What Is Existentialism?

Existentialist History and Thought

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Existentialism may be difficult to explain, but it is possible to communicate some basic principles and concepts, both regarding what existentialism is and what it is not. On the one hand, there are certain ideas and principles which most existentialists agree on in some fashion; on the other hand, there are ideas and principles which most existentialists reject―even if they don't then agree on what to argue for in their place.

It can also help to better understand existentialism by looking at how the various trends developed long before anything like a self-conscious existentialist philosophy was promoted. Existentialism existed before existentialists, but not in a single and coherent form; instead, it existed more as a critical attitude towards common assumptions and positions in traditional theology and philosophy.

What Is Existentialism?

Although often treated as a philosophical school of thought, it would be more accurate to describe existentialism as a trend or tendency that can be found throughout the history of philosophy. If existentialism were a theory, it would be unusual in that it would be a theory that is opposed to philosophical theories.

More specifically, existentialism displays hostility towards abstract theories or systems that propose to describe all of the intricacies and difficulties of human life through more-or-less simplistic formulas. Such abstract systems tend to obscure the fact that life is a rather rough-and-tumble affair, often very messy and problematic. For existentialists, there is no single theory that can contain the whole of the experience of human life.

It is the experience of life, however, which is the point of life―so why isn't it also the point of philosophy? Over the course of millennia, Western philosophy has become increasingly abstract and increasingly removed from the lives of real human beings. In dealing with technical issues like the nature of truth or knowledge, human beings have been pushed further into the background. In constructing complex philosophical systems, no room is left for real people anymore.

That is why existentialists focus primarily on matters such as choice, individuality, subjectivity, freedom, and the nature of existence itself. The issues addressed in existentialist philosophy involve the problems of making free choices, of taking responsibility for what we choose, of overcoming alienation from our lives, and so forth.

A self-conscious existentialist movement developed first in early twentieth century Europe. After so many wars and so much devastation throughout European history, intellectual life had become rather drained and tired, so it should not have been unexpected that people would have turned from abstract systems back to individual human lives―the sorts of lives that had been dehumanized in the wars themselves.

Even religion no longer held the luster it once did, failing not only to provide sense and meaning to people's lives but even failing to provide basic structure to daily living. Both the irrational wars and the rationalized sciences combined to undermine people's confidence in traditional religious faith, but few were willing to replace religion with secular beliefs or science.

As a consequence, there developed both religious and atheistic strands of existentialism. The two disagreed on the existence of God and the nature of religion, but they did agree on other matters. For example, they agreed that traditional philosophy and theology had become too remote from normal human life to be of much use. They also rejected the creation of abstract systems as a valid means of understanding authentic modes of living.

Whatever "existence" is supposed to be; it isn't something that a person will come to understand through intellectual posturing; no, the irreducible and undefinable existence is something that we must encounter and engage by actually living. After all, we humans do define who we are through living our lives―our natures are not defined and fixed at the moment of conception or birth. Just what constitutes an "actual" and "authentic" mode of living, though, is what many existentialist philosophers tried to describe and debated about with each other.

What Isn't Existentialism

Existentialism encompasses so many different trends and ideas that have appeared over the history of Western philosophy, thus making it difficult to distinguish it from other movements and philosophical systems. Due to this, one useful means of understanding existentialism is to examine what it isn't.

For one thing, existentialism doesn't argue that the "good life" is a function of things like wealth, power, pleasure, or even happiness. This is not to say that existentialists reject happiness. Existentialism is not a philosophy of masochism, after all. However, existentialists will not argue that a person's life is good simply because they are happy―a happy person might be living a bad life while an unhappy person might be living a good life.

The reason for this is that life is "good" for existentialists insofar as it is "authentic." Existentialists may differ somewhat on just what is needed for a life to be authentic, but for the most part, this will involve being conscious of the choices one makes, taking full responsibility for those choices, and understanding that nothing about one's life or the world is fixed and given. Hopefully, such a person will end up happier because of this, but that isn't a necessary consequence of authenticity―at least not in the short term.

Existentialism is also not caught up in the idea that everything in life can be made better by science. That doesn't mean that existentialists are automatically anti-science or anti-technology; rather, they judge the value of any science or technology based on how it might affect a person's ability to live an authentic life. If science and technology help people avoid taking responsibility for their choices and help them pretend that they are not free, then existentialists will argue that there is a serious problem here.

