Existentialism is a catch-all term for those philosophers who consider the nature of the human condition as a key philosophical problem and who share the view that this problem is best addressed through ontology. This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Those philosophers considered existentialists are mostly from the continent of Europe, and date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Outside philosophy, the existentialist movement is probably the most well-known philosophical movement, and at least two of its members are among the most famous philosophical personalities and widely read philosophical authors. It has certainly had considerable influence outside philosophy, for example on psychological theory and on the arts. Within philosophy, though, it is safe to say that this loose movement considered as a whole has not had a great impact, although individuals or ideas counted within it remain important. Moreover, most of the philosophers conventionally grouped under this heading either never used, or actively disavowed, the term 'existentialist'. Even Sartre himself once said: “Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” So, there is a case to be made that the term – insofar as it leads us to ignore what is distinctive about philosophical positions and to conflate together significantly different ideas – does more harm than good.
In this article, however, it is assumed that something sensible can be said about existentialism as a loosely defined movement. The article has three sections. First, we outline a set of themes that define, albeit very broadly, existentialist concerns. This is done with reference to the historical context of existentialism, which will help us to understand why certain philosophical problems and methods were considered so important. Second, we discuss individually six philosophers who are arguably its central figures, stressing in these discussions the ways in which these philosophers approached existentialist themes in distinctive ways. These figures, and many of the others we mention, have full length articles of their own within the Encyclopedia. Finally, we look very briefly at the influence of existentialism, especially outside philosophy.
Table of Contents
- Key Themes of Existentialism
- Philosophy as a Way of Life
- Anxiety and Authenticity
- The Crowd
- Key Existentialist Philosophers
- Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- Albert Camus (1913-1960) as an Existentialist Philosopher
- The Influence of Existentialism
- The Arts and Psychology
- References and Further Reading
- General Introductions
- Primary Bibliography
- Secondary Bibliography
- Other Works Cited
1. Key Themes of Existentialism
Although a highly diverse tradition of thought, seven themes can be identified that provide some sense of overall unity. Here, these themes will be briefly introduced; they can then provide us with an intellectual framework within which to discuss exemplary figures within the history of existentialism.
a. Philosophy as a Way of Life
Philosophy should not be thought of primarily either as an attempt to investigate and understand the self or the world, or as a special occupation that concerns only a few. Rather, philosophy must be thought of as fully integrated within life. To be sure, there may need to be professional philosophers, who develop an elaborate set of methods and concepts (Sartre makes this point frequently) but life can be lived philosophically without a technical knowledge of philosophy. Existentialist thinkers tended to identify two historical antecedents for this notion. First, the ancient Greeks, and particularly the figure of Socrates but also the Stoics and Epicureans. Socrates was not only non-professional, but in his pursuit of the good life he tended to eschew the formation of a 'system' or 'theory', and his teachings took place often in public spaces. In this, the existentialists were hardly unusual. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapid expansion of industrialisation and advance in technology were often seen in terms of an alienation of the human from nature or from a properly natural way of living (for example, thinkers of German and English romanticism).
The second influence on thinking of philosophy as a way of life was German Idealism after Kant. Partly as a response to the 18th century Enlightenment, and under the influence of the Neoplatonists, Schelling and Hegel both thought of philosophy as an activity that is an integral part of the history of human beings, rather than outside of life and the world, looking on. Later in the 19th century, Marx famously criticised previous philosophy by saying that the point of philosophy is not to know things – even to know things about activity – but to change them. The concept of philosophy as a way of life manifests itself in existentialist thought in a number of ways. Let us give several examples, to which we will return in the sections that follow. First, the existentialists often undertook a critique of modern life in terms of the specialisation of both manual and intellectual labour. Specialisation included philosophy. One consequence of this is that many existentialist thinkers experimented with different styles or genres of writing in order to escape the effects of this specialisation. Second, a notion that we can call 'immanence': philosophy studies life from the inside. For Kierkegaard, for example, the fundamental truths of my existence are not representations – not, that is, ideas, propositions or symbols the meaning of which can be separated from their origin. Rather, the truths of existence are immediately lived, felt and acted. Likewise, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is essential to recognise that the philosopher investigating human existence is, him or herself, an existing human. Third, the nature of life itself is a perennial existentialist concern and, more famously (in Heidegger and in Camus), also the significance of death.
b. Anxiety and Authenticity
A key idea here is that human existence is in some way 'on its own'; anxiety (or anguish) is the recognition of this fact. Anxiety here has two important implications. First, most generally, many existentialists tended to stress the significance of emotions or feelings, in so far as they were presumed to have a less culturally or intellectually mediated relation to one's individual and separate existence. This idea is found in Kierkegaard, as we mentioned above, and in Heidegger's discussion of 'mood'; it is also one reason why existentialism had an influence on psychology. Second, anxiety also stands for a form of existence that is recognition of being on its own. What is meant by 'being on its own' varies among philosophers. For example, it might mean the irrelevance (or even negative influence) of rational thought, moral values, or empirical evidence, when it comes to making fundamental decisions concerning one's existence. As we shall see, Kierkegaard sees Hegel's account of religion in terms of the history of absolute spirit as an exemplary confusion of faith and reason. Alternatively, it might be a more specifically theological claim: the existence of a transcendent deity is not relevant to (or is positively detrimental to) such decisions (a view broadly shared by Nietzsche and Sartre). Finally, being on its own might signify the uniqueness of human existence, and thus the fact that it cannot understand itself in terms of other kinds of existence (Heidegger and Sartre).
Related to anxiety is the concept of authenticity, which is let us say the existentialist spin on the Greek notion of 'the good life'. As we shall see, the authentic being would be able to recognise and affirm the nature of existence (we shall shortly specify some of the aspects of this, such as absurdity and freedom). Not, though, recognise the nature of existence as an intellectual fact, disengaged from life; but rather, the authentic being lives in accordance with this nature. The notion of authenticity is sometimes seen as connected to individualism. This is only reinforced by the contrast with a theme we will discuss below, that of the 'crowd'. Certainly, if authenticity involves 'being on one's own', then there would seem to be some kind of value in celebrating and sustaining one's difference and independence from others. However, many existentialists see individualism as a historical and cultural trend (for example Nietzsche), or dubious political value (Camus), rather than a necessary component of authentic existence. Individualism tends to obscure the particular types of collectivity that various existentialists deem important.
For many existentialists, the conditions of the modern world make authenticity especially difficult. For example, many existentialists would join other philosophers (such as the Frankfurt School) in condemning an instrumentalist conception of reason and value. The utilitarianism of Mill measured moral value and justice also in terms of the consequences of actions. Later liberalism would seek to absorb nearly all functions of political and social life under the heading of economic performance. Evaluating solely in terms of the measurable outcomes of production was seen as reinforcing the secularisation of the institutions of political, social or economic life; and reinforcing also the abandonment of any broader sense of the spiritual dimension (such an idea is found acutely in Emerson, and is akin to the concerns of Kierkegaard). Existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Hanna Arendt or Gabriel Marcel viewed these social movements in terms of a narrowing of the possibilities of human thought to the instrumental or technological. This narrowing involved thinking of the world in terms of resources, and thinking of all human action as a making, or indeed as a machine-like 'function'.
The next key theme is freedom. Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of anguish, because my freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge. Many existentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values. This might be traced back to familiar reasons such as an increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide. It is important to note, however, that for existentialism these historical conditions do not create the problem of anguish in the face of freedom, but merely cast it into higher relief. Likewise, freedom entails something like responsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being on its own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility are absolute. The isolation that we discussed above means that there is nothing else that acts through me, or that shoulders my responsibility. Likewise, unless human existence is to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibility must stretch across time. Thus, when I exist as an authentically free being, I assume responsibility for my whole life, for a ‘project’ or a ‘commitment’. We should note here that many of the existentialists take on a broadly Kantian notion of freedom: freedom as autonomy. This means that freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness, consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities. This borrowing from Kant, however, is heavily qualified by the next theme.
The next common theme we shall call ‘situatedness’. Although my freedom is absolute, it always takes place in a particular context. My body and its characteristics, my circumstances in a historical world, and my past, all weigh upon freedom. This is what makes freedom meaningful. Suppose I tried to exist as free, while pretending to be in abstraction from the situation. In that case I will have no idea what possibilities are open to me and what choices need to be made, here and now. In such a case, my freedom will be naïve or illusory. This concrete notion of freedom has its philosophical genesis in Hegel, and is generally contrasted to the pure rational freedom described by Kant. Situatedness is related to a notion we discussed above under the heading of philosophy as a way of life: the necessity of viewing or understanding life and existence from the ‘inside’. For example, many 19th century intellectuals were interested in ancient Greece, Rome, the Medieval period, or the orient, as alternative models of a less spoiled, more integrated form of life. Nietzsche, to be sure, shared these interests, but he did so not uncritically: because the human condition is characterised by being historically situated, it cannot simply turn back the clock or decide all at once to be other than it is (Sartre especially shares this view). Heidegger expresses a related point in this way: human existence cannot be abstracted from its world because being-in-the-world is part of the ontological structure of that existence. Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me (for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty). I must also be situated socially: each of my acts says something about how I view others but, reciprocally, each of their acts is a view about what I am. My freedom is always situated with respect to the judgements of others. This particular notion comes from Hegel’s analysis of ‘recognition’, and is found especially in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Jaspers. Situatedness in general also has an important philosophical antecedent in Marx: economic and political conditions are not contingent features with respect to universal human nature, but condition that nature from the ground up.
Although, of course, existentialism takes its name from the philosophical theme of 'existence', this does not entail that there is homogeneity in the manner existence is to be understood. One point on which there is agreement, though, is that the existence with which we should be concerned here is not just any existent thing, but human existence. There is thus an important difference between distinctively human existence and anything else, and human existence is not to be understood on the model of things, that is, as objects of knowledge. One might think that this is an old idea, rooted in Plato's distinction between matter and soul, or Descartes' between extended and thinking things. But these distinctions appear to be just differences between two types of things. Descartes in particular, however, is often criticised by the existentialists for subsuming both under the heading 'substance', and thus treating what is distinctive in human existence as indeed a thing or object, albeit one with different properties. (Whether the existentialist characterisation of Plato or Descartes is accurate is a different question.) The existentialists thus countered the Platonic or Cartesian conception with a model that resembles more the Aristotelian as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. The latter idea arrives in existentialist thought filtered through Leibniz and Spinoza and the notion of a striving for existence. Equally important is the elevation of the practical above the theoretical in German Idealists. Particularly in Kant, who stressed the primacy of the 'practical', and then in Fichte and early Schelling, we find the notion that human existence is action. Accordingly, in Nietzsche and Sartre we find the notion that the human being is all and only what that being does. My existence consists of forever bringing myself into being – and, correlatively, fleeing from the dead, inert thing that is the totality of my past actions. Although my acts are free, I am not free not to act; thus existence is characterised also by 'exigency' (Marcel). For many existentialists, authentic existence involves a certain tension be recognised and lived through, but not resolved: this tension might be between the animal and the rational (important in Nietzsche) or between facticity and transcendence (Sartre and de Beauvoir).
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the human sciences (such as psychology, sociology or economics) were coming to be recognised as powerful and legitimate sciences. To some extend at least their assumptions and methods seemed to be borrowed from the natural sciences. While philosophers such as Dilthey and later Gadamer were concerned to show that the human sciences had to have a distinctive method, the existentialists were inclined to go further. The free, situated human being is not an object of knowledge in the sense the human always exists as the possibility of transcending any knowledge of it. There is a clear relation between such an idea and the notion of the 'transcendence of the other' found in the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas.
Among the most famous ideas associated with existentialism is that of 'absurdity'. Human existence might be described as 'absurd' in one of the following senses. First, many existentialists argued that nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing. Although the natural world can apparently be understood by physical science or metaphysics, this might be better thought of as 'description' than either understanding or explanation. Thus, the achievements of the natural sciences also empty nature of value and meaning. Unlike a created cosmos, for example, we cannot expect the scientifically described cosmos to answer our questions concerning value or meaning. Moreover, such description comes at the cost of a profound falsification of nature: namely, the positing of ideal entities such as 'laws of nature', or the conflation of all reality under a single model of being. Human beings can and should become profoundly aware of this lack of reason and the impossibility of an immanent understanding of it. Camus, for example, argues that the basic scene of human existence is its confrontation with this mute irrationality. A second meaning of the absurd is this: my freedom will not only be undetermined by knowledge or reason, but from the point of view of the latter my freedom will even appear absurd. Absurdity is thus closely related to the theme of 'being on its own', which we discussed above under the heading of anxiety. Even if I choose to follow a law that I have given myself, my choice of law will appear absurd, and likewise will my continuously reaffirmed choice to follow it. Third, human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself. A free action, once done, is no longer free; it has become an aspect of the world, a thing. The absurdity of human existence then seems to lie in the fact that in becoming myself (a free existence) I must be what I am not (a thing). If I do not face up to this absurdity, and choose to be or pretend to be thing-like, I exist inauthentically (the terms in this formulation are Sartre's).
g. The Crowd
Existentialism generally also carries a social or political dimension. Insofar as he or she is authentic, the freedom of the human being will show a certain 'resolution' or 'commitment', and this will involve also the being – and particularly the authentic being – of others. For example, Nietzsche thus speaks of his (or Zarathustra's) work in aiding the transformation of the human, and there is also in Nietzsche a striking analysis of the concept of friendship; for Heidegger, there must be an authentic mode of being-with others, although he does not develop this idea at length; the social and political aspect of authentic commitment is much more clear in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus.
