Existentialism

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Existentialism Existentialism is a catch-all term for those philosophers who consider the nature of the human condition as a key philosophical problem and who share the view that this problem is best addressed through ontology. This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Those philosophers considered existentialists are mostly from the continent of Europe, and date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Outside philosophy, the exis
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  ExistentialismExistentialism is a catch-all term for those philosophers who consider the nature of thehuman condition as a key philosophical problem and who share the view that this problem is best addressed through ontology. This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Those philosophersconsidered existentialists are mostly from the continent of Europe, and date from the 19thand 20th centuries. Outside philosophy, the existentialist movement is probably the mostwell-known philosophical movement, and at least two of its members are among the mostfamous philosophical personalities and widely read philosophical authors. It has certainlyhad considerable influence outside philosophy, for example on psychological theory andon the arts. Within philosophy, though, it is safe to say that this loose movementconsidered as a whole has not had a great impact, although individuals or ideas countedwithin it remain important. Moreover, most of the philosophers conventionally groupedunder this heading either never used, or actively disavowed, the term ‘existentialist’.Even Sartre himself once said: “Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” So, there is acase to be made that the term – insofar as it leads us to ignore what is distinctive about philosophical positions and to conflate together significantly different ideas – does moreharm than good.In this article, however, it is assumed that something sensible can be said aboutexistentialism as a loosely defined movement. The article has three sections. First, weoutline a set of themes that define, albeit very broadly, existentialist concerns. This isdone with reference to the historical context of existentialism, which will help us tounderstand why certain philosophical problems and methods were considered soimportant. Second, we discuss individually six philosophers who are arguably its centralfigures, stressing in these discussions the ways in which these philosophers approachedexistentialist themes in distinctive ways. These figures, and many of the others wemention, have full length articles of their own within theEncyclopedia. Finally, we look very briefly at the influence of existentialism, especially outside philosophy.1. Key Themes of ExistentialismAlthough a highly diverse tradition of thought, seven themes can be identified that provide some sense of overall unity. Here, these themes will be briefly introduced; theycan then provide us with an intellectual framework within which to discuss exemplaryfigures within the history of existentialism.a. Philosophy as a Way of LifePhilosophy should not be thought of primarily either as an attempt to investigate andunderstand the self or the world, or as a special occupation that concerns only a few.Rather, philosophy must be thought of as fully integrated within life. To be sure, theremay need to be professional philosophers, who develop an elaborate set of methods andconcepts (Sartre makes this point frequently) but life can be lived philosophically withouta technical knowledge of philosophy. Existentialist thinkers tended to identify twohistorical antecedents for this notion. First, the ancient Greeks, and particularly the figureof Socrates§but also theStoics§and Epicureans§. Socrates was not only non-  professional, but in his pursuit of the good life he tended to eschew the formation of a  ‘system’ or ‘theory’, and his teachings took place often in public spaces. In this, theexistentialists were hardly unusual. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapid expansion of industrialisation and advance in technology were often seen in terms of an alienation of the human from nature or from a properly natural way of living (for example, thinkers of German and English romanticism).The second influence on thinking of philosophy as a way of life wasGerman Idealism§  after Kant. Partly as a response to the 18th century Enlightenment, and under theinfluence of the Neoplatonists, Schelling and Hegel both thought of philosophy as anactivity that is an integral part of the history of human beings, rather than outside of lifeand the world, looking on. Later in the 19th century, Marx famously criticised previous philosophy by saying that the point of philosophy is not to know things – even to knowthings about activity – but to change them. The concept of philosophy as a way of lifemanifests itself in existentialist thought in a number of ways. Let us give severalexamples, to which we will return in the sections that follow. First, the existentialistsoften undertook a critique of modern life in terms of the specialisation of both manualand intellectual labour. Specialisation included philosophy. One consequence of this isthat many existentialist thinkers experimented with different styles or genres of writing inorder to escape the effects of this specialisation. Second, a notion that we can call‘immanence’: philosophy studies life from the inside. For Kierkegaard, for example, thefundamental truths of my existence are not representations – not, that is, ideas, propositions or symbols the meaning of which can be separated from their srcin. Rather,the truths of existence are immediately lived, felt and acted. Likewise, for Nietzsche andHeidegger, it is essential to recognise that the philosopher investigating human existenceis, him or herself, an existing human. Third, the nature of life itself is a perennialexistentialist concern and, more famously (in Heidegger and in Camus), also thesignificance of death.Anxiety and AuthenticityA key idea here is that human existence is in some way ‘on its own’; anxiety (or anguish)is the recognition of this fact. Anxiety here has two important implications. First, mostgenerally, many existentialists tended to stress the significance of emotions or feelings, inso far as they were presumed to have a less culturally or intellectually mediated relationto one’s individual and separate existence. This idea is found in Kierkegaard, as wementioned above, and in Heidegger’s discussion of ‘mood’; it is also one reason whyexistentialism had an influence on psychology. Second, anxiety also stands for a form of existence that is recognition of being on its own. What is meant by ‘being on its own’varies among philosophers. For example, it might mean the irrelevance (or even negativeinfluence) of rational thought, moral values, or empirical evidence, when it comes tomaking fundamental decisions concerning one’s existence. As we shall see, Kierkegaardsees Hegel’s account of religion in terms of the history of absolute spirit as an exemplaryconfusion of faith and reason. Alternatively, it might be a more specifically theologicalclaim: the existence of a transcendent deity is not relevant to (or is positively detrimentalto) such decisions (a view broadly shared by Nietzsche and Sartre). Finally, being on itsown might signify the uniqueness of human existence, and thus the fact that it cannotunderstand itself in terms of other kinds of existence (Heidegger and Sartre).Related to anxiety is the concept of authenticity, which is let us say the existentialist spin  on the Greek notion of ‘the good life’. As we shall see, the authentic being would be ableto recognise and affirm the nature of existence (we shall shortly specify some of theaspects of this, such as absurdity and freedom). Not, though, recognise the nature of existence as an intellectual fact, disengaged from life; but rather, the authentic being livesin accordance with this nature. The notion of authenticity is sometimes seen as connectedto individualism. This is only reinforced by the contrast with a theme we will discuss below, that of the ‘crowd’. Certainly, if authenticity involves ‘being on one’s own’, thenthere would seem to be some kind of value in celebrating and sustaining one’s differenceand independence from others. However, many existentialists see individualism as ahistorical and cultural trend (for example Nietzsche), or dubious political value (Camus),rather than a necessary component of authentic existence. Individualism tends to obscurethe particular types of collectivity that various existentialists deem important.For many existentialists, the conditions of the modern world make authenticity especiallydifficult. For example, many existentialists would join other philosophers (such as theFrankfurt School) in condemning an instrumentalist conception of reason and value. Theutilitarianism of Mill measured moral value and justice also in terms of the consequencesof actions. Later liberalism would seek to absorb nearly all functions of political andsocial life under the heading of economic performance. Evaluating solely in terms of themeasurable outcomes of production was seen as reinforcing the secularisation of theinstitutions of political, social or economic life; and reinforcing also the abandonment of any broader sense of the spiritual dimension (such an idea is found acutely in Emerson,and is akin to the concerns of Kierkegaard). Existentialists such as Martin Heidegger,Hanna Arendt or Gabriel Marcel viewed these social movements in terms of a narrowingof the possibilities of human thought to the instrumental or technological. This narrowinginvolved thinking of the world in terms of resources, and thinking of all human action asa making, or indeed as a machine-like ‘function’.c. FreedomThe next key theme isfreedom§. Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of  anguish, because my freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from anydetermination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge. Manyexistentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values.This might be traced back to familiar reasons such as an increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two worldwars and the phenomenon of mass genocide. It is important to note, however, that for existentialism these historical conditions do not create the problem of anguish in the faceof freedom, but merely cast it into higher relief. Likewise, freedom entails something likeresponsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being onits own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility areabsolute. The isolation that we discussed above means that there is nothing else that actsthrough me, or that shoulders my responsibility. Likewise, unless human existence is to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibilitymust stretch across time. Thus, when I exist as an authentically free being, I assumeresponsibility for my whole life, for a ‘project’ or a ‘commitment’. We should note herethat many of the existentialists take on a broadly Kantian notion of freedom: freedom as  autonomy. This means that freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness,consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self inrecognition of its responsibilities. This borrowing from Kant, however, is heavilyqualified by the next theme.d. SituatednessThe next common theme we shall call ‘situatedness’. Although my freedom is absolute, italways takes place in a particular context. My body and its characteristics, mycircumstances in a historical world, and my past, all weigh upon freedom. This is whatmakes freedom meaningful. Suppose I tried to exist as free, while pretending to be inabstraction from the situation. In that case I will have no idea what possibilities are opento me and what choices need to be made, here and now. In such a case, my freedom will be naïve or illusory. This concrete notion of freedom has its philosophical genesis inHegel, and is generally contrasted to the pure rational freedom described by Kant.Situatedness is related to a notion we discussed above under the heading of philosophy asa way of life: the necessity of viewing or understanding life and existence from the‘inside’. For example, many 19th century intellectuals were interested in ancient Greece,Rome, the Medieval period, or the orient, as alternative models of a less spoiled, moreintegrated form of life. Nietzsche, to be sure, shared these interests, but he did so notuncritically: because the human condition is characterised by being historically situated,it cannot simply turn back the clock or decide all at once to be other than it is (Sartreespecially shares this view). Heidegger expresses a related point in this way: humanexistence cannot be abstracted from its world because being-in-the-world is part of theontological structure of that existence. Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me (for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty). I must also be situated socially: each of my acts says something about how I view others but, reciprocally, each of their acts is aview about what I am. My freedom is always situated with respect to the judgements of others. This particular notion comes from Hegel’s analysis of ‘recognition’, and is foundespecially in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Jaspers. Situatedness in general also has animportant philosophical antecedent in Marx: economic and political conditions are notcontingent features with respect to universal human nature, but condition that nature fromthe ground up.ExistenceAlthough, of course, existentialism takes its name from the philosophical theme of ‘existence’, this does not entail that there is homogeneity in the manner existence is to beunderstood. One point on which there is agreement, though, is that the existence withwhich we should be concerned here is not just any existent thing, but human existence.There is thus an important difference between distinctively human existence and anythingelse, and human existence is not to be understood on the model of things, that is, asobjects of knowledge. One might think that this is an old idea, rooted in Plato’sdistinction between matter and soul, or Descartes’ between extended and thinking things.But these distinctions appear to be just differences between two types of things. Descartesin particular, however, is often criticised by the existentialists for subsuming both under 
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