Existentialism proclaim that we do exist and that this creates the reality of our life. It is up to us to make the most of it, both as individuals and as societies. There is no ‘Great Plan’, there is simply a dark universe that doesn’t care about us. Our life is open for the choices that we make and our existence is defined by that. As we have total freedom over our choices, we are also responsible for them. There is no one to blame but ourselves. As the information on which we must make decisions is limited, the freedom we have over making choices is a burden we can’t avoid. If we don’t shy away from this, we will not be able to live a life that is authentic.
The view of the Existentialist is therefore rather opposite of determinism, Jean Paul Sartre perhaps the most influential member of the philosophical stream sees determinism as an escape from reality to avoid taking control of you life, he calls this ‘bad faith’. He doesn’t’ see humans simply as cogs in the wheels of a machine.
It is therefore key that we understand ourselves.
While I can find myself in lots of elements of Existentialism. This could quickly lead to a rather selfish outlook. Jean Paul Sartre is certainly not a person whose life I would say is exemplary and certainly not holistic. Life is surely more rounded than the view he presents. His outlook is rather gloomy and he believes that humans are ‘condemned to be free’. My view is totally the opposite I see this as liberating.
On the other side Sartre believed that as we have choices this also means we have the responsibility to act and indeed Sartre did put this into practice in relation to his own life. The responsibility for thinkers and philosophers to act is also a strong mantra from Hannah Arendt. I fully agree with them on that point.
I also see a link with the Stoics here, a school of philosophy that I also admire, but again they also often fail to take a more holistic view. They were rationalists, centred on one’s inner resources, with no room for emotions. A key point in their philosophy is that there are things that you can’t control, but you can control how you react and act in such situation. I strongly subscribe to this.
I like to link Sartre’s ‘dark universe’ with the views of the Stoics and conclude that we can’t control the ‘dark universe’ and all its systems and structures including that of human beings, in this respect there is no free will on the human side. However, our reaction to it is uniquely ours. Even if the decisions made within that context are ‘prefabricated’ in our conscious. They remain uniquely ours. I discuss this in more detail here.
It is also interesting to observe that the focus on ‘self’ often occurs during or after periods of mass national movements and totalitarian systems, existential, self-experiencing and stoic thinking allows for moving away from the masses and looking at alternatives within.
Another clear link exists with Phenomenology, also sometimes called the father of Existentialism. Looking at life from the first person, what his or her experiences are.
Other philosophers such as eccentric Kierkegaard, the anxious Schopenhauer and the grumpy Nietzsche certainly also displayed strong elements of what we now call Existentialism.
Most existentialists are rather pessimistic people, the one that tops them all is the Norwegian Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990). According to him nature has overshot its target by letting humans evolve. They are an over evolved species with a far too powerful intellect needed for biological survival. A species armed to heavily that has become a menace to its own being. Hmmm something to think about.
As with all philosophical schools, they contain excellent ideas, but more interesting for us is, standing on the shoulders of those giants, to take those elements from them that we see as the more valuable or relevant ones and combine them in our lives and obviously each person will select its own package of goodies from these great teachers, as we all are uniquely unique.
This is another interesting concept that philosophers have been talking about. It is often placed opposite of ‘others’. We view ourselves very much through interaction with others, through language and idees.
René Descartes (1596-1650) argued that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. Anything outside one’s own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind.
Fortunately, this is rather different from what his successors thought.
Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) concept of our fundamental existence is based on ‘Mitsein’, ‘being with others’. His view is that we see ourselves in the context of being with other people. We simply would not know who we are if there were no other people around us.
The existentialist Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) didn’t find that enough and he build on that and argues that it is not just others being there, what matters are our encounters with them. According to him we reflect upon ourselves as an object of other’s appraisal. In his well-known gloominess he is rather judgmental and sees self-consciousness in the context of shame, guilt, conflict, and pride.
While I agree that ‘Others’ is an important element in the creation of self-consciousness I agree that ‘Mitsein’ is too limited as are Sartre’s views.
Next in line to address the issue is Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). He addresses the issue in a more complex way. His keyword is meaningful. A more holistic body and mind experience through all our senses. Self-awareness is equally depending on the world around us. Such a holistic approach also has its influence on our interaction with ‘Others’. We build on these interactions and they both influence and shape me as well as the other.
The development of the thought processes around this topic is a good example of Merleau-Ponty’s holistic approach based on building on interactions that is also the reason I have included the dates of these great thinkers; it shows a progression. Obviously Merleau-Ponty’s view on this matter sits very well with me.
It is rather remarkable that Descartes has been so influential that he has set many thinkers on a totally wrong path, by splitting the mind from the body.