That is the positive side of the social or political dimension. However, leading up to this positive side, there is a description of the typical forms that inauthentic social or political existence takes. Many existentialists employ terms such as 'crowd', 'horde' (Scheler) or the 'masses' (José Ortega y Gasset). Nietzsche's deliberately provocative expression, 'the herd', portrays the bulk of humanity not only as animal, but as docile and domesticated animals. Notice that these are all collective terms: inauthenticity manifests itself as de-individuated or faceless. Instead of being formed authentically in freedom and anxiety, values are just accepted from others because ‘that is what everybody does’. These terms often carry a definite historical resonance, embodying a critique of specifically modern modes of human existence. All of the following might be seen as either causes or symptoms of a world that is 'fallen' or 'broken' (Marcel): the technology of mass communication (Nietzsche is particularly scathing about newspapers and journalists; in Two Ages, Kierkegaard says something very similar), empty religious observances, the specialisation of labour and social roles, urbanisation and industrialisation. The theme of the crowd poses a question also to the positive social or political dimension of existentialism: how could a collective form of existence ever be anything other than inauthentic? The 19th and 20th century presented a number of mass political ideologies which might be seen as posing a particularly challenging environment for authentic and free existence. For example, nationalism came in for criticism particularly by Nietzsche. Socialism and communism: after WWII, Sartre was certainly a communist, but even then unafraid to criticise both the French communist party and the Soviet Union for rigid or inadequately revolutionary thinking. Democracy: Aristotle in book 5 of his Politics distinguishes between democracy and ochlocracy, which latter essentially means rule by those incapable of ruling even themselves. Many existentialists would identify the latter with the American and especially French concept of 'democracy'. Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset both espoused a broadly aristocratic criterion for social and political leadership.
2. Key Existentialist Philosophers
a. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) as an Existentialist Philosopher
Kierkegaard was many things: philosopher, religious writer, satirist, psychologist, journalist, literary critic and generally considered the ‘father’ of existentialism. Being born (in Copenhagen) to a wealthy family enabled him to devote his life to the pursuits of his intellectual interests as well as to distancing himself from the ‘everyday man’ of his times.
Kierkegaard’s most important works are pseudonymous, written under fictional names, often very obviously fictional. The issue of pseudonymity has been variously interpreted as a literary device, a personal quirk or as an illustration of the constant tension between the philosophical truth and existential or personal truth. We have already seen that for the existentialists it is of equal importance what one says and the way in which something is said. This forms part of the attempt to return to a more authentic way of philosophising, firstly exemplified by the Greeks. In a work like Either/Or (primarily a treatise against the Hegelians) theoretical reflections are followed by reflections on how to seduce girls. The point is to stress the distance between the anonymously and logically produced truths of the logicians and the personal truths of existing individuals. Every pseudonymous author is a symbol for an existing individual and at times his very name is the key to the mysteries of his existence (like in the case of Johanes de Silentio, fictional author of Fear and Trembling, where the mystery of Abraham’s actions cannot be told, being a product of and belonging to silence).
Kierkegaard has been associated with a notion of truth as subjective (or personal); but what does this mean? The issue is linked with his notorious confrontation with the Danish Church and the academic environment of his days. Kierkegaard’s work takes place against the background of an academia dominated by Hegelian dialectics and a society which reduces the communication with the divine to the everyday observance of the ritualistic side of an institutionalized Christianity. Hegel is for Kierkegaard his arch-enemy not only because of what he writes but also what he represents. Hegel is guilty for Kierkegaard because he reduced the living truth of Christianity (the fact that God suffered and died on the Cross) to just another moment, which necessarily will be overcome, in the dialectical development of the Spirit. While Hegel treats “God” as a Begriff (a concept), for Kierkegaard the truth of Christianity signifies the very paradoxicality of faith: that is, that it is possible for the individual to go beyond the ‘ethical’ and nevertheless or rather because of this very act of disobedience to be loved by ‘God’. Famously, for Hegel ‘all that is real is rational’ – where rationality means the historically articulated, dialectical progression of Spirit – whereas for Kierkegaard the suspension of rationality is the very secret of Christianity. Against the cold logic of the Hegelian system Kierkegaard seeks “a truth which is truth for me” (Kierkegaard 1996:32). Christianity in particular represents the attempt to offer one’s life to the service of the divine. This cannot be argued, it can only be lived. While a theologian will try to argue for the validity of his positions by arguing and counter-arguing, a true Christian will try to live his life the way Jesus lived it. This evidently marks the continuation of the Hellenic idea of philosophy as a way of life, exemplified in the person of Socrates who did not write treatises, but who died for his ideas. Before the logical concepts of the theologians (in the words of Martin Heidegger who was hugely influenced by Kierkegaard) “man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god” (Heidegger 2002:42). The idea of ‘subjective truth’ will have serious consequences to the philosophical understanding of man. Traditionally defined as animale rationale (the rational animal) by Aristotle and for a long time worshiped as such by generations of philosophical minds, Kierkegaard comes now to redefine the human as the ‘passionate animal’. What counts in man is the intensity of his emotions and his willingness to believe (contra the once all powerful reason) in that which cannot be understood. The opening up by Kierkegaard of this terra incognita of man’s inner life will come to play a major role for later existentialists (most importantly for Nietzsche) and will bring to light the failings and the weaknesses of an over-optimistic (because modelled after the Natural sciences) model of philosophy which was taught to talk a lot concerning the ‘truth’ of the human, when all it understood about the human was a mutilated version.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lived in a state of innocence in communication with God and in harmony with their physical environment. The expulsion from the Garden opened up a wide range of new possibilities for them and thus the problem of anxiety arose. Adam (the Hebrew word for man) is now free to determine through his actions the route of things. Naturally, there is a tension here. The human, created in God’s image, is an infinite being. Like God he also can choose and act according to his will. Simultaneously, though, he is a finite being since he is restricted by his body, particular socioeconomic conditions and so forth. This tension between the finite and infinite is the source of anxiety. But unlike a Hegelian analysis, Kierkegaard does not look for a way out from anxiety; on the contrary he stresses its positive role in the flourishing of the human. As he characteristically puts it: “Because he is a synthesis, he can be in anxiety; and the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man” (Kierkegaard 1980:154). The prioritization of anxiety as a fundamental trait of the human being is a typical existentialist move, eager to assert the positive role of emotions for human life.
Perhaps the most famous work of Kierkegaard was Fear and Trembling, a short book which exhibits many of the issues raised by him throughout his career. Fear and Trembling retells the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. God tells Abraham that in order to prove his faith he has to sacrifice his only son. Abraham obeys, but at the last moment God intervenes and saves Isaac. What is the moral of the story? According to our moral beliefs, shouldn’t Abraham refuse to execute God’s vicious plan? Isn’t one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity the respect to the life of other? The answer is naturally affirmative. Abraham should refuse God, and he should respect the ethical law. Then Abraham would be in a good relation with the Law itself as in the expression ‘a law abiding citizen’. On the contrary what Abraham tries to achieve is a personal relation with the author of the moral law. This author is neither a symbolic figure nor an abstract idea; he is someone with a name. The name of ’God’ is the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton (YHVE), the unpronounceability indicates the simultaneous closeness and distance of the great Other. The Christian God then, the author of the moral law at his will suspends the law and demands his unlawful wish be obeyed. Jacques Derrida notes that the temptation is now for Abraham the ethical law itself (Derrida 1998:162): he must resist ethics, this is the mad logic of God. The story naturally raises many problems. Is not such a subjectivist model of truth and religion plainly dangerous? What if someone was to support his acts of violence as a command of God? Kierkegaard’s response would be to suggest that it is only because Abraham loved Isaac with all his heart that the sacrifice could take place. “He must love Isaac with his whole soul....only then can he sacrifice him” (Kierkegaard 1983:74). Abraham’s faith is proved by the strength of his love for his son. However, this doesn’t fully answer the question of legitimacy, even if we agree that Abraham believed that God loved him so that he would somehow spare him. Kierkegaard also differentiates between the act of Abraham and the act of a tragic hero (like Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia). The tragic hero’s act is a product of calculation. What is better to do? What would be more beneficial? Abraham stands away from all sorts of calculations, he stands alone, that is, free in front of the horror religiosus,the price and the reward of faith.
b. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) as an Existentialist Philosopher
“I know my lot. Some day my name will be linked to the memory of something monstrous, of a crisis as yet unprecedented on earth...” (Nietzsche 2007:88). Remarkably, what in 1888 sounded like megalomania came some years later to be realized. The name ‘Nietzsche’ has been linked with an array of historical events, philosophical concepts and widespread popular legends. Above all, Nietzsche has managed somehow to associate his name with the turmoil of a crisis. For a while this crisis was linked to the events of WWII. The exploitation of his teaching by the Nazi ideologues (notably Alfred Rosenberg and Alfred Baeumler), although utterly misdirected, arguably had its source in Nietzsche’s own “aristocratic radicalism”. More generally, the crisis refers to the prospect of a future lacking of any meaning. This is a common theme for all the existentialists to be sure. The prospect of millennia of nihilism (the devaluation of the highest values) inaugurates for Nietzsche the era in which the human itself, for the first time in its history, is called to give meaning both to its own existence and to the existence of the world. This is an event of a cataclysmic magnitude, from now on there are neither guidelines to be followed, lighthouses to direct us, and no right answers but only experiments to be conducted with unknown results.
Many existentialists, in their attempt to differentiate the value of individual existence from the alienating effects of the masses, formed an uneasy relation with the value of the ‘everyday man’. The ‘common’ man was thought to be lacking in will, taste in matter of aesthetics, and individuality in the sense that the assertion of his existence comes exclusively from his participation in larger groups and from the ‘herd’ mentality with which these groups infuse their members. Nietzsche believed that men in society are divided and ordered according to their willingness and capacity to participate in a life of spiritual and cultural transformation. Certainly not everyone wishes this participation and Nietzsche’s condemnation of those unwilling to challenge their fundamental beliefs is harsh; however it would be a mistake to suggest that Nietzsche thought their presence dispensable. In various aphorisms he stresses the importance of the ‘common’ as a necessary prerequisite for both the growth and the value of the ‘exceptional’. Such an idea clashes with our ‘modern’ sensitivities (themselves a product of a particular training). However, one has to recognize that there are no philosophers without presuppositions, and that Nietzsche’s insistence on the value of the exceptional marks his own beginning and his own understanding of the mission of thought.
Despite the dubious politics that the crisis of meaning gave rise to, the crisis itself is only an after-effect of a larger and deeper challenge that Nietzsche’s work identifies and poses. For Nietzsche the crisis of meaning is inextricably linked to the crisis of religious consciousness in the West. Whereas for Kierkegaard the problem of meaning was to be resolved through the individual’s relation to the Divine, for Nietzsche the militantly anti-Christian, the problem of meaning is rendered possible at all because of the demise of the Divine. As he explains in The Genealogy of Morality, it is only after the cultivation of truth as a value by the priest that truth comes to question its own value and function. What truth discovers is that at the ground of all truth lies an unquestionable faith in the value of truth. Christianity is destroyed when it is pushed to tell the truth about itself, when the illusions of the old ideals are revealed. What is called ‘The death of God’ is also then the death of truth (though not of the value of truthfulness); this is an event of immense consequences for the future.
But one has to be careful here. Generations of readers, by concentrating on the event of the actual announcement of the 'death of God', have completely missed madman’s woeful mourning which follows the announcement. “‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I‘ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns?” (Nietzsche 2001:125). The above sentences are very far from constituting a cheerful declaration: no one is happy here! Nietzsche’s atheism has nothing to do with the naive atheism of others (for example Sartre) who rush to affirm their freedom as if their petty individuality were able to fill the vast empty space left by the absence of God. Nietzsche is not naive and because he is not naive he is rather pessimistic. What the death of God really announces is the demise of the human as we know it. One has to think of this break in the history of the human in Kantian terms. Kant famously described Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant 1991:54). Similarly Nietzsche believes that the demise of the divine could be the opportunity for the emergence of a being which derives the meaning of its existence from within itself and not from some authority external to it. If the meaning of the human derived from God then, with the universe empty, man cannot take the place of the absent God. This empty space can only be filled by something greater and fuller, which in the Nietzschean jargon means the greatest unity of contradictory forces. That is the Übermensch (Overhuman) which for Nietzsche signifies the attempt towards the cultural production of a human being which will be aware of his dual descent – from animality and from rationality – without prioritizing either one, but keeping them in an agonistic balance so that through struggle new and exciting forms of human existence can be born.
Nietzsche was by training a KlassischePhilologe (the rough equivalent Anglosaxon would be an expert in classics – the texts of the ancient Greek and Roman authors). Perhaps because of his close acquaintance with the ancient writers, he became sensitive to a quite different understanding of philosophical thinking to that of his contemporaries. For the Greeks, philosophical questioning takes place within the perspective of a certain choice of life. There is no ‘life’ and then quite separately the theoretical (theoria: from thea – view, and horan – to see) or 'from a distance' contemplation of phenomena. Philosophical speculation is the result of a certain way of life and the attempted justification of this life. Interestingly Kant encapsulates this attitude in the following passage: “When will you finally begin to live virtuously?’ said Plato to an old man who told him he was attending classes on virtue. The point is not always to speculate, but also ultimately to think about applying our knowledge. Today, however, he who lives in conformity with what he teaches is taken for a dreamer” (Kant in Hadot 2002:xiii). We have to understand Nietzsche’s relation to philosophy within this context not only because it illustrates a stylistically different contemplation but because it demonstrates an altogether different way of philosophizing. Thus in Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche accuses philosophers for their ‘Egyptism’, the fact that they turn everything into a concept under evaluation. “All that philosophers have been handling for thousands of years is conceptual mummies; nothing real has ever left their hands alive” (Nietzsche 1998:16). Philosophical concepts are valuable insofar as they serve a flourishing life, not as academic exercises. Under the new model of philosophy the old metaphysical and moral questions are to be replaced by new questions concerning history, genealogy, environmental conditions and so forth. Let us take a characteristic passage from 1888: “I am interested in a question on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends more than on any curio of the theologians: the question of nutrition. For ease of use, one can put it in the following terms: ‘how do you personally have to nourish yourself in order to attain your maximum of strength, of virtù in the Renaissance style, of moraline-free virtue?” (Nietzsche 2007:19).
