Existentialism Defined

Existentialism is a philosophical movement or tendency of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, a precise definition is impossible;

however, it suggests one major theme: a stress on individual existence and, consequently, on

subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice.

Most philosophers since ancient Greek thinker Plato have held that the highest ethical good is

universal. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reacted against this

tradition, insisting that the individual's highest good is to find his or her own unique vocation.

In terms of moral choice, existentialists have argued that there is no objective, rational basis

for decisions; they stress the importance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and

truth. Most existentialists have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible but that

life's most important questions are not accessible to reason or science.

Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates his or her own nature, is a primary

theme. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they

must accept the risk and responsibility of their actions. Kierkegaard held that a feeling of

general apprehension, which he called dread, is God's way of calling each individual to commit

to a personally valid way of life. Relatedly, 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger

felt that anxiety leads to the individual's confrontation with the impossibility of finding

ultimate justification for his or her choices.

The first to anticipate existentialism's major concerns was 17th-century French philosopher

Blaise Pascal, who denounced a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and

humanity. He saw life in terms of paradoxes: The human self, combining mind and body, is

itself a contradiction. Later, Kierkegaard rejected a total rational understanding of humanity

and history, stressing the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche espoused tragic pessimism and

life-affirming individual will. Heidegger argued that human beings can never hope to understand 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. Twentieth-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy. Explicitly atheistic and

pessimistic, his philosophy declared that human life requires a rational basis but the attempt is

a "futile passion." Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing

freedom and responsibility.

Although it encompasses atheism and agnosticism, existentialist thought has had a profound

influence on 20th-century theology, addressing such issues as transcendence and the limits of

human experience, as well as a personal sense of authenticity and commitment. Existentialism

has been a vital movement in literature, particularly in the works of Russian novelist Fyodor

Dostoyevsky, Austrian writer Franz Kafka, and French writer Albert Camus. It is also prominent

in the theater of the absurd, notably in the plays of Irish-born writer Samuel Beckett and

Romanian-born French writer Eugène Ionesco. (from Encarta Concise Encyclopedia)

Basic Themes of Existentialism

First Theme...

First, there is the basic existentialist standpoint, that existence precedes essence, has primacy

over essence. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he

exists as a conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization,

or system. Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence.

Second existentialist theme...

A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of

human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain streams of thought in Judaism and

Christianity which see human existence as fallen, and human life as lived in suffering and sin,

guilt and anxiety. This dark and foreboding picture of human life leads existentialists to reject

ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, the serenity of

Stoicism, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and

foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence.

Third existentialist theme...

A third existentialist theme is that of absurdity. Granted, says the existentialist, I am my own

existence, but this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and wholly

absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place---but why now? Why here?

Kierkegaard asked. For no reason, without necessary connection, only contingently, and so my

life is an absurd contingent fact. Expressive of absurdity are these words by Blaise Pascal, a

French mathematician and philosopher of Descarte's time, who was also an early forerunner of

existentialism. Pascal says:

"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the

eternity before and after, and the little space I fill, and even can see,

engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant,

and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being

here rather than there, why now rather than then." --by T. Z. Lavine

Fourth existentialist theme...

The fourth theme which pervades existentialism is that of nothingness or the void. If no

essences define me, and if, then, as an existentialist, I reject all of the philosophies, sciences,

political theories, and religions which fail to reflect my existence as conscious being and

attempt to impose a specific essentialist structure upon me and my world, then there is nothing

that structures my world. I have followed Kierkegaard's lead. I have stripped myself of all

unacceptable structure, the structures of knowledge, moral value, and human relationship, and

I stand in anguish at the edge of the abyss. I am my own existence, but my existence is a

nothingness. I live then without anything to structure my being and my world, and I am looking

into emptiness and the void, hovering over the abyss in fear and trembling and living the life of


Fifth existentialist theme...

Related to the theme of nothingness is the existentialist theme of death. Nothingness, in the

form of death, which is my final nothingness, hangs over me like a sword of Damocles at each

moment of my life. I am filled with anxiety at times when I permit myself to be aware of this.

At those moments, says Martin Heidegger, the most influential of the German existentialist

philosophers, the whole of my being seems to drift away into nothing. The unaware person tries

to live as if death is not actual, he tries to escape its reality. But Heidegger says that my death

is my most authentic, significant moment, my personal potentiality, which I alone must suffer.

And if I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from

the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life-- and only then will I be free to become myself.

But here the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre begs to differ. What is death, he asks?

Death is my total nonexistence. Death is as absurd as birth-- it is no ultimate, authentic moment

of my life, it is nothing but the wiping out of my existence as conscious being. Death is only

another witness to the absurdity of human existence.

Sixth existentialist theme...

Alienation or estrangement is a sixth theme which characterizes existentialism. Alienation is a

theme which Hegel opened up for the modern world on many levels and in many subtle forms.

