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Presentation on theme: "WHAT IS EXISTENTIALISM?"— Presentation transcript:

Understanding the “burning question” of the 1940s and beyond

2 WARNING! This is a VERY SIMPLIFIED explanation of the existentialist philosophy. It is neither complete nor comprehensive. If existentialism intrigues you, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy was a key source for this presentation, and has an excellent resource list as well. KNOW YOUR SOURCES – many web sources on existentialism are actually sites with agendas, rather than academic sites that attempt an unbiased presentation. CAVEAT EMPTOR.

3 Where did the term existentialism come from?
The author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre referred to his own work as embodying the “existentialist” idea. He had many people in his intellectual circle, and a number of them adopted the idea as a governing principle, and it came to refer to their ideology in general. This was roughly during the 1940s and 1950s.

4 Where did the term existentialism come from?
Not every philosopher or artist was a willing member of this new “existentialist” group. Many were lumped into the movement against their protests (Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, for example), while others were simply swept along by the timing and similarity of their works (Kafka, Ibsen, Beckett, and Dostoevsky)

5 What is existentialism, anyway?
In previous, classical philosophical discussions, all attempts to define what it means to be a human being came from two possible approaches: We are defined by our means of interacting with the world around us, which we can do in two ways. We can either consider our behavior through the laws of nature and (physically) or through the laws of ethics and morals (morally). In either case, we are defined based on our INTERACTIONS.

6 Where is existentialism different?
The existentialist position is that neither of those modes of thinking are sufficient to “fully capture what makes me, myself, my “ownmost” self. Without denying the validity of scientific categories (governed by the norm of truth) or moral categories (governed by norms of the good and the right), “existentialism” may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.” SDP, “Existentialism”

7 Huh? To simplify, to understand what it means to be human is more than understanding the scientific and moral laws of humanity. It requires understanding the essential youness of being you, that element that cannot be captured in objective science but must be sought through SUBJECTIVE, PASSIONATE examination.

8 Existence precedes Essence
Sartre’s motto, this phrase indicates what the author saw as a fundamental issue: We cannot say what it means to be human, because we create that meaning by the way we live as humans. In other words, we do not have a “standard” existence, but one that varies wildly according to the conditions affecting it.

9 Sartre on “Existence Precedes Essence”:
"What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, the human individual exists, turns up, appears in the world, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If the human individual, as the existentialist thinks of 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. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive of it. Not only is the human individual what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence." (Sartre, Existentialism, 481-2)

10 Authenticity: A measure of our existential success or failure
Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself, or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in? Committal to a role vs. the acceptance of a part The inauthentic person, in contrast, merely occupies such a role, and may do so “irresolutely,” without commitment. Authenticity is not synonymous with effectiveness, only with engagement. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern.

11 Authenticity and Freedom
There is no one, specific authentic path for a human being – nothing that can be thought of as a norm or standard. Rather, authenticity considers the question of whether I am, in pursuing a project, doing so in a committed manner (making it “my own”) or as merely a placeholder who is doing “what one does” to fit in. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom; I can choose my level of commitment as well as my physical connection and moral position.

12 With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!
So where does all the pain and angst come in? Aren’t the existentialists a big group of “emo kids?” Sartre says that humans are not like objects. We are free to choose our paths and are “self-creating” (in that we pick how we behave once we begin to exist), and thus, unlike objects, we are responsible for our own actions and choices. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!

13 Since we are thus responsible for our choices as individuals, we also must recognize that our individual choices have global impact – the choices each of us make affect everyone else, and therefore we are each responsible both for ourselves and for all of humanity.

Yeah, but…. Since I am responsible for both myself and the rest of the world, and since I have no one to turn to for help or instructions (since there is no divine force giving us moral or physical guidance in this paradigm), I am therefore doomed to live a life of ANGUISH, FORLORNNESS, AND DESPAIR!

15 ANGUISH The feeling that one is responsible for the entirety of the world, and that one’s choices are thus of overwhelming importance. We cannot escape our responsibilities, which loom over everything we do and color us with endless feelings of doubt and question.

16 FORLORNNESS A reaction to the absence of a god-figure in our world. We are ultimately alone in the universe with nothing but ourselves for guidance. This, given the people around us, is a scary, lonely thought.

17 Implications of the nonexistence of God:
No foundation for objective & absolute values. All values are human creations. Man is “condemned to be free.” We are alone, with no justifications & no excuses. Dostoevsky: "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." slide courtesy of

18 DESPAIR Since we must rely on others, and since others are essentially out of our control, yet we still are by definition responsible for ourselves and for everyone else, this creates a situation where we cannot possibly see how we can meet our responsibilities adequately, and thus we feel a sense of hopelessness and futility. (bummer.)