What is Nietzsche telling us here? Two things: firstly that, following the tradition of Spinoza, the movement from transcendence to immanence passes through the rehabilitation of the body. To say that, however, does not imply a simple-minded materialism. When Spinoza tells “nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities” (Spinoza 2002: 280) he is not writing about something like bodily strength but to the possibility of an emergence of a body liberated from the sedimentation of culture and memory. This archetypical body is indeed as yet unknown and we stand in ignorance of its abilities. The second thing that Nietzsche is telling us in the above passage is that this new immanent philosophy necessarily requires a new ethics. One has to be clear here because of the many misunderstandings of Nietzschean ethics. Nietzsche is primarily a philosopher of ethics but ethics here refers to the possible justification of a way of life, which way of life in turn justifies human existence on earth. For Nietzsche, ethics does not refer to moral codes and guidelines on how to live one’s life. Morality, which Nietzsche rejects, refers to the obsessive need (a need or an instinct can also be learned according to Nietzsche) of the human to preserve its own species and to regard its species as higher than the other animals. In short morality is arrogant. A Nietzschean ethics is an ethics of modesty. It places the human back where it belongs, among the other animals. However to say that is not to equate the human with the animal. Unlike non-human animals men are products of history that is to say products of memory. That is their burden and their responsibility.
In the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche explains morality as a system aiming at the taming of the human animal. Morality’s aim is the elimination of the creative power of animal instincts and the establishment of a life protected within the cocoon of ascetic ideals. These 'ideals' are all those values and ideologies made to protect man against the danger of nihilism, the state in which man finds no answer to the question of his existence. Morality clings to the preservation of the species ‘man’; morality stubbornly denies the very possibility of an open-ended future for humans. If we could summarize Nietzsche’s philosophical anthropology in a few words, we would say that for Nietzsche it is necessary to attempt (there are no guarantees here) to think of the human not as an end-in-itself but only as a means to something “...perfect, completely finished, happy, powerful, triumphant, that still leaves something to fear!” (Nietzsche 2007:25).
c. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as an Existentialist Philosopher
Heidegger exercised an unparalleled influence on modern thought. Without knowledge of his work recent developments in modern European philosophy (Sartre, Gadamer, Arendt, Marcuse, Derrida, Foucault et al.) simply do not make sense. He remains notorious for his involvement with National Socialism in the 1930s. Outside European philosophy, Heidegger is only occasionally taken seriously, and is sometimes actually ridiculed (famously the Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer called him a ‘charlatan’).
In 1945 in Paris Jean-Paul Sartre gave a public lecture with the title ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ where he defended the priority of action and the position that it is a man’s actions which define his humanity. In 1946, Jean Beaufret in a letter to Heidegger poses a number of questions concerning the link between humanism and the recent developments of existentialist philosophy in France. Heidegger’s response is a letter to Beaufret which in 1947 is published in a book form with the title ‘Letter on Humanism’. There he repudiates any possible connection of his philosophy with the existentialism of Sartre. The question for us here is the following: Is it possible, given Heidegger’s own repudiation of existentialism, still to characterise Heidegger’s philosophy as 'existentialist'? The answer here is that Heidegger can be classified as an existentialist thinker despite all his differences from Sartre. Our strategy is to stress Heidegger’s connection with some key existentialist concerns, which we introduced above under the labels ‘Existence’, ‘Anxiety’ and the ‘Crowd’.
We have seen above that a principle concern of all existentialists was to affirm the priority of individual existence and to stress that human existence is to be investigated with methods other than those of the natural sciences. This is also one of Heidegger’s principle concerns. His magnum opusBeing and Time is an investigation into the meaning of Being as that manifests itself through the human being, Dasein. The sciences have repeatedly asked ‘What is a man?’ ‘What is a car?’ ‘What is an emotion?’ they have nevertheless failed – and because of the nature of science, had to fail – to ask the question which grounds all those other questions. This question is what is the meaning of (that) Being which is not an entity (like other beings, for example a chair, a car, a rock) and yet through it entities have meaning at all? Investigating the question of the meaning of Being we discover that it arises only because it is made possible by the human being which poses the question. Dasein has already a (pre-conceptual) understanding of Being because it is the place where Being manifests itself. Unlike the traditional understanding of the human as a hypokeimenon (Aristotle) – what through the filtering of Greek thought by the Romans becomes substantia, that which supports all entities and qualities as their base and their ground – Dasein refers to the way which human beings are. ”The essence of Dasein lies in its existence” (Heidegger 1962: 67) and the existence of Dasein is not fixed like the existence of a substance is. This is why human beings locate a place which nevertheless remains unstable and unfixed. The virtual place that Dasein occupies is not empty. It is filled with beings which ontologically structure the very possibility of Dasein. Dasein exists as in-the-world. World is not something separate from Dasein; rather, Dasein cannot be understood outside the referential totality which constitutes it. Heidegger repeats here a familiar existentialist pattern regarding the situatedness of experience.
Sartre, by contrast, comes from the tradition of Descartes and to this tradition remains faithful. From Heidegger's perspective, Sartre’s strategy of affirming the priority of existence over essence is a by-product of the tradition of Renaissance humanism which wishes to assert the importance of man as the highest and most splendid of finite beings. Sartrean existence refers to the fact that a human is whereas Heidegger’s ek-sistence refers to the way with which Dasein is thrown into a world of referential relations and as such Dasein is claimed by Being to guard its truth. Sartre, following Descartes, thinks of the human as a substance producing or sustaining entities, Heidegger on the contrary thinks of the human as a passivity which accepts the call of Being. “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being” (Heidegger 1993:245). The Heideggerian priority then is Being, and Dasein’s importance lies in its receptiveness to the call of Being.
For Kierkegaard anxiety defines the possibility of responsibility, the exodus of man from the innocence of Eden and his participation to history. But the birthplace of anxiety is the experience of nothingness, the state in which every entity is experienced as withdrawn from its functionality. “Nothing ... gives birth to anxiety” (Kierkegaard 1980:41). In anxiety we do not fear something in particular but we experience the terror of a vacuum in which is existence is thrown. Existentialist thinkers are interested in anxiety because anxiety individualizes one (it is when I feel Angst more than everything that I come face to face with my own individual existence as distinct from all other entities around me). Heidegger thinks that one of the fundamental ways with which Dasein understands itself in the world is through an array of ‘moods’. Dasein always ‘finds itself’ (befinden sich) in a certain mood. Man is not a thinking thing de-associated from the world, as in Cartesian metaphysics, but a being which finds itself in various moods such as anxiety or boredom. For the Existentialists, primarily and for the most part I don’t exist because I think (recall Descartes’ famous formula) but because my moods reveal to me fundamental truths of my existence. Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger also believes that anxiety is born out of the terror of nothingness. “The obstinacy of the ‘nothing and nowhere within-the-world’ means as a phenomenon that the world as such is that in the face of which one has anxiety” (Heidegger 1962:231). For Kierkegaard the possibility of anxiety reveals man’s dual nature and because of this duality man can be saved. “If a human being were a beast or an angel, he could not be in anxiety. Because he is a synthesis, he can be in anxiety; and the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man” (Kierkegaard 1980:155). Equally for Heidegger anxiety manifests Dasein’s possibility to live an authentic existence since it realizes that the crowd of ‘others’ (what Heidegger calls the ‘They’) cannot offer any consolation to the drama of existence.
In this article we have discussed the ambiguous or at times downright critical attitude of many existentialists toward the uncritical and unreflecting masses of people who, in a wholly anti-Kantian and thus also anti-Enlightenment move, locate the meaning of their existence in an external authority. They thus give up their (purported) autonomy as rational beings. For Heidegger, Dasein for the most part lives inauthentically in that Dasein is absorbed in a way of life produced by others, not by Dasein itself. “We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge...” (Heidegger 1962:164). To be sure this mode of existence, the ‘They’ (Das Man) is one of the existentialia, it is an a priori condition of possibilityof the Dasein which means that inauthenticity is inscribed into the mode of being of Dasein, it does not come from the outside as a bad influence which could be erased. Heidegger’s language is ambiguous on the problem of inauthenticity and the reader has to make his mind on the status of the ‘They’. A lot has been said on the possible connections of Heidegger’s philosophy with his political engagements. Although it is always a risky business to read the works of great philosophers as political manifestos, it seems prima facie evident that Heidegger’s thought in this area deserves the close investigation it has received.
Heidegger was a highly original thinker. His project was nothing less than the overcoming of Western metaphysics through the positing of the forgotten question of being. He stands in a critical relation to past philosophers but simultaneously he is heavily indebted to them, much more than he would like to admit. This is not to question his originality, it is to recognize that thought is not an ex nihilo production; it comes as a response to things past, and aims towards what is made possible through that past.
d. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) as an Existentialist Philosopher
In the public consciousness, at least, Sartre must surely be the central figure of existentialism. All the themes that we introduced above come together in his work. With the possible exception of Nietzsche, his writings are the most widely anthologised (especially the lovely, if oversimplifying, lecture 'Existentialism and Humanism') and his literary works are widely read (especially the novel Nausea) or performed. Although uncomfortable in the limelight, he was nevertheless the very model of a public intellectual, writing hundreds of short pieces for public dissemination and taking resolutely independent and often controversial stands on major political events. His writings that are most clearly existentialist in character date from Sartre's early and middle period, primarily the 1930s and 1940s. From the 1950s onwards, Sartre moved his existentialism towards a philosophy the purpose of which was to understand the possibility of a genuinely revolutionary politics.
Sartre was in his late 20s when he first encountered phenomenology, specifically the philosophical ideas of Edmund Husserl. (We should point out that Heidegger was also deeply influenced by Husserl, but it is less obvious in the language he employs because he drops the language of consciousness and acts.) Of particular importance, Sartre thought, was Husserl's notion of intentionality. In Sartre's interpretation of this idea, consciousness is not to be identified with a thing (for example a mind, soul or brain), that is to say some kind of a repository of ideas and images of things. Rather, consciousness is nothing but a directedness towards things. Sartre found a nice way to sum up the notion of the intentional object: If I love her, I love her because she is lovable (Sartre 1970:4-5). Within my experience, her lovableness is not an aspect of my image of her, rather it is a feature of her (and ultimately a part of the world) towards which my consciousness directs itself. The things I notice about her (her smile, her laugh) are not originally neutral, and then I interpret the idea of them as 'lovely', they are aspects of her as lovable. The notion that consciousness is not a thing is vital to Sartre. Indeed, consciousness is primarily to be characterised as nothing: it is first and foremost not that which it is conscious of. (Sartre calls human existence the 'for-itself', and the being of things the 'in-itself'.) Because it is not a thing, it is not subject to the laws of things; specifically, it is not part of a chain of causes and its identity is not akin to that of a substance. Above we suggested that a concern with the nature of existence, and more particularly a concern with the distinctive nature of human existence, are defining existentialist themes.
Moreover, qua consciousness, and not a thing that is part of the causal chain, I am free. From moment to moment, my every action is mine alone to choose. I will of course have a past 'me' that cannot be dispensed with; this is part of my 'situation'. However, again, I am first and foremost not my situation. Thus, at every moment I choose whether to continue on that life path, or to be something else. Thus, my existence (the mere fact that I am) is prior to my essence (what I make of myself through my free choices). I am thus utterly responsible for myself. If my act is not simply whatever happens to come to mind, then my action may embody a more general principle of action. This principle too is one that I must have freely chosen and committed myself to. It is an image of the type of life that I believe has value. (In these ways, Sartre intersects with the broadly Kantian account of freedom which we introduced above in our thematic section.) As situated, I also find myself surrounded by such images – from religion, culture, politics or morality – but none compels my freedom. (All these forces that seek to appropriate my freedom by objectifying me form Sartre's version of the crowd theme.) I exist as freedom, primarily characterised as not determined, so my continuing existence requires the ever renewed exercise of freedom (thus, in our thematic discussion above, the notion from Spinoza and Leibniz of existence as a striving-to-exist). Thus also, my non-existence, and the non-existence of everything I believe in, is only a free choice away. I (in the sense of an authentic human existence) am not what I 'am' (the past I have accumulated, the things that surround me, or the way that others view me). I am alone in my responsibility; my existence, relative to everything external that might give it meaning, is absurd. Face to face with such responsibility, I feel 'anxiety'. Notice that although Sartre's account of situatedness owes much to Nietzsche and Heidegger, he sees it primarily in terms of what gives human freedom its meaning and its burden. Nietzsche and Heidegger, in contrast, view such a conception of freedom as naively metaphysical.
Suppose, however, that at some point I am conscious of myself in a thing-like way. For example, I say 'I am a student' (treating myself as having a fixed, thing-like identity) or 'I had no choice' (treating myself as belonging to the causal chain). I am ascribing a fixed identity or set of qualities to myself, much as I would say 'that is a piece of granite'. In that case I am existing in denial of my distinctively human mode of existence; I am fleeing from my freedom. This is inauthenticity or 'bad faith'. As we shall see, inauthenticity is not just an occasional pitfall of human life, but essential to it. Human existence is a constant falling away from an authentic recognition of its freedom. Sartre here thus echoes the notion in Heidegger than inauthenticity is a condition of possibility of human existence.
Intentionality manifests itself in another important way. Rarely if ever am I simply observing the world; instead I am involved in wanting to do something, I have a goal or purpose. Here, intentional consciousness is not a static directedness towards things, but is rather an active projection towards the future. Suppose that I undertake as my project marrying my beloved. This is an intentional relation to a future state of affairs. As free, I commit myself to this project and must reaffirm that commitment at every moment. It is part of my life project, the image of human life that I offer to myself and to others as something of value. Notice, however, that my project involves inauthenticity. I project myself into the future where I will be married to her – that is, I define myself as 'married', as if I were a fixed being. Thus there is an essential tension to all projection. On the one hand, the mere fact that I project myself into the future is emblematic of my freedom; only a radically free consciousness can project itself. I exist as projecting towards the future which, again, I am not. Thus, I am (in the sense of an authentic self) what I am not (because my projecting is always underway towards the future). On the other hand, in projecting I am projecting myself as something, that is, as a thing that no longer projects, has no future, is not free. Every action, then, is both an expression of freedom and also a snare of freedom. Projection is absurd: I seek to become the impossible object, for-itself-in-itself, a thing that is both free and a mere thing. Born of this tension is a recognition of freedom, what it entails, and its essential fragility. Thus, once again, we encounter existential anxiety. (In this article, we have not stressed the importance of the concept of time for existentialism, but it should not be overlooked: witness one of Nietzsche's most famous concepts (eternal recurrence) and the title of Heidegger's major early work (Being and Time).)
