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Existentialism

EXISTENTIALISM.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that became associated with the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (who rejected the name as too confining) and whose roots extend to the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Sartre, like most of his existentialist colleagues, was too much the individualist to accept the idea of being part of a movement, no matter how exclusive. Both Heidegger and the writer Albert Camus rejected the label, offended by being so linked to Sartre. But the name stuck, and Sartre, at least, accepted it with reservations. And so existentialism came to name one of the most powerful intellectual and literary movements of the last century and a half.

Sartre's philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy, and other figures are usually considered existentialists insofar as they resonate with certain Sartrean themesextreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives. Thus some key figures who might be considered existentialist, Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are sometimes excluded because they are not sufficiently Sartrean. Existentialism can be defined as a philosophy that puts special emphasis on personal existence, on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. It tends to distrust abstractions and overgeneralized formulations of "human nature," on the grounds that each of us, in some important sense, makes his or her own nature. Søren Kierkegaard emphasized the "existence" of the individual and the importance of individual choice. The first conception of a movement should be credited to Karl Jaspers (18831969), a German philosopher-psychiatrist who noted the similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and identified them as early practitioners of what he called "existence-philosophy" (Existenzphilosophie ).

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche differed radically, most famously in their approach to religion (Christianity in particular). Kierkegaard was devout while Nietzsche was a blasphemous atheist. But so, too, twentieth-century existentialism would include both religious and atheistic philosophers. The religious existentialists include, among others, Karl Barth (18861968), Martin Buber (18781965), Gabriel Marcel (18871973), Jacques Maritain (18821973), and Paul Tillich (18861965). Among those labeled atheistic existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (19081986), Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (19081961) are prominent. But existentialism also includes a number of more ambiguous figures, notably Martin Heidegger, who was certainly no orthodox Christian thinker but nevertheless bemoaned modernity's abandonment of religion and insisted that "only a new god can save us." So, too, existentialism usually embraces such tormented literary figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (18211881), André Gide (18691951), and Franz Kafka (18831924), writers like Norman Mailer (b. 1923), and sympathetic international figures like Miguel de Unamuno (18641936) and Keiji Nishitani (19001990).

Twentieth-century existentialism was greatly influenced by phenomenology, originated by Edmund Husserl (18591938) and pursued into the existential realm by his student Heidegger. The "ontological" problem for Heidegger, "the problem of being," was to find out who one is and what to do with oneself or, as Nietzsche had asked earlier, how one is to become what one is. Phenomenology, for Heidegger, becomes a method for "disclosing [one's] being." Following both Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre used the phenomenological method to defend his central thesis that humans are essentially free, and Merleau-Ponty further refined both that method and the resulting notion of freedom to incorporate a more bodily conception of human existence, pointing to the complexities of freedom in a politically conflicted and ambiguous world.

Oddly enough, the existentialists, perhaps the most moralistic or in any case moralizing philosophers of modern times, often seem to avoid ethics. Kierkegaard noted that ethics was one choice among several. Nietzsche insisted that Western morality is slave morality, and he wrote with delight (in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882, 1887; English trans. The Gay Science ) about dancing on morality's grave. Heidegger emphatically insisted that he was not offering any ethics, and he continued to speak with disdain about those who confusedly worry about values. Even Sartre, moralist par excellence, followed Heidegger in insisting that his existentialism was not an ethical philosophy, although he did promise that the "phenomenological ontology" of his great tome L'être et le néant (1943; English trans. Being and Nothingness, 1956) would be followed up by an ethics, which never came.

The existentialists were rejecting a certain "bourgeois" conception of morality, the kind of ethics that worries about keeping one's promises, paying one's debts, and avoiding scandal. Instead, they were after an ethic of a larger kind, an ethics of "authenticity" or what we would call personal integrity. They called for responsibility, even heroism, in the face of the bourgeois modern world. They rejected traditional philosophical and scientific rationality and typically resorted to literature, prophecy, pamphleteering, and ponderous obfuscation, any means necessary to wake up the world from its boring bourgeois and at the same time brutal and irresponsible behavior.

