Existentialism is a philosophical movement that focus on the meaning or purpose of life.
It is thought to have began with Soren Kierkegaard(Danish philosopher in the 19th century). He saw life as the tension between the infinite(possibilities) and the finite(here and now).
- Infinite: the ability to create new things, capacity for new thoughts and ideas, changing oneself, etc.
- Finite: What is necessity or what exists in the here and now.
One should find a balance between the two - you should explore your possibilities - but also choose an action appropriate to one's here and now. This requires vigilance, constant effort and much courage - and possibly the greatest task. This is called achieving self-hood.
This task can give you anxiety - there are not much guidelines. You'll have to walk this path alone - for this path will be different for each individual. This Existential Anxiety is the awareness of your freedom. You have to look at the abyss of options available to you - and intentionally chose one. It forces you to accept that you are responsible for yourself and your future. This is simultaneously attractive and repulsive - this state is "Dread".
The anxiety might cause some to give up on this path - by choosing to be not their true self. This might bring about despair or "sickness of spirit". This happens when someone tries to rid oneself of oneself - so as to escape being their true self. But you can be unconscious of this type of despair. That is very dangerous. Way more dangerous that people who are aware of the despair.
The truth Kierkegaard was seeking is not an Objective truth - but a subjective, personal truth - expressed through a passionate idea or a style of living. Objective truths can be "known". Subjective truths can be "experienced or lived".
One of the main 20th century existential philosophers is Jean Paul Sarte. He has this famous quote "existence precedes essence". Essence of a substance(or nature of a substance) is its necessary properties or characteristics with are required for the thing to be what it is. Aristotle and other older philosophers thought that everyone has an innate essence(given by the creator - this line of thought is called essentialism).
But Sarte said thought that we don't come with a predetermined essence - but our ability to make free choices gives us a chance to create a unique essence for our-self though out our lifetime.
This freedom is a burden to many - we are "Condemned to be free". So, many chose an easier option - adopt one of the pre-existing ideals. This Sartre calls 'Bad Faith'.
According to Camus, we seek meaning in a world that has no meaning. This is called the Absurd. We will encounter the absurd whenever we try to analyze any situation from a different perspective(eg. dinner is people sitting around a dead tree putting dead things in their mouth).
Camus draw from the absurd three consequence...
- my revolt (I revolt at the idea that life has no meaning - I will make one)
- my freedom
- my passion (I live meaning to my life - and that makes it my meaning. I'll be passionate about it)
I give my life meaning thru projects I choose. This is freedom - but a limited freedom. My range of choice is not decided by me.
"I'm thrown into the world". And because of that, I will feel alienated from the world.
Existentialism is the Question "what is the purpose of my life" - and a few answers to that question.
Earlier, this was not a problem - because everyone had a God given purpose - or the Essence as Aristotle would have called it.
But as long as there is a problem, there will be philosophers there to solve it. Many philosophers took a crack at this. Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkgard, etc. This is what they said...
- World has no meaning - but man has a tendency to search for meaning.(The Absurd)
- Existence precedes essence.
- It is your responsibility to find your purpose
- When faced with this freedom, people get anxiety. (Condemned to be free)
- To solve this anxiety, people adopt external answers(religion, ideology) - this is bad. Bad Faith/Despair/Philosophical Suicide
- You have to find your own meaning. That is "not an Objective truth - but a subjective, personal truth." Living without Appeal. Be happy with your existence (imagine Sisyphus smiling.)