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Understanding Existentialism: A Beginner's Guide to Philosophy

Are you curious about Existentialism? This beginner's guide to philosophy will help you understand the key concepts and thinkers of this influential movement.

Key Concepts of Existentialism.

Understanding Existentialism: A Beginner's Guide to Philosophy

The term Existentialism is coined by the Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. According to Soren Existentialism “is a rejection of all purely abstract thinking, of a purely logical or scientific philosophy; in short, a rejection of the absoluteness of reason”. Existentialism, in fact, begins as A voice raised in protest against the absurdity of Pure Thought, a logic which is not the logic of thinking but the immanent movement of Being. It recalls the spectator of all time and of all existence from the speculations of Pure Thought to the problems and the possibilities of his own conditioned thinking as an existing individual seeking to know how to live and to live the life he Knows.

What is Existentialism ?

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice, and the search for meaning in life. It is a reaction against traditional philosophical systems that emphasize reason and logic, and instead focuses on the subjective experience of the individual. Existentialists believe that life has no inherent meaning or purpose, and that individuals must create their own meaning through their choices and actions. Key themes in Existentialism include authenticity, freedom, and the search for meaning in a world that can often seem chaotic and meaningless.

What does the word existence mean ?

The word Existence is the key concept in Existentialism. It is used in this philosophy in a very special sense. The existentialist uses existence to refer specifically to human existence. There is a common belief that only a concrete thing can exist. Existentialists also support this view and describe man as a concrete individual capable of being an existent. The Existentialist considers that to be an existent one has to be capable of being conscious that one exists. In this sense man alone can exist. Kierkegaard was the first person who used the word existence in a religious sense. His main interest was the possibility of man’s self realization. According to him, to what extent can Man realizes himself by withdrawing from the irresponsibility, superficiality, and forgetfulness of everyday life? So, for Kierkegaard existence is the attainment of self possession in the spirituality directed and determined life of the individual.

Key Concepts of Existentialism.

Existentialism is a complex philosophical movement, but there are a few key concepts that are central to its ideas. One of the most important is the idea of individual freedom and choice. Existentialists believe that individuals are free to make their own choices and create their own meaning in life, rather than being bound by external forces or predetermined fate. Another key concept is the idea of authenticity, or being true to oneself. Existentialists believe that individuals should strive to live authentically, rather than conforming to societal expectations or norms. Finally, the search for meaning in life is a central theme in Existentialism, as individuals grapple with the question of how to find purpose and significance in a world that can often seem chaotic and meaningless.

Understanding Existentialism: A Beginner's Guide to Philosophy

Major themes of existentialism

Although existentialism made its arrival as a corrective to the traditional philosophy, there are certain factors that have accelerated its appearance in the 20th century. As the background of existentialism we present two fundamental experiences in the West: experience of ‘nothingness’ in the decline of religion, and of ‘finitude’ in the economico-scientific growth. Experience of ‘Nothingness’ in the Decline of Religion

Although religion has not totally disappeared from the West, its all pervasive character has been lost. It is no more the uncontested centre of human life. The waning of religion is so complex a fact that it penetrates the deepest strata of human’s psychic life. In losing religion humans lost the connection with the transcendent realm of being; they were set free to deal with this world in all its brute objectivity. Besides, they were forced to find themselves ‘wanderers’ and ‘homeless’ on the face of this earth that no longer answered the needs of the inner spirit. Religion and reason reigned supreme in the middle ages. They no longer have the same sway in the contemporary period. The rationalism of the medieval philosophy was well contained by the mysteries of faith and dogma, which were powerfully real and meaningful. Whereas the approach of the modern rationalism was different! With the newly found scientific attitude, humans began to be critical to all that the religion has been standing for. The religion-less human is like the earth set free from the sun—a human picture that is grim, bleak, dark and naked!