Jaspers's special word, existence, which he took from Kierkegaard to summarize the centrality of self-doubt and painful freedom that defined the human condition, focused a new kind of attention on the individual. Thus existentialism tends to be a solitary philosophy. Kierkegaard, in particular, wrote at length about "subjective truth" and saving "The Individual" from the crowd, the "public," the Hegelian collective "Spirit." Nietzsche encouraged a muscular individualism in which the "higher man" should reject "the herd" and follow his own noble instincts. Heidegger calls mass-man (Das Man ) "inauthentic" and urges us to discover our own unique "authentic" self. Camus exploded onto the literary and philosophical scene with his novel The Stranger, whose protagonist had only the most tenuous connections with other people, lost as he was in his own sensuous experience. Sartre focused on individual consciousness as "being-for itself" and treated "beingfor-others" as a continuous threat. In his play Huis clos (1944; English trans. No Exit, 1947), he even tells us "Hell is other people."

One might generalize that existentialism represents a certain attitude particularly appropriate for modern (and post-modern) mass society. The existentialists share a concern for the individual and personal responsibility (whether or not they embrace "free will"). They tend to resist the submersion of the individual in larger public groups or forces. Thus Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both attacked "the herd," and Heidegger distinguished "authentic existence" from mere social existence. Sartre, in particular, emphasizes the importance of free individual choice, regardless of the power of other people to influence and coerce our desires, beliefs, and decisions. Here he follows Kierkegaard, especially, for whom passionate, personal choice and commitment are essential for true "existence."

Søren Kierkegaard (18131855)

Kierkegaard was born and raised in Copenhagen, where he spent virtually his entire life. He was a pious Lutheran who once defined his task in philosophy as "a Socratic task," to define (or redefine) what it is to be a Christian. At the time, the rationalist influence of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) dominated the Lutheran church, but Kierkegaard insisted that faith was by its very nature irrational, a passion and not a provable belief. Against Hegelian Holism, Kierkegaard insisted on the primacy of the individual and the profound "Otherness" of God. And against the worldly Lutherans, Kierkegaard preached a stark, passionate, solitudinous, and unworldly religion that, in temperament, at least, would go back to the monastery. To properly and passionately choose to be a Christianas opposed to merely being born into the church and mindlessly reciting its dogmaswas to enjoy true existence. To be or become a Christian, according to Kierkegaard, it is necessary to passionately commit oneself, to make a "leap of faith" in the face of the "objective uncertainty" of religious claims. One cannot know or prove that there is a God; one must passionately choose to believe.

Kierkegaard formulated the seemingly self-contradictory notion of "subjective truth" in opposition to the idea that all life choices have a rational or "objective" resolution. In choosing the religious life, for example, Kierkegaard insists that there are no ultimately rational reasons for doing so, only subjective motives, a sense of personal necessity and a desire for passionate commitment. Similarly, choosing to be ethical, which is to say, choosing to act according to the principles of practical reason, is itself a choice, which is not rational. The notion of subjective truth does not mean, as it may seem to mean, a truth that is true "for me." It means resolution in the face of the objectively unknown. More important than what is believed is how it is believed. Against the calm deliberations of so much of the history of philosophy, in opposition to the celebration of reason and rationality, Kierkegaard celebrates angst and the passions, the "leap" into the unknown, and the irrationality of life.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900)

Nietzsche was a German philosopher whose writing was flamboyant and deliberately provocative, repudiating the whole Judeo-Christian tradition and liberal ethics. Nietzsche saw a conflict between the West's heroic Greek heritage and its Judeo-Christian history. He was struck, for example, by the difference between the two traditions' approaches to human suffering. While the Judeo-Christian tradition sought the explanation of misfortune in sin, the ancient Greeks took profound suffering to be an indication of the fundamentally tragic nature of human life. His first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; English trans. The Birth of Tragedy, 1909), analyzed the art of Athenian tragedy as the product of the Greeks' deep and nonevasive thinking about the meaning of life in the face of extreme vulnerability.

Nietzsche applauded the ancient Greeks for their ethical outlook, which stressed the development of excellence and nobility in contrast with what he saw as the Judeo-Christian obsession with sin and guilt. In short, he defended an ancient ethics of virtue and excellence in opposition to the modern morality of equality and "the good will" that he found, for example, in Kant's formalization of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy.

