According to many, existentialism rather had a negative impact on other philosophies and on the psyche of the people because of its highly subjective nature. According to Truman G. Madsen, American academicians studied this philosophy with neglect and distrust. In his words,
This distrust is reflected in the ad hominems that recur in discussion: that the origin of the movement is continental catastrophe; that it is a giant psychic and cultural moan: that it is morbid, even pathological; that its writers are methodless, irrational, subjective, irresponsible, oracular; that its theses are a cloak for social and moral aberration; that its place, if it has one, is with tragic literature or perhaps with case books with human delusion under crisis.
In short, the movement is identified with its least tolerable thinkers and dismissed (“The Contribution of Existentialism” 1).
Another major criticism against this philosophy is that it is treated more as an idealistic philosophy than as a realistic one. Herbert Marcuse has commented about this philosophy in this perspective.
Speaking about Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, he says that ‘anxiety’ and ‘meaninglessness’ are the features that are situation specific and cannot be assigned to the nature of existence itself. He opines that existentialism is an idealistic doctrine and holds good in its applicability only to a certain point of time in history. It is wrong to try its applicability to the situations other than those which were responsible for its birth.
If we have to consider only the above mentioned views, then we may adhere to a narrow analysis of existentialism as a philosophy and its influence on various streams of knowledge and society.
Considering the extent of influence of existentialism, Thomas R. Flynn writes,
…..as a philosophical movement, to the extent that it ever was one, existentialism in its various avatars has played a major role in continental philosophy for over fifty years and has now entered the perennial philosophical conversation in which it voices the abiding moral concerns of human condition. In other words, it continues to defend individual freedom, responsibility and authenticity in the midst of various forms of determinism, conformism, self-deception, technologism and the like so prevalent in our day. And it often does so in an imaginative mode that employs art and example to bring home in concrete fashion abstract principles that otherwise risk being dismissed as scholastic irrelevancies or admired from a distance as interesting intellectual curiosities (Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction 106).
Wartenberg has dedicated a whole chapter in his book, Beginners Guide to Existentialism, to this issue where he discusses the theory of social oppression with the focus on the writings of Sartre, which deals with anti-Semitism, the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, which deals with gender discrimination and the writings of Frank Fanon that deals with the colonialism. According to Wartenberg, ‘existentialists concern over with oppression is no mere afterthought to the theory that has no inherently social character’. He takes the example of French Existentialism which is a deeply politically engaged philosophy and its propagators’ real concern was to help to eliminate the oppressive structures that keep human beings enslaved. Though Sartre’s name comes in the forefront regarding the same, Maurice Merleau Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Franz Fanon have contributed much towards social reforms, as they were the real practitioners of the philosophy.
Thomas E Wartenberg, in Sartre’s context, takes up Sartre’s political essay, “Anti-Semite and Jew” (1946), where Sartre adapts the framework of existentialism to comprehend a form of social oppression which is in the form of racism. According to Wartenberg, many defended anti-Semitism as an instance of ignorance, which is definitely an inadequate explanation for their defence. Entertaining a negative social and political attitude towards a social group is definitely inhumane and a form of oppression. Sartre calls it ‘Bad Faith’ and gives a more adequate explanation for the same by drawing on some of the key ideas of existentialism. He writes in “Anti-Semitic Jew”,
Anti-Semitism is a free and total choice of oneself, a comprehensive attitude that one adopts not only towards Jews, but towards men in general, towards history and society: it is one and the same time a passion and a construction of the world (17).
Based on the principle of existentialism, Sartre considers anti-Semitism as more than a lack, something other than simply ‘ignorance’. He sees it as an affirmative stance of a person, which is not just limited to Jews, but towards the entire world. According to Wartenberg, Sartre claims that existentialism is the result of anti-Semite’s fear of his or her freedom. He writes,
The anti-Semite chooses the irremediable out of fear of being free; he chooses mediocrity out of fear of being alone, and out of pride he makes out of this irremediable mediocrity a rigid aristocracy. To this end he finds the existence of the Jew absolutely necessary. Otherwise, to whom would he be superior? ….Thus the anti-Semite is in the unhappy position of having a vital need for the very enemy he wishes to destroy (“Anti-Semite Jew” 27-28).