A similar experience can be seen in the context of the movement of Protestantism that laid stress on the irrational datum of faith, as against the imposing rational structure of medieval catholic theology. The institutional character of the Catholic Church was in keeping with the rational nature of medieval theology. Faith as an intellectual assent never touched the interior of the human. As against this, Protestantism succeeded in raising the religious consciousness to a higher level of individual sincerity and strenuous inwardness. Faith for the Protestantism is the numinous centre of religion, stripped of all mediating rites and dogmas. But the cosines of the bourgeois civilization made the protestant Western humans more secularized, and their faith began to lose its grip on them. This too made them starkly naked; and their relation to God turned out to be a relation to nothingness! It is in the wake this deterioration that the theistic existentialists call the humans to a life of faith as a personal commitment. Experience of ‘Finitude’ in Economico-Scientific Growth

Protestantism and capitalism went hand in hand, seemingly to prove that this earth itself is the Promised Land. Capitalism emerged from the feudal society as the enterprising and calculating mind who must organize production rationally to show a favorable balance of profits over costs. Everything is calculatively done in the interest of efficiency. The capacity for easy living seemed to be within human power. But the tremendous economic power of modern society is accompanied by human ambiguities, and rootlessness. Life is reduced to a bundle of needs and wants. The human is looked at in terms of functions. The First World War shattered the apparent stability of this human world. The stability, security and material progress rested upon the void.

The human came face to face with oneself as a stranger. The question: ‘what is human being?’ came out of the bourgeois society in a state of dissolution. With capitalism, society has become more secular, rational, utilitarian, and democratic, with the accompanying wealth and progress. But the unpredictable realities like wars, political upheavals were on the increase. In this impersonal mass society the human is terribly alienated: a stranger to god, to nature, and to the social apparatus, and a stranger to oneself! The economic growth has only entrenched human limitation.

The modern age is characterized also by rapid scientific growth. This is countered by the growing awareness of human inability, fragility and the impotence of reason. On the one hand, there seemed to have no limits to the technological conquest of the nature. But science had to reconcile to the human finitude. Several theories in mathematics, science and philosophy during the first half of 20th century pointed to the human finitude: Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy, Skolem’s and Godel’s theories on mathematics, Heidegger’s philosophy in his Being and Time, Spengler’s prophecy in his The Decline of the West, etc. When events run parallel this way independently of each other, we can conclude that they are not meaningless coincidences, but meaningful symptoms of humans becoming convinced of their finitude. All these thoughts shed light on the sad plight of the Western humans, and point to the impending finale.

Thus, the two deep experiences of the Western people—that of ‘nothingness’ and of ‘finitude’— have touched their inner being, and from out of this experience the new school of existentialism was born. In this new thought-pattern ‘nothingness’ and ‘finitude’ found themselves at home. Existentialism is a ‘philosophy of existence’:

According to a widely accepted definition, ‘Existentialism’ may be defined as a philosophic stand point which gives priority to existence over essence. From the dictionary meaning, existentialism may be defined as a ‘philosophy of existence’. It is “---an irrational trend in bourgeois philosophy which appeared in the 20th century in an attempt to create a new world outlook corresponding to the frame of mind of bourgeois intellectuals”.

Main points of existentialism

Existentialism as laid down in the Encyclopedia Britannica emphasizes that

(i) existence is always particular and individual,

(ii) existence is primarily the problem of existence; it is therefore, also the investigation of the meaning of Being,

(iii) this investigation is continually faced with diverse possibilities from which man must make a selection to which he must then commit himself,

(iv) existence is always a being-in-the –world, so to say, in a concrete and historically determinate situation that limits or conditions choice.

Central focus on individual’s inner awakening:

Existentialism insists that philosophy should be connected with the individual’s own life and experience. It should be a philosophy worth living. All this is blended in the word existence. The existentialist philosophers concentrate mainly on inner experience of the individual. So for an individual the personal is the real. Philosophy therefore should start from one’s inner knowledge, one’s own experience, which must be considered as evidence.

Existence before essence meaning

Existentialism believes in Individual’s personal experience. Thus it is considered as a philosophy of Being, a philosophy of attestation and acceptance, and a refusal of the attempt to rationalize and to think Being. But the question arises that does man’s existence have an essence. In this regard existentialism is most commonly acknowledged with the modern French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre’s famous dictum “existence comes before essence”, which implies that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity except that which it makes for itself. Sartre further adds, “Man first is – only afterwards is he this or that. Man must create for himself his own essence”(Roubiczek, 121). This lends some authority to German existentialist Martin Heidegger’s statement of man being thrown into existence, which existentialists consider as prior to any other thoughts or ideas that human’s have or definitions of themselves that they create. Again as Sartre puts it, “... man first of all exists, encounters himself and surges up in the world- and defines himself afterwards.” So human being has no essence that comes before his existence.

origins of existentialism

After having seen the events and contexts that gave rise to existentialism, we take a journey back to see its sources. The little source that began from the Old Testament period gradually gathered momentum, and became a powerful movement in the 20th century.