In contrast with the morality of the Homeric Greeks, a morality of heroism and mastery, Christian morality made the mediocre person of no great enthusiasm or accomplishments the moral exemplar. A good person, on this view, is someone who does no harm, breaks no rules or laws, and "means well." Nietzsche complains that the Christian moral worldview has urged people to treat the afterlife as more important than this one. Instead of urging self-improvement in earthly terms, the Christian moral vision emphasizes abstaining from "selfish" action. The person who does essentially nothing with his or her life but has avoided "sin" might merit heaven, in the Christian view, while a creative person will probably be deemed "immoral" because he or she refuses to follow "the herd." Thus the prohibitions of Judeo-Christian and Kantian ethics are in fact "leveling" devices that the weak and mediocre resentfully use to put more talented and stronger spirits at a disadvantage. Accordingly, Nietzsche suggests that we go "beyond good and evil," beyond our tendencies to pass moralistic judgment and toward a more creative and naturalistic perspective.

Nietzsche denied the very idea of the "otherworldly" and the idea of an all-powerful benign deity. As an antidote to the Christian worldview, which treats human life as a mere path to the afterlife, Nietzsche advocates a revival of the ancient view of "eternal recurrence," the view that time repeats itself cyclically. If one were to take this image of eternal recurrence seriously and imagine that one's life must be lived over and over again, suddenly there is enormous weight on what otherwise might seem like the mere "lightness" of being. But it is life, this existence, that alone counts for anything.

Martin Heidegger (18891971)

Heidegger was a theology student before he became a phenomenologist, and his concerns were existentialist concerns, questions about how to live and how to live "authentically," that is, with integrity, in a politically and technologically seductive and dangerous world. His philosophy falls into two parts. His early work as a phenomenologist, culminating in his great tome, Sein und Zeit (1927; English trans. Being and Time, 1962), suggests that he deserves to be counted among the existentialists. Like Kierkegaard, he investigates the meaning of authentic existence, the significance of our mortality, our place in the world and among other people as an individual. Heidegger's later work takes a different turn as he comes to see how his early work is still mired in the suppositions of traditional metaphysics. His philosophy seeks a new openness, a new receptivity toward the world, one that turns out to be very much in line with the program of many radical or "deep" ecologists and, as Heidegger himself later discovered, with several non-Western cultures, which had never been distracted by humanistic arrogance of his own philosophical tradition.

Heidegger's "existentialist" philosophy begins with a profound anti-Cartesianism, an uncompromising holism that rejects any dualism regarding mind and body, the distinction between subject and object, and the very language of "consciousness," "experience," and "mind." Thus he begins with an analysis of Dasein (literally, "being-there"). But the question emerges, because we are the "ontological" (self-questioning) creatures we are, just who this Dasein is. Thus Heidegger's philosophy becomes a search for authenticity or "own-ness" (Eigentlichkeit ), or personal integrity. This search for authenticity will carry us into the now familiar but ever-renewed questions about the nature of the self, and the meaning of life, as well as Heidegger's somewhat morbid central conception of "Being-unto-Death." It will also lead to Heidegger's celebration of tradition and "heritage," the importance of resolutely committing oneself to one's given culture.

In contrast to the Cartesian view of the primacy and importance of knowledge, Heidegger suggests that what attaches or "tunes" us to the world is not knowledge but moods. It is in our moods, not the detached observational standpoint of knowledge, that we are "tuned in" to our world. Mood is the starting point for understanding the nature of the self and who we are, and much of Heidegger's analysis of Dasein is in terms of its moods, angst and boredom, for example.

What Dasein cannot be is what Descartes called "a thinking thing." But, then, who is Dasein, what is the self? It is, at first, merely the roles that other people cast for me, as their son, their daughter, their student, their sullen playmate, their clever friend. That self, the Das Man self, is a social construction. Their is nothing authentic, nothing that is my own, about it. The authentic self, by contrast, is discovered in profound moments of unique self-recognition, notably, when one faces one's own death. It is not enough to acknowledge that "we are all going to die." That, according to Heidegger, is merely an objective truth and inauthentic. It is one's own death that matters here, and one's "own-ness" thus becomes "Being-unto-Death," facing up in full to one's own mortality.

Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980)

Sartre developed his existentialist philosophy during the difficult years of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris, where he lived and spent virtually his entire life. At the center of his philosophy was an all-embracing notion of freedom and an uncompromising sense of personal responsibility. In the oppressive conditions of the Nazi occupation and during the embattled years following the war, Sartre insisted that everyone is responsible for what he or she does and for what he or she becomes or "makes of oneself," no matter what the conditions, even in war and in the face of death. Sartre later insisted that he never ceased to believe that "in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one" (New Left Review, 1971) an only slight revision of his earlier, brasher slogan, "man makes himself." To be sure, as a student of Hegel and Marxand as one afflicted by physical frailty and the tragedies of the warSartre had to be well aware of the many constraints and obstacles to human freedom. But as a Cartesian, he never deviated from Descartes's classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one's "situation," Sartre tells us, but one is always free to "negate" that situation and to try to change it.