Thus the Absolute is estranged from itself as it exists only in the development of finite spirit in

historical time. But finite spirit also lives in alienation from its true consciousness of its own

freedom, which it gains only slowly in the dialectic of history. There is also the alienation that

exists in society: the alienation of individual human beings who pursue their own desires in

estrangement from the actual institutional workings of their society, which are controlled by

the Cunning of Reason. Alienated from the social system, they do not know that their desires

are system-determined and system-determining. And there is the alienation of those who do not

identify with the institutions of their own society, who find their society empty and meaningless. And there is also for Hegel the alienation which develops in civil society between

the small class of the wealthy and the growing discontent of the large class of impoverished

workers. The most profound alienation of all in Hegel's thought is the alienation or estrangement between my consciousness and its objects, in which I am aware of the otherness

of the object and seek in a variety of ways to overcome its alienation by mastering it, by

bringing it back into myself in some way.

As for Marx, we have seen that in the split between the two Marxisms, the young Marx is

focused upon the concept of economic alienation. As a worker I am alienated from myself, from

the product of my labor, from the money-worshipping society, from all those social institutions-- family, morality, law, government-- which coerce me into the service of the money-God and keep me from realizing my human creative potentiality. In mature Marxism, alienation is expressed through the division of labor and its many ramifications.

How, then, do existentialists use the concept of alienation? Apart from my own conscious

being, all else, they say, is otherness, from which I am estranged. We are hemmed in by a world

of things which are opaque to us and which we cannot understand. Moreover, science itself has

alienated us from nature, by its outpouring of highly specialized and mathematicized concepts,

laws, theories, and technologies which are unintelligible to the nonspecialist and layman; these

products of science now stand between us and nature. And the Industrial Revolution has

alienated the worker from the product of his own labor, and has made him into a mechanical

component in the productive system, as Marx has taught us.

We are also estranged, say the existentialists, from human institutions-- bureaucratized

government on the federal, state, and local levels, national political parties, giant business

corporations, national religious organizations -- all of these appear to be vast, impersonal

sources of power which have a life of their own. As individuals we neither feel that we are

part of them nor can we understand their workings. We live in alienation from our own

institutions. Moreover, say the existentialists, we are shut out of history. We no longer have a

sense of having roots in a meaningful past nor do we see ourselves as moving toward a

meaningful future. As a result, we do not belong to the past, to the present, or to the future.

And lastly, and perhaps most painfully, the existentialists point out that all of our personal

human relationships are poisoned by feelings of alienation from any "other." Alienation and

hostility arise within the family between parents and children, between the husband and the

wife, between the children. Alienation affects all social and work relations, and most cruelly,

alienation dominates the relationship of love.

These are the disturbing, provocative themes which can be found in contemporary

existentialism. But now we must ask: If this is indeed the human condition, if this is a true

picture of the world in which the human subject absurdly finds himself, how is it possible to go

on living in it? Is there no exit from this anxiety and despair, this nothingness and absurdity,

this fixation upon alienation, this hovering on the edge of the abyss? Is there any existentialist

who can tell us how to live in such an absurd and hopeless world? Is there an existentialist

ethics, a moral philosophy to tell us what is good, what can be said to be right or wrong, in such

a meaningless world? --by T. Z. Lavine

The Human Situation

Heidegger has pointed to the foundation of the intersubjective relationship in dread. When a

man decides to escape from the banality of anonymous existence--which hides the nothingness of existence, or the nonreality of its possibilities, behind the mask of daily concerns--his understanding of this nothingness leads him to choose the only unconditioned and

insurmountable possibility that belongs to him: death. The possibility of death, unlike the

possibilities that relate him to other things and to other men, isolates him. It is a certain

possibility, not through its apodictic evidence but because it continuously weighs upon

existence. To understand this possibility means to decide for it, to acknowledge "the possibility

of the impossibility of any existence at all" and to live for death. The emotive tonality that

accompanies this understanding is dread, through which man feels himself to be "face to face

with the nothing' of the possible impossibility of [his] existence."

But neither the understanding of death nor its emotive accompaniment opens up a specific task

for man, a way to transform his own situation in the world. They enable him only to perceive the

common destiny to which all men are subject; and they offer to him, therefore, the possibility

of remaining faithful to this destiny and of freely accepting the necessity that all men share in

common. In this fidelity consists the historicity of existence, which is the repetition of

tradition, the return to the possibilities from which existence had earlier been constituted, the

wanting for the future what has been in the past. And in this historicity participate not only

man but all of the things of the world, in their utilizability and instrumentality, and even the

totality of Nature as the locus of history.

