Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, November 25, 2016

1st Installment of Final Report: Existentialism (H3)

My final report topic is on existentialism. I will be discussing existentialism and part of its development in the first installment. The second installment will include biographies of some of its philosophers and their contributions to existentialist philosophy.

Before existentialism was introduced, it was thought that everyone was born with an essence. We all have certain attributes that make us who we are. In other words, those attributes are essential to our identity. Some believe that our essence is given to us by a deity. When an essence is given to us by God, we also receive a sense of purpose and a meaning to life. We carry out our purpose in life by performing our essence. That could mean, for example, becoming a musician with a gift for music, an engineer with a gift in the sciences, and so on. But even for those who do not believe in God, a meaningful life is greatly desired. But what defines a meaningful life? How do we find our individual purpose, if not granted by God? Other questions include: What is my identity? What is death? How do I make moral choice?

Existentialism offers a new perspective: humans define their own meaning in life. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy breaks existentialism into seven key themes: philosophy as a way of life, anxiety and authenticity, freedom, situatedness, existence, the absurd, and the crowd. I will cover some in the explanation of existentialist philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle had said that essence precedes existence, meaning we are born already with an essence. Jean-Paul Sartre, a notable 20th century existentialist philosopher, challenged their way of thinking by asking if it were the reverse. Does existence precede essence? This is the idea held by existentialist philosophers. In this case, the individual is born and must determine his or her own essence. Without being given an essence, we are also born without being given a purpose. To existentialists, we are born without meaning, and likewise, the world was also created without meaning. Without there being meaning behind the world, then the world does not inherently have rules to follow. There are no laws, justice, or order. It is a bleak image that the world has no meaning, but Jean-Paul Sartre sees it differently.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Instead, Sartre sees the individual has an abundance of choice. We have so much freedom to choose how we want to create meaning for our own lives. We choose our own moral code, the morals we want to live by. But there is a slight drawback to this much freedom. No one has the answers on how to best live. How you live is dependent on your choice and your values. Thus, you cannot look to others to tell you how to achieve a meaningful live. Freedom, another key theme of existentialism, arises from the individual’s lack of guidance from authority. We all want to live meaningful lives, but there is no blueprint or map to easily lead us to it. It is with the lack of guidance that human existence has a certain anxiety to it. One of the key themes of existentialism, anxiety is the recognition of being ‘on your own’. Again, you have no guide in morality or thought. In response to this anxiety, Jean-Paul Sartre said to live authentically. The Greeks had their version of living a “good life”. Living authentically is to accept the absurd. To live a meaningful life, you give meaning to it. For existentialists, you must live authentically, or to make your own decisions based on what you choose to believe. It can also mean to live as your unique self. Although there is the absurd- the world inherently has no meaning, no morals, no justice- these concepts exist because we have created them. Existentialism is not entirely bleak. There seems to be a call to action, an encouragement that our lives can mean anything we choose by putting our values to practice.

Existentialist philosophy not only has roots from philosophers, but it was influenced by writers in the literary community, like Franz Kafka, Henrik Ibsen and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I will discuss their influence on existentialism along with the biographies of its prominent philosophers in the second installment. Existentialist philosophy has an important influence on other fields, including art and psychology.

Realism was the art movement of the nineteenth-century. Realists wanted to depict typical people in ordinary life, showing how they truly lived. It was a rejection of drama of the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century. It seems that every art movement that is introduced is a rejection of the previous one. I say that because in the next century, the twentieth century, the next art movement rejected realism. This art movement is called expressionism. Expressionism wanted to depict the emotional experience of the individual. The works of this period were very radical and aimed to evoke ideas or intense emotions like angst and anguish. A famous painting you all probably are familiar with is The Scream by Edvard Munch. The images from left to right are of romanticism, realism, and expressionism.

Expressionism include other forms of art, including film. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, existentialism is thought to be found in works of Woody Allen (Irrational Man)Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), and Charlie Kaufman (Animolisa).

In psychology, existentialism has influence on the existentialist psychotherapy movement. This therapy is based on a person’s confrontation of four parts of existence: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Swiss psychologists Ludwig Binswanger and Menard Boss were influenced by Heidegger. Laing and Cooper were influenced by Sartre. Aside from existentialist psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler were influenced by Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s idea of self-creation influenced Alfred Adler’s individual psychology, or self-actualization.

            Existentialist philosophy is important as a way of life because as we are each an existing human in inquiry of human existence. Existentialism also questions existence and death, both of which we all face. Today, you may hear of existentialism in terms of usually a middle-aged person having an “existential crisis”. Although it does not matter the age, the person finds himself in a crisis when beginning to question the foundations of his own life. Have I fulfilled my purpose? Does my life have any meaning or value? For others, an existential crisis may occur when assumptions of their life, or what had believed to be their purpose, is taken from them. For example, a rising athlete expects to play basketball in college. Everything is according to plan until gets a serious injury, and he is prohibited from playing. A dancer gets a foot injury before a life-changing audition. A mother’s kids move out for college, and she is left alone in the house. All of these have in common that their identity gets challenged when they cannot perform their purpose. When these meanings are removed, the existential crises make people ask themselves what the true meaning of their lives are. What is your essence?

Calvin and Hobbes
These are some links I used in researching:

If you would like to watch a video, Crash Course has a series of philosophy on Youtube. Hank Green discusses existentialism in their sixteenth video in the series.


  1. (H3) This is interesting to me because it gets to the root questions of philosophy if you think about it. The questions that religions and ideologies have tried to answer since it all started. Life, death meaning. Probably because these questions scare us the most.

  2. The good news is that anyone studying this topic can watch these films free at http://megabox-hd.com

  3. "Before existentialism was introduced, it was thought that everyone was born with an essence" - there were always philosophers who disputed essentialism, starting with Aristotle and including the likes of David Hume. But the advent of Darwinian thinking opened the door to existence and adaptation as fundamental. Existentialism has a reputation of being somehow bleak or depressive, but really a philosophy that emphasizes the possibilities inherent in existence and freedom should be liberating.

    On the other hand, the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon perfectly illustrates the feeling of burdensome responsibility that comes when we affirm our freedom.

    Check out Sarah Bakewell's "At the Existentialist Cafe," a fun new exploration of Sartre et al.

  4. existentialism is probably the most frustrating way of life but it's the only REAL understanding of life as I see it

  5. I find the idea of existentialism refreshing and if had to chose a philosophy that summed up my belief it would be this. Life is definitely what you make it. You and you only get to choose what matters to yourself.