AskDefine | Define existentialist

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existentialist adj : relating to or involving existentialism; "existentialist movement"; "existentialist philosophy"; "the existentialist character of his ideas" n : a philosopher who emphasizes freedom of choice and personal responsibility but who regards human existence in a hostile universe as unexplainable

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Noun

  1. A person who adheres to the philosophy of existentialism.

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Translations

a person who adheres to the philosophy of existentialism

Extensive Definition

Existentialism is a philosophical movement which posits that individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives, as opposed to deities or authorities creating it for them.
It emerged as a movement in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, though it had forerunners in earlier centuries. Existentialism generally postulates that the absence of a transcendent force means that the individual is entirely free, and, therefore, ultimately responsible. It is up to humans to create an ethos of personal responsibility for themselves, outside of any branded belief system. In existentialist views, personal articulation of being is the only way to rise above humanity's absurd condition of much suffering and inevitable death.
Existentialism is a reaction against traditional philosophies, such as rationalism and empiricism, that seek to discover an ultimate order in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world, and thereby seek to discover universal meaning.
As a movement, existentialism began with the nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. It became prevalent in Continental philosophy, and literary figures such as Fyodor Dostoevsky also contributed to the movement. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes such as "dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness".
Although there are some common tendencies amongst "existentialist" thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them (most notably the divide between atheistic existentialists like Sartre and spiritual existentialists like Tillich); not all of them accept the validity of the term.

Major concepts

expert-subject Philosophy

A focus on existence

Existentialism tends to focus on the question of human existence — the feeling that there is no purpose, indeed nothing, at the core of existence. Finding a way to counter this nothingness, by embracing existence, is the fundamental theme of existentialism, and the root of the philosophy's name. Given that someone who believes in reality might be called a "realist", and someone who believes in a deity might be called a "deist", someone who believes fundamentally in existence and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist.

Existence precedes consciousness

Existentialism differentiates itself from the modern, Western-rationalist tradition of philosophers such as Descartes by rejecting the idea that the most certain and primary reality is consciousness. Descartes argues in his Meditations on First Philosophy that even though humans can doubt almost all aspects of reality as illusions, they can be certain of their own consciousness ("Cogito ergo sum").
In opposition, existentialism asserts that a human is born into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be attributed to illusion. Or in other words, the ultimate and unquestionable reality is not consciousness, but existence ("being in the world", in the words of Heidegger). This asserted precedence of existence vis-a-vis consciousness is a radicalization of the notion of intentionality (from Brentano and Husserl), which asserts that all consciousness is always a consciousness of something.

Existence precedes essence

A central proposition of existentialism is that humans define their own meaning in life. Such a view might be phrased technically by philosophers as existence precedes essence; i.e. a human's existence conceptually precedes the essence or meaning that may be ascribed to the life.
An older view was that essence precedes existence, so that "being human" might bind a person to such phrase's a priori definitions and connotations, and determining such meanings was seen as a central project of philosophy. This older view was widely accepted from ancient Greek philosophy to Hegel's philosophy, which would focus on questions like "what is a human being?" or "what is the human essence?", and use the answer to seek to derive how human beings should behave.
Something like such two views -- ancient Greek and existential -- is also perceived in Persian and Arabic thought. "Essence precedes existence" can be seen in the work of Avicenna and in Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi's illuminationist philosophy. As a reaction, the newer, converse idea of "existence precedes essence" can be found implicitly in the work of Averroes
Existence preceding essence is seen in Kierkegaard's Repetition, where his literary character Young Man laments:
''How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn't it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?''
Heidegger coined the term "thrownness" (also used by Sartre) to describe this idea that human beings are "thrown" into existence without having chosen it. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the horizon or context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create.
Sartre, in Essays in Existentialism, further highlights this consciousness of being thrown into existence in the following fashion: "If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be."

Reason as a problematic defense against anxiety

Emphasizing action, freedom, and decision as fundamental, existentialists oppose themselves to rationalism and positivism. That is, they argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. Rather, existentialists look at where people find meaning. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning to them rather than what is rational.
The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world: "If I can believe that I am rational and everyone else is rational then I have nothing to fear and no reason to feel anxious about being free."
Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena — "the other" — that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder us from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress our feelings of anxiety and dread, we confine ourselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing our freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the look" of "the other".
In a similar vein, Camus believed that society and religion falsely teach humans that "the other" has order and structure. For Camus, when an individual's "consciousness", longing for order, collides with "the other's" lack of order, a third element is born: "absurdity".

The absurd

It then follows that existentialism tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous and "absurd" universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations.
During the literary modernist movement in the 1900s, authors began describing dystopian societies and surreal and absurd situations in a parallel universe, a trend that paralleled the existentialist movement. In Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis, a man awakes to the realization that he has turned into a creature known only as a "vermin".
Arguably, the most extensive existentialist study of "the absurd" was done by Albert Camus in his classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus. With a concluding analogy with the Greek mythology character, Sisyphus, he explains that the absurd is born out of the confrontation between human need and want for logic and order and the reality of an illogical and random world. He explains thus that absurdity contains in itself man's rationality.