In his early work, Sartre follows Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, but he distinguishes between consciousness and the self. The self, Sartre suggests, is out there "in the world, like the self of another" (Transcendance of the Ego ). It is an ongoing project in the world, and Sartre's existentialism is very much bound to the question of how we create that self and how we try to evade that responsibility. This preliminary defense of freedom and the separation of self and consciousness provide the framework for Sartre's great philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of "being-in-itself" and "being-for-itself," which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosenour "facticity"and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and chooseour transcendence. We may find ourselves confronting certain factspoor health, a war, advancing age, or being Jewish in an anti-Semitic societybut it is always up to us what to make of these and how to respond to them. We may occupy a distinctive social role as a policeman or a waiter, but we are always something more; we always transcend such positions. When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in "bad faith." It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by "human nature." It is also bad faith to ignore the always restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choices must be made. We are always trying to define ourselves, but we are always an "open question," a self not yet made. Thus, Sartre tells us, we have a frustrated desire to "be God," to be both in-itself and for-itself, defined and free.

Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls "being-for-others." Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone "catches us in the act," and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear "for others." We "pin down" one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves.

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason (19581959), Sartre turned increasingly to politics and to a defense of Marxism in accordance with existentialist principles. He rejected the materialist determinism of Marxism, but he contended that political solidarity was the condition most conducive to authenticity. Not surprisingly, Sartre found the possibility of such solidarity in revolutionary engagement.

Simone de Beauvoir (19081986)

Simone de Beauvoir deserves special mention as a philosophical novelist who shared with Sartre this emphasis on freedom and responsibility for what one is and "what one makes of what is made of one." In her Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947; English trans. Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948) she spelled out the ethical implications of Sartre's philosophy. Beauvoir advanced the important thesis (shared with Merleau-Ponty) that the "ambiguity" of situations always undermines the wishful thinking that demands "right" and "wrong" answers. Beauvoir was always fascinated by her society's resistance to sensitive topics and consequently became one of the most controversial authors of the age. Beauvoir was appalled that her society, and virtually all societies, gave very little attention to the problems and inequities afflicting women. Later in life, she attacked the unsympathetic insensitivity to the inevitability of aging.

Beauvoir's most lasting contribution to philosophy and social thought was her revolutionary discussion of what it meant to be a woman. In Le deuxième sexe (1949; English trans. The Second Sex, 1953) Beauvoir initiates a discussion on the significance of gender. Hers is a powerful existentialist perspective in which gender becomes a matter of choice and imposition (being-for-others) and not a matter of mere biological facticity.

Albert Camus (19131960)

Camus borrowed from Heidegger the sense of being "abandoned" in the world, and he shared with Sartre the sense that the world does not give meaning to individuals. But whereas Sartre joined Heidegger in insisting that one must make meaning for oneself, Camus concluded that the world is "absurd," a term that has (wrongly) come to represent the whole of existentialist thinking. Indeed, one of the persistent errors in the popular understanding of existentialism is to confuse its emphasis on the "meaninglessness" of the universe with an advocacy of despair or "existential angst." Camus insists that the absurd is not license for despair.

At the outset of World War II, Camus published a novel entitled L'étranger (1942; first trans. in English as The Outsider, 1955; best known by the title The Stranger ) and an essay called Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; English trans. The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955). With those two books, he became a spokesman for the new modern morality, the ability to face life in the face of "the Absurd," a metaphysical a sense of confrontation between ourselves and an "indifferent universe." The Myth of Sisyphus is ostensibly a re-telling of the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend all of eternity pushing a rock up a mountain, where it would then roll back down of its own weight. This is the fate of all of us, Camus suggested. We expend all of our energy pushing our weight against futility and frustration. Camus presents the question of whether life is worth living, or, put differently, whether we ought to commit suicide. Camus's Sisyphus throws himself into his meaningless project, and thereby makes it meaningful. "One must consider Sisyphus happy," concludes Camus, and so, too, by acknowledging and throwing ourselves into the absurdity of our own lives, might we be.

