Existentialism provides a moving account of the agony of being in the world. The spirit of existen- tialism has a long history in philosophy. But it be- came a major movement in the second half of the 20th century. Existentialism is not a systematic body of thought like Marxism or psychoanalysis. Instead, it is more like an umbrella under which a very wide range of thinkers struggled with ques- tions about the meaning of life. Much of the appeal and popularity of Existential- ism is due to the sense of confusion, the crisis, and the feeling of rejection and rootlessness that Euro- peans felt during World War II and its aftermath.
Existentialism’s focus on each person’s role in cre- ating meaning in their life was a major influence on the Phenomenological and Humanistic traditions in psychology and on the “human potential” move- ment that emerged from them. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) said, “Conquer your- self rather than the world. ”. To modern existential- ists this means that the World itself has no real meaning or purpose. It is not the unfolding expres- sion of Human Destiny or a Divine plan, or even a set of natural laws.
The only meaning is that which we create by acts of will. To have a meaningful life we have to act. But we should act without hope. Acting is meaningful but it doesn’t create meaning that lasts beyond the acts themselves or beyond our own lifetime. You are what you do – while you are doing it – and then nothing. (Very depressing. ) In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus (pronounced “Kam-moo”) (1913-1960) describes life as a kind of 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 a 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 describes Sisyphus condemned by the gods to push a stone up a hill over and over, only to have it roll back down each time he reaches the top. A task that can never be completed. But he finds meaning in the fact that Sisyphus at least gets to decide each time whether to carry on or end it all. Camus says, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ” Although there can never be any meaning in Sisy- phus’ task, there is meaning is choosing each time to continue. Despite encompassing a staggering range of phi- losophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple: Mankind has free will. Life is a series of choices, creating stress. Few decisions are without any negative conse- quences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. Notes on Existentialism by Tanweer Akram.
The fundamental problem of existentialism is con- cerned with the study of being. The human being’s existence is the first and basic fact; the human be- ing 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 Notes on Existentialism Compiled for PSY 345 (Fall 2004) Existentialism Notes 2 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 con- demned 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 re- sponsibilities. The human being must take deci- sions and assume responsibilities. There is no sig- nificance 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 hav- ing a meaning, he encounters the absurdity, the fu- tility of life. The human being’s role in the world is not predetermined or fixed; every person is com- pelled 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 bur- den of responsibility, through this beliefs in dogma and by regarding himself as subject to outside in- fluences 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 inau- thentic 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 deter- mined, 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 be- ing 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 pas- sive subject, instead of realizing the authentic be- ing for the human being; this is bad faith.
In bad faith, the human being shelter himself from re- sponsibility by not noticing the dimensions of al- ternative 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 inauthentic- ity for he has refused to take the challenge of re- sponsibility and the anxiety that comes along with his freedom.
Anxiety ascends from the human being’s realiza- tion that the human being’s destiny is not fixed but is open to an undetermined future of infinite possi- bilities and limitless scope: The emptiness of fu- ture 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 com- mitted. To be committed means not to support this in place of that, but to attach a human being’s total- ity to a cause; it is the human being’s existential freedom that leads to total commitment. Existentialist thinkers begin from the human situa- tion 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 can- not come into genuine communication, and the sufferings of life.
Starting from the study of being, each existentialist thinkers originate their own doc- trines, with their own emphasis on particular as- pects. Very often their viewpoints is conflicting and sometimes contradictory; yet this philosophi-cal attitude of being, as a whole, can be described as the existentialist movement, which stresses upon the “being” of the human being.
Existentialism Notes 3 Additional Notes on Existentialism Existentialism, philosophical movement or ten- dency, emphasizing individual existence, freedom, and choice, that influenced many diverse writers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Major Themes Because of the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, the term is impossible to define precisely. Certain themes common to virtually all existentialist writers can, however, be identified.
The term itself suggests one major theme: the stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice. Moral Individualism Most philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is the same for everyone; inso- far as one approaches moral perfection, one resem- bles other morally perfect individuals. The 19th- century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted against this tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual is to find his or her own unique vocation.
As he wrote in his journal, “I must find a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die. ” Other existentialist writers have echoed Kierkegaard’s belief that one must choose one’s own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the indi- vidual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations.
SubjectivityAll existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in s tressing the importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth. They have insisted, accordingly, that per- sonal experience and acting on one’s own convic- tions are essential in arriving at the truth. Thus, the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspec- tive of the individual agent has also made existen- tialists suspicious of systematic reasoning.
Kierke- gaard, Nietzsche, and other existentialist writers have been deliberately unsystematic in the exposi- tion of their philosophies, preferring to express themselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despite their antirationalist position, however, most existentialists cannot be said to be irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought. They have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science. Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as is commonly supposed.
Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientific assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction. Choice and Commitment Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity’s primary dis- tinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or es- sence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes choices that create his or her own na- ture. In the formulation of the 20th-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence
precedes essence. Choice is therefore central to human exis- tence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails com- mitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and respon- sibility of following their commitment wherever it leads. Dread and Anxiety Kierkegaard held that it is spiritually crucial to rec- ognize that one experiences not only a fear of spe- cific objects but also a feeling of general apprehen- sion, which he called dread.