Perspectives on God

Some existentialists accept Nietzsche's proclamation that "God is dead"; they believe that the concept of God is obsolete.
Some existentialists, like Kierkegaard, conceive the fundamental existentialist question as man's relationship to God.
Theological existentialism, as advocated by philosophers and theologians (including Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber), shares tenets and themes that are central to atheistic existentialism. Just as atheistic existentialists can freely choose not to believe in God, theistic existentialists can freely choose to believe in God and, despite doubt, have faith that God exists. Belief in God is a personal choice made on the basis of a passion, faith, observation, or experience.
A further type of existentialist is agnostic existentialists, who make no claim to know whether or not there is a "greater picture"; rather, they simply assert that the greatest truth is that which the individual chooses to act upon. They feel that to know the greater picture, whether there is one or not, is impossible, or impossible so far, or of little value. Like the Christian existentialists, the agnostic believes existence is subjective.

Sartrean existentialism

Some of the features associated with the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre include:Being in-itself is an object that is not free and cannot change its essence.
Being for-itself is free; it does not need to be what it is and can change. Consciousness is usually considered being for-itself.
Non-positional consciousness is being merely conscious of one's surroundings.
Positional consciousness puts consciousness into relation of one's surroundings and entails an explicit awareness of being conscious of one's surroundings.
Identity is constructed by this explicit awareness of consciousness.

Historical background

Generally

Existential themes have been hinted at throughout history. Examples include the Buddha's teachings, the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, Saint Augustine in his Confessions, Saint Thomas Aquinas' writings, and Mulla Sadra's writings. Individualist political theories, such as those advanced by John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination rather than state rule over the individual. This kind of political philosophy, although not existential per se, provided a welcoming climate for existentialism.
In 1670, Blaise Pascal's unfinished notes were published under the title of Pensées ("Thoughts"). He described many fundamental themes common to what would be known as existentialism two and three centuries later. Pascal argued that without a God, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, since people would eventually die. This was good enough reason not to choose to become an atheist, according to Pascal.
Existentialism, in its currently recognizable 20th century form, was inspired by Søren Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. It became popular in the mid-20th century through the works of the French writer-philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whose versions of it were set out in a popular form in Sartre's 1946 Existentialism is a Humanism and Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity.
Gabriel Marcel pursued theological versions of existentialism, most notably Christian existentialism. Other theological existentialists include Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Miguel de Unamuno, Thomas Hora and Martin Buber. Moreover, one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer are also important influences on the development of existentialism (although not precursors), because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or opposition to Hegel and Schopenhauer, respectively.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

The first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement were Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. Their focus was on human experience, rather than the objective truths of math and science that are too detached or observational to truly get at human experience. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. But Pascal did not consider the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs: such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser, in the view of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are examples of those who define the nature of their own existence. Great individuals invent their own values and create the very terms under which they excel.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism, nihilism, and various strands of psychology.

Heidegger and the German existentialists

One of the first German existentialists was Karl Jaspers, who recognized the importance of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and attempted to build an "Existenz" philosophy around the two. Heidegger, who was influenced by Jaspers and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, wrote his most influential work Being and Time which postulates Dasein (dah-zine), translated as, all at once, "being here", "being there", and "being-in-the-world"—a being that is constituted by its temporality, illuminates and interprets the meaning of being in time. Dasein is sometimes considered the human subject, but Heidegger denied the Cartesian dualism of subject-object/mind-body. [paragraph needs citations and clarifications]
Although existentialists view Heidegger to be an important philosopher in the movement, he vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense, in his "Letter on Humanism".

Sartre, Camus, and the French existentialists

Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist and is one of the few to have accepted being called an "existentialist". Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and Heidegger. Being and Nothingness is perhaps his most important work about existentialism. Sartre was also talented in his ability to espouse his ideas in different media, including philosophical essays, lectures, novels, plays, and the theater. No Exit and Nausea are two of his celebrated works. In the 1960s, he attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason.
Albert Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Summer in Algiers. Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be concerned with man facing the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existential belief that man is an absurd creature loose in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled "Absurdist" (based on Esslin's book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example Ionesco often claimed he identified more with 'Pataphysics or with Surrealism than with existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to existentialism based on Esslin's observation.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre, de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time, resulting in alienation from fellow writers such as Camus.
Frantz Fanon, a Martiniquan-born critic of colonialism, has been considered an important existentialist.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an often overlooked existentialist, was for a time a companion of Sartre. His understanding of Husserl's phenomenology was far greater than that of Merleau-Ponty's fellow existentialists. It has been said that his work, Humanism and Terror, greatly influenced Sartre. However, in later years they were to disagree irreparably, dividing many existentialists such as de Beauvoir, who sided with Sartre. Michel Foucault would also be considered an existentialist through his use of history to reveal the constant alterations of created meaning, thus proving history's failure to produce a cohesive version of reality.

