Introduction to Existentialism


What Existentialism is not..

  • it is not a philosophical system
  • non a set of doctrines
  • its best classified as a movement


The Existentialism movement arose in 19th Century Europe. Founding fathers are

It became very prominent in mid-20 century(esp after the war). This wave brought people like...

  • Franz Kafka
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Albert Camus
  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty
  • Jean-Paul Sartre

"[Existentialism] is an attitude that recognizes the unresolvable confusion of the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar. . .The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept." (From Hegel to Existentialism, Robert Solomon)

All philosophers in this movement has shared a common concern with the "Human Condition". They are concerned with these questions...

  • Why am I here?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • How should I live my life?

But everyone defines these very differently - but they agree on a few things. They reject all-encompassing systems(like religions). These all encompassing system try to give a meaning or purpose to life in an absolute manner. These are systems which profess to have answers to such questions(often seen as definitive and timeless) - but also seen as applying to all human beings, whether one is willing to accept such answers or not. Best example of such a system is Christianity.

The problem with such system is it largely removes the burden to create meaning and purpose from the individual. This also makes them very attractive to many. Adapting such a system will restrict your growth as a free human being.

One problem with such system is that they don't take into account what it is like to be human. In such systems, the purpose and meaning comes from an external realm(eg. heaven/god). This might lead to them losing sight of the human perspective on life.

An example of how this is a problem is that most of the answers to human problem given by religions are from the perspective of a divine god. Existentialists think that a human perspective is much more useful. A good example of this problem is the idea of human mortality. Most religions/divine perspective comes with a belief in immortality.

Many Existentialists say that accepting our mortality will help us to stop living in conformity with the masses - and take control of our own lives - and live by our own standards and values.

Existence Precedes Essence

  • Idea given by Jean-Paul Sartre in "Is Existentialism a Humanism" lecture.

According to Aristotle...

  • 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.
  • He had a teleological(or Goal oriented) view of nature - all substances in nature tend towards the actualization of their essence.
  • He thought human essence was acting in full accordance with reason. For this reason he thought of man as the "rational animal".
  • Acc. to him, humans act against their essence(act without reason) - but they can't make their own unique essence.

According to this thinking, if humans are made by a god, their "essence precedes existence". As the essence will be made/given by the creator.

Sartre did not agree to this. Acc. to him, we come without a predetermined essence - but our ability to make free choices gives us a chance to create a unique essence for ourself though out our lifetime.

Existentialism vs Nihilism

Nihilism says that there is no meaning or purpose to life.

Existentialism Nihilism
Life has no Objective Meaning Same - life has no meaning
One can create their own personal/subjective meaning No personal meaning possible

Nietzsche, who thought of Nihilism as a disease, made the idea of becoming who you are to overcome Nihilism. This was not done thru clinging to an all encompassing system - but rather by creating meaning, purpose and value for one's self. But he knew that this would be difficult.