Existentialism was perhaps one of the most profound philosophical movements of the past two centuries. This sample philosophical essay from Ultius will begin with a definition and overview of what existentialism actually is, including its key principles and concerns and proceed to briefly summarize seven different existentialist philosophers before bringing existentialism into the present day by mentioning one contemporary writer who is working within this tradition,
What Is Existentialism?
There are two main ways to define existentialism. The first is according to the technical philosophical proposition that existence precedes essence: this basically means that there is no human nature per se, and that people develop their own natures as a result of the experiences they have and the decisions they make as they go about the business of living in the world. There surely are some existentialist philosophers who adhere to this position.
However, existentialism, more broadly understood, can also cover thinkers and writers who do not necessarily adhere to this philosophical idea. Some key writers who have been traditionally called existentialists do in fact believe in a very specific idea of human nature; that is, they believe that human essence precedes human existence.
The philosophical definition of existentialism
Existentialism can also be defined as a philosophical posture, or attitude, toward reality and the world. This posture/attitude is characterized by a deep and active concern about what it means to be an actual human being who is alive and living in the world. This ethos differentiates existentialism from other philosophical traditions—such as rationalism, for example, which primarily focuses on cognitively “figuring out” the world as opposed to holistically living within it. As such, the question of the individualistic meaning of life is a central concern that animates the thought of any and all existential philosophers.
The existentialists first and foremost want to understand what it means to be human; what this human life is really all about; and whether and how it is possible to live a human existence in a morally responsible and emotionally meaningful way. This is the broad definition of existentialism according to which all of the writers who will be discussed below can be called existentialists.
Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered the forefather of the existential philosophical tradition. Kierkegaard hailed from Denmark and lived from 1813 to 1855; and his output of works is extremely diverse, consisting of a mixture of works signed under various pseudonyms and sermons signed under his own name. Kierkegaard differs from several later existentialist thinkers in that his outlook on the world is devoutly Christian in nature.
However, one should not be confused by this word—for part of Kierkegaard’s entire point was to radically reimagine what Christianity even is, which included a radical critique of the dominant church within his own contemporary society. One of Kierkegaard’s more famous aphorisms is that “subjectivity is truth;” and his entire work can be understood as the fleshing-out of a deeply poetic vision of the nature of human consciousness and the human condition.
Friedrich Nietzsche was German, and he lived from the years 1844 to 1900. Nietzsche’s fundamental philosophical concern consisted of what he saw as the complete dissolution of values within the context of his contemporary European society; and he wanted to find a way forward to a new world animated by new—and his opinion, more noble—values. Nietzsche famously declared that he wanted to create values that were “beyond good and evil;” indeed, that is even the title of one of his more important works.
What he meant by this was that the traditional categories of good and evil were more or less arbitrary constructions built upon the basest of emotions (such as resentment), and that it would thus be necessary to go beyond them in order to develop truer and more authentic values. An important metaphysical concept in Nietzsche’s thinking is the “will to power:” he posited that this impulse toward growth, struggle, and dominance was at the heart not only human nature but also the entire world.
Fyodor Dostoevsky hailed from Russia, and he lived from 1821 to 1881. As a young man, Dostoevsky gained some fame by writing within the established literary tradition of his time. However, he was eventually arrested for putatively engaging in subversive political activities, underwent a mock execution where he literally thought he only had a few minutes left to live, and was sent to prison in Siberia for many years.
It seems that this experience triggered something of a religious epiphany within Dostoevsky: all of his most famous and revered works were written after his experience in prison. It is during this time that he developed his characteristic vision of the conflicts between reason and faith, and nihilism and the Gospel. These conflicts are dramatized most thoroughly in Dostoevsky’s final novel The Brothers Karamazov, although they are omnipresent in all his other major works as well, paricularly his most famous, Crime and Punishment.