The protagonist of The Stranger, by way of contrast, accepts the absurdity of life without much thinking about it. Is our acceptance of the absurd therefore tinged with bitterness and resentment? Camus seems torn between acceptance and defiance. Similar themes motivate La Peste (1947; English trans. The Plague, 1948) and L'Homme révolté (1951; English trans. The Rebel, 1954). In Camus's final novel, La Chute (1956; English trans. The Fall, 1957), a perverse character named Jean-Baptiste Clamence exemplifies the culmination of all of the bitterness and despair for the most part rejected by his previous characters and in his earlier essays. Clamence, like Meursault in The Stranger, refuses to judge people, but Clamence makes the refusal to judge a matter of philosophical principle, "for who among us is innocent?" Indeed, how can one be innocent in a world that is absurd?

Existentialism today has weathered thirty years of post-modernism and a shift of the center of philosophy from Europe to America. Enthusiasm for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre is as great as ever, and the philosophy of choice and responsibility remains the cornerstone of a great deal of American philosophy, even among those who would not recognize their debt to the existentialists.

See also Marxism ; Phenomenology ; Rationalism ; Religion ; Romanticism in Literature and Politics .

bibliography

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Camus, Albert. The Fall, and Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1957.

. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1955.

. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1948.

. The Stranger. Translated by Matthew Ward. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

. Either/Or. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Douglas Smith. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Translated by Duncan Large. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

. No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Translated by S. Gilbert and L. Abel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.

Solomon, Robert C. From Hegel to Existentialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Robert C. Solomon

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Existentialism

EXISTENTIALISM

EXISTENTIALISM, a philosophical and literary movement identified largely with the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, gained influence after World War I. The roots of existentialism are varied, found in the work of the Danish religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Sartre's philosophy was influenced by the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and philosopher Martin Heidegger. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to define. It is as much a mood or temper as it is a philosophical system. The religious existentialism of Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel differs from the resolute atheism of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Nonetheless, certain essential assumptions are shared.

In existentialism, existence is both freedom and despair. In a world without apparent meaning or direction, the individual is radically free to act. Most individuals are afraid to confront the responsibility entailed by radical freedom. In Sartrean terms, bad faith and inauthenticity allow individuals to consider themselves as an essence, a fixed entity; they playact in life. In contrast, the existential individual refuses illusions. Death looms as a boundary situation, defining the limits of existence. The recognition of such limits and the responsibility for one's actions lead to an existential despair that can overwhelm the individual.

However, Sartre, Beauvoir, and religious existentialists consider despair a painful but necessary stop on the road to freedom. Since existence is prior to essence, the existential individual at every moment confronts the nothingness of existence. Transcendence occurs when the individual undertakes a project that will give meaning to his or her life. While such acts are individually subjective, they are intertwined with everyone else's reality. No act, or failure to act, is without larger meaning and context. Existentialism, initiated with the subjective despair of the individual, ends with an ethic founded upon the shared goal of human solidarity.

Religious existentialism also begins with individual anguish and despair. Men and women are radically alone, adrift in a world without apparent meaning. Religious existentialists, however, confront meaning through faith. Since existentialism is concerned with the individual and concrete experience, religious faith must be subjective and deep. Faith is less a function of religious observance than of inner transformation. But, as Kierkegaard elucidated, because of the enormous distance between the profane and the sacred, existential religious faith can never be complacent or confident. For existential men and women, whether religious or secular, life is a difficult process of becoming, of choosing to make themselves under the sign of their own demise. Life is lived on the edge.

Sartre and Beauvoir believed that existentialism would fail to catch hold in the United States, because it was a nation marked by optimism, confidence, and faith in progress. They were mistaken. Existentialism not only became significant in the postwar years, but it had been an important theme earlier. This is hardly surprising, because an existential perspective transcends national or historical boundaries. It is, as many existentialists have argued, part of the human condition.

