beings interact, this provided a template for thinking about how the painter might relate to the portrait sitter, something that preoccupied Giacometti a great deal in the post war years”. (Wolf) Existentialism had had a significant influence on figurative art in the 1950’s. In 1959, New York City’s famed Museum Of Modern Art, or MOMA, opened an exhibition examining the works of existential artists such as Giacometti, Bacon and Willem de Kooning of The Netherlands.

Their notable works expressed many of the issues faced by mankind at the time. In the exhibition catalog, curator Paul Tillich wrote, “in abstract or non-objective painting and sculpture, the figure disappears completely … [because man] is losing his humanity and becoming a thing amongst the things he produces. ” (MoMa. Org) Existentialism was closely related to the philosophy of Phenomenology, a theory of knowledge that had a keen interest in the problems of perception. It was this notion of perception in post World War II France and Europe that would inspire various art forms such as tachisme during France’s Art Informel period.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary tachisme is defined as a French school of art originating in the 1950’s and characterized by irregular dabs and splotches of colors applied haphazardly to the canvas. It is often referred to as the European equivalent to abstract expressionism. Existentialism provided abstract painters with a terminology that enabled them to assert the importance of their very personal expressions. Besides influencing mankind’s perception, existentialism also addressed issues about fate and the dignity of humankind in the post World War II era.

These ideas were expressed throughout the works of Sartre’s partners and students, Albert Camus and Simone de Bouvier. Albert Camus was an Algerian-born French author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957. He is often associated with existentialism, but Camus refused this label personally. On the other hand, as he wrote in his essay, “The Rebel”, his whole life was devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism while still delving deeply into individual freedom.

He is also the shortest-lived of any literature laureate to date, having died in an automobile accident only three years after receiving the award. In an interview in 1945, Camus rejected any ideological associations: “No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked… ” (Camus). In his 1953 book “The Rebel”, Camus of modern man in post World War II society, “In upholding beauty, we prepare the way for the day of regeneration when civilization will give first place… to this living virtue on which is founded the common dignity of man.

“(Camus) The common dignity Camus refers to became central idea for many artists, who were concerned with how this dignity might be maintained despite the inhuman occurrences happening during the Holocaust and Germany’s invasion of France. Simone de Beauvoir, a female existentialist and long time partner of Sartre, wrote works of existential philosophy breaking the barrier for female existentialist throughout Europe. Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most preeminent French existentialist philosophers and writers.

Working alongside other famous existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir produced writings including works on ethics, feminism, fiction, autobiography, and politics. A philosopher by training, at age 21 she was the youngest student ever to pass the agregation examination in philosophy. Her philosophical approach is diverse as her influences include not only French philosophy from Descartes to Bergson, but that of Husserl and Heidegger, of Marx and Engels, and the idealism of Kant and Hegel.


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