Dread, therefore, is not fear in the face of a specific danger. It is rather the emotive understanding of the nullity of the possible, or, as Jaspers says, of the possibility of Nothingness. It has, therefore, a therapeutic function in that it leads human existence to its

authenticity. From the fall into factuality into which every project plunges him, man can save

himself only by projecting not to project; i.e., either by abandoning himself decisively to the

situation in which he finds himself or by being indifferent to any possible project--with regard

to which Sartre says, "Thus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a

leader of nations."

The pivotal point of that conclusion--the conclusion most widely held among the Existentialists

and the one in fact often identified with Existentialism--is the antithesis between possibility

and reality. On the one hand, existence is interpreted in terms of possibilities that are not

purely logical possibilities or manifestations of a man's ignorance of what exists but are,

rather, effective, or ontic, possibilities that constitute man as such; on the other hand,

contrasted to possibilities in this sense is a reality, a for-itself, a world, a transcendence that

is a factual presence, insurmountable and oppressive, with respect to which possibility is a pure

Nothingness. The contradiction to which this antithesis leads becomes clear when the same

reality is interpreted in terms of possibility: when the being of things, for example, is reduced

to their possibility of being utilized; when the being of other men is reduced to the possibility

of anonymous or personal relationships that the individual can have with them; and when the

being of transcendence, or of God, is reduced to the possibility of the relationship, although

ineffable and mysterious, between transcendence, or God, and man.

It has been said that a coherent Existentialism should avoid the constant mortal leap between

Being and Nothingness; should not confuse the problematic character of existence with the fall

into factuality; should not confuse the finitude of possibilities with resignation to the situation,

choice with determinism; freedom conditioned by the limits of the situation with the

acknowledgment of the omnipresent necessity of the Whole. In this inquiry, it is held,

Existentialism could well benefit from a more attentive consideration of science, which it has

viewed until now only as a preparatory, imperfect, and objectifying knowledge in comparison

with the authentic understanding of Being, which it considers to be a more fundamental mode

of the being of man in the world. Science, it is submitted, offers today the example of an

extensive and coherent use of the concept of the possible in the key notions that it employs,

especially in those branches that are interdisciplinary--among them such notions as

indeterminacy, chance, probability, field, model, project, structure, and conditionality.

Problems of Existentialist Philosophy

The key problems for Existentialism are those of man himself, of his situation in the world, and

of his more ultimate significance. Man and Human Relationships Existentialist anthropology is strictly connected with its ontology. The traditional distinction between soul and body is completely eliminated; thus the body is a lived-through experience that is an integral part of man's existence in its relationship with the world. According to Sartre, "In each project of the For-itself, in each perception the body is there; it is the immediate Past in so far as it still touches on the Present which flees it." As such, however, the body is not reduced to a datum of consciousness, to subjective representation. Consciousness, according to Sartre, is constant openness toward the world, a transcendent relationship with other beings and thereby with the in-itself. Consciousness is existence itself, or, as Jaspers says, it is "the manifestation of being." In order to avoid any subjectivistic equivocation, Heidegger went so far as to renounce the use of the term consciousness, preferring the term Dasein, which is more appropriate for designating human reality in its totality. For the same reasons, the traditional opposition between subject and object, or between the self and the nonself, loses all sense. Dasein is always particular and individual. It is always a self; but it is also always a project of the world that includes the self, determining or conditioning its modes of being.

All of these modes of being thus arise, as Heidegger shows in his masterpiece Sein und Zeit

(1927; Being and Time, 1962), from the relationship between the self and the world. Heidegger

has regarded concern (in the Latin sense of the term) to be the fundamental aspect of this

relationship, insofar as it is man's concern to obtain the things that are necessary for him and

even to transform them with his work as well as to exchange them so as to make them more

suitable to his needs. Concern demonstrates that man is "thrown into the world," into the midst

of other beings, so that in order to project himself he must exist among them and utilize them.

Being thrown means, for man, being abandoned to the whirling flow of things in the world and

to their determinism.

This happens inevitably, according to Heidegger, in inauthentic existence--day-to-day and

anonymous existence in which all behaviour is reduced to the same level, made "official,"

conventional, and insignificant. Chatter, idle curiosity, and equivocation are the characteristics

of this existence, in which "One says this" and "One does that" reign undisputed. Anonymous

existence amounts to a simple "being together" with others, not a true coexistence, which is

obtained only through the acceptance of a common destiny

All of the Existentialists are in agreement on the difficulty of communication; i.e., of

well-grounded intersubjective relationships. Jaspers has perhaps been the one to insist most on

the relationship between truth and communication. Truths are and can be different from

existence. But if fanaticism and dogmatism (which absolutize a historical truth) are avoided on

the one hand while relativism and skepticism (which affirm the equivalence of all truths) are

avoided on the other, then the only other way is a constant confrontation between the

different truths through an always more extended and deepened intersubjective communication.

Parts of the above information is from Encarta Concise Encyclopedia