He interpreted it as God’s way of calling each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life. The word anxiety (German Angst) has a similarly cru- cial role in the work of the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger; anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimate justifica- tion for the choices he or she must make. In the philosophy of Sartre, the word nausea is used for the individual’s recognition of the pure contin- gency of the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every mo- ment.
Existentialism Notes 4 History Existentialism as a distinct philosophical and liter- ary movement belongs to the 19th and 20th centu- ries, but elements of existentialism can be found in the thought (and life) of Socrates, in the Bible, and in the work of many premodern philosophers and writers. Pascal The first to anticipate the major concerns of mod- ern existentialism was the 17th-century French phi- losopher Blaise Pascal.
Pascal rejected the rigorous rationalism of his contemporary Rene Descartes, asserting, in his Pensees (1670), that a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and hu- manity is a form of pride. Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms of paradoxes: The human self, which combines mind and body, is itself a paradox and contradiction. Kierkegaard Kierkegaard, generally regarded as the founder of modern existentialism, reacted against the system- atic absolute idealism of the 19th-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who claimed to have worked out a total rational understanding of hu- manity and history.
Kierkegaard, on the contrary, stressed the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation. The individual’s response to this situation must be to live a totally committed life, and this commitment can only be understood by the indi- vidual who has made it. The individual therefore must always be prepared to defy the norms of soci- ety for the sake of the higher authority of a person- ally valid way of life. Kierkegaard ultimately advo- cated a “leap of faith” into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible and full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual from despair.
Nietzsche Nietzsche, who was not acquainted with the work of Kierkegaard, influenced subsequent existential- ist thought through his criticism of traditional metaphysical and moral assumptions and through his espousal of tragic pessimism and the life- affirming individual will that opposes itself to the moral conformity of the majority. In contrast to Kierkegaard, whose attack on conventional moral- ity led him to advocate a radically individualistic Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God” and went on to reject the entire Judeo- Christian moral tradition in favor of a heroic pagan ideal.
Heidegger Heidegger, like Pascal and Kierkegaard, reacted against an attempt to put philosophy on a conclu- sive rationalistic basis—in this case the phenome- nology of the 20th-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Heidegger argued that humanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. Human beings can never hope to under- stand why they are here; instead, each individual must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one’s life. Heidegger contributed to existentialist thought an original em- phasis on being and ontology as well as on lan-
guage. Sartre Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy and by becoming the leading figure of a distinct move- ment in France that became internationally influen- tial after World War II. Sartre’s philosophy is ex- plicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus human life is a “futile passion. ”
Sartre nevertheless insisted that his existentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom, choice, and responsibility. He eventually tried to reconcile these existentialist concepts with a Marxist analy- sis of society and history.
Existentialism and Theology Although existentialist thought encompasses the uncompromising atheism of Nietzsche and Sartre and the agnosticism of Heidegger, its origin in the intensely religious philosophies of Pascal and Kierkegaard foreshadowed its profound influence on 20th-century theology. The 20th-century Ger- man philosopher Karl Jaspers, although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, influenced contempo- rary theology through his preoccupation with tran- scendence and the limits of human experience.
The German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, the French Roman Catholic theologian Gabriel Marcel, the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, and the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber inherited many Existentialism Notes 5 of Kierkegaard’s concerns, especially that a per- sonal sense of authenticity and commitment is es- sential to religious faith. Existentialism and Literature A number of existentialist philosophers used liter- ary forms to convey their thought, and existential- ism has been as vital and as extensive a movement in literature as in philosophy.
The 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably the greatest existentialist literary figure. In Notes from the Underground (1864), the alienated anti- hero rages against the optimistic assumptions of rationalist humanism. The view of human nature that emerges in this and other novels of Dostoyevsky is that it is unpredictable and per- versely self-destructive; only Christian love can save humanity from itself, but such love cannot be understood philosophically.
As the character Alyo- sha says in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80), “We must love life more than the meaning of it. ” In the 20th century, the novels of the Austrian Jew- ish writer Franz Kafka, such as The Trial (1925; trans. 1937) and The Castle (1926; trans. 1930), present isolated men confronting vast, elusive, menacing bureaucracies; Kafka’s themes of anxi- ety, guilt, and solitude reflect the influence of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche.
The in- fluence of Nietzsche is also discernible in the nov- els of the French writers Andre Malraux and in the plays of Sartre. The work of the French writer Al- bert Camus is usually associated with existential- ism because of the prominence in it of such themes as the apparent absurdity and futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity of engagement in a just cause. Existentialist themes are also reflected in the theater of the absurd, nota- bly in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.
In the United States, the influence of exis- tentialism on literature has been more indirect and diffuse, but traces of Kierkegaard’s thought can be found in the novels of Walker Percy and John Up- dike, and various existentialist themes are apparent in the work of such diverse writers as Norman Mailer, John Barth, and Arthur Miller. Conclusion 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 pro- vides no cognition; unverifiable assertions may well express powerful and even necessary emo- tions and passions, but that’s best left to the arts and literature. Existentialism is a highly passionate philosophy and, from the outset, seems to aim at a dynamic and fashionable life-style.
Also it is mostly unsys- tematic 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 con- temporary 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 stud- ied.
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