19 Comment (and Questions) on Sartre's Atheism
There is a difference between Sartre's atheism and the theism of philosophers like Anselm of Canterbury, or Thomas Aquinas, or Rene Descartes: The latter offer *philosophical arguments* in support of their belief in the reality of God. Sartre offers no arguments or reasons in support of his atheism. He has been called a "postulatory atheist," which means that he simply "postulates" (assumes without proof) the non-existence of God and goes on from there. If God does not exist, he reasons, then we are on our own, and we must face up to the fact that a life without God, if lived honestly, is a life full of anxiety, forlornness, and despair. If we don't face up to that, then we are not taking the non-existence of God seriously enough. We are not facing up to the full and real implications of being completely on our own in a meaningless universe. If we don't face up to that, then we are in serious denial - we are, truly, kidding ourselves. Sartre never gives any reasons for thinking that God does not exist. He does not find God present in his experience (phenomenologically considered). He just *postulates* the non-existence of God. He feels no obligation to prove that God does not exist. He probably thinks that that the *burden of proof* for the *existence* of God is on the theists, and he no doubt does not find any of the theistic arguments (e.g., of Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, etc.) persuasive. What is “phenomenology”? Phenomenology, in simple terms, is the study of our conscious experience from a first-person point of view. It is the manner in which we experience the world, and is thus FUNDAMENTALLY SUBJECTIVE, as opposed to other philosophical approaches such as ontology (the study of what exists), logic (the study of reasoning), or ethics (the study of moral values). When Sartre says God is not present in his experience, he means that he has never subjectively experienced God, and thus cannot prove or disprove his presence himself. He rather chooses to assume the negative, that God does not exist, based on that experience. (Again, thanks to Prof. Cronk for this slide)

20 Comment (and Questions) on Sartre's Atheism
However, Sartre is an atheist with a difference. He is not happy that God does not exist. Without God, we must live in anxiety, forlornness, and despair -- on our own, with no ultimate guidance, and also with no excuses for ourselves. Each one of us finds her/himself totally responsible for her/his existence. By contrast, thinkers such as Descartes (Cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am, which is itself a fairly clear example of phenomenology) and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that God does exist, although perhaps not in ways that we would ourselves come to those conclusions. Descartes, for example, argued that God must exist, essentially, because We can conceive of God. We cannot imagine something that does not in some way exist. Hence, God exists. God is perfect, by the definition of God. All things must have a cause or beginning, by the definition of experience. The idea of what constitutes something perfect, therefore, must come from somewhere, but since humans are imperfect, something other than humans must have been the cause of the idea of the perfect, or we wouldn’t be able to conceive of perfection. A perfect being is the only thing that could produce the idea of the perfect, so… God exists. This, of course, proves that the idea of God exists, but isn’t necessarily going to convince a skeptic, who will say that idea and actual are not necessarily the same. Since there is no proof of the actual God, we’re back to square one and existential angst all over again. (Again, thanks to Prof. Cronk for this slide)

21 Extensions of Existentialism
Note that not all existentialists were atheists like Sartre—some felt that existentialism did not preclude the belief in a divine figure. Indeed, they argue that because of the very elements that make existentialists existentialists—the need for personal responsibility, freedom of choice, and the inability to know the truth—we must instead choose to make the “leap of faith” to believe in a divine force. This is known as “theistic existentialism”, and differs in that it believes that, while life is absurd and without knowable meaning, that a meaning DOES exist—just beyond our understanding. Hence, we put our FAITH in the divine as the means to reach that meaning. Major players include Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

22 Kierkegaard’s 3 Stages on the Way of Life
Kierkegaard argued that humans may achieve three stages of awareness during their lives: Aesthetic – at this level, where most people remain all their lives, we enjoy intellectual pursuits or self-reflectiveness, but fail to see beyond ourselves and our own interests Ethical—at this level, we become aware of good and evil and take personal responsibility for dealing with it and the world as a whole. Ethical people act in a consistent and coherent manner and consider their actions as part of a societal whole. To commit to ethics is to commit to a life of purpose and passion. Religious—the highest level, this stage begins with an awareness of human sinfulness, and that salvation requires that God, a transcendent ideal, make himself subject to time and space paradoxically for the sake of humanity. This notion is so against all human reasoning as to be horrifying, but is the price humanity costs God, and why we owe so much to God as a result.

23 Existentialism in Art Blue (Moby Dick) – Jackson Pollock, 1943

24 Willem de Kooning – Woman and Bicycle (1953)
Existentialism in Art Willem de Kooning – Woman and Bicycle (1953)

25 Existentialist-influenced music and film
Jim Morrison, The Doors Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails Fight Club (and pretty much everything by Chuck Palahniuk) MAJOR THEME: THE STRUGGLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL TO FIT IN IN A WORLD OF HOPELESSNESS AND ABSURDITY


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