In my intentional directedness towards my beloved I find her 'loveable'. This too, though, is an objectification. Within my intentional gaze, she is loveable in much the same way that granite is hard or heavy. Insofar as I am in love, then, I seek to deny her freedom. Insofar, however, as I wish to be loved by her, then she must be free to choose me as her beloved. If she is free, she escapes my love; if not, she cannot love. It is in these terms that Sartre analyses love in Part Three of Being and Nothingness. Love here is a case study in the basic forms of social relation. Sartre is thus moving from an entirely individualistic frame of reference (my self, my freedom and my projects) towards a consideration of the self in concrete relations with others. Sartre is working through – in a way he would shortly see as being inadequate – the issues presented by the Hegelian dialectic of recognition, which we mentioned above. This 'hell' of endlessly circling acts of freedom and objectification is brilliantly dramatised in Sartre's play No Exit.
A few years later at the end of the 1940s, Sartre wrote what has been published as Notebooks for an Ethics. Sartre (influenced in the meantime by the criticisms of Merleau-Ponty and de Beauvoir, and by his increasing commitment to collectivist politics) elaborated greatly his existentialist account of relations with others, taking the Hegelian idea more seriously. He no longer thinks of concrete relations so pessimistically. While Nietzsche and Heidegger both suggest the possibility of an authentic being with others, both leave it seriously under-developed. For our purposes, there are two key ideas in the Notebooks. The first is that my projects can be realised only with the cooperation of others; however, that cooperation presupposes their freedom (I cannot make her love me), and their judgements about me must concern me. Therefore permitting and nurturing the freedom of others must be a central part of all my projects. Sartre thus commits himself against any political, social or economic forms of subjugation. Second, there is the possibility of a form of social organisation and action in which each individual freely gives him or herself over to a joint project: a 'city of ends' (this is a reworking of Kant's idea of the 'kingdom of ends', found in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). An authentic existence, for Sartre, therefore means two things. First, it is something like a 'style' of existing – one that at every moment is anxious, and that means fully aware of the absurdity and fragility of its freedom. Second, though, there is some minimal level of content to any authentic project: whatever else my project is, it must also be a project of freedom, for myself and for others.
e. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) as an Existentialist Philosopher
Simone de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to pass the demanding agrégation at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Subsequently a star Normalienne, she was a writer, philosopher, feminist, lifelong partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, notorious for her anti-bourgeois way of living and her free sexual relationships which included among others a passionate affair with the American writer Nelson Algren. Much ink has been spilled debating whether de Beauvoir’s work constitutes a body of independent philosophical work, or is a reformulation of Sartre’s work. The debate rests of course upon the fundamental misconception that wants a body of work to exist and develop independently of (or uninfluenced by) its intellectual environment. Such ‘objectivity’ is not only impossible but also undesirable: such a body of work would be ultimately irrelevant since it would be non-communicable. So the question of de Beauvoir’s ‘independence’ could be dismissed here as irrelevant to the philosophical questions that her work raises.
In 1943 Being and Nothingness, the groundwork of the Existentialist movement in France was published. There Sartre gave an account of freedom as ontological constitutive of the subject. One cannot but be free: this is the kernel of the Sartrean conception of freedom. In 1945 Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is published. There, as well as in an essay from the same year titled 'The war has taken place', Merleau-Ponty heavily criticizes the Sartrean stand, criticising it as a reformulation of basic Stoic tenets. One cannot assume freedom in isolation from the freedom of others. Action is participatory: “…my freedom is interwoven with that of others by way of the world” (Merleau-Ponty in Stewart 1995:315). Moreover action takes place within a certain historical context. For Merleau-Ponty the subjective free-will is always in a dialectical relationship with its historical context. In 1947 Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is published. The book is an introduction to existentialism but also a subtle critique of Sartre’s position on freedom, and a partial extension of existentialism towards the social. Although de Beauvoir will echo Merleau-Ponty’s criticism regarding the essential interrelation of the subjects, nevertheless she will leave unstressed the importance that the social context plays in the explication of moral problems. Like Sartre it is only later in her life that this will be acknowledged. In any case, de Beauvoir’s book precipitates in turn a major rethink on Sartre’s part, and the result is the Notebooks for an Ethics.
In Ethics of Ambiguity de Beauvoir offers a picture of the human subject as constantly oscillating between facticity and transcendence. Whereas the human is always already restricted by the brute facts of his existence, nevertheless it always aspires to overcome its situation, to choose its freedom and thus to create itself. This tension must be considered positive, and not restrictive of action. It is exactly because the ontology of the human is a battleground of antithetical movements (a view consistent with de Beauvoir’s Hegelianism) that the subject must produce an ethics which will be continuous with its ontological core. The term for this tension is ambiguity. Ambiguity is not a quality of the human as substance, but a characterisation of human existence. We are ambiguous beings destined to throw ourselves into the future while simultaneously it is our very own existence that throws us back into facticity. That is to say, back to the brute fact that we are in a sense always already destined to fail – not in this or that particular project but to fail as pure and sustained transcendence. It is exactly because of (and through) this fundamental failure that we realize that our ethical relation to the world cannot be self-referential but must pass through the realization of the common destiny of the human as a failed and interrelated being.
De Beauvoir, unlike Sartre, was a scholarly reader of Hegel. Her position on an existential ethics is thus more heavily influenced by Hegel’s view in the Phenomenology of Spirit concerning the moment of recognition (Hegel 1977:111). There Hegel describes the movement in which self-consciousness produces itself by positing another would be self-consciousness, not as a mute object (Gegen-stand) but as itself self-consciousness. The Hegelian movement remains one of the most fascinating moments in the history of philosophy since it is for the first time that the constitution of the self does not take place from within the self (as happens with Descartes, for whom the only truth is the truth of my existence; or Leibniz, for whom the monads are ‘windowless’; or Fichte, for whom the ‘I’ is absolutely self-constitutive) but from the outside. It is, Hegel tells us, only because someone else recognizes me as a subject that I can be constituted as such. Outside the moment of recognition there is no self-consciousness. De Beauvoir takes to heart the Hegelian lesson and tries to formulate an ethics from it.
What would this ethics be? As in Nietzsche, ethics refers to a way of life (a βίος), as opposed to morality which concerns approved or condemned behaviour. Thus there are no recipes for ethics. Drawn from Hegel’s moment of recognition, de Beauvoir acknowledges that the possibility of human flourishing is based firstly upon the recognition of the existence of the other (“Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of the other men” (Beauvoir 1976:72) and secondly on the recognition that my own flourishing (or my ability to pose projects, in the language of existentialists) passes through the possibility of a common flourishing. “Only the freedom of others keeps each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity,” (Beauvoir 1976:71) de Beauvoir writes; or again “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (Beauvoir 1976:73). The Ethics of Ambiguity ends by declaring the necessity of assuming one’s freedom and the assertion that it is only through action that freedom makes itself possible. This is not a point to be taken light-heartedly. It constitutes a movement of opposition against a long tradition of philosophy understanding itself as theoria: the disinterested contemplation on the nature of the human and the world. De Beauvoir, in common with most existentialists, understands philosophy as praxis: involved action in the world and participation in the course of history. It is out of this understanding that The Second Sex is born.
In 1949 Le Deuxième Sexe is published in France. In English in 1953 it appeared as The Second Sex in an abridged translation. The book immediately became a best seller and later a founding text of Second Wave Feminism (the feminist movement from the early 60’s to the 70’s inspired by the civil rights movement and focusing at the theoretical examination of the concepts of equality, inequality, the role of family, justice and so forth). More than anything, The Second Sex constitutes a study in applied existentialism where the abstract concept ‘Woman’ gives way to the examination of the lives of everyday persons struggling against oppression and humiliation. When de Beauvoir says that there is no such thing as a ‘Woman’ we have to hear the echo of the Kierkegaardian assertion of the single individual against the abstractions of Hegelian philosophy, or similarly Sartre’s insistence on the necessity of the prioritization of the personal lives of self-creating people (what Sartre calls ‘existence’) as opposed to a pre-established ideal of what humans should be like (what Sartre calls ‘essence’). The Second Sex is an exemplary text showing how a philosophical movement can have real, tangible effects on the lives of many people, and is a magnificent exercise in what philosophy could be.
“I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women...” (Beauvoir 2009:3). The Second Sex begins with the most obvious (but rarely posed) question: What is woman? De Beauvoir finds that at present there is no answer to that question. The reason is that tradition has always thought of woman as the other of man. It is only man that constitutes himself as a subject (as the Absolute de Beauvoir says), and woman defines herself only through him. “She determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential...” (Beauvoir 2009:6). But why is it that woman has initially accepted or tolerated this process whereby she becomes the other of man? De Beauvoir does not give a consoling answer; on the contrary, by turning to Sartre’s notion of bad faith (which refers to the human being’s anxiety in front of the responsibility entailed by the realization of its radical freedom) she thinks that women at times are complicit to their situation. It is indeed easier for one – anyone – to assume the role of an object (for example a housewife 'kept' by her husband) than to take responsibility for creating him or herself and creating the possibilities of freedom for others. Naturally the condition of bad faith is not always the case. Often women found themselves in a sociocultural environment which denied them the very possibility of personal flourishing (as happens with most of the major religious communities). A further problem that women face is that of understanding themselves as a unity which would enable them to assume the role of their choosing. “Proletarians say ‘we’. So do blacks” (Beauvoir 2009:8). By saying ‘we’ they assume the role of the subject and turn everyone else into ‘other’. Women are unable to utter this ‘we’. “They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic interests and social conditions to certain men – fathers or husbands – more closely than to other women. As bourgeois women, they are in solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians; as white women, they are in solidarity with white men and not with black women” (Beauvoir 2009:9). Women primarily align themselves to their class or race and not to other women. The female identity is “very much bound up with the identity of the men around them...” (Reynolds 2006:145).
One of the most celebrated moments in The Second Sex is the much quoted phrase: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (Beauvoir 2009:293). She explains: “No biological, physical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine” (Beauvoir 2009:293). For some feminists this clearly inaugurates the problematic of the sex-gender distinction (where sex denotes the biological identity of the person and gender the cultural attribution of properties to the sexed body). Simply put, there is absolutely nothing that determines the ‘assumed’ femininity of the woman (how a woman acts, feels, behaves) – everything that we have come to think as ‘feminine’ is a social construction not a natural given. Later feminists like Monique Wittig and Judith Butler will argue that ‘sex’ is already ‘gender’ in the sense that a sexed body exists alwaysalready within a cultural nexus that defines it. Thus the sex assignment (a doctor pronouncing the sex of the baby) is a naturalized (but not at all natural) normative claim which delivers the human into a world of power relations.
f. Albert Camus (1913-1960) as an Existentialist Philosopher
Albert Camus was a French intellectual, writer and journalist. His multifaceted work as well as his ambivalent relation to both philosophy and existentialism makes every attempt to classify him a rather risky operation. A recipient of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his novels, he is also known as a philosopher due to his non-literary work and his relation with Jean-Paul Sartre. And yet his response was clear: “I am not a philosopher, because I don’t believe in reason enough to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason” (Camus in Sherman 2009: 1). The issue is not just about the label 'existentialist'. It rather points to a deep tension within the current of thought of all thinkers associated with existentialism. The question is: With how many voices can thought speak? As we have already seen, the thinkers of existentialism often deployed more than one. Almost all of them share a deep suspicion to a philosophy operating within reason as conceived of by the Enlightenment. Camus shares this suspicion and his so called philosophy of the absurd intends to set limits to the overambitions of Western rationality. Reason is absurd in that it believes that it can explain the totality of the human experience whereas it is exactly its inability for explanation that, for example, a moment of fall designates. Thus in his novel “The Fall” the protagonist’s tumultuous narrative reveals the overtaking of a life of superficial regularity by the forces of darkness and irrationality. “A bourgeois hell, inhabited of course by bad dreams” (Camus 2006:10).In a similar fashion Camus has also repudiated his connection with existentialism. “Non, je ne suis pas existentialist” is the title of a famous interview that he gave for the magazine Les Nouvelles Littéraires on the 15 of November, 1945. The truth of the matter is that Camus’ rejection of existentialism is directed more toward Sartre’s version of it rather than toward a dismissal of the main problems that the existential thinkers faced. Particularly, Camus was worried that Sartre’s deification of history (Sartre’s proclaimed Marxism) would be incompatible with the affirmation of personal freedom. Camus accuses Hegel (subsequently Marx himself) of reducing man to history and thus denying man the possibility of creating his own history, that is, affirming his freedom.
Philosophically, Camus is known for his conception of the absurd. Perhaps we should clarify from the very beginning what the absurd is not. The absurd is not nihilism. For Camus the acceptance of the absurd does not lead to nihilism (according to Nietzsche nihilism denotes the state in which the highest values devalue themselves) or to inertia, but rather to their opposite: to action and participation. The notion of the absurd signifies the space which opens up between, on the one hand, man’s need for intelligibility and, on the other hand, 'the unreasonable silence of the world' as he beautifully puts it. In a world devoid of God, eternal truths or any other guiding principle, how could man bear the responsibility of a meaning-giving activity? The absurd man, like an astronaut looking at the earth from above, wonders whether a philosophical system, a religion or a political ideology is able to make the world respond to the questioning of man, or rather whether all human constructions are nothing but the excessive face-paint of a clown which is there to cover his sadness. This terrible suspicion haunts the absurd man. In one of the most memorable openings of a non-fictional book he states: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer” (Camus 2000:11). The problem of suicide (a deeply personal problem) manifests the exigency of a meaning-giving response. Indeed for Camus a suicidal response to the problem of meaning would be the confirmation that the absurd has taken over man’s inner life. It would mean that man is not any more an animal going after answers, in accordance with some inner drive that leads him to act in order to endow the world with meaning. The suicide has become but a passive recipient of the muteness of the world. “...The absurd ... is simultaneously awareness and rejection of death” (Camus 2000:54). One has to be aware of death – because it is precisely the realization of man’s mortality that pushes someone to strive for answers – and one has ultimately to reject death – that is, reject suicide as well as the living death of inertia and inaction. At the end one has to keep the absurd alive, as Camus says. But what does it that mean?
