Existentialism Existentialism is a philosophical movement that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the first things one may notice about existentialism is the confusion and disagreement of what it actually is. Dissertations have been written on the expanse of the topic, but I shall only give an overview of the philosophy. Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars says, 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, 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.
Some of the difficulty in defining existentialism results from the characteristics of the philosophy itself. “For example, most existentialists deny that reality can be neatly summarized into a system, and so they reject all-inclusive views like Hegels,” says Diane Barsoum Raymond. This does not mean that existentialists are unsystematic, but rather that they tend to emphasize the richness of human experience rather than construct a tidy framework. Therefore, a precise definition is impossible; however, it suggests one major theme: a stress on individual existence and the subsequent development of personal essence. Existentialists attempt to direct our attention to ourselves as individuals. “They force us to think about our relation to such topics as the existence and nature of God, what it is to be Christian, the nature of values, and the fact of one’s own death. Existentialists encourage us to consider, in a personal way, the meaning of living authentically and inauthentically”(Oaklander ix).
Man is the only known being, according to the philosophers, that defines itself merely through the act of living. In other words, first you exist, and then the individual emerges as life decisions are made. Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates their own nature, is one of the basic themes. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued that they must accept the risk and responsibility of their actions. Those who follow this believe they are in a world that does not always make sense, a world that is filled with uncertainty where well-intended actions can become obscure and chaotic. In basic existentialist beliefs, man is the only animal defining itself through life. Without life, there is no meaning.
Existentialists believe in life and fighting for it (Wyatt, 1999). While fighting for life, each person must face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions. Human life is seen as a series of decisions that must be made without knowing what the correct choice is. They must decide what standards to except and which ones to reject. Individuals must make their own choices without help from external standards. Humans are free and completely responsible for their choices. Their freedom and responsibility is thrust upon them and they are “condemned to be free”.
Their responsibility for actions, decisions and beliefs cause anxiety. They try to escape by ignoring or denying their responsibility. To have a meaningful life one must become fully aware of the true character of the situation and bravely accept it. Yet other existentialist thought dictates every person 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. In other words, we define ourselves by living; killing yourself would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.
Existentialists believe in living — in fact fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they had a strong belief in fighting for the survival of their respective countries. 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 political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term is credited to Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies, but it was actually coined by Kierkegaard when he described his existential dialectic.
It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought. As stated earlier, existentialism maintains that 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. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist writings, or at least the writings of people labeled as such.
Blaise Pascal, for example, spent the last years of his life writing in support of predetermination, the theory that is better known as fate. First, there is the basic existentialist standpoint, that existence precedes essence. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as a conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, or system. Existentialism says I am nothing but my own conscious existence. A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, and a fear or dread that is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the emptiness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard is within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence.
Existentialism agrees with certain ideas in Judaism and Christianity, which see human existence as fallen from grace, and humans have lived in suffering, guilt, and anxiety. This dark and depressing view of human life leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence. 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger felt that anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for his or her choices. A third existentialist theme is that of absurdity. An existentialist would say I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd.
To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place—but why now? Why here? Kierkegaard asked. For no reason, without necessary connection, my life is an absurd fact. A whole school of theatre, known as the theatre of the absurd derives from the philosophical use of the word absurd by such existentialists thinkers as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sarte. A fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe was beyond its reach and the world must be seen as absurd.
Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett with Waiting for Godot and To …