Introduction to Existentialism


Existentialism takes its name from its guiding phrase, "existence precedes essence." This means that there is no stable human essence or nature and thus that there are no intrinsic or natural human values (so that any attempt at ethical naturalism is misguided and debased). Existentialism teaches that each person must simply live his or her life and by so doing create his or her own values.


It's both.



Reality defies ultimate comprehension

There are no limitless truths that exist independently of and prior to the individual human being. Existence -- our presence in the here-and-now -- precedes and takes precedence over any presumed absolute values. The moral and spiritual values that society tries to impose cannot define the indivudual person's existence. Our traditional morality rests on no foundation whose certainty can either be demonstrated by reason or guaranteed by God. There are simply no transcendent absolutes; to think otherwise is to surrender to illusion.











We have more than a mind.
We have feelings and a will.





Reason is not enough

Reason alone is an inadequate guide to living, for people are more than thinking subjects who approach the world through critical analysis. They are also feeling and willing beings, who must participate fully in life and experience directly, actively, and passionately. Only in this way does one live wholly and authentically.








Pure speculation is not enough.
We must act on our thoughts.





Thought must be made manifest

Thought must not merely be abstract speculation, but must have a bearing on life; it must be translated into deeds.











Can we really define what it means to be human?





Humans are unique, therefore "human nature" is problematic

Human nature is both problematic and paradoxical, not fixed and constant; each person is like no other. Self-realization comes when you affirm your own uniqueness. You become less than human when you permit your life to be determined by a mental outlook -- a set of rules and values -- imposed by others.
















We are alone

The universe is indifferent to our expectations and needs, and death is ever stalking us. Awareness of this elementary fact of existence evokes an overwhelming sense of anxiety and depression.







Don't look elsewhere for meaning - you must make your own.



Existence is absurd

There is no purpose to our presence in the universe. We simply find ourselves here; we do not know and will never find out why. Compared with the eternity of time that preceded our birth and will follow our death, the short duration of our existence seems trivial and inexplicable. And death, which irrevocably terminates our existence, testifies to the ultimate absurdity of life.




The up side:
You're free to determine who you are.





We are free

We must face squarely the fact that existence is purposeless and absurd. In doing so, we can give our life meaning. It is in the act of choosing freely from among different possibilities that you shape an authentic existence. There is a dynamic quality to human existence; you have the potential to become more than you are right now.








from Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society, 7th ed. Perry et. al., 824.




Moral individualism

Most philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is the same for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles other morally perfect individuals. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted against this tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual is to find his or her own unique vocation. As he wrote in his journal, "I must find a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die." Other existentialist writers have echoed Kierkegaard's belief that one must choose one's own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations.



All existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth. They have insisted, accordingly, that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential for arriving at the truth. Thus, the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individual agent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, and other existentialist writers have been deliberately unsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies, preferring to express themselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despite their antirationalist position, however, most existentialists cannot be said to be irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought. They have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science. Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as is commonly supposed. Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientific assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction.


Choice and commitment

Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity's primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choice is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads.


Dread and anxiety

Kierkegaard held that it is spiritually crucial to recognize that one experiences not only a fear of specific objects but also a feeling of general apprehension, which he called dread. He interpreted it as God's way of calling each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life. The word "anxiety" (German Angst) has a similarly crucial role in the work of the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger: anxiety leads to the individual's confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices he or she must make. In the philosophy of Sartre, the word "nausea" is used for the individual's recognition of the pure contingency of the universe, and the word "anguish" is used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.