Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Existentialism a basic guide....

I took a lot of philosophy classes at NYU when I was younger. I studied Existentialism quite rigorously. In fact, on the test, I chose not to answer any of the questions and I got 100%.
Stardust Memories’ (Woody Allen)

Though some of the main ideas now associated with existentialism can be found in many earlier writings, principally of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers and Nietzsche[1], it was the French novelist, playwright, literary critic, psychoanalyst, Marxist, political revolutionary, and philosopher ,[2] Jean Paul Sartre who shaped, refined and in many ways invented the doctrine of what became known as existentialism.
Sartre is certainly credited with being the most powerful advocate for what is effectively a contemporary school of thought, but it was some of Sartre’s contemporaries like Simone de Beauvior, Gabriel Marcel and Albert Camus who were also the principal figures in the movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s [3] and helped Sartre materialise some of the core features of existential philosophy.
So what are the core features of existential philosophy?
Sartre clearly states that “man is nothing but that which he makes of himself” as the first principle of existentialism.[4] That is to say man defines himself in the world by the choices he chooses for himself.
Though no great ‘movement’[5] or theory to come out of the western world can ever be summed up in a sentence – indeed it is the very purpose of this essay to summarise and shed light on half a century’s worth of ideas – Sartre gives an accomplished and very credible attempt: “Man is nothing but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”[6]
Existentialism can be compared to the American Dream, Protestant and general Capitalist conceptions in that each strives for and puts enormous emphasis on ‘making something for yourself’.[7] However, unlike the materialistic objective to that which particularly the American Dream and Capitalism emphasises – namely financial success/security, social status, family values, property achievements, investment attributes (mostly wealth prospects, let’s be frank) – the existential doctrine differs from the ambiguous notion of ‘making something for yourself’ in that it decodes the adage a lot more literally. There is no need for an interpretation between the lines. For the existentialist, to ‘make something for yourself’ quite literally translates to making every decision for yourself.
A fundamental principle of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence”[8] But what exactly does this mean?
Sartre gives an analogy of an artisan manufacturing a paper-knife. Put briefly: the artisan has a conception of the knife’s existence. This is the essence of the knife. He makes the paper-knife using pre-existing production techniques, and viola! the paper-knife now exists. So from a technical standpoint, production precedes existence. In this case, essence precedes existence.[9]
What existentialism argues is that existence precedes essence. There is no essence of man until he is. Now that he is, his essence becomes what he makes of himself.
This ultimately brings forth the question of God. If there is a deity, surely he/she preconceived the notion of man, so in this sense the essence of man precedes his existence. Sartre’s argument is simple and empirically logical – there is no God. “There is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it.”[10] According to Sartre, if God exists, man cannot be free; and if man is free, then God cannot exist.[11]
This, however does not rule out the possibility of religious existentialism. Atheistic existentialism is merely a personal belief held by Sartre. He has said that “nothing will be changed if God does not exists”,[12] which at the same time – effectively, paradoxically – proves just the opposite as well, that nothing will be changed if God does exist, because the point of existentialism is not to argue the existence of God – it doesn’t matter either way – rather it’s whether we choose to believe in a God.  As Kierkegaard, an existential philosopher and devout Christian, once said, “Christianity is not a doctrine but an existential communication.”[13]
By choosing to accept the moral codes insinuated in many religious creeds is a choice that the individual makes for himself. If he chooses to agree and accept these codes, then that is the essence he will create for himself. No man is born with the 10 Commandments imbedded into his moral psyche or ethical cerebrum. Determinism is rejected in existentialism (however it is accepted – or at least not rejected – by the existentialist in science[14]). An example could be a princess, born into royalty. The decision to ‘live’ the princess is entirely subjective and although there may be external pressures to be the princess, the decision (once she reaches an intellectual capacity to understand the consequences of her actions) is completely her own, irrespective of family expectation, threats or even physical coercion. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink – the horse in this case epitomises the existential ethic.
Sartre says “you are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do.”[15] This is considered a weak point by most religious doctrines, which would argue that the text/creed (Bible, Koran etc.) would act as a “rule of general morality”, or as giving us signs (signifiers) about how to live our lives. Man has chosen to accept his faith post-existence, which is accepted in existentialism. Sartre debates this: “Very well; still, it is I myself, in every case, who have to interpret the signs.”[16]
Another weakness sited is that existentialism is elitist, because for Sartre, only a few choice people are able to escape what he calls ‘mauvaise foi’, or ‘bad faith’, the willingness to face up to the fact that we are free and responsible for ourselves. The vast numbers of people, the “herd”, are incapable of realising this[17]. This is retorted by accepting that existentialism is merely culturally elitist, not social, meaning it does not correspond with social hierarchy; i.e. not necessarily related to education – it solely relies on the individual; outstanding individuals, who in odd cases, in peculiar environments, “pop up”[18].
Sartre argues that there is no set standard for self-identity, either for individuals or for people in general, and therefore there is no such thing as ‘human nature’. What it means to be human, according to Sartre, are always matters of decision, and these decisions do not accredit a ‘correct’ choice; merely choice in itself is the only true thing we can expect to encounter as part of our ‘human nature’.[19]
In every case, opting out of a decision is still a decision. Existentialism, in the words of Sartre, frankly states that choosing not to choose is still a choice.[20]
This brings us to the fact that we are “condemned to be free”.[21] Condemned because we did not create ourselves, nor ask to be born, but we are here – that is to say, we do exist, our being is realised – and therefore entirely responsible for our freedom. Sartre notes, however, that we cannot even ask the question of ‘why was I born?’ or curse the day of our birth because of our facticity (the facts or specific circumstances that are true of a person) being that we are alive, is ‘inapprehensible’; we never encounter anything except our responsibility.[22]
If a choice presents itself as a lesser of two evils, we are condemned because we must make a choice (remembering that not choosing is still choice), and consequentially we are held entirely responsible for our decision. We are condemned because we are abandoned; alone and without help.[23] Condemned because it is “in anguish that we become conscious of our freedom.”[24] A military commander will (if he has not previously) fully realise the extent of his freedom in anguish, when he alone takes full responsibility for sending his troops out into battle.[25]
With this in mind, we can consider that Sartre purposes that “in choosing for ourselves, we choose for all mankind.”[26] Our choices invariably affect others, as noted in the above example. Sartre says that what we choose is always the best option for all mankind because we are unable to ever to choose the worse option, and in this sense, by fashioning man as I myself wish to be fashioned, I will create a ‘mankind’ that I wish to be part of; thus since I am a part of this ‘mankind’ for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves in, our responsibility is much greater than we suppose, for it suggests our actions concern all mankind.[27]
This is a very valid point to suggest the optimism associated with existential philosophy. Contrary to feeling ‘condemned’ or viewing the weight of responsibility as a negative, accepting that the implications of our actions has a palpable effect on our fellow human being confirms a sense human camaraderie. You do not have to anything; everything is essentially a very free personal decision, but the fact that everything you do, you do for all mankind, undoubtedly makes existentialism a noble humanitarian philosophy for us to live by. My personal belief is that existential philosophy, by placing enormous emphasis on individuality, defining oneself by free and unadulterated choice, allows a freedom and responsibility that should be cherished. It is the apotheosis of what particularly the western world ascribes as being free; a free country, a free individual. I believe existentialism is so much more optimistic and enabling than any religious creed could ever allow for – agreeing with Sartre and Camus who both believe that religion alienates man from his true self and provides him with an excuse to evade the full responsibility of his freedom[28] – but be reminded that existentialism places absolutely no emphasis on whether there is a God or not, which is, in itself, is an excellent example of existentialism: you are free to decide for yourself whether you choose to believe in a deity or follow certain creeds. The decision, and hence responsibility, is entirely our own, which is where the ironic humour lies in Woody Allen’s joke.