American Existentialism: Before the Fact

An existential mood or perspective has long been important in America. Kierkegaard's theology of despair was anticipated in the Puritan's anguished religious sensibility. The distance between the individual and God that defined Puritanism has existential echoes, as the historian Perry Miller noted in his study of Jonathan Edwards's theology. Herman Melville's character Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851) personifies the existential individual battling to create meaning in a universe abandoned by God. Radical alienation and the search for meaning in an absurd world are common themes in the work of the late-nineteenth-century writer Stephen Crane. William James, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, posited a pluralistic and wild universe. His vision promoted both radical freedom and anguish of responsibility. For James, much like Sartre later, consciousness is an active agent rather than an essence. Therefore, the individual must impose order on the universe or confront a life without depth or meaning. Similarly, turn-of-the-century dissenters from American optimism and progress, such as James, Henry Adams, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., developed an existential perspective that appreciated the tragic elements in modern life and that upheld a heroically skeptical stance in the face of the absurd nature of existence. In the 1920s, novelists from the Lost Generation, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, spiritually wounded survivors of World War I, presented characters adrift, searching for existential meaning in their lives.

Kierkegaard in America

Beginning in the late 1920s, largely through the efforts of the retired minister Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard's existential theology entered into American intellectual life. By the late 1940s, most of Kierkegaard's writings had been translated by Lowrie. For Lowrie and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaard's impassioned Christian perspective, with its emphasis on how the reality of death granted meaning to life, questioned the complacency of mainstream Protestantism. Kierkegaard offered a tragic vision of life based on faith rather than church dogma. The Kierkegaardian focus on the inner life, on the individual wrestling with God, fit well with the perspective of many intellectuals and artists in America who were filled with anxiety and in search of transcendence. By the 1940s, and well into the 1960s, Kierkegaardian ideas appeared in the Pulitzer Prize–winning poem The Age of Anxiety (1947) by W. H. Auden, in a symphony based on that work by Leonard Bernstein, in the paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and in the novels of Walker Percy. The political implications of Kierkegaardian existentialism were generally conservative. The former communist agent Whittaker Chambers found a refuge from radical politics in Kierkegaard; others discovered that Kierkegaardian concerns about anxiety and salvation led them away from political engagement and toward an inward despair or religious sanctuary.

French Existentialism in America

In the wake of the economic and physical destruction caused by World War II in Europe and the dawning of the Cold War and nuclear age, French existentialism became a worldwide vogue. It seemed to be a philosophy appropriate for the postwar world. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus triumphantly visited the United States in the late 1940s. Their writings were quickly translated and reached wide audiences. Sartre's philosophical opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), was translated by Hazel E. Barnes in 1956. In that same year, the Princeton University professor Walter Kaufmann's important anthology of existentialist writings appeared. In this work, and in many other popularizations and collections of existentialism, the existential canon was narrowly presumed to be thoroughly European, in origin and current expression.

By the 1950s, existentialism fit neatly into the general sense of alienation and tragedy popular among American intellectuals. Existentialism's emphasis on the sanctity of the individual, his or her rejection of absolutes, and comprehension of the alienating nature of modern existence fed into postwar examinations of the totalitarian temper. For the African American writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, existential ideals allowed them to critique both Marxism and American racism. Each of them sought in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the help of existentialism, to ground their characters within the concrete experiences of racism while relating problems to the human condition. The novelist Norman Mailer's existentialism presented the battle between good and evil as at the heart of the human condition. The art critic Harold Rosenberg's concept of action art defined abstract expressionist painting with the vocabulary of existentialism. Although many intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review rejected existentialism because of Sartre and Beauvoir's radical politics, they nevertheless shared basic assumptions about the tragic responsibility that came with freedom.

Existentialism in the 1960s

For a younger generation, coming of age in the 1960s, the left-wing political associations of Sartrean existentialism were celebrated rather than rejected. Existentialism had become entrenched in the university curriculum by the early 1960s. Student radicals embraced existential commitment and rejected inauthenticity. Existentialism gave students a language to question the complacent assumptions of American society. It placed all questions in the realm of choice; passivity was a choice not to act. For Robert Moses, the decision to go to Mississippi in the early 1960s to organize voting campaigns for disfranchised blacks was an existential commitment. The repression that he faced was part of the absurd nature of existence. His ability to continue, despite the violence, was testimony to his existential beliefs. The ideas of Beauvoir in her The Second Sex (U.S. translation, 1953) influenced the American women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Employing the terminology that she and Sartre had developed, Beauvoir's famous words that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" signaled the existential fact that woman existed not as an essence but as a being with the choice to create her own existence. Betty Friedan, most famously, used many of Beauvoir's concepts in her own influential book, The Feminine Mystique (1963).