Hebraic origins 

Existentialism can be traced as far back as Hebraism—the life and thought of the Hebrews or Jewish people. There is a clear contrast between Hebraism and Hellenism, the two rival forces that influence and move our world, at least in the West. The Hebrews are concerned about practice and right conduct, whereas the Greeks, with knowledge and right thinking; duty and conscience for the Hebrews, and intelligence or reason for the Greeks. The Hebrews see the human in his/her feebleness and finitude as creatures, standing naked in the presence of God.

The Greeks keep all the difficulties and contingencies out of view in their life and thought. The Jewish community was held together not so much by law, as with ‘faith.’ Faith is well depicted in the book of Job. In the experience of extreme difficulties, Job in his whole person meets God; it was a confrontation or meeting between two persons in the fullness and violence of his passion, with the unknowable and overwhelming God. The relation between God and Job was one of I and thou. It is not a confrontation between two rational minds, demanding an explanation that will satisfy the reason. They meet on the level of ‘existence’ and not of ‘reason’. Job’s relation to God remained one of faith from start to finish although it took on the varying shapes of revolt, anger, dismay and confusion. In this personal relation the meaning of faith takes its shape. Faith here is not a propositional one, but personal trust. This trust embraces the whole man, his anger and dismay, his bones and bowls, his flesh and blood. No separation of body and soul is made. As a person of flesh and blood, the Hebrew is very much bound to the ‘earth,’ the ‘dust,’ a creature of time. The human is a ‘nothing’ before one’s Creator; one’s temporal existence is compared to wind, shadow or bubbles. Hebraism contains no eternal realm of essences, as an intellectual deliverance from the evil of time. In short, the Hebrews emphasized the contingent and finite individual, standing naked before God in personal trust and faith. The approach taken by the Hebrews is very much existential.

The Hebraic approach can be better seen in opposition to the Hellenistic one. Among the Greeks we note a different picture. The Greeks achieved victory of reason over mythology—victory of logos over mythos. In the period between 480 and 322 BCE (from Heraclitus to Aristotle) the human enters history as ‘rational animal.’ From Heraclitus Plato learned that there is no escape from death and change. Tormented by this vision, Plato desired at all costs a refuge in the eternal realm from the insecurities of time. Only the eternal is really real. For him the individual is less real. This is totally against the existentialist approach that seeks to establish the importance of the individual. Plato’s was a philosophy of essence, and not of ‘existence.’ With Aristotle philosophy became purely theoretical and objective discipline. For him reason is the highest part of our personality. The primacy of reason is rested on the fact that everything has a ‘reason,’ i.e., everything is rationally explicable. Thus the Greeks touched nothing of human finitude, but rather they made an exaltation of human reason.

The emphasis on the personal dimension, as opposed to the rational, made Hebraism to be the very first source from which existentialism began its flow of thought.

Christian origins 

The distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism continued to show itself in Christianity in the form of faith and reason. Christianity belongs to the Hebraic rather than to the Hellenistic side of human’s nature, since it is based on faith rather than reason. Christian faith is more intense in the sense that it is beyond and even against ‘reason.’ The opposition between faith and reason is the one between the vital and the rational. The question is as to where the centre of human personality is to be located: St. Paul places in faith, Aristotle in reason. Christian faith is paradoxical since Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks and scandal to the Jews, because the Greek demand ‘wisdom,’ and the Jews, sign.’ Christian faith is not based on either.

Although Christianity has been on the side of faith rather than reason, there were varying emphases on one or the other even in Christianity itself. Tertullian is one of the precursors of existentialism who stresses the violence of the conflict between faith and reason. Augustine, with his existentialist bend of mind, asks ‘who am I?,’ rather than ‘what is man?’ as did Aristotle.

