14.1 The Existential Tone

Søren Kierkegaard is said to have inaugurated modern existentialism in the early 19th century, while Jean-Paul Sartre is said to have been the last great existentialist thinker in the 20th century. The former was a devoted Christian and the latter a committed atheist, yet both are considered existentialists, which suggests a rather broad concept.

Existentialism is not so much a school of thought as an inexact label for different philosophies that share themes about the uniqueness of each human being, the centrality of choice, and the individual’s response to what seems to be an indifferent, absurd universe. Unconcerned with most traditional topics in metaphysics (apart from ontology) and science, existentialism is generally concerned with the individual’s choices about how to be. The main themes in this category are:

  • Individualism and subjectivity
  • Freedom and responsibility
  • Existence and essence
  • Anguish and absurdity
  • Authenticity

14.2 Kierkegaard

A strong advocate of the view that religious belief is an act of faith, not reason (fideism), Kierkegaard wrote his philosophical works (under various pseudonyms) as a means to lead his reader to this view.

In his more directly religious works, Kierkegaard accuses society (the crowd) of crushing individuals, diluting their personal identity, and replacing them with people who have forgotten how to live an authentic life. In other words, they lose contact with their subjectivity; they become impersonal, almost anonymous. Christianity, an intensely personal faith, Kierkegaard claims, reunites the person with his subjectivity. To be a Christian is to accept there are no guarantees, to go through a transformative experience that cannot and need not be justified, and need not accept the blessing of the Church. To be a Christian is to be concerned not with what is believed, but how it is believed.

14.3 Nietzsche

Best known for his presentation of the Übermensch, the concept of the will to power, and the claim that God is dead, Nietzsche was for years largely misunderstood. For Nietzsche, the fundamental principle of nature is the will to power; it is life itself.

The individual who recognizes and relentlessly affirms this will is the Übermensch. He is the one who does not succumb to the artificial distinctions created by Christian morality, which Nietzsche labels “master” and “slave.” Instead, he recognizes that the attributes associated with “master” morality—the very attributes Christianity derides—are actually those aligned with nature and the will to power. The slave moralists, on the other hand, are bogged down in concepts like good and evil, sympathy, love, and kindness. These are concepts that reflect a rejection of life. Since these concepts are associated with a belief in God, the death of God would be good news—is good news (in Thus Spake Zarathustra)—for that would free the slave.

But why is God dead? According to Nietzsche, science, technology, secularism, and worldly pursuits have already “killed” him. Humankind has not yet quite grasped this fact, and so is still embroiled in the aforementioned distinctions.

14.4 Heidegger

Most famous for his monumental work Being and Time, Heidegger also is known for his association with the Nazi party during Hitler’s reign. Some argue that his views cannot be distinguished from this affiliation, while others argue it can. Muddying the waters further, he resigned his position as philosophy chair at Freiburg University in 1934, but not his party membership. In addition, he had an enduring relationship with Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher and his former student.

Heidegger’s central question concerns being. Being concerns what we might call “pure existence”—not how an object exists or what it is that exists, but existence itself. Since a direct investigation is difficult, Heidegger chooses “that being for whom being is an issue,” namely Dasein. Understanding “being there,” or Dasein, may provide an entrée into being itself. But Dasein itself proves to be at least somewhat elusive. Using phenomenology, however, much can be learned.

Developed by Husserl, phenomenology is a way of painstakingly describing the data of consciousness without the distortions of preconceived ideas. Through this method, Heidegger identifies key features of Dasein and so being. Among them are that Dasein is necessarily in the world, which is expressed through its involvement in, or concern for, the world by actions. Dasein is the happening of its life in its journey from birth to death; it is not a soul or substance but a becoming.

Three existentials characterize Dasein: thrownness, projection, and fallenness. In fallenness, we are prey to inauthenticity. That’s because we dim our understanding of the world through idle, ambiguous, and vacuous thinking.

14.5 Sartre

French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s greatest work, Being and Nothingness, is not his most accessible presentation of existentialism. Instead, that accolade belongs to a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In it, he outlines the major characteristics of existentialism: existence precedes essence; there is no God; humans are radically free; our facticity does not determine our future; and we create our future and ourselves through our choices.

14.6 Camus

Camus’s central theme is the absurd. While pervasive in existential thought, it is a hallmark of Camus’s existentialist position. More specifically, it prompts us to ask, since life is absurd, since the universe is indifferent to me and is fundamentally meaningless, what is the point of living it?

The absurdity of being, Camus thinks, is exemplified in the myth of Sisyphus. In an essay of the same name, Camus dramatizes the absurdity of human existence by likening it to that of the mythical Sisyphus, who is forced by the gods to repeat a pointless task for all eternity.

Despite his situation, Sisyphus, Camus claims, finds meaning in the meaninglessness. He does so by courageously embracing it and refusing to be overwhelmed by despair. We, too, can follow Sisyphus’s example by bravely accepting our freedom and shaping our own lives through free choices.

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