The Fate of Existentialism

In the late 1970s, existentialism's popularity waned for a host of reasons. The existential imperative for the individual to choose, in the hands of pop psychologists, was stripped of its anguish and despair and corrupted into a rather facile expression of unlimited human potential. In academic culture, universalist ideals of the human condition and freedom conflicted with poststructural and postmodernist thought. But existentialism, like postmodernism, viewed identity as something created, albeit with a greater sense of anguish. Today, existentialism remains a symbol of alienation and a critique of confident individualism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barnes, Hazel E. An Existentialist Ethics. New York: Knopf, 1967.

———. The Story I Tell Myself: A Venture into Existentialist Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1958.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Fulton, Ann. Apostles of Sartre: Existentialism in America, 1945– 1963. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Kaufmann, Walter, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1956.

May, Rollo. The Meaning of Anxiety. New York: Ronald Press, 1950.

GeorgeCotkin

See alsoFeminine Mystique, The ; Individualism ; Moby-Dick ; Philosophy .

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Existentialism

Existentialism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Existentialism refers to a loosely knit movement holding, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, that existence comes before essence. This proposition should be understood in opposition to both rationalism and empiricism. Both philosophies, existentialism argues, overlook the unique character of being human, of being an existent thrown into a world without pregiven meaning or significance. Moreover, the human condition is such that it does not fit into even the most exhaustive system of objective concepts. Instead, it calls for a new language of analysis that finds its expression in the works of not only Sartre but also Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, Nicholai Berdyaev, and Lev Shestov.

These thinkerssome of whom rejected the label existentialistfound inspiration in the philosophies of a long list of forerunners. The most important ones are Søren Kierkegaards anti-Hegelian philosophy and Martin Heideggers phenomenological ontology. Common to both philosophies is the idea that being human is an issue for itself, that is, that the specter of death (finitude) makes it all-important how we interpret the primal nature of our own beingwhat Heidegger refers to as Dasein. The condition of Dasein is an ecstatic and angst-inducing one. To begin with, it discloses the historicity of our beliefs and habits, which in turn points to the openness of Being itself. But it also reveals the absence of a shared anchoran infinite void or fundamental nothingnesschallenging philosophys pretense to know the nature of our moral obligations and political responsibilities. Kierkegaard enacts the fear that follows from this challenge through an analysis of cases such as Abrahams sacrifice of his son, a case in which Gods commandment is comprehensible, not as a universal law pertaining to all, but as an injunction addressed to Abraham in his singularity.

The tension between the ecstatic and the fearful is important to the way in which existentialism approaches its main themes: intentionality, intersubjectivity, meaning, and human freedom. One line of researchassociated with theologians such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillichinterprets these themes from a theistic perspective according to which the affirmation of God, although itself an act of madness, is the proper answer to the meaninglessness of contemporary existence. Another lineperhaps better knownentails a turn to atheistic humanism. Sartre dramatizes this turn in his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit). At issue in this play is the way in which individuals take responsibility for their own lives. The play revolves around three strangers who confront the singularity of their deaths in a room that has no significance, no signs of some higher Being. The result is not only a sense of absurdityone that reveals the inauthenticity of everyday life (whether lived in a bourgeoisie manner or not)but also a need for turning this absurdity into a cause for engaging ones own life head on. We must transcend the contingency of our surroundings in order to become authentic beings. As Inez, one of the three main characters in the play, says, You areyour life, and nothing else.

Although significant, it is important not to overstate the differences between the atheistic and theistic brands of existentialism. Both brands criticize the churchs appropriation of God; and both brands emphasize living an authentic existence through an encounter with a transcendent of some sort. The political implications that impinge on existentialisms analysis of the human condition, then, are first and foremost related to the concepts of freedom and free will. Humans are free in the sense that (1) neither God nor any value or command binds their choices, (2) their concept of selfhood hinges on the intentional activity directed toward things in the world, and (3) reality proper is what follows from this kind of activity. While this may give the impression that existentialism is committed to an individualistic ideology, it is important not to mistake the affirmation of freedom (and free will) for a lack of interest in criticizing the liberal state. Because humans are free, and because they constitute reality through their own undertakings, they must also take active responsibility for society as a whole. The existentialist movement translates this responsibility into an often Marxist-inspired critique of male domination, technology, and capitalism.