In The Myth of SisyphusCamus tells the story of the mythical Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain and then have to let it fall back again of its own weight. “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus 2000:109). One must imagine then Sisyphus victorious: fate and absurdity have been overcome by a joyful contempt. Scorn is the appropriate response in the face of the absurd; another name for this 'scorn' though would be artistic creation. When Camus says: “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness” (Camus 2000:110) he writes about a moment of exhilarated madness, which is the moment of the genesis of the artistic work. Madness, but nevertheless profound – think of the function of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear as the one who reveals to the king the most profound truths through play, mimicry and songs. Such madness can overcome the absurd without cancelling it altogether.
Almost ten years after the publication of The Myth of Sisyphus Camus publishes his second major philosophical work, The Rebel (1951). Camus continues the problematic which had begun with The Myth of Sisyphus. Previously, revolt or creation had been considered the necessary response to the absurdity of existence. Here, Camus goes on to examine the nature of rebellion and its multiple manifestations in history. In The Myth of Sisyphus, in truly Nietzschean fashion, Camus had said: “There is but one useful action, that of remaking man and the earth” (Camus 2000:31). However, in The Rebel, reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm,one of the first points he makes is the following: “The slave starts by begging for justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown. He too wants to dominate” (Camus 2000b:31). The problem is that while man genuinely rebels against both unfair social conditions and, as Camus says, against the whole of creation, nevertheless in the practical administration of such revolution, man comes to deny the humanity of the other in an attempt to impose his own individuality. Take for example the case of the infamous Marquis de Sade which Camus explores. In Sade, contradictory forces are at work (see The 120 Days of Sodom). On the one hand, Sade wishes the establishment of a (certainly mad) community with desire as the ultimate master, and on the other hand this very desire consumes itself and all the subjects who stand in its way.
Camus goes on to examine historical manifestations of rebellion, the most prominent case being that of the French Revolution. Camus argues that the revolution ended up taking the place of the transcendent values which it sought to abolish. An all-powerful notion of justice now takes the place formerly inhabited by God. Rousseau’s infamous suggestion that under the rule of ‘general will’ everyone would be 'forced to be free' (Rousseau in Foley 2008:61) opens the way to the crimes committed after the revolution. Camus fears that all revolutions end with the re-establishment of the State. “...Seventeen eighty-nine brings Napoleon; 1848 Napoleon III; 1917 Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler” (Camus 2000b:146). Camus is led to examine the Marxist view of history as a possible response to the failed attempts at the establishment of a true revolutionary regime. Camus examines the similarities between the Christian and the Marxist conception of history. They both exhibit a bourgeois preoccupation with progress. In the name of the future everything can be justified: “the future is the only kind of property that the masters willingly concede to the slaves” (Camus 2000b:162). History according to both views is the linear progress from a set beginning to a definite end (the metaphysical salvation of man or the materialistic salvation of him in the future Communist society). Influenced by Kojève’s reading of Hegel, Camus interprets this future, classless society as the ‘end of history’. The ‘end of history’ suggests that when all contradictions cease then history itself will come to an end. This is, Camus argues, essentially nihilistic: history, in effect, accepts that meaning creation is no longer possible and commits suicide. Because historical revolutions are for the most part nihilistic movements, Camus suggests that it is the making-absolute of the values of the revolution that necessarily lead to their negation. On the contrary a relative conception of these values will be able to sustain a community of free individuals who have not forgotten that every historical rebellion has begun by affirming a proto-value (that of human solidarity) upon which every other value can be based.
3. The Influence of Existentialism
a. The Arts and Psychology
In the field of visual arts existentialism exercised an enormous influence, most obviously on the movement of Expressionism. Expressionism began in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. With its emphasis on subjective experience, Angst and intense emotionality, German expressionism sought to go beyond the naiveté of realist representation and to deal with the anguish of the modern man (exemplified in the terrible experiences of WWI). Many of the artists of Expressionism read Nietzsche intensively and following Nietzsche’s suggestion for a transvaluation of values experimented with alternative lifestyles. Erich Heckel’s woodcut “Friedrich Nietzsche” from 1905 is a powerful reminder of the movement’s connection to Existentialist thought. Abstract expressionism (which included artists such as de Kooning and Pollock, and theorists such as Rosenberg) continued with some of the same themes in the United States from the 1940s and tended to embrace existentialism as one of its intellectual guides, especially after Sartre's US lecture tour in 1946 and a production of No Exit in New York.
German Expressionism was particularly important during the birth of the new art of cinema. Perhaps the closest cinematic work to Existentialist concerns remains F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) in which the constantly moving camera (which prefigures the ‘rule’ of the hand-held camera of the Danish Dogma 95) attempts to arrest the spiritual anguish of a man who suddenly finds himself in a meaningless world. Expressionism became a world-wide style within cinema, especially as film directors like Lang fled Germany and ended up in Hollywood. Jean Genet's Un chant d'amour (1950) is a moving poetic exploration of desire. In the sordid, claustrophobic cells of a prison the inmates’ craving for intimacy takes place against the background of an unavoidable despair for existence itself. European directors such as Bergman and Godard are often associated with existentialist themes. Godard's Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962) is explicit in its exploration of the nature of freedom under conditions of extreme social and personal pressure. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries existentialist ideas became common in mainstream cinema, pervading the work of writers and directors such as Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, Charlie Kaufman and Christopher Nolan.
Given that Sartre and Camus were both prominent novelists and playwrights, the influence of existentialism on literature is not surprising. However, the influence was also the other way. Novelists such as Dostoevsky or Kafka, and the dramatist Ibsen, were often cited by mid-century existentialists as important precedents, right along with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Dostoevsky creates a character Ivan Karamazov (in The Brothers Karamazov, 1880) who holds the view that if God is dead, then everything is permitted; both Nietzsche and Sartre discuss Dostoevsky with enthusiasm. Within drama, the theatre of the absurd and most obviously Beckett were influenced by existentialist ideas; later playwrights such as Albee, Pinter and Stoppard continue this tradition.
One of the key figures of 20th century psychology, Sigmund Freud, was indebted to Nietzsche especially for his analysis of the role of psychology within culture and history, and for his view of cultural artefacts such as drama or music as 'unconscious' documentations of psychological tensions. But a more explicit taking up of existentialist themes is found in the broad 'existentialist psychotherapy' movement. A common theme within this otherwise very diverse group is that previous psychology misunderstood the fundamental nature of the human and especially its relation to others and to acts of meaning-giving; thus also, previous psychology had misunderstood what a 'healthy' attitude to self, others and meaning might be. Key figures here include Swiss psychologists Ludwig Binswanger and later Menard Boss, both of who were enthusiastic readers of Heidegger; the Austrian Frankl, who invented the method of logotherapy; in England, Laing and Cooper, who were explicitly influenced by Sartre; and in the United States, Rollo May, who stresses the ineradicable importance of anxiety.
As a whole, existentialism has had relatively little direct influence within philosophy. In Germany, existentialism (and especially Heidegger) was criticised for being obscure, abstract or even mystical in nature. This criticism was made especially by Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity, and in Dog Years, novelist Gunter Grass gives a Voltaire-like, savage satire of Heidegger. The criticism was echoed by many in the analytic tradition. Heidegger and the existentialist were also taken to task for paying insufficient attention to social and political structures or values, with dangerous results. In France, philosophers like Sartre were criticised by those newly under the influence of structuralism for paying insufficient attention to the nature of language and to impersonal structures of meaning. In short, philosophy moved on, and in different directions. Individual philosophers remain influential, however: Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular are very much 'live' topics in philosophy, even in the 21st century.
However, there are some less direct influences that remain important. Let us raise three examples. Both the issue of freedom in relation to situation, and that of the philosophical significance of what otherwise might appear to be extraneous contextual factors, remain key, albeit in dramatically altered formulation, within the work of Michel Foucault or Alain Badiou, two figures central to late 20th century European thought. Likewise, the philosophical importance that the existentialists placed upon emotion has been influential, legitimising a whole domain of philosophical research even by philosophers who have no interest in existentialism. Similarly, existentialism was a philosophy that insisted philosophy could and should deal very directly with 'real world' topics such as sex, death or crime, topics that had most frequently been approached abstractly within the philosophical tradition. Mary Warnock wrote on existentialism and especially Sartre, for example, while also having an incredibly important and public role within recent applied ethics.
4. References and Further Reading
a. General Introductions
- Warnock Mary. Existentialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970)
- Barrett William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Anchor House, 1990)
- Cooper E. David. Existentialism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999)
- Reynolds Jack. Understanding Existentialism (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2006)
- Earnshaw Steven. Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2006)
- Kauffman Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Penguin, 1975)
- Paul S. MacDonald. The Existentialist Reader – An Anthology of Key Texts (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 2000)
- Solomon C. Robert. Existentialism (USA: Oxford University Press, 2004)
c. Primary Bibliography
- Beauvoir de Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity (New York: Citadel Press, 1976)
- Beauvoir de Simone. The Second Sex (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009)
- Camus Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus (London: Penguin, 2000)
- Camus Albert. The Rebel (London: Penguin, 2000b)
- Camus Albert. The Fall, (London: Penguin, 2006)
- Heidegger Martin, Introduction to Metaphysics (New Heaven & London: Yale University Press,2000)
- Heidegger Martin. Letter on Humanism: in Heidegger Martin. Basic Writings, (London: Routledge, 1993)
- Heidegger Martin. Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962)
- Heidegger Martin. Identity and Difference (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002)
- Kierkegaard Søren. The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980)
- Kierkegaard Søren. Fear and Trembling (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983)
- Kierkegaard Søren. Papers and Journals: A Selection, (London: Penguin Book, 1996)
- Nietzsche Friedrich. Ecce Homo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
- Nietzsche Friedrich. The Gay Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
- Nietzsche Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
- Nietzsche Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
- Sartre Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness (London and New York: Routledge, 2003)
- Sartre Jean-Paul, "Intentionality: A fundamental idea of Husserl's Phenomenology." Trans. by Joseph P. Fell, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 1970, Vol. 1, No. 2
d. Secondary Bibliography
- Todd Oliver. Albert Camus – A Life (London: Vintage, 1998)
- Sherman David. Camus (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009)
- Foley John. Albert Camus – From the Absurd to Revolt (Stocksfield: Accumen, 2009)
- Cox Gary. Sartre – A guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2006)
- Gardner Sebastian. Sartre’
Perhaps more than any other philosophy, existentialism is difficult to define. Calling it the philosophy of existence makes no great progress toward a definition until existence is defined. Moreover, existentialism seems to be associated with a famous name like Sartre and yet "he does not even represent . . . the deepest impulse of this philosophy."1 Definition by identification with well-known names not only does not give content but may mislead because such a variety of names (and disciplines) are connected frequently with existentialism. Sören Kierkegaard (pronounced ker-ke-gor) is considered the father of the movement, but he probably would not claim Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Camus as his intellectual progeny.
Walter Kaufmann says that the common feature drawing the movement together may be its intense individualism.2 But in a sense every philosopher is an intense individual but more particularly those giants of history such as Socrates, Pascal, Marx, and others. Can we legitimately group these under the heading of existentialism?
A thumbnail definition that is frequently given for existentialism is that it is a philosophy stressing human existence as opposed to movements that submerge man's existence. If the emphasis of distinction is placed upon man's existence, how is it different from humanism? It may be looked upon as a form of humanism, but humanism often stresses a rational, scientific attitude toward life. Existentialism, paradoxically, uses reason to denounce reason as well as the scientific enterprise because it depersonalizes humans.
The difficulty of defining existentialism encourages one to explore some of the themes and emphases. We will do this. It will help us to see existentialism as a philosophy that stresses one particular set of themes over against other philosophies stressing different sets of themes. If one is not too happy with this approach and other definitions, one may be pushed to say that an existentialist is anyone who says he is an existentialist. This is yet a problem since some "existentialists" deny the use of the term for themselves although other philosophers classify them as such.
We will now turn to the seven themes that may be used to characterize an extended definition of existentialism.
1. Existence precedes essence.
Jean-Paul Sartre has written: "What is meant hereby saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself."3 Thus man begins as a zero, a nothing, and then only becomes something. Hence man defines the meaning of his existence and beyond man there is no meaning to explain
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a Russian born novelist, is considered a precursor of existentialism. He was banished to Siberia for 8 years for being a member of a utopian society. His novels are filled with philosophical and ethical issues. Among the better known are Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov.
existence. Sartre also wrote: "Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life."
The statement that existence precedes essence means that there is no human nature or human prototype to which all men ultimately conform. The word essence is most generally associated with a common element in all humanity. But in Sartre there is no human nature which can be known--this would require the existence of God to know it--and men are all different. Man makes himself and if he doesn't, he does not arrive.
The sentence containing the phrase existence precedes essence has been described by Paul Tillich as "the most despairing and the most courageous sentence in all Existentialist literature."5 It is courageous in that man is the sole director of his destiny. It is despairing in that after all is said and done, life's meaning which I alone have made, may be, after all, meaningless.
But not all existentialists adhere to the idea that existence precedes essence, a fact which complicates the use of the theme in the definition. Gabriel Marcel noted, in his Mystery of Being, that he must diametrically oppose Sartre on the issue of existence preceding essence: "My existence as a living being precedes this discovery of myself as a living being. One might even say that, by a fatal necessity, I pre-exist myself."6 Marcel proceeds to show that man's existence is not an isolated phenomenon, but it is a gift that is developed through participation with other people--hence inter-subjectivity. Instead of the Sartean conclusion that Hell is other people, man cannot be without other people. Hence from Marcel's viewpoint, it is impossible to know oneself without the help of others. He concluded that Sartre's view is inadequate for framing a definition of one man let alone many men.
2. Existentialism is concerned with personality.
Modern existentialists have lived through many diverse attempts to restrict human freedom believed to be necessary for the development of man's personality. Berdyaev was a refugee of the Russian revolution, Sartre and Marcel experienced the occupation of France by the Nazis, Heidegger was for a time a supporter of the Nazi regime in Germany, Jaspers lived through the era also and one may catalogue other men such as Tillich who fled to America. It is not strange that many have written profound works on the development of man as a person.
Berdyaev wrote: "Our conception of man must be founded upon the conception of personality. True anthropology is bound to be personalistic."7 Nietzsche's overman concept reflects his understanding of man's personality and the possibilities of self-transcendence. Kierkegaard's profound work, The Sickness Unto Death, depicts man's personality around the relation of the body to soul and the soul and body to God. Tillich's The Courage to Be analyzes the different personality types and their responses to despair. His basic concern is how man can be truly man.
Many existentialists are interested in man as a person, man in his freedom, man's coming to affirm himself--without coming to accept carte blanche anyone's system of philosophy. Systems of philosophy are particularly denounced because systems are said to emphasize the universal while the individual is frequently overlooked. The savage attack upon "The System" by Kierkegaard indicates something of the salvage activity of existentialism when it insists that it cannot build until the old foundations are torn away. Thus any definition of existentialism that deals with personality must also deal with the negative--those elements in life that negate personality.
Thus concern with man's personality means that Existentialism must move beyond an isolated interest in man's thinking ability. Man does think, but he is a willing creature, a fearing, anxious being, a desiring, imaginative being. The conclusion of Descartes that man exists because he thinks is not the full story. What does it mean to exist as a personality? This requires thinking, but thinking concludes for more than mere thought.
3. Existentialism is concerned with being.
What is Being? Existentialists answer the question differently, but it is a significant theme. Being is more than objective knowledge derived via scientific techniques. Marcel speaks of this as primary and secondary reflection. Primary reflection relates to mere scientific knowledge, but beyond this there is the search for Being which cannot be reached scientifically, yet it is related to experience. The significant experience that a person has, says Marcel, is related to other persons, or involves what he called inter-subjectivity. One begins to know Being in inter-subjective relationships. Marcel noted: "I concern myself with being only in so far as I have more or less distinct consciousness of the underlying unity which ties me to other beings of whose reality I already have a preliminary notion."8 In contrast to Sartre famous dictum "Hell is other people," Marcel asserted that one knows less about being from an egocentric perspective than from a perspective of knowing other persons. Nevertheless, Marcel related being personally to the knowing of one's personal spiritual existence.9 In a yet larger sense, inter-subjectivity may relate to God whereby man in prayer knows the being of God and being which he is himself.
Kierkegaard similarly spoke of man's being in an inter-subjective manner. In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard spoke of the self as a relation to itself and to the Eternal self. Without both relationships (or inter-subjective experiences, to use Marcel's terms) man is not yet a self.10
Karl Jaspers wrote of being under the term Comprehensive. He noted:
Clearly being as such cannot be an object. Everything that becomes an object for me breaks away from the Comprehensive in confronting me, while I break away from it as subject. For the I, the object is a determinate being. The Comprehensive remains obscure to my consciousness. It becomes clear only through objects, and takes on greater clarity as the objects become more conscious and more clear. The Comprehensive does not itself become an object but is manifested in the dichotomy of I and object. It remains itself
a background, but it is always the Comprehensive.11
Other existentialists, Sartre and Heidegger, for example, get no further than man as the basic concept of being. It may be noted also that a narrow definition of being with reference to man would result in a smaller definition of personality.
4. Existentialism stresses man's bodily existence.
Kierkegaard's definition of man is that he is, among other things, a relation to a body. Generally, existentialists reject the ancient philosophical doctrine of the body as the prison house of the soul whereby escaping from the body is to be desired. For the more pessimistic existentialists escape from the body is an escape to no-where, non-existence, since life after death is rejected. For the optimistic philosophers the body takes on new importance as it relates to the immaterial element in man's existence.
Man confronts other bodies as a body. Man's whole world of feeling and inter-subjectivity is manifested through a body. The primary interest in the body for the existentialist is not on the analytical line in which the body is said to have this or that chemistry, subject to disease and filled with needs. Rather, using what Marcel called secondary reflection, one must speak of the body as my body which is possessive and intimate. "My body" implies a rejection of old-line philosophical questions of the body-soul relationship which were answered on the lines of parallelism or interactionism between two different things. In affirming my body, I lay claim to what cannot be claimed by anyone else.12 By the same token I have responsibility for its sustenance, its discipline, and its self-control. To recognize the body is to recognize personal existence. The personal existence that emerges is that of a non-material sort that possesses or manifests itself in body. Marcel noted: "The self that owns things can never even in thought, be reduced to a completely dematerialized ego."13
The body occupies space in the world as it protrudes itself in space and is a kind of instrument for the self. As long as it is my body the existential view of the self will not degenerate into crass materialism.
It is to be noted that the conclusions reached about the body come from secondary reflection or a phenomenological description of man's everyday experience. Marcel, for one, regards this as vital and necessary for man's existence since living life spontaneously is to live life on a lower level. With secondary reflection, there comes a means of rising from one level of life to another.
This leads naturally to a comment about the quality of life that existentialists have advocated. As a rule it is not impulsively hedonistic; rather it has gone in the direction of self-discipline as can be noted in Marcel, Kierkegaard, and even Nietzche, whose concept of the overman means that man transcends himself. He is in control of his body.
5. Existentialism is an analysis of man's world.
Man lives in a "broken world." His broken existence can be described from the standpoint of alienation. "Alienation is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, psychological, psychopathological, and sociological, for it concerns the individual as well as the group."14 What has brought man to this point? In part, the history of the past one hundred years can offer some help in looking at the matter. During this time the world has seen vast technological changes as seen in space travel, satellite communication, heart transplants, and vast industrial and military complexes. Advancing technology--presumably for man's good--has come at the expense of humanity's personal advancement. Personality became submerged beneath massive production systems, men became alienated from nature in the asphalt culture of the city, men became alienated from one another, from meaningful community units, and meaninglessness of existence has come to the front as manifested in music, art, some philosophies, and the general appeal of the occult.
Alienation also has a specifically religious overtone in some philosophers who view not only the cultural problems that man faces as man, but also his alienation from God which is related to the cultural dilemmas man faces.
In consequence, existentialism raises a mighty protest against collectivism, whether it be in democratic conformism, or marxist collectivism, or a military-industrial complex. It not only protests mass movements that deny or degrade personality but existentialists of all types attempt to show man a way back to his "authentic" self--whatever that may be in the specific philosopher's view. Since the crisis of technology is not in the past, but in the future, man is increasingly threatened with meaninglessness and non-being. Heinemann suggests two alternatives: (l) slavery under bureaucratic control in which man degenerates in brainpower and loses spiritual vitality, or (2) an awakening in man recognizing his spiritual existence as a basis of his struggle against slavery and advocacy of a world in which humanity is treated as human.15
6. Existentialism and the phenomenological method.
If existentialism has a method of investigation, it is in the use of phenomenology. Certain men are committed to the method of phenomenology rather than necessarily the philosophy of phenomenology. Lauer declared concerning phenomenology:
As a method it outlines the steps which must be taken in order to arrive at the pure phenomenon, wherein is revealed the very essence not only of appearances but also of that which appears. As a philosophy it claims to give necessary, essential knowledge of that which is, since contingent existence cannot change what reason has recognized as the very essence of its object.16
Sartre's large work, Being and Nothingness seeks to give a phenomenological description of being. Others like Marcel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger are good examples of philosophers who employ the method of phenomenology.
7. Existentialism may be termed a literary movement.
Many of the existentialists are popular play-writers. Sartre is perhaps the best known in America as exhibited in his No Exit, The Flies, and The Respectful Prostitute. Lesser known are the plays of Gabriel Marcel.
In addition to the theater, novels and short stories serve as a literary means of conveying philosophical points of view. The simplicity of a play has more far-reaching impacts than an abstract philosophical treatise such as Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
A play or novel arouses reflective thinking in a way that an essay in philosophy would not. Moreover, Marcel says on this: "One might nevertheless say that it is the function proper to drama to arouse secondary reflection in us . . .17
Not all existentialists have been literary people producing for the theater. Other styles such as allegory and journals played an important media for both Kierkegaard and Marcel.
These specialized approaches to communication must not omit the straight-forward direct communication of ideas along traditional philosophical methods of argumentation.
In summary, it is evident that a good definition of existentialism is difficult to produce because existentialism is, by the nature of the movement, against narrow, hard-bound classification.
We now turn to our two examples of existentialism.
I. Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Sören Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen where he spent most of his life. Inheritance brought independence for literary activities and he never held an academic post as did so many other philosophers. As the father of modern existentialism, Kierkegaard did not get full recognition until the twentieth century. As a religious existentialist, he attempted to reintroduce Christianity into Christendom. While contemplating at an outdoor cafe in Copenhagen he pondered his vocational calling. He mused that most people attempted to make life easier than it had been. His vocation would be to make life harder. He attempted to shake off the identification of Hegelianism with Christianity. He regarded Hegelianism as a perversion of Christian thought. History has borne out that assessment and many will agree with Copleston's remark over a century later: "I agree with McTaggart, who was not himself a Christian believer, when he points out that as an ally of Christianity Hegelianism is 'an enemy in disguise--the least evident, but the most dangerous.'"18 Kierkegaard was convinced that Hegel's thought was a subversion of Christianity and sought to expose it. He is important for many themes involving concepts of man's despair, dread, and aesthetic, ethical, and religious man, but this would take us beyond the brief survey under our four headings.
Kierkegaard has not left us a metaphysical analysis of existence or reality. Hence what may be put together will constitute conclusions from ideas impending upon such a metaphysic. We can mention certain implications of his thinking. First, in reference to knowing reality. He affirmed a "mild" empiricism, that is, the scientific method was of value in many ways, but its knowledge goes in the direction of impersonal laws and man may be reduced to a "manipulator of scientific instruments, a point of departure in the exploration of the material world."19When the same method is applied to man and is regarded as the only way of studying man, then human values are lost.
Second, Kierkegaard rejected both naturalism and idealism as wild options in a world view. Naturalism, the idea that nature is the sum total of reality, is rejected because there is Being beyond the phenomena available to man's vision and scientific method. Idealism, the philosophy asserting an Absolute Spirit which is the totality of all, blurs the distinction between man and God. While he did not attempt to develop a metaphysic in actuality, Kierkegaard affirms a Christian realism in which both mind and matter are necessary elements for understanding the universe. Reality has derived its being from God, but matter and God are not interchangeable terms.
Third, reality and transcendence. "All contemporary existentialists agree that human existence is set off from non-human reality by the note of transcendence."20 Even existentialists who deny the existence of God yet affirm man's potential transcendence of himself. But Kierkegaard stresses not just a pagan fulfillment of human capabilities or potentialities. Rather, man can transcend himself and experience the Transcendent. The Transcendent experienced by man aids in the transcendence of humanity's problems wherein man can become a new creature, a transformed rather than a reformed being. Transcendence usually means a casting aside of this world and its values, and there is this truth in Kierkegaard, but there is also a re-affirmation of human life now because the Transcendent has become incarnate in history. This incarnation of God in Jesus Christ declares that God is not unconcerned about human existence, nor is humanity so far beneath him that he is unmoved by it.
Man is one of the most important categories of Kierkegaard. His definition of man, although abstract, is vital to his thinking and is, indeed, related to the matter of transcendence above. "Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite."21 To put it another way, "The self as spirit is the natural synthesis of body and soul become conscious of itself and free with respect to itself."22 It may yet be said another way that man is "a synthesis of soul and body supported by spirit." The definition emphasizes the synthesis which relates man's existence to God.
Kierkegaard rejected the Hegelian definition of man as a being of possibility and actuality resulting in necessity; rather man is a "synthesis of possibility and necessity, leading to a novel and inviolable actuality."23 This distinction may seem a matter of words but Kierkegaard sought to keep man from submerging himself into divinity, and the emphasis on necessity stresses this.
Man standing as a synthesis before God means that cultural distinctions between rich or poor are meaningless since both the rich or poor stand in danger of losing their source of Life. Kierkegaard also rejected the snobbish attitude on the part of philosophers who play up the superiority of their own intelligence and look smugly down their noses at the ignorant. He appealed to the individual, dubbed "my individual reader," who may not be learned, but was capable of being a whole individual. Man can only be viewed as the single individual. Any comparison of man is rejected although comparison may be made between the individual and the man, Jesus Christ.
Man is not defined by the crowd or a cultural stance. Kierkegaard distrusted crowds and he coined a famous saying that the crowd is untruth. Although environment helps to mold man, yet man cannot be defined by environment. Every man has the power to leave the crowd and its influence over him, to become an uncommon man. The uncommon man is the free man and this liberation can come about only as man relates to God who enables this liberation.
Kierkegaard furnished a significant analysis of man's problem and condition. Man is sick unto death. His sickness? Despair!
Whence then comes this despair? From the relation wherein the synthesis relates itself to itself, in that God who made man a relationship lets this go as it were out of his hand, that is, in the fact that the relation relates itself to itself.24
Man's sickness is not man's whole story. Loneliness is not man's original condition. His sickness indicates a drastic change from a past good health. Despair of infinitude reflects a man's desire to become infinite via phantasy but paradoxically the more one commits oneself to phantasy the more one loses of oneself. The despair of finitude reflects indifference to the realm of selfhood. The despair of possibility reflects the lack of necessity or the lack of a stable point of evaluation from which the self can be measured. The despair of necessity reflects the lack of possibility, or reflects the fruit of a fatalistic attitude toward existence. The despair of the sensuous man reflects the lack of willing to be one's real self. The despair over the Eternal admits the need for faith but dwells on the despair of weakness. The most adamant form of despair is that of defiance. Here the self rejects the synthesis, or relation with the Infinite, and seeks to be itself in spite of the Infinite.
