Existentialism: An Introduction

Existentialism: An Introduction


Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary. In this existence…

The Individual Defines Everything.

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Site News

6 May 2004 – Began a major update to the Simone de Beauvoir page.

27 Jul 2003 – The Existential Lexicon draft is complete. A dictionary of existential jargon, this should help students of philosophy digest the works explored here.

Created: 12 November 1996 – See the site introduction for more notes in this.

Note: These pages are under construction for as long as I live. Report errors to C. S. Wyatt. Include the page title and nearest heading. Since the content is incomplete, do not waste time commenting upon this fact.

Introduction to This Web Site

Most people do not care why I compile the information and opinions found in these documents. A basic truth of the Internet is that students, authors, and even “scholars” borrow infomation. If you seek only the information on this site… jump ahead: Basic Existentialism.

Without any greater purpose or meaning, I long ago decided to utilize a great portion of my time pondering the meaningless nature of the cosmos. I understand this pursuit has no value, other than that of a distraction. Within my bedroom is a filing cabinet filled with articles and notes on literature and philosophy. There is an explanation for this obsession with the human condition.

I was fortunate to have a French-born gentleman with a Ph.D as a high school literature instructor. Before teaching literature, he had taught French, world history, and Western civilization classes. In 1985 or 86, I endured my first lecture on existentialism and the French Resistance. In 1987, he taught the Advanced Placement literature course, which again focused upon existentialism. No college professor I encountered at the University of Southern California could match his knowledge or life experiences.

During my college years, I enrolled in every existential literature course offered. In late 1996, I reviewed my college papers. To my dismay, I finally realized how condescending the graders had been. One paper caught my eye because the grader wrote, “I doubt you have read Camus’ biographies.” I guess professors and their assistants have a difficult time believing students read. (Or, graduate students take themselves too seriously.) This illustrates why someone would agree with Camus that life is absurd. The few students truly passionate about understanding the condition of mankind are the ones least likely to be taken seriously… and to think I enjoy teaching.

Not a Study Guide…

The World Wide Web offers a great deal of information — some valuable, most not. I created this site to encourage further research into existential and phenomenological philosophies, hopefully providing a useful amount of information and references to external sources. I expect those interested in the writers and thinkers mentioned within these pages to locate the books and articles cited. My writing is not in textbook form, nor is it even in a form suitable as a high school term paper. I ask questions without offering answers. The paragraphs are short, in a journalistic style not suited to academic research. Trying to use this site for any serious purpose might prove fatal to a student’s grade.

The biographies and commentaries are brief, limited by available server space, my free time, and my belief my opinions are not important. Other matters are more important than philosophy.

I cite the views of others as frequently as possible. Opinions exist to be debated then, in many cases, dismissed. At best, opinions are starting points for new perspectives. If you have a question, submit it to the Exist List. I encourage students of philosophy to develop their own understandings.

I’m in Charge Here!

One of the great pleasures is that I alone get to select the individuals profiled. I maintain a list of suggested additions to the site, yet I select those people about whom I wish to write first. In selecting these writers, I am considering their influence upon existentialism to be greater than those of others.

I am not completely ignorant of the topic: some non-existentialists are on this site. I could not write about existentialism and not mention Dostoevsky, Hegel, or even Marx. It is the influence of these men upon The Existentialists that I weighed before dedicating space to commentaries upon their works. Don’t complain — I’m in charge here.

I am not an existentialist. What I am is a curious person fascinated by the individuals profiled within these pages. Do not confuse my curiosity with anything greater than what it is.
  1. Introduction to the Site
  2. Basic Existentialism
  3. Existential Ethics
  4. Divisions in Thought
  5. Existentialism in Context
  6. Resources Cited

 

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Basic Existentialism

Restrain your biases and suppress your notions as to what existentialism is. I seldom encounter individuals without “rubber stamp” answers for what is existential, what constitutes existentialism, and who were/are the existentialists. If you wish to learn something about existentialism — read on. If you seek dark, depressing thoughts about alienation and hopelessness… watch 24-hour news channels.

Those most often associated with “existentialism” failed to form a cohesive philosophical discipline based on existential theories. Existentialism, while taught at universities, cannot point to leaders in the same way idealism or rationalism can.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are forerunners of existentialism. If we want to thank, or blame, two men for radical individualism, we could start with them. There were others before them, but most texts on existentialism seem to firmly place them at the the base. Radical individualism is not existentialism, however.

Sartre came to declare existentialism a minor footnote to Marxism, which illustrates Sartre’s interests were more in politics than pure philosophical theory. Camus remained an absurdist, suggesting existentialism was more methodology than philosophy. Camus called existentialism “philosophical suicide” if used to ponder life. Considering Camus’ fascination with death, that’s quite a statement.

I call the existential attitude philosophical suicide. How else to start from the world’s lack of meaning and end up by finding a meaning and a depth to it?
– Albert Camus as paraphrased; Introducing Existentialism; Appignanesi, p. 36

Husserl and Heidegger were not existential, though they contributed to the development of phenomenology and, therefore, existentialism. Jaspers suggests existentialism, but it would be mental gymnastics to call him existential.

I advise visitors to read the lexicon following this introduction. Existentialism, and philosophy in general, is infected with a variety of lexicons, unfortunately. Definitions of words vary by philosopher; no two seem to use a word to mean the same thing. I have done my best to assemble a basic lexicon. When thinkers differ in meanings, I attempt to explain when, how, and why — if we can ever understand why people change words. (Ah, through the looking glass we venture.)

What is Not Existential?

There is no one answer to what is existential, so I am going to present what is not in an attempt to clarify things through the fog. (That is satire, if you read Camus.) By first understanding what existentialism excludes, discussions of what might be included become possible.

Existentialism does not support any of the following:

  • The good life is one of wealth, pleasure, or honor.
  • Social approval and social structure trump the individual.
  • Accept what is and that is enough in life.
  • Science can and will make everything better.
  • People are good by nature, ruined by society or external forces.

There are, according to existentialism and its predecessor, phenomenology, some problems with Western philosophical traditions. The basic problem is that humans are not good, sharing, generous creatures. Children are what we remain our entire lives… greedy, manipulative, brats. Some people disguise it better than others. The people in charge of America would be the people in charge of most countries: the best “political” people. Or, as one 60s radical said, “There were eventually leaders in every commune.”

Watch a preschool class. I owned a children’s bookstore, and before that I was a teacher. Children are not nurtured to behave poorly. In fact, the challenge is to socialize a child. We struggle to be social creatures. Society is unnatural. Rules are difficult.

“Mine” is naturally a child’s way of thinking. It is soon followed by “I didn’t do it!”

Existentialism requires the active acceptance of our nature. Professor Robert Olson noted that we spend our lives wanting more and more. Once we realize the futility of wordly desire, we try to accept what we have. We turn to philosophy or religion to accept less. We want to detach from our worldly needs — but we cannot do so. It is the human condition to desire. To want. To seek more, even when that “more” is “more of less.” It is a desire to prove something to ourselves, as well as others.

The existentialists … mock the notion of a complete and fully satisfying life. The life of every man, whether he explicitly recognizes it or not, is marked by irreparable losses. Man cannot help aspiring toward the goods of this world, nor can he help aspiring toward the serene detachment from the things of this world which the traditional philosopher sought; but it is not within his power to achieve either of these ambitions, or having achieved them to find therein the satisfaction he had anticipated.
Existentialism; Olson, p. 14

 

One female visitor complained about “mankind,” but attempts at “non-sexist” writing ignore etymology: man was Old English for “any person.” Man as gender-specific is unique to Modern English. Other words I considered were once limited to men, and in some places still are. There’s no easy solution, even if we want one. See Style Guide, Mankind.

Existentialism assumes we are best when we struggle against our nature. Mankind is best challenging itself to improve, yet knowing perfection is not possible. Religions present rules, yet the believers know they cannot live by all of those rules. The “sin-free” life is beyond human nature. Is that any less reason to try to be good, generous, caring, and compassionate? Perfectionism is considered unhealthy by psychiatrists for a reason.

The Struggle

The word “existential” is used to describe so many people, fictional characters, choices, and situations that it has been reduced to meaning any dilemma revealing the true nature of a person. The notion of dilemma reduces “existential” to an adjective describing too many common choices. Existentialism properly defines a broader philosophy, in which life itself is a choice.

Why is Buddhism Not Existential?

Siddharta Gautama was appalled by suffering and chaos in the world. So much so, he left his wife and son to meditate on the meaning of everything. Unfortunately, he didn’t find answers among the gurus. There were no easy answers. In some ways, yes, Siddharta experienced an “existential” discovery: life is suffering.

But, Siddharta did not follow the existential notion of rebelling or fighting to establish a meaning. He did not openly challenge people and political leaders. Instead, he took a different approach:

When me met his first disciples at Benares after his enlightenment, the Buddha outlines his system, which was based on one essential fact: all existence was dukkha. It consisted entirely of suffering; life was wholly awry. Things come and go in meaningless flux. Nothing has permanent significance. Religion starts with the perception that something is wrong. […] The Buddha taught that is was possible to gain release from dukkha by living a life of compassion for all living beings, speaking and behaving gently, kindly and accurately, and refraining from anything like drugs or intoxicants that cloud the mind.
A History of God; Armstrong, p. 32

Unlike the existentialists, Siddharta is a stoic in nature: accept things as they are, don’t try to change them or control them. Curiously, this is rebellious in that it rejects social norms. Siddharta was rejecting the Hindu teachings of his time, much as Kierkegaard challenged the ritualized nature of Christianity. But, Siddharta was not an active rebel. He was, in many ways, teaching a passive resistance that the existentialists would reject.

Questions to Ponder

Philosophy and religion exist to answer “why?” when we want an excuse for human nature. Maybe science will explain away sociopaths and even mere anger someday. We can treat depression, anxiety, mania, and numerous other “disorders” with pills. Alienation, despair, and anguish may vanish. If they do, what of existentialism? Do humans need their pain? Is suffering what makes us stronger, as Nietzsche suspected?

Some questions posed by the thinkers profiled on this site:

  • If something worth living for is worth dying for, what about something not worth dying for? (Camus)
  • Did man create God to have a reason to live? (Dostoevsky)
  • Does society make women and men different or do we choose our roles? (Beauvoir)
  • Would living forever add meaning to life? (Heidegger)
  • How do you really act in private? (Sartre)
  • Without love, without people, what is a person? (Kafka)

Quick Lesson

Good morning/afternoon/evening class. {Mr. Wyatt pauses to accept joyful greetings.} Allow me to write a word on the board.

 

BLUE

I need my morning tea, or I will not be able to discuss matters in a civil tone. So, you have until I finish tea to ponder and write your thoughts on what I have written.

{Mr. Wyatt enjoys a simple tea, gathered from his favorite tin, which is kept in a drawer at his desk. The hotplate, violating some campus policy or other, sits on a table behind him.}

Ah, refreshed. What did some of you write?

Blue is the English word for a wavelength in the visible light spectrum. We use it to symbolize many things…

For that, you must read Husserl’s complete works and report on how he viewed the relationship between science and philosophy. Anyone else?

I don’t know. It is the word “blue” on a board.

Bravo! That is exactly the problem we face when studying anything. There are 20 definitions for “blue” in the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Until I write a sentence, “blue” is only a word. Alone, most things lack meaning — even people. We isolate things, even ourselves, to appreciate them and undertand them better. Isolated, the meaning is somehow lost. It is a paradox Kafka explored in short stories and Sartre examined ad nauseam.

I have a list of study questions on existentialism for those interested.

Existentialism is Living

Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, first a man or woman exists, then the individual spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self… which is why there is existential psychotherapy. (Imagine a therapist telling people life has no meaning!) In other words, we define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.

Existentialism is about being a saint without God; being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society.
– Anita Brookner (b. 1938), British novelist, art historian. Interview in Writers at Work, Eighth Series, ed. George Plimpton (1988).

Existentialism is not dark. It is not depressing. Existentialism is about life. Existentialists believe in living — and in fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and even Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they believed passionately in fighting for the survival of their nations and peoples. The politics of existentialists varies, but each seeks the most individual freedom for people within a society.

All too often people link a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential ideals. Existentialism has little to do with faith or the lack thereof. To quote Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars:

Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists — Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre — are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.
Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 11

In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of three political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.

Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple:

  • Mankind has free will.
  • Life is a series of choices, creating stress.
  • Few decisions are without any negative consequences.
  • Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.
  • If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.

Existentialism, broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us — and made without an objective form of truth. There are no “universal” guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe. Instead, even trusting science is often a “leap of faith.”

The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions. Because individuals make their own choices, they are free; but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedom — and therefore their responsibility — thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free.”

For existentialism, responsibility is the dark side of freedom. When individuals realize that they are completely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, they are overcome by anxiety. They try to escape from this anxiety by ignoring or denying their freedom and their responsibility. But because this amounts to ignoring or denying their actual situation, they succeed only in deceiving themselves. The existentialists criticize this flight from freedom and responsibility into self-deception. They insist that individuals must accept full responsibility for their behavior, no matter how difficult. If an individual is to live meaningfully and authentically, he or she must become fully aware of the true character of the human situation and bravely accept it.
World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Beyond this short list of concepts, the label existentialist is applied broadly. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist works, or at least the writings of people groups as the existentialists. There is no one or two sentence statement summarizing what more than a dozen famous and infamous people pondered. The only common factor seems to be despair. The accompanying grid illustrates the range of ideals expressed by the major existentialists. Not every existentialist follows a perfect row in the grid. In particular, their political theories are more varied than the three categories listed.

 

Religious Predetermination Elitist Moralistic Intentions
Agnostic Chance Communist Relativistic Actions
Atheistic Free Will Anarchist Amoralistic Results

 

The first row might represent the writings of Blaise Pascal or Fyodor Dostoevsky, both of whom defended fundamentalist religious beliefs, including their inherent contradictions. The last row is representative of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, if not his own beliefs. As previously stated, uniting the men and women behind this matrix of concepts is futile. Their thoughts are linked by a belief that this life is a near-futile struggle against forces aligned in opposition to the individual.

The Existentialists

The individuals listed represent major contributors to existentialism and related philosophies. This chart is in philosophical order, not in the order of publication or life. Following the chart is further information on other existentialists or contributors to the philosophy. I would like to thank site visitor Eduardo Tenenbaum for his suggestions for this chart. I have made some minor changes, reflecting the input of visitors.

 

Name
Philosophy / Faith
Contribution Bartleby.com Entry Kaufmann’s Comments
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Eastern Orthodox
Studied individual will, freedom, and anguish. Probably as a consequence of his long association with criminals, he had an intense interest in abnormal and perverted types, the psychology of which he analysed with an uncanny subtlety. I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written.
Søren Kierkegaard
Existentialist, Protestant Theist
Considered the first existentialist, his works were popularized by Heidegger.
E.T.: Formulated the aesthetic, ethical and religious as modes of existence. Perfected the Socratic technique of indirect communication
Danish religious philosopher. A precursor of modern existentialism, he insisted on the need for individual decision and leaps of faith in the search for religious truth, thereby contradicting Protestant rationalist theology. Here lies Kierkegaard’s importance for a vast segment of modern thought: he attacks received conceptions of Christianity, suggests a radical revision of the popular idea of the self, and focuses attention on decision.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Individualist, Anti-Christian
Ideas influenced Heidegger and Sartre.
E.T.: Developed concepts of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence and Overman.
German philosopher who reasoned that Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife makes its believers less able to cope with earthly life. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, the opposition to philosophic systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life — all this is eminently characteristic of Nietzsche.
Georg W. F. Hegel
German Idealism, Protestant
Influenced Marx, Husserl, Sartre, and many others. Hegel’s followers broke into “left” and “right” wings. First to promote the concept of phenomenology. German idealist philosopher who interpreted nature and human history and culture as expressions of a dialectical process in which Spirit, or Mind, realizes its full potentiality.  
Edmund Husserl
Phenomenologist
Developed concept of essences and being.
E.T.: Developed the concept of the Lifeworld
Austrian-born German philosopher and mathematician. A leader in the development of phenomenology, he had a major influence on the existentialists.  
Martin Heidegger
Phenomenologist, Existentialist, Theist
Assistant to Husserl, wrote about Kierkegaard’s works.
E.T. Student of Husserl’s phenomenology, proclaimed the end of metaphysics.
German existentialist philosopher. His masterpiece, Being and Time (1927), argued that confronting the question of the meaning of being, encompassing one’s own death, was central for an authentic human existence. An early disciple… would sum up Heidegger’s importance by asserting that he introduced Nietzsche into philosophy. {Note: Kaufmann disagrees with the preceding observation} He made it possible for professors to discuss with a good conscience matters previously considered literary, if that.
Franz Kafka
Absurdist, Jewish
Similar to Camus, Sartre, in depictions of cruel fate. Kafka presents a world that is at once real and dreamlike and in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation. Kafka stands between Nietzsche and the existentialists: he pictures the world into which Heidegger’s man, in Sein und Zeit, is “thrown,” the godless world of Sartre, the “absurd” world of Camus.
Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialist, Atheist
Student of Heidegger, colleague and lover of de Beauvoir. French philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Influenced by German philosophy, particularly that of Heidegger, Sartre was a leading exponent of 20th-century existentialism. His writings examine man as a responsible but lonely being, burdened with a terrifying freedom to choose, and set adrift in a meaningless universe. It is mainly through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre that existentialism has come to the attention of a wide international audience. Sartre is a philosopher in the French tradition… at the borderline of philosophy and literature.
Simone de Beauvoir
Existentialist, Feminist
Best known as a “feminist” writer, she was the editor of many of Sartre’s works. Lover of Sartre, friend to Camus and Merleau-Ponty. French writer, existentialist, and feminist. Women’s social subjugation is credited to patriarchal rather than biological or psychological structures. Her book became one of the seminal treatises of the modern feminist movement.  
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Phenomenologist, Existentialist
One-time friend of Sartre, Camus. Supporter of Husserlian Phenomenology. Unlike many phenomenologists, he affirmed the reality of a world that transcends our consciousness of it. In his studies of perception he laid emphasis on the physical and the biological (or vital) as levels of conceptualization that preconditioned all mental concepts.  
Albert Camus
Existentialist / Absurdist, Atheist
French Resistance member during WWII with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir. Brought “humanism” to his existentialism. His belief that man’s condition is absurd identified him with the existentialists (see existentialism), but he denied allegiance to that group; his works express rather a courageous humanism. The characters in his novels and plays, although keenly aware of the meaninglessness of the human condition, assert their humanity by rebelling against their circumstances. {Paraphrase of Kaufmann} Camus marks the finale of existentialism… an attempt to move beyond what Sartre had defined. Camus cannot be called an existentialist, but his ideas evolved alongside those of Sartre and others.
Karl Jaspers
Existentialist, Agnostic, Theist
Contemporary of Sartre, Camus, et al. Jaspers sought to make philosophy more open for the general public… more relevant. German psychiatrist, philosopher, and theologian. A founder of modern existentialism, he was concerned with human reactions to extreme situations. It is in the work of Jaspers that the seeds sown by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first grew into existentialism or, as he prefers to say, Existenzphilosophie.

Other Thinkers of Note

Other existentialists worthy of mention include:

  • Jean Wahl (1888–1974), founder of the French Existentialists movement, which grew under Sartre.
  • Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973), French Roman-Catholic philosopher.

Influential philosophers and writers, with existential concepts reflected in their works include:

  • Nicolas Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948), Russian Neo-Romanticist
  • Leo Isakovich Shestov Schwarzman (1866–1938), Russian Irrationalist
  • José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955), Spanish writer
  • Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Spanish philosopher

Resources

Complete source list.

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Mail comments and suggestions to: cswyatt@tameri.com

Last Updated: Sunday, 06-Jun-2004 14:32
Created: 12 November 1996

This site copyright © 1996–2003 C. S. Wyatt

2 thoughts on “Existentialism: An Introduction

  1. I don’t know where you are -what existentialism is not. I don’t know alot about this philosophy, but what I know seems to contradict everything you said.

  2. existencialism introduction bro🙂
    many philosophers talked bout existencialism philosophy.their philosophy are different. show us bout ur contradict…:) logical analysis?

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