This is well expressed in his Confessions. He looks at the human not with a detached reason but from personal experience. As a theologian he was trying to harmonize faith and reason. Thomas Aquinas took the theoretical intellect as the highest human faculty, following the example of Aristotle. According to him the end of the human is beatific vision of God’s essence. Dun Scotus insisted on the primacy of will and love. Thus the problem between faith and reason reappeared in the form of a controversy between voluntarism and intellectualism. We may put it thus: a controversy between the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, and thoughts over the thinker. The source of existentialism that started with Hebraism, continued with faith, and then with voluntarism of the Franciscan school in the middle ages.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) is uniquely different from other philosophers of his time with his existentialist type of thinking, and thus he too is referred to as a source of existentialism. He was living in a world of science, especially of astronomy. Pascal spoke about the homelessness of the human in the infinite space. Reason cannot help this homelessness of the human. Faith takes up where reason leaves off. One has to search and find the sign-posts, that would lead the mind in the direction of faith, in the radically miserable condition of the human. Religion is the only cure for this desperate condition of the human that is inadequate, empty, and impotent. Living in an age of science, he experienced the feebleness of human reason as well. Reason cannot deal with God or Religion as its objects. Hence his famous outcry: “not the God of philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He also is said to have said: “The heart has its reason that reason does not know.” He has expressed very powerfully about the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence. He could find ‘the contingent’ in the apparently insignificant in human existence: in the length of Cleopatra’s nose that marked the destinies of mark Antony and of Roman Empire; in the grain of sand in Cromwell’s kidney, that put an end to his military dictatorship. ‘Nothingness’ for Pascal opens both downward and upward. He lives in the age of microscope and telescope, when the finite cosmos is expanded in both the direction, toward the infinitesimally minute and the infinitely great, and the human occupying a mid-position between both. This mid-position is the perfect image of human finitude, invaded from both sides by nothingness. The short duration of our life is swallowed up in the eternity before and after. Such thoughts of Pascal make him an existentialist, and gave rise to the existentialism of the 20th century in full vehemence.

Main characteristics of existentialism

Existentialism does not refer so much to a particular philosophical system as to a movement in contemporary philosophy. Since it includes several philosophies with opposing characteristics, it is difficult to show any set of clearly defined characteristics that will mark off existentialism from all other forms of philosophy. All the same, we can still point to certain general characteristics of existentialism.

The first characteristic of existentialism is that it begins philosophizing from human being, rather than from reality in general. The human being that is referred to in existentialism is a subject that exists, rather than an object that is. Formerly the human has been submerged in the physical cosmos as just one of the items in nature. The existentialist subject is not the epistemological subject—the subject that stands apart as the knower to the known, rather it is the ontological subject that exists. Here the term ‘to exist’ has a meaning, more comprehensive than the term ‘to be.’ The term ‘existence’ has to be taken in the dynamic and active sense of the ‘act of being,’ rather than the mere ‘fact of being;’ and it implies a width of meaning that includes the human as the centre of feeling, of experience, of freedom, of actions and thought, and thus an incarnate being-in-the-world. Such a subject is passionately involved in the actualities of existence, and philosophizes not merely with reason, but the whole person with one’s feelings and emotions, with will and intellect, with flesh and bones, philosophizes. Thus existentialism begins with the human as existent.

Although existentialism begins with ‘existence,’ it does not take ‘existence’ as a notion, but as experienced by oneself. Thus we can say that existential philosophy arose from the existential experience of existence. Different philosophers has had varying experience of existence, and it is with one’s basic experience of existence that each philosopher carries out one’s philosophizing: in Jaspers it was an awareness of the brittleness of being, in Heidegger, Dasein as being-towards- death, in Sartre, the experience of existence as nauseating and superfluous, in Marcel and Buber, the experience of the ‘I’ as necessarily related to a ‘thou’, in Levinas, the experience of the epiphany of the other and of one’s ethical responsibility in the face of another, etc.

Existentialism can be described as an attempt to philosophize from the stand point of ‘actor’ rather than of ‘spectator.’ The attitude of Aristotle was that of a spectator, looking at the world impersonally. Kierkegaard on the other hand philosophizes from his own personal experience.