Man's problem, or despair, for Kierkegaard, is related to the fact of sin. "Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself."25 Sin is not a few well-known vices; rather vices proceed from the spiritlessness of the self. Sin takes three forms: (l) the sin of despairing over one's sin, as seen in the example of the man who despairingly declares: "I can never forgive myself for it."26 (2) The sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins, meaning that one will not admit the possibility of the forgiveness of sins; (3) the sin of abandoning Christianity or declaring it false. When this is done, Kierkegaard maintains, no hope is left.
Kierkegaard concluded his work on despair by saying that existence is serious. The Incarnation is a serious act of God and as for man, "the seriousness in this seriousness is that everyone shall have an opinion about it."27
Kierkegaard's view of God is crucial for this whole system of thinking. Hence the view of Hegel, his opponent, is important. Hegel regarded the Absolute as the sum total of reality. This Absolute Spirit is a process of self-reflection taking place in man. Thus knowledge of man is a knowledge of God, and the Absolute knows itself in the self-reflection of man. This pantheizing view can hardly be identified with traditional theism, or philosophy of God's existence. But the matter was complicated in that Hegel regarded his philosophy as the absolute philosophy and Christianity as the absolute religion. Moreover Christianity stood or fell with his philosophy.
Kierkegaard rejected both the philosophy of Hegel as well as the identification of Hegelianism with Christianity. For our purposes, we will deal with only two issues in Kierkegaard's thought: religious knowledge and cultural religion.
In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard raised the question of knowledge in general and religious knowledge in particular. How can the Truth be known? Under the guise of the Socratic proposal, Kierkegaard elaborated the view of Hegel as a system in which knowledge is innate in man because he has the divine in him, or the Absolute comes to self-reflection in man. The role of a teacher--Socrates--is merely to ask the right questions to trigger the inward response of knowledge. Anyone--philosopher or charwoman--can be a mid-wife of ideas. No fees need be paid for the learner may also be the occasion for teaching the teacher. On Hegel's ground, since man is the self-reflecting process of the Absolute, man need only look within himself to secure a knowledge of the Absolute.
In contrast, Kierkegaard proposes another alternative. Suppose that the learner is ignorant, or is in a state of untruth, what happens then? Or, suppose that man is not the Absolute in a self-reflecting process. What is the role of the Teacher? If this is true, the Teacher becomes all important. Since the learner is in a state of Untruth he must also be given the condition for receiving the truth. But any teacher who can do this is more than an ordinary teacher. In this alternative the teacher is God. How does God appear on the scene? Kierkegaard's answer is found in the Incarnation, or the Christian idea that God took manhood to himself in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
The motivation for the incarnation is love. Love takes the initiative and seeks equality, but man and God are not equals. The incarnation does three things: (l) it makes a meaningful knowledge of God understandable, for God comes himself, (2) it makes redemption or reconciliation of man back to God possible, and (3) it preserves the idea of the holy which was demolished in Hegel's pantheism.
Kierkegaard's story of the anxiety of the king reveals some of these ideas in an allegory. The king was mighty and every nation feared his wrath. He had fallen in love with a commoner, but like all men he was anxious when it came to getting married. The thought that entered his kingly mind was this: "Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget that he was a king and that she was a humble maiden?" The king was anxious lest she reflect upon this and rob her of happiness. If the marriage were unequal the beauty of their love would be lost. A number of alternatives could be suggested to the king. First, he could elevate the maiden to his side and forget the inequality. But there was always the possible thought coming into her heart that after all she was a commoner and he was the king. Such a marriage could be consummated but love would never be on the basis of equality. Second, should someone suggest that the king could display his majesty, pomp, and glory she would fall down and worship him, to be humbled by the fact that so great a favor was being bestowed upon her. To this the king would undoubtedly demand the execution of the person suggesting this as high treason against his beloved. The king could not enter into a relationship such as this. The kingly dilemma is solved in the third alternative; the king should descend and thereby give up his throne to become a commoner for the purpose of loving the maiden as an equal.
Kierkegaard then applied this story to the relationship between God and man. God could have elevated man into his presence and transfigured him to fill his life with joy for eternity. But the king, knowing the human heart, would not stand for this, for it would end only in self-deception. To this Kierkegaard said, "No one is so terribly deceived as he who does not suspect it."28 On the other hand, God could have brought worship "causing him to forget himself over divine apparition."29 Such a procedure would have possibly pleased man but it would not have pleased the king "who desired not his own glorification but the maiden's."30 This is an impossible alternative also because of God's holiness. Regarding this Kierkegaard said,
There once lived a people who had a profound understanding of the divine. This people thought that no man could see God and live--who grasps this contradiction of sorrow; not to reveal oneself is the death of love, to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved.31
The holiness of God revealed to sinful man would have brought the destruction of man. Thus the alternative for bringing the union of God and man is the same as for the King.
Since we have found that the union could not be brought about by the elevation it must be attempted by the descent. In order that the union may be brought about God must become the equal of such a one and so he will appear in the lives of the humblest, for the humblest is one who must serve others. God will therefore appear in the form of a servant.32
Thus the Incarnation and its meaning for religious knowledge.
The other item about religion is equally important. Hegelian philosophy permeated the Church of Denmark in Kierkegaard's day. To be born into the state and its church was the same as being born a Christian. A state church was suspect. This made the parsons--a term frequently used by him--royal functionaries. And royal functionaries have nothing to do with Christianity. He rebelled against the identification of religion and Christianity. His Attack Upon Christendom is a sharp polemic upon a watered down version of Christianity. Unlike some existentialists who ignore or attack religion in general or Christianity in particular, he sought to criticize it from within, hoping to restore it to its apostolic, or original quality. In this he was interested in provoking thought on what it means to be a Christian. Does one express the essence of Christianity on the basis of attending the Sunday sermon, and submitting to certain religious rites in the church, i.e., baptism, confirmation, marriage and death? By no means, said Kierkegaard, to be a Christian is to be committed to Christ. Contemporaneity with Christ means that faith involves a living vital relationship with a living Savior. There are no disciples at second-hand, nor is there a cultural species of this religion. Nineteen hundred and some odd years later makes no difference from the perspective of the resurrected, living Christ.
The existential dimension of Christianity floods light upon other problems that concerned Kierkegaard. He rejected the use of "proofs" or arguments for God's existence since an argument loses its I-Thou involvement. The argument ends with an abstract God rather than the living God. By the same token, Jesus is not to be viewed speculatively or aesthetically. An aesthetic or admirer's stance toward Jesus involves no commitment. The demand of a revealed religion is for commitment, not speculation. The demand of revealed religion is for commitment, not admiration. Jesus came to make disciples, not philosophers.
Contemporaneity means that no historical person has the advantage over later generations. St. Peter's vital and important relationship was based upon faith or commitment, and not on the fact that he ate with Jesus upon occasion. A disciple is a committed one, not merely a historian of miscellaneous facts. The twentieth century disciple is on the same footing as the first century disciples--faith, no more, no less.
Kierkegaard can be misunderstood very easily when the area of values is considered. His own positive position is hard enough to understand without wildly interpreting some of his statements. He warned that his work is a "corrective" for the systems of Kant and Hegel and others. For Kierkegaard, values and ethical issues cannot be based upon (l) abstract universal laws, (2) humanistic standards of reason, and (3) social patterns as related to cultural studies. They are inadequate for many reasons which will become obvious in the summary statement below.
Kierkegaard deals with the issue in various books, but one example will point up his thinking. In Fear and Trembling Abraham of the Old Testament is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. According to the pagan customs of the day, Abraham could have done this as a religious service. But Hebrew value on human life was different, and Abraham treasured the only son of his old age. Since God commanded it, would Abraham have been regarded as a murderer?
At this point Kierkegaard distinguished between the universal and the absolute. The ethical is the universal and applies to everything, everyone, and every instance. The universal is identified with natural law, law of reason, or dictates of culture. If Abraham is judged on the universal, he should be indicted for murder, rather than to emerge as a hero of faith. Where does the Absolute come in? The Absolute here is not in the sense of the Absolute of Hegel. The absolute is contrasted to the universal and the absolute is higher than the universal. What is the source of the universal? Is the universal personal? What is its authority? These questions point beyond the impersonal universal to the Personal Absolute--God. The authority back of the universal is God. Universals may have usefulness in ethical systems, but must not be separated from the authority of the lawgiver as it became in the ethical system of Kant.
The traditional question of medieval thought emerges here in Kierkegaard: is God the standard of the good, or is there a standard to which God must conform? Kierkegaard answered that God is the standard and could have dictated a different universal law if he so desired. This is the point of his question: is there a theological suspension of the ethical? Or, in other words, had Abraham really sacrificed Isaac at the command of God, would he have been a murderer? The context of this discussion would require a negative answer.
Real danger lurks at this point in misunderstanding Kierkegaard if the conclusion is reached that Kierkegaard is suspending ethical principles. The affirmation of the teleological suspension is to make this point: separation of the universal from the absolute, or the separation of the moral law from the law-giver is to create a new idolatry. The universal is the way it is because it expresses the nature of God. In other ways, it may be said, if man's purpose in life is the pursuit of happiness, or the fulfillment of the moral law, if anything other than God is the final end and goal of man, then a new idolatry is born.
Kierkegaard does not work out the manner in which the universal and the absolute could be related but his central point is that ethics must begin with God.
Kierkegaard is sometimes misused to advance the case for relativism and subjectivism in ethics. But his position is really an affirmation of objectivism--the good is known in the self-revelation of God. The typical options offered as alternatives have their problems. Humanistic ethics as well as cultural ethics are as subjective as their sources. Formalistic ethics--based upon the sense of duty--without the Commander behind the duty is idolatrous even though the system may be worthy of commendation. Kierkegaard would pity the man who pursued the good but lost God.
E. Conclusions and criticisms.
The philosophic mood of Kierkegaard's day has changed so that no longer is idealism the reigning philosophy. Yet he has much to say to the twentieth century that is still needed. His aim of re-introducing Christianity into Christendom was not successful, but many inroads were made. His concern for pressing issues of his day kept him from developing the full implications of his own thought. He did not develop a system, but then, it was system building that posed the problem in the first place.
Kierkegaard, like many others, with the exception of Marcel, stressed the individual at the expense of the community. A sense of community is not the same as the crowd, or the masses. Even the Church as the community of God received less attention in his writings than it deserved, but then a reformer within the church has less good to say about it until the evils are rooted out.
While many existentialists drift toward pessimism, he does not. There is hope for the despairing man, the broken man. The nihilism of Nietzsche, the absurd world of Camus, or the make-shift world of Sartre are in basic contrast to the hope, the wholeness, and the Christian humanism of Kierkegaard.
We now turn to our second example of existentialism which is Friedrich Nietzsche.
II. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche was born October 15, 1844 at Rocken, not far from Leipzig. He suffers from many diverse interpretations. He has been used as a "proof-text" for many diverse and contradictory ideas. Our treatment of Nietzsche will reflect that of Walter Kaufmann who, perhaps, has done more to bring integrity to Nietzsche studies than any other person.33
Nietzsche, like many other existentialists, did not approve of system building in philosophy. Adopting a single way of interpreting the world, whether it be Darwinism, idealism, or a religious view, was, for him, a childish and misleading endeavor. Systems usually began with unquestioned premises. In the Germany of Nietzsche's day the elaboration of a complete world view gave the impression of a monopoly on truth.
While rejecting a system, Nietzsche did write about some of the usual questions in metaphysics or a theory of reality. He could not accept the cosmic purpose involved in Hegel's thought, nor did he opt for a purely naturalistic world view related to the rising and increasingly influential theory of evolution espoused by Darwin. He rejected the theory of natural selection allowing that some selection does take place but "natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes."34 Not only does natural selection not explain those eminent types as "philosophers, artists, or saints," but it fits into the category of a system, useful and true in some ways, but not meaningful as a whole.
At the time, Darwinism appeared to undermine teleology or purpose in the world, and Nietzsche agreed in this rejection declaring that if there is purpose in nature it needs the help of man to accomplish it.
Nietzsche came closest to a system in his advocacy of the "will to power." Be it noted that a system is a method of creating and explaining harmony, whereas the will to power explains continuing chaos. The "will to power" is not original with Nietzsche, but it has become a hallmark symbol of him. Moreover, it is usually misunderstood. Power--not will to power--first appears in the context of "world power, social success, making friends, and influencing people."35 This power is exercised in an atmosphere of conforming whereby man neglects the cultivation of his own true self for the success of a false self. This category of power Nietzsche rejected as decadent. The kind of power that is reducible to brute force as explained by Hobbes and others is not Nietzsche's idea of power although his would fit into this context. Nietzsche's power is explained in psychological terms as a psychological need which "men will strive to satisfy in direct ways if direct satisfaction is denied them."36 This psychological application of a will to power and its subtlety may be seen in Nietzsche's rewriting of the words of Jesus: "He that humbleth himself wants to be exalted."37 Jesus' words of Luke 18:14 were "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Nietzsche's phrase, the "will to power" appears first in Thus Spake Zarathustra. He noted: "Where I found the living there I found the will to power; and even in the will of those who serve I found the will to be master."38 The will to power is the underlying driving force for explaining all other activities whether it be will to knowledge (for the purpose of power) or will to acquire money (for power's sake) or any other ambition. Thus
the means of the craving for power have changed, but the same volcano is still growing . . . and what one did formerly "for God's sake" one does now for the sake of money . . . which now gives the highest feeling of power . . . .39
Nietzsche saw the will to power as an explanation for the diverse actions of man seeking power in different areas. If the concept were left at this point without important qualifications it leaves the way open for fascism and other forms of tyranny. Nietzsche did make important qualifications on it. The will to power must be sublimated and controlled by reason. Hence, for Nietzsche, philosophy was "the most spiritual will to power."40 The will to power as a basic ingredient of man's existence reaches its acme in the rational man who controls himself. It must be realized that the will to power is vitally related to Nietzsche's concept of the overman (Übermann); the man who overcomes himself. The will to power is primarily a concept for explaining man although the concepts can be seen in other areas of nature.
