Existentialism is a philosophical movement that views the individual, the self, the individual's experience, and the uniqueness therein as the basis for understanding the nature of human existence. The philosophy generally reflects a belief in freedom and accepts the consequences of individual actions, while acknowledging the responsibility attendant to the making of choices. Existentialists prefer subjectivity, and can view human beings as subjects in an indifferent and often ambiguous universe.



Existentialism was inspired by the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Sren Kierkegaard and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, and was particularly popular around the mid-20th century with the works of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The main tenets of the movement are set out in Sartre's L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.

Although many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, Sren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.

Major concepts in existentialism

"Existence precedes essence"

Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre's dictum, "existence precedes and rules essence", which is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity except that which we make for ourselves. Since Sartrean existentialism does not acknowledge the existence of a god or of any other determining principle, human beings are free to do as they choose.

Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation beyond that which humans project onto the world, people may only be judged or defined by their actions and choices, and human choices are the ultimate evaluator. This concept spins from Nietzsche's concept of eternal return—the idea that "things lose values because they cease to exist". If all things were to continually exist then they would all burden us with a tremendous level of importance, but because things come to pass, and no longer exist, they lose their value. The concept of existence preceding essence is important because it describes the only conceivable reality as the judge of good or evil. If things simply "are", without directive, purpose or overall truth, then truth (or essence) is only the projection of that which is a product of existence, or collective experiences. For truth to exist, existence has to exist before it, making it not only the predecessor but the 'ruler' of its own objectivity.

Existentialism before 1970

In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a resurgence of interest in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Either/Or, sold well in the West, and "arthouse" films began to quote or allude to existentialist thinkers. At the same time that the students of Paris found in Sartre a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, others were appropriating the pessimistic themes found in Albert Camus and Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the despair of the unknowing self featured prominently (often in a pidgin form) in numerous films and novels.

Existentialism since 1970

Although postmodernist thought had become the focus of intellectuals during the 1970s and thereafter (there is still debate as to whether the movement is strong today, and as to what, if anything, has replaced it), many postmodernist writings contained strong elements of existentialism. This is not surprising, since postmodernism evolved out of the thinking of Nietzsche and Heidegger, two of the greatest of existential philosophers, despite Heidegger rejecting the label of existentialist.

One should, however, not confuse postmodernism with existentialism. Films with postmodern themes such as The Matrix mimic the idea of a simulacrum, which has to do with reality and appearance and how the latter makes the former indistinguishable, if it can sufficiently mimic it. Existential films, on the other hand, deal more with the themes of:

  1. Retaining authenticity in a mechanical, apathetic world, something post-modernism would staunchly reject, as authenticity relates to a "reality" that does not exist.
  2. The consciousness of death; for example, Heidegger's 'being towards death', exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal".
  3. The feelings of alienation and loneliness that come about from being unique in a world of many, or to use Nietzsche's phrase "herd-animals".
  4. The concept, which Heidegger explicated in Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) of Alltagliche selbstsein (Everydayness).

However, a great deal of cultural activity in art, film and literature since 1970 contains both postmodern and existential elements, which, ironically, would support the postmodern thesis of "borderlessness between concepts". Books and films such as Fight Club (Palahniuk), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Dick), and The Neverending Story (Ende), all distort the line between reality and appearance, but at the same time, espouse strong existential themes. In the film industry, postmodern techniques of editing (to show the displacement, discontinuity and perspectiveness of time that is typical of postmodernism) can go hand-in-hand with a purely existential story, thus serving as a synthesis between the two in terms of technique and function. Moreover, this has served to brand a new term "Neo-Existentialism", that combines both the epistemological elements of postmodern thought with the reflective ontological beliefs of existentialism. As for the future state of existentialism, it is sure that so long as there are people that live, there will be people that die, and so long as this remains, there will be existentialism for those who think, ponder and become nauseated over that unfortunate, if not liberating, fact.

Criticisms of existentialism

  1. The opponents of existentialism assert that it fosters the particularization of human beings, stripping them of a universal sense of identity, which is entirely consistent with the claims of existentialists that the only universal allowed for human beings is their fundamental freedom.
  2. One of the most famous critics of existentialism is Theodor Adorno, who, in the fashion of Schopenhauer's critique of Hegel, regarded Existentialism as inane, mostly in regards to Heidegger's usage of language. However, there are thinkers such as Camus who write rather simplistically and without artifice, and whose terms such as "Nothingness" are linguistically justified by a simple glance to the past or to the future.
  3. Roger Scruton claimed, in his book "From Descartes to Wittgenstein", that both Heidegger's concept of "inauthenticity" and Sartre's concept of "bad faith" were incoherent; they both deny any universal moral creed, yet talk about these concepts as if everyone was bound to abide by them. He writes, in chapter 18, "In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force." Sartre was familiar with this sort of argument, and claimed that bad and good faith do not represent moral ideas. They are rather ways of being.

Existentialism in film

The 2004 film I Heart Huckabees deals with existentialism in a comical fashion.

The 1999 film American Beauty contains the primary themes of Existentialism. Kevin Spacey's character experiences the heightened anxiety and alienation that come with sudden self-awareness. Meanwhile, his wife 'plays the game,' tries to do what's 'expected' - and the indifferent world kicks her ass. Spacey begins to follow his passions instead of the morality and duties of the herd, almost makes a tragic mistake, figures it out, and - since a movie needs an ending - is senselessly killed. Sudden dramatic death is the brand of Existentialism you get from Lit class, not so much from Philosophy class. Existentialism urges us to face Death, but does not hold that Life is pointless because we're all going to die at the worst possible moment. Far from it.

The movie City Slickers has a profound Existential moment, when Jack Palance's character, Curly, says 'Life is about this: One Thing.' It's for each of us to find our One Thing. This is Kierkegaard's 'idea that I could live and die for,' in a simple leather-gloved finger.

Existentialism in psychotherapy

With the complete freedom to make decisions and the responsibility for the outcome of these decisions comes a kind of anxiety or angst about the choices we make. The importance of anxiety to existentialism makes it a popular topic in the field of psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the anxiety a patient experiences. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that a client can harness their anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, clients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as an inevitably, an individual can use it to reach their full potential in life.

Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement

Film directors

Novelists and playwrights

Existentialist novelists were generally seen as a mid-1950s phenonmenon that continued on til the mid to late 1970s. Most of the major writers were French, or from French African colonies. Small circles of other Europeans were seen as pre-cursors to existentialists by the existentialists themselves, however literary history has increasingly questioned the accuracy of this idealism for earlier models.

There is overlap between American beat generation writers who lived in Paris, or felt it their spiritual home, and writers of road novels; as well as the delayed action of the French discovery of film noir in the 1950s after a decade of Nazi censorship, which, as Truffaut and others in the Cahiers du Cinema indicated influenced novels and plays; to some extent as well the surrealist movement of Andre Breton and others which questioned established reality made the isolation of non-academic novels with isolated amoral anti-heroes possible.

The Belmondo school of existentialism, inspired by Genet and the criminal world and underclasses of French society are now seen as a sub-genre of detective fiction.

This is a general list of existentialist writers.




External links

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