Like “rationalism” and “empiricism,” “existentialism” is a term that belongs to intellectual history. Its definition is thus to some extent one of historical convenience. The term was explicitly adopted as a self-description by Jean-Paul Sartre, and through the wide dissemination of the postwar literary and philosophical output of Sartre and his associates, notably Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus. Existentialism became identified with a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. The nineteenth century philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, came to be seen as precursors of the movement. Existentialism was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one. By the mid-1970s the cultural image of existentialism had become a cliché, parodied in countless books and films by Woody Allen.
On the existential view, to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science, including the science of psychology, could tell us. The dualist who holds that human beings are composed of independent substances, “mind” and “body” is no better off in this regard than is the physicalist, who holds that human existence can be adequately explained in terms of the fundamental physical constituents of the universe. Existentialism does not deny the validity of the basic categories of physics, biology, psychology, and the other sciences. It claims only that human beings cannot be fully understood in terms of them. Nor can such an understanding be gained by supplementing our scientific picture with a moral one. Categories of moral theory such as intention, blame, responsibility, character, duty, virtue, and the like do capture important aspects of the human condition, but neither moral thinking nor scientific thinking suffices.
“Existentialism”, therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence. To approach existentialism in this categorical way may seem to conceal what is often taken to be its “heart”, namely, its character as a gesture of protest against academic philosophy, its anti-system sensibility, and its flight from the “iron cage” of reason. But while it is true that the major existential philosophers wrote with a passion and urgency rather uncommon in our own time, and while the idea that philosophy cannot be practiced in the disinterested manner of an objective science is indeed central to existentialism, it is equally true that all the themes popularly associated with existentialism, dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on, find their philosophical significance in the context of the search for a new categorical framework, together with its governing norm.
Themes in Existentialism
Here is a list of themes that are important in existentialism. They are not all taken up by every existentialist thinker and they are not entirely consistent with one another.
1. Importance of the individual
The leading question in this case is “What does it mean to be existing as a human being?” This question leads out in a number of directions.
• There is a pressing question concerning what is right and wrong in a world of moral chaos.
• There is the daunting issue of what constitutes a meaningful way of life in a world in which all talk of purposes has become obscure.
• There is a realization that the human concerns and human experience count in a world that has proven to be mostly unknowable. This corresponds to a suspicion of the reductionistic and over-confident ways of science, philosophy, and metaphysics and also expresses continuity with the instincts of literature, poetry, and art.
• The imperative to “be an individual!” takes on great importance as a way of orienting human life in a world described by these other considerations.
2. Importance of choice
We see this preeminently in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But it is perhaps most colorfully expressed by Karl Rahner who described human beings as one giant decision (in his case, for or against God).
• We are constituted by our decisions.
• We cannot appeal to systems of law or convention or tradition as decisively furnishing instructions for life choices; every choice has to be personally appropriated.
• In fact, being human sometimes involves decisions that transcend the realm of moral and conventional concerns.
3. Anxiety regarding life, death, contingencies, and extreme situations
Tillich’s formulation expresses this point beautifully: he speaks of our anxiety due to the “threat of non-being.” The forms of non-being are many and various and each prefigures the ultimate loss of being that is death and the ultimate contingency of being that is birth. Both the chance events and extreme situations of life make evident the threat of non-being and cuase us anxiety.
• Being human is finding oneself “thrown” (Heidegger) into a world with no clear logical, ontological, or moral structure.
• We hide from death, from uncertainty, from ourselves, from Being-Itself (Tillich) with enormous creativity but with self-destructive consequences.
• Extreme situations make our hiding impossible and so they often become the focus for philosophical and literary reflection on human anxiety.
4. Meaning and absurdity
Sartre spoke of an unfulfillable desire for complete fulfillment and thereby expressed the meaning of absurdity.
• We are forced to ask ultimate questions by the very nature of our lives and by our yearning for orientation and purpose in our lives, yet decisive answers prove unachievable.
• Meaning must therefore be constructed through courageous choice in the face of this absurd situation.
• This kind of choice cannot be understood as achieving moral certainty; rather it is moral heroism within an essentially morally vague and chaotic world.
Sartre’s opposition to bad-faith (or self-deception) is an example of what is meant by authenticity; perhaps Heidegger’s expatiation of authentic existence is one of the most complete.
• We need to face up to our situation rather than making things worse with self-deceptive approaches to religion, metaphysics, morality, or science.
• We need to make decisions courageously; the key to this is accepting our own limitations and realizing that we cannot achieve certainty in the making of such decisions.
• We need to be honest with ourselves and each other: we must not settle for less than the actual anxiety due us!
6. Social criticism
Many existentialists deconstructed social conventions and practices.
• They are forms of hiding and expressions of fear and ignorance.
• Sartre applied this kind of analysis to religion, society, morality, politics, psychoanalysis, scientism, technology, etc.
• Existentialist literature often carried out this unmasking of convention and social patterns with enormous effect (especially in the novels of Camus).
7. Importance of personal relations
It must be said that the existentialist imperative to be an individual is front and center but another imperative becomes important in some existantialists (especially Buber): be an individual-in-community!
• As the pitfalls of scientism show, relations to objects in the world are deceptive; the important relations are those between people (Buber’s I-Thou relation vs. I-It experience).
• Creating meaning, if analyzed carefully, actually means creating and discovering relations between people.
• Religious existentialists see the God-human relation as the ground of all relations between human beings.
8. Atheism and Religion
Here is one of the greatest disagreements among existentialists, testifying perhaps to the inescapable vagueness of the field of life within which human beings must make decisions that create meaning. Though the nature of that field of life and its ground are dramatically contested, all existentialists hold that a decision in relation to it is the key issue for human beings.
• It has been said that the world is too small for more than one free reality. This implies that either God is free or human beings are, but not both. To say that both God and human beings are free leads to intolerable problems of theodicy and contradictions while to deny to freedom to both leads to an intolerably meaningless and actually impossible world. This assumption is shared by a strange, divrse group of thinkers.
• Calvin and Spinoza said human beings are determined, in order to do justice to the freedom of God.
• Sartre said human beings are free, so there can be no God. It is the conviction of human freedom (and really abandonment to freedom) that drives the atheist existentialist rejection of the reality of God.
Religion is a deeply contested point within existentialism
• While some existentialists reject the reality of God, other existentialists have no problem with God and see an appropriate tension between divine and human freedom.
• However, there is some agreement: all existentialists tend to be suspicious of religion as such (meaning religious organizations and religious systems).
• Religious existentialists give profound analyses of ethical and religious choices that are interestingly different from the analyses of courageous choice furnished by atheistic existentialists. For example, Kierkegaard expounded on three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, stressing the rational unaproachability especially of the transition from the ethical to the religious; the criterialessness of the choice to be religious is essential to the life of faith.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. Jean Paul Sartre