The will to power has been erroneously applied to a war-mentality. The meaningful war of Nietzsche is that of the man who struggles with himself to achieve perfection and "wars" against the weaknesses in his own nature and society.
Nietzsche rejected two important influences of his era: (l) Darwinism and (2) rising nationalism and racism. Darwinism appeared to reject the basic difference between man and animals. Thus if man is merely another primate, where is his essential dignity or worth? There is neither difference between man and the animals, nor between man and man. Since Nietzsche rejected the traditional idea of God's image in man whereby man is of worth, how can Darwin's decimated man return to worth? This was an important issue for Nietzsche since values had lost their anchor in God.
Nietzsche's rejection of Darwinism was based upon his beliefs that no transitional forms had been known and that there are limits in the types or extent of evolution. Moreover, evolution does not bring progress or a higher man. Although man appears last on the evolutionary map, the last is not necessarily the highest. On the basis of evolutionary thinking man could be eclipsed by a "new" man. Nietzsche declared rather that "the goal of humanity cannot lie in the end (Ende) but only in its highest specimens."41 Man is the highest specimen only as he follows his potentiality to "raise himself above the animals."42 This means that not all of mankind is truly human. There is a greater gap between Plato and the common man than between the common man and the Chimpanzee.
There is in Nietzsche the same type of distinctions about man as in Kierkegaard although they differ on the frame of reference. There is man as he is, and man as he can become. There is nothing guaranteeing that man shall become, for Nietzsche, except man himself. The man who becomes his true self is the overman. The German word übermann has been erroneously translated "superman" rather than overman by some translators. The overman is related to the will of power in that the overman is the one who channels the will to power through reason to achieve self-perfection. Two of the key passages from Thus Spake Zarathustra contains these dramatic words:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?43
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman . . . .44
Nietzsche gave an example of one who epitomized the overman. Contrary to propaganda and the misuse of his works, it is not the warrior type. His example is Goethe. Here in this man is pictured a:
human being who would be strong, highly educated, skillful in all bodily matters, self-controlled, reverent toward himself, and who might dare to affirm the whole range and wealth of being natural, being strong enough for such freedom; the man of tolerance, not from weakness, but from strength.45
Such a man is free. The man who perfects himself comes into joy. Nevertheless, achieving self-mastery is not only desirable, but it is also very difficult. In this way of self-overcoming man sets himself apart from other animals who have power but cannot achieve power over themselves.
The overman, or the one who overcomes man, concerns the philosopher, artist, and saint. Later he dropped the saints from this lineup. This is hardly the super race of Nazi propaganda which is sometimes twisted out of Nietzsche. Actually, Nietzsche was a vehement opponent of anti-semitism. His master race was composed of a "future, internationally mixed, race of philosophers and artists who cultivate iron self-control."46
The stereotype that the "overman" was ruthless, blood-thirsty, and war-like displays a total injustice to Nietzsche. There is discipline of the will for those who will profit by it, but the overman is not without tenderness and mercy. Nietzsche wrote:
When the exceptional human being treats the mediocre more tenderly than himself and his peers, this is not mere politeness of the heart--it is simply his duty.47
Should a man collapse on the street before Nietzsche or an overman, there is no possible way of rationalizing an excuse for inaction and lack of tenderness. The overman has both duty and compassion.
Perhaps the questionable element in the overman concept is the lack of universality in application of it to all men. Nietzsche believed that the "weak are incapacitated for ultimate happiness. Only the strong attain that happiness which all men want."48
The second problem facing Nietzsche was that of the state. He satirized the rising nationalism as reflected in Bismarck's Reich and regarded the state as the archenemy of man. Nietzsche was not an anarchist, nor an advocate of democracy. Yet the state posed an enormous threat to man. It was urgent in Nietzsche's mind to come up with a new picture of man to replace the old theological one. It was urgent, for without man standing alone in a dignified meaningful state, he would succumb to the lure of idolatry of the state in which men will distrust each other, social structures will give way to the all-embracing control of the state.
Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor, was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, but soon came to regard religion as "the product of the people's childhood."49 Nietzsche has probably written more caustically about God than anyone else. Hollingdale stated the Nietzsche set forth three hypotheses that "offered naturalistic substitutes for God, divine grace and eternal life; instead of God, the superman, instead of divine grace, the will to power; and instead of eternal life--the eternal recurrence."50
The passage entitled "The Madman" from the Gay Science is one of the widely quoted comments about the demise of God. The God that Nietzsche deals with mostly is the cultural deity. It is absurd to say that the ontological God, the Creator is dead. Rather Nietzsche did not believe in his existence at all. However, the cultural God that man has created can die. Nietzsche's madman declares, "We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . . God is dead."51 The cultural God decomposes. This God remains dead. It is primarily this God that Nietzsche deprecated.
Not only did Nietzsche reject the idea of God, but he was also critical of Christianity as he knew it, as well as of Jesus, whom he admired in some ways (calling him the first and only Christian) and rejected in others. There is much in common between the criticisms of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the problems of Christendom. Kierkegaard's leap of faith--called for commitment and living, and although Nietzsche criticized faith as he understood it, he criticized the lack of commitment and living on the part of his contemporary Christians.
Nietzsche's view of religion was probably influenced by one of his students and later friend, Paul Ree, who pioneered a psychological approach to issues in philosophy. This may explain Nietzsche's rejection of metaphysics as a discipline born out of man's dreaming. Whatever the explanation, Nietzsche had little use for the traditional metaphysical questions, especially as they related to God and religion. In a letter to his sister who attempted to defend the Christian view, Nietzsche allowed that all religions are infallible in giving the adherent what he wants in a religion, but this gives no proof of its validity or truthfulness. Thus he concluded:
Faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of man part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; it you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire . . . .52
Nietzsche's understanding of Christianity was probably inadequate, but he was truly perceptive in viewing the significance of Christ to that movement. He wrote to one of his friends, ". . . if you give up Christ, you will have to give up God as well."53 In other words, a significant belief in God involves the implications of the Incarnation which Kierkegaard stressed.
Nietzsche's rejection of the cultural deity was serious and he perceived the involvements long before his contemporaries. In rejecting God he saw that the world was robbed of ultimate meaning. While he boldly took the step of declaring God's death, he sought to retain meaning for man and the overman is the result of his struggle.
As in other areas, Nietzsche has been misunderstood in the values he advocated. His concern was: how can there be values in a valueless world in which the cultural God is no longer alive? Nietzsche did not accept a naturalistic approach to ethics or a nihilistic view that rejected all values.
He was more thorough-going in his criticism and rejection of Christian values than his English or American counterparts who, despite rejecting the Christian theology, did not hesitate to cling parasitically to Christian values. He wrote:
They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality . . . . When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident; this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole; nothing necessary remains in one's hands . . . . It has truth only if God is the truth--it stands and falls with faith in God.54
Nietzsche took the step consistent with his conviction and renounced not only all of Christian values but all other attempts in moralizing. "Expressed in a formula, one might say: all the means by which one has so far attempted to make mankind moral were through and through immoral."55
Consequently, he called for a re-valuation of all values. This phrase means, for him, "a war against accepted valuations, not the creation of new ones."56 He wrote:
Revaluation of all values: that is my formula for an act of ultimate self-examination by mankind which in me has become flesh and genius. My lot is that I must be the first decent human being, that I know myself to be in opposition against the medaciousness of millennia.57
But for all his atheism and his call for a revaluation of values, he did not repudiate values. Rather he affirmed them as part of his view of the overman. There are not new revolutionary values. He still praised honesty, intellectual integrity, courage, politeness, and self-discipline. Nietzsche yet agreed with other moralists of the past that self-perfection was the goal of man's moral endeavors. He even agreed with much in the Gospels despite his disdain for the New Testament in general. The ethic of self-realization in a genuinely humanistic sense may be used to describe his positive attitude toward values.
Nietzsche seemed to stake his distinct approach to values around the criterion of whether something is life affirming or life denying. Much of his criticism against contemporary ethical systems came because they were life-denying, and hence decadent. He was interested in the whole of man's existence. Like other self-realizationists he asked the question, what is the Good Life?
The Good Life is the powerful life, the life of those who are in full control of their impulses and need not weaken them, and the good man is for Nietzsche the passionate man who is the master of his passions.58
Man as a passionate creature separated Nietzsche's ethic from the Stoic view and he thought also the Christian ethic. Ironically, there is more in common between biblical Christianity and Nietzsche's ethic than he was aware or willing to grant.
Nietzsche's rejection of contemporary Christendom came because it negated life, in his opinion. When one compares and contrasts cultural Christianity and biblical faith one can find much to agree with in Nietzsche regarding the "decadence" of Christendom. His contrast with Kierkegaard is evident at this point since Nietzsche did not carry on a program like the Dane to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom.
He stressed values that related to life now. While belief in immortality may be meaningful to some, Nietzsche alleged that it deprecated life now as opposed to the future perfection of man. But Nietzsche, as well as Jesus, exhorted a self-perfection now.
The immoralist, as he loved to call himself, is not without his negations although he stressed the affirmation of life in the body. He rejected hedonism, or a purely sensate approach to life. While there are bodily pleasures, they are to be integrated with and controlled by reason.
Like other existentialists, he treasured freedom, knocked conformity, and advocated self-discipline. The power of a state was determined by how well it could make room and allowance for those that did not conform. There must be freedom to question the accepted values on the part of the overman who has succeeded only in terms of self-discipline.
E. Conclusions and criticisms.
Nietzsche had much to say, but admittedly is not always well understood. Critically, there are some questions worth raising. He dealt with some metaphysical problems, but stops where one would like to see him really begin. Life is accepted. Is this all? He insisted upon asking questions about all hidden presuppositions: why not here also. Secondly, the problem with the validity of values still raises its head. Is the problem of relativism adequately dealt with? Is man--the creature capable of self-transcendence--the adequate ground of values? Which cultural man is the model of self-transcendence? Thirdly, now that man has no outside help from God to help achieve self-perfection, and admittedly since few measure up to a Goethe, is Nietzsche's alternative to nihilism a practical one for mankind? Can we all be like Goethe?
Fourth, since Nietzsche was doggedly determined to be empirical in his approach to philosophy, how is it possible to be empirical in advocating a view of man and ethics that has not been achieved? The status of values was not solved satisfactorily by Nietzsche and it is a problem for others also, not only the existentialists.
The following chart may help in sorting out the emphases of our two different examples of existentialism.
Sören Kierkegaard Friedrich Nietzsche
A. Reality Includes mind and Rejected Darwinism
matter Advocates "will-to-power"
B. Man A synthesis of the Rejected man as image of
finite and God, or an extension of
infinite the beast
Man is a relation- "Overman" is the model
ship Goethe is the example of
Man is sick unto overman
C. God God is the Teacher God is dead
Incarnation is Cultural/deity has lost
important for influence
D. Values Values are founded Sought basis of values in
in God man, not God
Cultural values Good man is the master of
may reflect his passions
idolatry Nietzsche--the "immoralist"
For Further Reading
Barrett, William. Irrational Man. Garden City: Doubleday, 1958.
Berdyaev, Nicolas. The Destiny of Man. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960.
Collins, James. The Mind of Kierkegaard. London: Secker and Warburg, 1954.
Heineman. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament.
Hollingdale, R.J. Nietzsche. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Jaspers, Karl. Way to Wisdom. New York: Yale University Press, 1954.
Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1956.
_______. Nietzsche. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
_______. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: The Viking Press, 1954.
Kierkegaard, Sören. The Sickness Unto Death, Fear and Trembling. Garden City: Doubleday, 1941.
_______. Philosophical Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936.
Lauer, Quentin. Phenomenology. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1965.
Mackey, Lewis. Existential Philosophers. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being, 2 volumes. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1950.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.
_______. No Exit and three other plays. New York: Vintage Press, 1966.
_______. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966.
Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.
1William Barrett, Irrational Man, Garden City: Doubleday, 1958, p. 11.
2Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: The World Publishing co., 1956, p. 11.
3Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism, translated by Bernard Brechtman, New York: Philosophical Library, 1947, p. 18.
4Ibid., pp. 37-38.
5Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 149-150.
6Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vo. I, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1950, p. 124.
7Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, translated by Natalie Duddington, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960, p. 54.
8Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vol. II, p. 19.
9Ibid., pp. 36, 38.
10Sören Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, Fear and Trembling, Garden City: Doubleday, 1941.
11Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom, translated by Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954, p. 30.
12Marcel, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 118.
13Ibid., p. 120.
14Heineman, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, p. 10.
15Ibid., p. 29.
16Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1965, p. 8.
17Marcel, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 74.
18Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 7, Part 1, Garden City: Image books, 1965, p. 286.
19James Collins, The Mind of Kierkegaard, London: Secker and Warburg, 1954, p. 139.
20Ibid., p. 157.
21Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 146.
22Lewis Mackey, Existential Philosophers, edited by George Schrader, New York: McGraw-Hill Book, Co., p. 81.
23Collins, op. cit., p. 197.
24Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 148.
25Ibid., p. 208.
26Ibid., p. 242.
27Ibid., p. 261.
28Sören Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, translated by David F. Swenson, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936, p. 22.
31Ibid., p. 23.
32Ibid., p. 24.
33Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, 3rd edition.
34Ibid., p. 174.
35Ibid., p. 180.
36R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965, p. 147.
37Ibid., p. 147.
38Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche, New York: The Viking Press, 1954, p. 191.
39Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 191.
40Ibid., p. 232.
41Ibid., p. 149.
42Ibid., p. 158.
43Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 124.
44Ibid., p. 126.
45Ibid., p. 554.
46Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 302.
47Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 647.
48Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 384.
49Hollingdale, op. cit., p. 250.
50Ibid., p. 198.
51Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 95.
52Ibid., p. 30.
53Hollingdale, op. cit., p. 40.
54Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., pp. 515-16.
55Ibid., p. 505.
56Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 111.
57Ibid., p. 111.
58Ibid., p. 280.