SEE ALSO Empiricism; Epistemology; Essentialism; Freedom; Phenomenology; Philosophy; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Supreme Being

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cooper, David E. 1990. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, Martin. 1927. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1843. Fear and Trembling: Repetition. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1944. No Exit. In No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1945. Existentialism and Humanism. Trans. Philip Mairet. In Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, ed. Stephen Priest. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Lars Tønder

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existentialism

existentialism (ĕgzĬstĕn´shəlĬzəm, ĕksĬ–), any of several philosophic systems, all centered on the individual and his relationship to the universe or to God. Important existentialists of varying and conflicting thought are Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean-Paul Sartre. All revolt against the traditional metaphysical approaches to man and his place in the universe. Thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, and Friedrich Nietzsche have been called existentialists, but it is more accurate to place the beginnings of the movement with Kierkegaard. In his concern with the problem of the individual's relationship to God, Kierkegaard bitterly attacked the abstract metaphysics of the Hegelians and the worldly complacency of the Danish church. Kierkegaard's fundamental insight was the recognition of the concrete ethical and religious demands confronting the individual. He saw that these demands could not be met by a merely intellectual decision but required the subjective commitment of the individual. The necessity and seriousness of these ethical decisions facing man was for Kierkegaard the source of his dread and despair. Kierkegaard's analysis of the human situation provides the central theme of contemporary existentialism. Following him, Heidegger and Sartre were the major thinkers connected with this movement. Both were influenced by the work of Edmund Husserl and developed a phenomenological method that they used in developing their own existential analyses. Heidegger rejected the label of "existentialist" and described his own philosophy as an investigation of the nature of being in which the analysis of human existence is only the first step. Sartre was the only self-declared existentialist among the major thinkers. For him the central idea of all existential thought is that existence precedes essence. For Sartre there is no God and therefore no fixed human nature that forces one to act. Man is totally free and entirely responsible for what he makes of himself. It is this freedom and responsibility that, as for Kierkegaard, is the source of man's dread. Sartre's thought, as expressed in his novels and plays as well as in his more formal philosophical writings, strongly influenced a current in French literature, best represented by Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. In France the most prominent exponent of a Christian existentialism was Gabriel Marcel, who developed his philosophy within the framework of the Roman Catholic Church. Aside from Heidegger, the leading German existentialist was Karl Jaspers, who developed the central Kierkegaardian insight along less theological lines. Various other theologians and religious thinkers such as Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr are often included within the orbit of existentialism.

See J.-P. Sartre, Existentialism (1947); J. Macquarrie, Studies in Christian Existentialism (1966); R. C. Solomon, ed., Existentialism (1974); D. E. Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction (1990); D. B. Raymond, ed., Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition (1991).

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Existentialism

Existentialism. A disparate trend concentrated mainly in the second quarter of the 20th cent. but with roots in 19th-cent. European thought, especially in the writings of S. Kierkegaard, F. Dostoevsky, and F. Nietzsche. Existentialism is more a pervasive ‘mood’ than a united movement or ‘school’ of thought. However, recurrent features are: (i) deep suspicion of the claims of permanent systems or traditional ideologies, whether religious, metaphysical, or political; (ii) contempt for most academic philosophy as superficial and irrelevant to basic human needs and central human concerns; (iii) concern for the human condition as determined by the ever-present threat of death and ultimate meaninglessness; (iv) conception of human nature as unfixed and unfinished; (v) life as a series of ambiguous possibilities; and, (vi) disengagement from public issues and focus on the solitary individual and the decisions s/he is required to make in ‘the moment’.

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existentialism

existentialism Any of several philosophical systems concerned with the nature of existence or being. Søren Kierkegaard is regarded as the founder of the movement. He rejected metaphysics, arguing an individual is forced to make their own ethical decisions. Martin Heidegger developed these ideas in relation to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Karl Jaspers argued that the greatest insights into existence were experienced in extreme situations. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the central tenet of existentialism was that existence precedes essence. He declared that there was no God, and that individuals were “condemned to be free”. Sartre's writings influenced Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

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existentialism

ex·is·ten·tial·ism / ˌegziˈstenchəˌlizəm/ • n. a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. DERIVATIVES: ex·is·ten·tial·ist n. & adj.

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existentialism

existentialism A loose philosphical label applied to the work of, amongst others, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietszche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. It refers to the systematic investigation of the nature of human existence, giving priority to immediate experiences of aloneness, death, and moral responsibility. See also EXISTENTIAL SOCIOLOGY.

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existentialism

existentialism a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.

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