Philosophy arises as a response to the questions, to be met on the existential level, rather than on the conceptual level. The existentialist does not stand back from the problems as an impersonal analyst or spectator, but grapples with them as one who is involved in them. The questions are not matters of ‘intellectual curiosity’ but of ‘vital concern.’ Marcel’s distinction between mystery and problem corresponds to ‘actor’ and ‘spectator.’ The problem lies over against me to be analyzed by me as an epistemological subject. I do not approach the problem with my uniqueness, but as an impersonal I, that could be replaced by anyone, even by a machine. A mystery, on the other hand, is a question which involves the very ‘being’ of the questioner. The problems can be solved and an exhaustive solution can be given; but no solution can be given for a ‘mystery.’ The standpoint of an ‘actor’ is found in all the existentialist thinkers. Marcel and Kierkegaard were personal thinkers, who reflected on questions arising from personal experiences. There is a close relation between biography and philosophy in the case of Kierkegaard. For Marcel philosophy was part of his spiritual itinerary.

Another characteristic of existentialism is that it functions as a corrective to the traditional tendency of engulfing the human in the physical cosmos. It stands as a protest against all that threatens human’s unique position as an ‘existent.’ This is why Kierkegaard revolted against the Hegelian exaltation of the absolute at the expense of the individual. He was also against submerging the individual in the collectivity or universality. Heidegger calls the human from being the ‘they-self’ (das Man) to one’s ownmost self. Sartre wants the human to take over one’s freedom in good faith rather than to evade it in bad faith; in short, existentialism asserts the human freedom, and calls the human to appropriate it; thus existentialism functions as a corrective to the traditional tendency of depersonalization and of reduction of the human in collectivity.

If existentialism has been a corrective to the traditional way of thinking, then its advent was taken as a ray of hope to the humans in a situation of strangled thought. In various respects the humans have been strangled. To the religionless human, cut off from the divine, hope is given with a person-centred religion. To the humans who are unable to find in themselves the answers to the problems that beset them, the message of existentialism seems to be addressed. Jaspers shows that even in the face of earthly disasters, the human can still affirm one’s relationship to the transcendent. Heidegger speaks to the human thrown into the world, that s/he is faced with the possibility of choosing the authentic self.

Major themes of existentialism

It is impossible to give an exhaustive list of all the themes in existentialism. But there are certain outstanding themes that often recur in most of the existentialists. We tabulate them into different families.

Existence, Individuality, Freedom, Choice, Creativity, Possibility

Existentialism is centred on the human, characterized by existence, and it insists on a return to the concrete, individual existent as against the essence and nature of things. It emphasizes the primacy of existence over essence. For most of the existentialists the essence of the human consists in one’s existence. Existence is a dynamic notion that implies a constant attaining of the self in the self-directed life of the individual. To exist as individual means to become individual in freedom and choice. As existent, the human creates oneself. By virtue of one’s freedom the human is not only what one has become, but also what one can become. To escape into the crowd is same as running away from one’s responsibility to exist as an individual. It is uncomforting to stand alone in one’s uniqueness; hence it needs courage to exist, to assert oneself as an individual. In a widely growing situation wherein anonymity is the saving virtue, numerical superiority is the decisive consideration and mass opinion is the criterion of truth, all the existentialists call on the human to exist, to become, to choose as an individual in freedom and courage.

Finitude, Death, Guilt, Anxiety, Nothingness

Although humans are primarily free and self-creative, their quest for authentic personal being meets with resistance, and sometimes even frustration. Humans’ ability to choose is restricted bytheir ultimate possibility, death, that places a limit to their choice, and on which they have no choice. As the ultimate possibility and facticity, death surrounds human existence with the boundary wall, revealing humans’ limit-situation. The human experiences the presence of the ‘not’ (nothingness) in one’s being; and before this existential awareness of one’s finite freedom, one experiences dread or anxiety. Anxiety is had before the nothingness of human existence. The presence of nothingness in the human is same as human finitude or ontological guilt, that makes guilty action possible.

