Existentialism starts at the same point as Descartes’ philosophy – with your existence as the original certainty. You might not know anything else, but you at least know you exist (in some way) because you are thinking. As Descartes stated it:
This is not referring to political freedom; rather that there are no psychological or metaphysical forces that determine the person you become or the actions you take. You are free to be the person that you choose. Rather than a blessing, this is a tremendous responsibility you must learn to accept.
Then, imagine the universe without any of these!
That’s the Existential view of reality!
Existentialism says there is nothing that explains, guides or gives purpose to our existence.
In short – you EXIST (have “BEING”) in total FREEDOM surrounded by NOTHINGNESS.
Sartre gives his treatment on this view in his philosophical work: “Being and Nothingness”
Sartre on existentialism: Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth. ( Being and Nothingness , 1943)
In the early 1800’s, philosophy was dominated by the work of idealists like Hegel, whose thought postulated grand theories that explained how thought, societies and nations changed and evolved over time.
Kierkegaard’s writings are the beginning of modern existentialism.
For him, the individual’s existence is where it all starts.
Kierkegaard believed people in the 19 th Century to be in despair over being human. People didn’t want to exist outside of the crowd. He argued that a person who ‘follows the crowd’ does not choose his or her own identity and therefore could not live life passionately as an individual. This amounted to not existing.
Objective reason is of no value – when God deals with us as individuals, His commands are often irrational and unique to the individual.
Kierkegaard refers to such episodes as the “Teleological Suspension of the Ethical” Instances where individuals are commanded by God to act irrationally and/or in ways outside the ethical norm – for a specific purpose.
Nietzsche predicted that gradually, belief in religion and philosophy would diminish, moving civilization towards a day where people would have no “belief” in anything. Nietzsche called this “belief in nothing”
Before concluding that Sartre has given you an epiphany about your family’s dynamics, remember that his father died when he was young, his step-father was stern and cold, and that his relations with both his mother and the woman in his life were troubled.
One might conclude that Sartre’s POV places little significance on the actions of humans. On the contrary, with our total freedom comes total responsibility (even in situations involving duress and oppression).
Just as he was becoming famous, Sartre proclaimed himself a Marxist. Respect for him was diminished as he was viewed as too tolerant of the Soviet style of communism. He committed much of his later writing efforts to attempts at reconciling philosophical contradictions between Marxism and existentialism.
Writer whose disturbing, symbolic fiction prefigured the oppression and despair of the late 20 th century.
The term Kafkaesque has, in fact, come to by applied commonly to grotesque, anxiety-producing social conditions or their treatment in literature. (Encarta)
Remember the Cockroach!
Summary The Main Themes in the Existentialist thought of Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard and Heidegger.
Big Ideas We search for the meaning of our existence and the meaning of our death and suffering. Reality is a lived experience. We need to confront alienation and anxiety and the absurdity of life with courage. We should live a moral life because even though I determine my own essence, I share a common human condition. Nothing defines you but you.
Existence precedes essence Traditional philosophy suggests essence precedes existence. We imagine a hammer and then make one. From a religious perspective God had an idea of human beings and then created them (essence then existence). Satre turned this up side down. We come into being, we exist and then through life we develop our essence by questioning and living. I become “human” by becoming conscious.
Anxiety and Angst Despair, Anxiety and Angst (fear and dread) can enhance our understanding of ourselves. Happiness alone will not lead to a deep understanding of existence.
Absurdity Why am I here and is there purpose to life? Am I simply a small speck in the universe in a world that has no meaning? Kierkegaard asks: I stick my finger into existence, it smells of nothing. Questions everywhere: Where am I? what is this thing called the world? Who is it who has lured me into the thing and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?
Alienation We all experience a feeling of being separate, lost, confused, out of place, etc. Modernity has only added to this problem. We are alienated by our own creations; science, capitalism, politics, religion, technology, etc. We need to confront alienation with dignity.
Death Death is a facet of life and we must comprehend it to really understand living. Living life as if death does not exist is irresponsibility. Examples? Heidegger saw death as our most authentic moment i.e. you are most alive as you die Watch clip – Fight Club (1h 15:50- 1h 20)
“ I approach the precipice, and my scrutiny is searching for myself in my very depths. In terms of this moment, I play with my possibilities. My eyes, running over the abyss from top to bottom, imitate the possible fall and realize it symbolically…”