Existentialists also reject both the arguments that people are good by nature but are ruined by society or culture, and that people are sinful by nature but can be helped to overcome sin through proper religious beliefs. Yes, even Christian existentialists tend to reject the latter proposition, despite the fact that it fits with traditional Christian doctrine. The reason is that existentialists, especially atheist existentialists, reject the idea that there is any fixed human nature to begin with, whether good or evil.

Now, Christian existentialists aren't going to completely reject the idea of any fixed human nature; this means that they could accept the idea that people are born sinful. Nevertheless, the sinful nature of humanity simply isn't the point for Christian existentialists. What they are concerned with is not so much the sins of the past but a person's actions here and now along with the possibility of their accepting God and uniting with God in the future.

The primary focus of Christian existentialists is on recognizing the moment of existential crisis in which a person can make a "leap of faith" where they can completely and without reservation commit themselves to God, even if it seems irrational to do so. In such a context, being born sinful just isn't particularly relevant. For atheistic existentialists, obviously enough, the whole notion of "sin" will play no role at all, except perhaps in metaphorical ways.

Existentialists Before Existentialism

Because existentialism is a trend or mood involving philosophical themes rather than a coherent system of philosophy, it is possible to trace through the past a number of precursors to the self-aware existentialism that developed in Europe during the early twentieth century. These precursors involved philosophers who may not have been existentialists themselves, but did explore existentialist themes and thereby paved the way for the creation of existentialism in the 20th century.

Existentialism has certainly existed in religion as theologians, and religious leaders have questioned the value of human existence, questioned whether we can ever understand whether life has any meaning, and meditated on why life is so short. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, for example, has a lot of humanist and existentialist sentiments in it - so many that there were serious debates about whether it should even be added to the biblical canon. Among the existentialist passages we find:

As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind? (Ecclesiastes 5:15, 16).

In the above verses, the author is exploring the very existentialist theme about how a person can find meaning in life when that life is so short and destined to end. Other religious figures have dealt with similar issues: fourth-century theologian Saint Augustine, for example, wrote about how humanity has become alienated from God due to our sinful nature. Alienation from meaning, value, and purpose is something that will be familiar to anyone who reads much existentialist literature.

The most obvious pre-existentialism existentialists, though, would have to be Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, two philosophers whose ideas and writings are explored in some depth elsewhere. Another important writer who anticipated a number of existentialist themes was the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal.

Pascal questioned the strict rationalism of contemporaries like René Descartes. Pascal argued for a fideistic Catholicism that did not presume to create a systematic explanation of God and humanity. This creation of a "God of the philosophers" was, he believed, actually a form of pride. Rather than search for a "logical" defense of faith, Pascal concluded (just as Kierkegaard later did) that religion needed to be based upon a "leap of faith" which was not rooted in any logical or rational arguments.

Because of the issues that are addressed in existentialism, it isn't surprising to find precursors to existentialism in literature as well as philosophy. John Milton's works, for example, evince a great concern for individual choice, individual responsibility, and the need for people to accept their fate―one which always ends in death. He also considered individuals to be far more important than any system, political or religious. He did not, for example, accept the Divine Right of Kings or the infallibility of the Church of England.

In Milton's most famous work, Paradise Lost, Satan is treated as a relatively sympathetic figure because he used his free will to choose what he would do, stating that it is "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." He accepts full responsibility for this, despite the negative consequences. Adam, similarly, does not flee responsibility for his choices, he embraces both his guilt and the consequences of his actions.

Existentialist themes and ideas can be located in a wide variety of works throughout the ages if you know what to look for. Modern philosophers and writers who identify themselves as existentialists have drawn heavily on this heritage, bringing it out into the open and drawing people's attention to it so that it doesn't languish unnoticed.

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Cline, Austin. "What Is Existentialism?" Learn Religions, Feb. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/introduction-to-existentialism-249935. Cline, Austin. (2021, February 16). What Is Existentialism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/introduction-to-existentialism-249935 Cline, Austin. "What Is Existentialism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/introduction-to-existentialism-249935 (accessed March 28, 2023).