Authenticity and Inauthenticity

In the face of one’s finite freedom, humans have the possibility to be authentic or inauthentic. These terms (authenticity and inauthenticity) are mainly employed by Heidegger, but others too make the distinction between what the human should be (authenticity), and what one is prone to be normally (inauthenticity). Both theists and atheists make this distinction. Different philosophers propose different ideals as the authentic mode of existence. Thus for Kierkegaard, authenticity consists in making a leap of faith, and in becoming totally committed to a life of subjectivity and truth. For Heidegger, the authentic Dasein has to choose to be itself in the face of the temptation to be the they-self. For Buber and Marcel authenticity is grounded in communion and intersubjectivity. The I-thou relation between two human beings bestows authentic existence upon them as they reach out to the absolute and eternal thou. For Sartre authentic human is one who accepts one’s freedom in good faith. For Camus, authentic existence is a life of resistance amidst the absurd. It demands a rejection of the physical and the philosophical suicide.

Community, Intersubjectivity, Love, Commitment, Faith

The themes of togetherness, I-thou, being-with, etc., are fundamental to Marcel, Buber, Levinas, etc. No existentialist considers oneself to be solipsist. Even Sartre accepts the presence of the other, though with a hateful stare. Thus even Sartrean notion of hatred is a mode of intersubjectivity. The I is necessarily related to a thou. Those who take the positive aspect of intersubjectivity, consider that this relation is characterized by availability, fidelity, commitment etc. The other is a genuine means of enriching one’s existence. Marcel and Buber speak of the I- thou relationship. The other is not an object, a problem, an it, or a functionary, not even a ‘s/he’ but a ‘thou,’ a subject with whom I communicate. Heidegger speaks of the essential character of Dasein as being-with. According to Levinas, the face reveals the indubitable presence of the other. Even in later Camus, a sense of togetherness and community become the dominant theme. When this relation of commitment is extended to the Transcendent being, it is referred to as ‘faith.’

Absurdity, Homelessness, Rootlessness, Meaninglessness

To the contemporary human, absurdity or meaninglessness has become a catch-word. It stands for humanity’s plight as purposelessness in an existence out of harmony with its surroundings. The 20th century neurosis is the neurosis of purposelessness, valuelessness, hollowness and emptiness. Most people continue with the business of living in it, but the existentialists cry out in anguish that they are gratuitous in an impossible world. The main spokespersons for human absurdity are Sartre and Camus. For Sartre ‘absurdity’ is the awareness of oneself as superfluous.

One finds oneself as unnecessary, and thus there is no reason for one to exist. Camus considers absurdity as an awareness of oneself as condemned to tragic purposelessness. He traces to absurdity the dilemma of modern human, groaning under the structures of organized injustice and hypocrisy. In this tragic situation the human should not try to run away from it by suicide, rather one should accept it as a rebel. The fate of meaningless existence becomes tragic when one is conscious of it. The tragic hero of the Myth of Sisyphus bears his burden without joy of hope, refusing any of the palliatives offered by religion or philosophy, and without distractions of pleasure or ambition.

Depersonalization, Dehumanization, Objectification, Functionalization

Existentialism made its origin as a reaction to the reduction of the human to a mere object in the universe. Marcel and Buber fight against treating the human as an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou’. The disproportionate growth of 20th century technology is instrumental to the frightening erosion of human values and dignity by the use of strict ‘scientific method’ in investigations, and functional approach in dealings. The human is made an ‘object’ of analysis, and a commodity of transactions. As against this calculative approach, the existentialists suggest that the other be considered as a ‘thou,’ as another existing subject. Depersonalization can be present in two ways: (i) by keeping the human in an impersonal collectivity of anonymity, mediocrity and facelessness. People are regimented and packed together in the service of the powerful, or (ii) by reducing the humans as mere objects for one’s purpose. This is what takes place in the so-called free situation of capitalism and globalization.

“A human being is absolutely free and absolutely responsible. Anguish is the result.” – Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialists are concerned with ontology, which is the study of being. During WWII, when Europe faced a crisis of death and destruction, existentialism began to take hold as a movement, centered in France. (Of course, there are existentialists who wrote long before and after WWII, from every corner of the globe.)

The Thinkers of Existentialism.

Existentialism has been shaped by a number of influential thinkers throughout history. Some of the most well-known include Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus. Each of these philosophers contributed unique ideas and perspectives to the movement, but all shared a common interest in exploring the human condition and the search for meaning in life. By studying the works of these thinkers, you can gain a deeper understanding of the key concepts and themes of Existentialism.