  • 1. Max Charlesworth, The Existentialists and J-P Sartre (University of Queensland Press, 1975)
  • 2. Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • 3. Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘On Existentialism’, pg 352 – 353 in Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • 4 Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm\
  • 5. Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Absolute Freedom’, pg 495 – 498 in Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • 6. Jean Paul Sartre, Sartre’s Existentialism: Existence, Freedom ,and Responsibility: Brief Overview’, in Paul Healy (HAH 100 Blackboard – Learning Material, Topic 1)
  • 7. Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Existentialism as a Humanism’, pg 580 – 584 in Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • 8. David E. Cooper, Existentialism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990)

[1] David E. Cooper, Existentialism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990) pg. 1
  • [2] Max Charlesworth, The Existentialists and J-P Sartre (Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1975) pg. 79
  • [3] Charlesworth, ibid., pg. 1
  • [4] J-P Sartre, ‘On Existentialism’, in Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) pg. 353
  • [5] Cooper, ibid., pg. 2
  • [6] Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm) pg. 6
  • [7] Robert C. Soloman, Introducing Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) pg. 350
  • [8] Sartre (in Soloman), ibid., pg. 353
  • [9] Sartre (in Soloman), ibid., pg. 353
  • [10] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 353
  • [11] Charlesworth, ibid., pg. 17
  • [12] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 353
  • [13] Charlesworth, ibid., pg. 11
  • [14] Soloman, ibid., pg. 495
  • [15] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 7
  • [16] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 7
  • [17] Charlesworth, ibid., pg. 20
  • [18] Charlesworth, ibid., pg. 20
  • [19] Soloman, ibid., pg. 352
  • [20] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 11
  • [21] Soloman, ibid., pg. 495
  • [22] J-P Sartre, ‘Absolute Freedom’ (in Soloman), ibid., pg. 498
  • [23] J-P Sartre, Sartre’s Existentialism: Existence, Freedom ,and Responsibility: Brief Overview’, in Paul Healy (HAH 100 Blackboard – Learning Material, Topic 1) pg. 1
  • [24] Sartre (in ‘Healy’), ibid., pg. 1
  • [25] Sartre (online), ibid., pg. 5
  • [26] J-P Sartre, ‘Existentialism as a Humanism’ (in Soloman), ibid., pg. 581
  • [27] Sartre (in Soloman), ibid., pg. 581-582
  • [28] Charlesworth, ibid., pg.16

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