Dostoevsky, Kafka, and the literary existentialists

Many writers who are not usually considered philosophers have also had a major influence on existentialism. Among them, Czech author Franz Kafka and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky are most prominent. Kafka created often surreal and alienated characters who struggle with hopelessness and absurdity, notably in his most famous novella, The Metamorphosis, or in his master novel, The Trial. Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground details the story of a man who is unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself.
Many of Dostoevsky's novels, such as Crime and Punishment, covered issues pertinent to existential philosophy while offering story lines divergent from secular existentialism: for example in Crime and Punishment one sees the protagonist, Raskolnikov, experience existential crises and move toward a worldview similar to Christian Existentialism, which Dostoevsky had come to advocate.
In the 20th century, existentialism experienced a resurgence in popular art forms. In fiction, Hermann Hesse's 1928 novel Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), sold well in the West. Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. "Arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers.
Existentialist novelists were generally seen as a mid-1950s phenomenon that continued until the mid- to late 1970s. Most of the major writers were either French or from French African colonies. Small circles of other Europeans were seen as literary precursors by the existentialists, but literary history increasingly has questioned the accuracy of this perception.

Criticism

Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism, especially in Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting some features of living in a modern, oppressive society, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, onto the nature of existence itself: "Insofar as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypothesizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory". Sartre had already responded to some points of the Marxist criticisms of existentialism in his popular lecture Existentialism is a humanism, held in 1946.
Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heidegger's philosophy, with special attention to Heidegger's use of language, as a mystifying ideology of advanced industrial society and its power structure.
Heidegger criticized Sartre's existentialism, in Heidegger's Letter on Humanism:
Existentialism says [that] existence precedes essence. In this statement he [Sartre] is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which from Plato's time on has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it he stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.
Roger Scruton claimed, in his book From Descartes to Wittgenstein, that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith were self-inconsistent; both deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone is bound to abide by them. In chapter 18, he writes, "In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force."
Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being". The verb is prefixed to a predicate and to use the word without any predicate is meaningless. Another claimed source of confusion in the existentialist metaphysical literature is that existentialists try to understand the meaning of the word "nothing" (the negation of existence) by assuming that it must refer to something. Borrowing Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, the logical positivists argue that existence is not a property.

Influence outside philosophy

Cultural movement and influence

The term existentialism was first adopted as a self-reference in the 1940s and 1950s by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the widespread use of literature as a means of disseminating their ideas by Sartre and his associates (notably novelist Albert Camus) meant existentialism "was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one." Among existentialist writers were Parisians Jean Genet, André Gide, André Malraux, and playwright Samuel Beckett, the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, and the Romanian friends Eugene Ionesco and Emil Cioran. Prominent artists such as the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning have been understood in existentialist terms, as have filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman. Also, existential theological influence is apparent in the Angel's Egg.

Literature

Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodernist and existential elements. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (now republished as Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick, Toilet: The Novel by Michael Szymczyk and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existential themes. Ideas from such thinkers as Dostoevsky, Foucault, Kafka, Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, Gilles Deleuze, and Eduard von Hartmann permeate the works of artists such as Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Szymczyk, David Lynch, Crispin Glover, and Charles Bukowski, and one often finds in their works a delicate balance between distastefulness and beauty.

Film

Existential themes have been evident throughout 20th century cinema. Many films portray characters going through the "existential dilemma" or existential problems. Just as there is much controversy about the definition of existentialism, there is a fine line between existential and non-existential films. One might ask how certain movies can be considered existential, while others are not, and the judgment is purely subjective. However, for the sake of discussion, it is beneficial to provide a clear definition of existential movies. The most accurate definition says that existential movies are those which have strong plots that deal with subjects such as dread, boredom, nothingness, anxiety, alienation and the absurd. Furthermore, the definition states that movies which deal with the themes of existential literature seriously are also considered as being existential.

Theatre

The play Huis Clos was written by Sartre. Existentialist themes have also influenced the Theatre of the Absurd, notably Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Jean Anouilh's Antigone also presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas.

Theology

Existentialism has had a significant influence on theology, notably on postmodern Christianity and on theologians and religious thinkers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and John Macquarrie. It has also surfaced in theologically-themed media, such as the Angel's Egg.

Existential psychoanalysis and psychotherapy

One of the major offshoots of existentialism as a philosophy is existential psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Ludwig Binswanger, a clinician who was influenced by both Freud and Heidegger, and Sartre, who was not a clinician but wrote theoretical material about existential psychoanalysis. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who had studied with Freud and Jung as a young man. His logotherapy can be regarded as a form of existential therapy. An early contributor to existential psychology in the United States was Rollo May, who was influenced by Kierkegaard. One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of existential psychology in the USA is Irvin D. Yalom. The person who has contributed most to the development of a European version of existential psychotherapy is the British-based Emmy van Deurzen.
With complete freedom to decide, and complete responsibility for the outcome of decisions, comes anxiety (angst). Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that a patient can harness his anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his or her full potential in life. Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existential psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets.
Terror management theory is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when they are confronted with the knowledge they will eventually die.

See also

Notes

References

Further reading

  • Introducing Existentialism
  • Existentialism: A Reconstruction
  • Existing: An Introduction to Existential Thought
  • Basic Writings of Existentialism
  • Toilet: The Novel
  • Existentialism
  • Introducing Existentialism
  • Being and Nothingness
  • Existentialism and Humanism
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