The Absurd

In an essay (The Rebel), Camus describes the absurd as "an experience that must be lived through, a point of departure." By the absurd, Camus means only one thing: the gentle or benign indifference of the universe, an indifference towards human strivings, conflicts, beliefs, aspirations, biology, or dreams.

As Camus puts it in The Myth of Sisyphus: "What is absurd is the confrontation between the sense of the irrational and the overwhelming desire for clarity which resounds in the depths of men."

Camus on “The Absurd Man”

I have seen people behave badly with great morality.

That everything is permitted is not an outburst of relief or of joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact.

The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean that nothing is forbidden.

One can be virtuous through a whim.

There may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones.

Use past experience as a basis for future actions.

Life is both limited and bulging with possibilities.

Everything seems unforeseeable to the Absurd Man except his lucidity.

A sub-clerk in the post office is the equal of a conqueror if consciousness is common to them.

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

An existentialist believes:

• Your life = the sum of the decisions you have made for yourself.

• At every moment it is always your own free will choosing how to act.

• You are responsible for your actions, which limit future actions.

• Thus, you must create a morality in the absence of any known predetermined absolute values.

In short, existentialism:

A complex philosophy emphasizing the absurdity of reality and the human responsibility to make choices and accept consequences.

Existentialism isn’t just about rational decisions; reason alone is an inadequate guide to living, because people are also feeling and willing beings, who must experience life directly, actively, and passionately.

Only this way can one live wholly and authentically.

A Fundamental Paradox: Anxiety and Authenticity The burden of expectations, external belief structures, and roles→ such impersonal responsibility is weighty and sits ill at ease Freedom from external belief structures and roles→ Responsibility for constructing one’s own authentic beliefs, expectations, and roles--> Such personalized responsibility is weighty.

“Existence precedes essence.” --Jean-Paul Sartre

We first simply exist—find ourselves born into a world not of our own choosing—and it is then up to each of us to define our own identity or essential characteristics in the course of what we do in living out our lives. Thus, our essence (our set of defining traits) is chosen, not given.

The highest value in existentialism is personal freedom. The primary virtue is authenticity. The opposite of existentialism, then, is self- deception and conformity.

Godly Existentialism

Freedom has resulted in our alienation from God. Each person’s job then is to "heal the chasm" (Kierkegaard). Emphasis on faith and commitment rather than blind acceptance of truths handed down by traditions in religion. One must determine one’s own faith and commitment to God, if that is what one chooses. The objective (only one right answer) question of whether God exists is not important. The subjective (many possible right answers) question of truth about God is important.

 In both atheistic and godly existentialism, we must accept both the freedom to choose and the responsibility of choice.

Existentialist dread... Not as bad as it sounds!

•Dread is a feeling of general apprehension. Kierkegaard interprets it as God’s way of calling each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life.

•Anxiety stems from our understanding and recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts us every moment. The German word Angst captures this feeling well (Kierkegaard uses the Danish angst).

Situatedness and Freedom

If God is dead (per Nietzsche), then everything is permitted (per Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamozov’s conclusion). Or is it?

My body my circumstances my past my absolute freedom.

 Although my freedom is absolute, it always takes place in a particular context. This is what makes freedom meaningful. Suppose I tried to exist freely, while pretending to be in abstraction from the situation. In that case I will have no idea what possibilities are open to me and what choices need to be made, here and now. In such a case, my freedom will be na├»ve or illusory ( Hegel).

The Relevance of Existentialism Today.

Despite being a philosophical movement that emerged in the early 20th century, Existentialism remains relevant today. Its focus on the individual's search for meaning and purpose in life is still a central concern for many people. In a world that can often feel chaotic and uncertain, Existentialism offers a framework for understanding the human experience and finding meaning in the face of adversity. Additionally, its emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom can be empowering for individuals seeking to take control of their lives and make meaningful choices.

Applying Existentialism to Your Life.

Existentialism is not just a philosophical theory, but a way of life. By embracing the key concepts of Existentialism, such as personal responsibility, freedom, and the search for meaning, individuals can apply these ideas to their own lives. This can involve reflecting on one's own values and beliefs, taking ownership of one's choices and actions, and finding purpose and fulfillment in life. Whether it's through therapy, self-reflection, or simply reading and learning more about Existentialism, individuals can use this philosophy to navigate the challenges and uncertainties of life.

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