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Existentialism is a philosophical movement characterized by an emphasis on individualism, individual freedom, and subjectivity. Existentialism emphasizes the idea that existence precedes essence, i.e., that one must be alive in order to create meaning, and that each person is therefore gifted with individual moments to make choices.
Camus emphasizes the idea of being present in the moment to make choices in his novel The Stranger, when Meursault exclaims "we are all privileged". It was inspired by the works of Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and was particularly popular around the mid-20th century with the works of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and others, including the novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus. The main tenets of the movement are set out in Sartre's L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.
Though many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.
Major concepts in existentialism
"Existence precedes and rules essence"
Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre's dictum, "existence precedes and rules essence", which is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity except that which we make for ourselves. Since Sartrean existentialism does not admit the existence of a god or of any other determining principle, human beings are free to do as they choose.
Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation beyond that which humans project onto the world, people may only be judged or defined by their actions and choices, and human choices are the ultimate evaluator. This concept spins from Nietzsche's concept of eternal return—the idea that "things lose values because they cease to exist. If all things were to continually exist then they would all burden us with a tremendous level of importance, but because things come to pass, and no longer exist, they lose their value. The concept of Existence preceding essence is important because it describes the only conceivable reality as the judge of good or evil. If things simply "are", without directive, purpose or overall truth, then truth (or essence) is only the projection of that which is a product of existence, or collective experiences. For truth to exist, existence has to exist before it, making it not only the predecessor but the 'ruler' of its own objectivity."
In Sartre's jargon, anguish is the feeling one gets when one recognizes that one is responsible not only for oneself, but for all of mankind. Along with many of the other emotional states described by existentialists, anguish can be paralytic, and one of the goals of existentialism is to push people toward action even in the face of these emotions.
In existentialist philosophy, bad faith is an escape from anxiety and despair, etc. into a false or inauthentic way of existence. Bad Faith is noted by constant and bitter resentment. Those in Bad Faith, also known as "Falleness", have come to be such due to their knowledge of Transcendence (to use the Heideggarian term), but their inability to choose it. This bitter resentment is characterized by characters such as The Underground Man (Dostoyevsky) and Jean-Baptist Clemance (Camus).
Being for itself
Being for itself, in Sartrean existentialism, is that part — part, though inseparable from the rest — of human existence that is self-defined. Viewing human existence as entirely self-defined is one way toward bad faith.
Being for others
Being for others, in Sartrean existentialism, is that part of human existence that is social and socially defined. One path to bad faith is to view all of one's existence as disclosed through others.
Being in itself is the self-contained and fully realized Being of objects. It is to be contrasted with the being, or existence, of people. According to Sartre, human beings want to attain being in itself while retaining their freedom, a tendency he dubs "the desire to be God".
Sartre defines despair as the feeling resulting from the realization that there is no sure footing in the world, and we can never know the results of our actions beforehand.
"When we speak of 'forlornness', a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this." (Existentialism is a Humanism) The feeling of forlornness stems from an individual's realization that he or she is alone in the world, unable to rely on anything absolutely.
Existentialism in the Post-Nachkriegsliteratur
In the 1950's and 1960's, existentialism experienced a resurgence of interest in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Either/Or, sold well in the west, and "arthouse" films began to quote or allude to existentialist thinkers. At the same time that the students of Paris found in Sartre a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, others were appropriating the pessimistic themes found in Albert Camus and Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the despair of the unknowing self featured prominently (often in a pidgin form) in numerous films and novels.
The Return of Existentialism
Although existentialism is still a movement with many followers, it no longer attracts the prestige it once had. There have been many critics of existentialism, one famous example is the philosopher Adorno, who attacked existentialists (in this case Heidegger) on the grounds that they misuse language. Nevertheless, existentialism still exerts a strong influence on philosophy and art. One will find many existential themes in Post-Modern thought (one is reminded of Derrida's work on death), and it also exerts a strong influence in popular culture. Hollywood films such as "Dead Poet's Society ", "American Beauty" and "The United States of Leland " all make reference to various existential themes.
Existentialism in pop culture (movies)
Famous movies such as "The Matrix," "American Beauty," "Fight Club," "Total Recall," "The Butterfly Effect," and "Jacob's Ladder" all seem to portray the ideas of discovery of the meaning of life and a person's individual responsibilities in dealing with death. Also, the movie "I Heart Huckabees" deals with existentialism, portraying two existential detectives; the tagline being, an existential comedy.
Criticisms of existentialism
The opponents of existentialism assert that it fosters the particularization of human beings, stripping them of a universal sense of identity, which is entirely consistent with the claims of existentialists that the only universal allowed for human beings is their fundamental freedom. Though certainly not the first book to raise such an objection (in fact, Sartre was in some ways writing in response to such statements) Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature argues that of the aspects of an individual's behavior that vary across individuals, 50% is genetically determined, 40% to 50% is peer group learned, and 0% to 10% is parental, though what exactly a percentage means when applied to behavior is questionable. This can be read as retort to Sartre's statement that "existence precedes essence", as genetics, in this sense, can be seen as a human essence. Sartre's ready-made reply, present in one form or another in most of his writings, is that the existence of choice means that we can choose to do other than what our biology or environment might lead us to do.
The Steven Pinker book was recently pulled out to the discussion table once again by Skeptic Magazine Vol. 11, No. 2. The cover story specifically deals with the long debated nature-nurture controversy.
Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement
Novelists and playwrights
- Samuel Beckett
- Albert Camus
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Marquis de Sade
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
- John Gardner
- Hermann Hesse
- Henrik Ibsen
- Eugène Ionesco
- Franz Kafka
- Jerzy Kosinski
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Iris Murdoch
- Nikolai Berdyaev
- Henri Bergson
- Martin Heidegger
- Karl Jaspers
- Hans Jonas
- Søren Kierkegaard
- Walter Kaufmann
- Emmanuel Levinas
- Gabriel Marcel
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Blaise Pascal
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Max Stirner
- Peter Wessel Zapffe
- Essays on Existentialism