Thus, according to Sartre, an anti-Semite succumbs to bad faith and accepts the dictates the social group to which they belong to. Sartre calls the social group or the society in which we live as ‘They’ and the dictates of the ‘They’ and describes the anti-Semite follows as ‘mediocre’. Here there is no scope for exception since no one, who becomes a part of the social group, can differ from the views of the ‘They’ or the society in general. Thus according to Wartenberg, Sartre’s essay throws light not only on the individual behaviour and bad faith but also identifies the roots of oppression.
After writing on Sartre Wartenberg takes up the argument of Simone de Beauvoir, another existentialist and a feminist to demonstrate the influence of existentialism on the society. Beauvoir has made use of the tools of existentialism to explore the nature of sexism and gender oppression. Her most famous statement, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman’ (The Second Sex 301) strikes the key idea that is propagated. According to her, birth never determines roles of the individuals, but it is the societal norms that do the same and hence the distinction between the male and the female in the society. She showed a new way of looking or understanding the social roles into which people are placed according to their gender. According to her, ‘woman’ is the negation of ‘man’, which she calls primarily a ‘valorised’ term. She opines that, to be human is, implicitly, to be a ‘man’, to be ‘woman’ is, inherently to be inferior. She writes,
Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…..she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other (The Second Sex, xviii-xix).
De Beauvoir tries to analyse man-woman relationship in ontological terms. In her opinion, man is always the dominant term in the relationship and women always the subordinate. While analysing various reasons for women’s oppression by men or analysing the reasons for women being vulnerable to exploitation by men, Beauvoir identifies certain focal points, viz.,
a) Women allow themselves to be exploited by men as they need men to continue the propagation of the human race. As a result, they cannot live in isolation.
b) The second possible reason she gives is that women cannot sever their connection with men because the object of many women’s sexual desire is male.
c) The third and the existentialist reason which de Beauvoir gives is that women choose to accept their dependent status.
According to Wartenberg, De Beauvoir points to the general human tendency to forego freedom and aspire for the one which is more attractive, i.e., status that allows people to evade many of the difficulties that freedom strews in their path. Beauvoir asserts that women have accepted their oppression by men primarily not because it has provided them with economic security-although she acknowledges that it also plays a role-but because that oppression has provided women the metaphysical solace of avoiding the burden of freedom (155).
In the opinion of Wartenberg, Beauvoir’s analysis is on par with Sartre’s claims on anti-Semitism. According to her, men, who are especially inferior to other men, benefit from gender oppression as it gives them a way of affirming their worth by allowing them to feel superior to women. What becomes unique in Beauvoir’s use of this abstract theory of existentialism is the way she fills the book with empirical details which is not so with many existentialists.
Another existentialist with whom Wartenberg is concerned is Frantz Fanon in the context of oppression related to colonialism. It is a truism that colonialism is a powerful weapon to indulge in economic and cultural exploitation and social and political oppression. Fanon’s credit lies in the fact that he extended the principles of existentialism to analyse the oppression related to colonialism in his book Black Skin White Masks. Fanon has formed his analysis of the colonialist oppression of the blacks based on Sartre’s theory of ‘the look’. While his Black Skin White Masks analyses the post-colonial situation detailing the ways colonialism dehumanises those whom it rules, his Wretched of the Earth extends his analysis of the political process of decolonisation. Along with influencing the academics, Fanon’s influence also influenced cultural studies. Wartenberg identifies his influence on many leaders of the anti-imperialist struggle following the Algerian war, including Steve Biko and Earnest Che Guevara.