Lev Shestov is a lesser known existentialist, at least within the English-speaking world; but he was quite famous in his time, and his ideas are still very valuable for anyone who is engaging with the existentialist tradition from a more religious angle. Shestov was also Russian and lived from the years 1866 to 1938. The main gist of Shestov’s philosophy—which is almost not a philosophy in any systematic sense, insofar as his writings primarily have an aphoristic quality—is that there is a fundamental conflict between reason on the one hand and faith on the other, when it comes to grasping the meaning of this human life.
This is exemplified, for example, in the very title of his key work Athens and Jerusalem (which could just as well be called Athens versus Jerusalem): Athens is the seat of rational philosophy, whereas Jerusalem is the seat of revealed religion. Lev Shestov echoes Kierkegaard in many respects; and historically speaking, his significance perhaps rests in the fact that he continued to carry the flag of religious existentialism in a world that was growing increasingly rationalistic and secular over the course of the years.
Jean-Paul Sartre is a Frenchman who lived from 1905-1980, and he generally considered the central figure of secular, twentieth-century existentialism. Sartre is the one who most clearly formulated the technical definition of existentialism mentioned above:
“What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards” (paragraph 9).
Sartre’s philosophical vision thus implies a radical freedom at the heart of the human condition. This, however, often came into conflict with Sartre’s own Marxist loyalties, insofar Marxism specifically indicates that human beings are not free but are rather shaped and defined by their life situations. This is a tension that will be explored in greater depth in the forthcoming blog post dedicated to this philosopher.
Martin Heidegger hailed from Germany and lived from the years of 1889 to 1976. His key work Being and Time is often considered to be one of the defining and most important works of all of existential philosophy (insofar as one does not, with some fairness, just dismiss it as completely unreadable). One of the key concepts in Heidegger’s thought is Dasein—an untranslatable German word that is generally rendered into English by the phrase “being-in-the-world”.
The main idea here is that the traditional distinction between subjective self and objective world may not necessarily be valid, insofar as any living human being always finds himself immersed in the world and cannot really imagine himself independently from that world. Heidegger’s legacy has been marked by controversy due to his clearly documented sympathy for Nazism. This has led some to inquire into whether this was just an idiosyncrasy on the part of Heidegger, or whether it was in some way a natural consequence of some of the aspects of his actual philosophy.
Albert Camus was French and lived from 1913 to 1960. He was initially friends with Sartre, but they eventually experienced an irreconcilable break over political matters. A key concept in Camus’s thought is “the absurd”: this refers to the manifest contradiction between a subjective mind which longs for existential meaning, and an objective world which often fails to provide it.
Over time, Camus develops the concept of revolt out of the concept of the absurd, suggesting that the shared revolt of humankind against the absurdity of their own condition could itself serve as the genesis of real existential meaning. Albert Camus, while clearly holding left-wing political sympathies, differed from much of the rest of the French intellectual Left (and especially from Sartre) in his clear condemnation of Stalinism and Communism, on the grounds that they betrayed the ideal of human solidarity through existential revolt
Existentialism is by no means a thing of the past. Indeed, according to the general definition of existentialism as a posture/attitude of active concern regarding the human condition, it is clear that existentialism is actually a perennial philosophy, and that anyone at all with such concerns can be an existentialist. This is exemplified by a young American named Sethu A. Iyer, born in 1988, who just recently published a work called Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance.
This work constitutes a record of his own spiritual journey, in search of a deeply personal vision of the meaning of the human condition as a whole. He draws heavily on several of the writers discussed above, especially Kierkegaard. The ethos of Iyer’s work makes it clear that anyone who has active concerns about the human condition can still very much pick up the existentialist flag—even in its religious aspect—and continue working within this tradition of philosophical thought. The final post of the present series of essays will delve further into this subject.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a general introduction to existentialism and key writers within the existentialist philosophical tradition. The subsequent posts in the series will delve more deeply into the thought of the various writers that have been discussed above, beginning with Kierkegaard and proceeding all the way up to existentialism today and imply that there may in fact be an existentialist lurking within every common person and not just the philosophers of the past.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage. 1991. Print.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.
Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Essential Kierkegaard. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2000. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” 1946. Marxists.org. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. .
Shestov, Lev. Athens and Jerusalem. Trans. Bernard Martin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print.