29 Mar 2005


Basic Existentialism
Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, first a man or woman exists, then the individual spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self... which is why there is existential psychotherapy. (Imagine a therapist telling people life has no meaning!) In other words, we define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.
Existentialism is not dark. It is not depressing. Existentialism is about life. Existentialists believe in living -- and in fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and even Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they believed passionately in fighting for the survival of their nations and peoples. The politics of existentialists varies, but each seeks the most individual freedom for people within a society.

All too often people link a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential ideals. Existentialism has little to do with faith or the lack thereof. To quote Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars:
Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists -- Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre -- are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 11
In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of three political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.
Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple:
· Mankind has free will.
· Life is a series of choices, creating stress.
· Few decisions are without any negative consequences.
· Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.
· If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.
Beyond this short list of concepts, the label existentialist is applied broadly. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist works, or at least the writings of people groups as the existentialists. There is no one or two sentence statement summarizing what more than a dozen famous and infamous people pondered. The only common factor seems to be despair. The accompanying grid illustrates the range of ideals expressed by the major existentialists. Not every existentialist follows a perfect row in the grid. In particular, their political theories are more varied than the three categories listed.
Religious Predetermination Elitist Moralistic Intentions
Agnostic Chance Communist Relativistic Actions
Atheistic Free Will Anarchist Amoralistic Results
The first row might represent the writings of Blaise Pascal or Fyodor Dostoevsky, both of whom defended fundamentalist religious beliefs, including their inherent contradictions. The last row is representative of Jean-Paul Sartre's writings, if not his own beliefs. As previously stated, uniting the men and women behind this matrix of concepts is futile. Their thoughts are linked by a belief that this life is a near-futile struggle against forces aligned in opposition to the individual.
The Existentialists
The individuals listed represent major contributors to existentialism and related philosophies. This chart is in philosophical order, not in the order of publication or life. Following the chart is further information on other existentialists or contributors to the philosophy. I would like to thank site visitor Eduardo Tenenbaum for his suggestions for this chart. I have made some minor changes, reflecting the input of visitors.
Name Philosophy / Faith Contribution Kaufmann's Comments
Fyodor Dostoevsky Eastern Orthodox Studied individual will, freedom, and anguish. I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written.
S?ren Kierkegaard Existentialist, Protestant Theist Considered the first existentialist, his works were popularized by Heidegger. E.T.: Formulated the aesthetic, ethical and religious as modes of existence. Perfected the Socratic technique of indirect communication Here lies Kierkegaard's importance for a vast segment of modern thought: he attacks received conceptions of Christianity, suggests a radical revision of the popular idea of the self, and focuses attention on decision.
Friedrich Nietzsche Individualist, Anti-Christian Ideas influenced Heidegger and Sartre. E.T.: Developed concepts of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence and Overman. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, the opposition to philosophic systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life -- all this is eminently characteristic of Nietzsche.
Georg W. F. Hegel German Idealism, Protestant Influenced Marx, Husserl, Sartre, and many others. Hegel's "followers" broke into "left" and "right" wings. First to promote the concept of phenomenology.
Edmund Husserl Phenomenologist Developed concept of essences and being. E.T.: Developed the concept of the Lifeworld
Martin Heidegger Phenomenologist, Existentialist, Theist Assistant to Husserl, wrote about Kierkegaard's works. E.T. Student of Husserl's phenomenology, proclaimed the end of metaphysics. An early disciple... would sum up Heidegger's importance by asserting that he introduced Nietzsche into philosophy. {Note: Kaufmann disagrees with the preceding observation} He made it possible for professors to discuss with a good conscience matters previously considered literary, if that.
Franz Kafka Absurdist, Jewish Similar to Camus, Sartre, in depictions of cruel fate. Kafka stands between Nietzsche and the existentialists: he pictures the world into which Heidegger's man, in Sein und Zeit, is "thrown," the godless world of Sartre, the "absurd" world of Camus.
Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialist, Atheist Student of Heidegger, colleague and lover of de Beauvoir. It is mainly through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre that existentialism has come to the attention of a wide international audience. Sartre is a philosopher in the French tradition... at the borderline of philosophy and literature.
Simone de Beauvoir Existentialist, Feminist Best known as a "feminist" writer, she was the editor of many of Sartre's works. Lover of Sartre, friend to Camus and Merleau-Ponty.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenologist, Existentialist One-time friend of Sartre, Camus. Supporter of Husserlian Phenomenology.
Albert Camus Existentialist / Absurdist, Atheist French Resistance member during WWII with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir. Brought "humanism" to his existentialism. {Paraphrase of Kaufmann} Camus marks the finale of existentialism... an attempt to move beyond what Sartre had defined. Camus cannot be called an existentialist, but his ideas evolved alongside those of Sartre and others.
Karl Jaspers Existentialist, Agnostic Contemporary of Sartre, Camus, et al. Jaspers sought to make philosophy more open for the general public... more relevant. It is in the work of Jaspers that the seeds sown by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first grew into existentialism or, as he prefers to say, Existenzphilosophie.
Other Thinkers of Note
Other existentialists worthy of mention include:
· Jean Wahl (1888 - 1974), founder of the French Existentialists movement, which grew under Sartre.
· Gabriel Marcel (1889 - 1973), French Roman-Catholic philosopher.
Influential philosophers and writers, with existential concepts reflected in their works include:
· Nicolas Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874 - 1948), Russian Neo-Romanticist
· Leo Isakovich Shestov Schwarzman (1866 - 1938), Russian Irrationalist
· José Ortega y Gasset (1883 - 1955), Spanish writer
· Miguel de Unamuno (1864 - 1936), Spanish philosopher

No comments: