Of all the philosophies so soundly misunderstood and misappropriated, Existentialism deserves to be near the top of the list. During its heyday after World War II it made its rounds – through intellectual communities, into literary masterpieces, from beatnik drum circles, all the way to Hollywood.
It spawned countless generations of black turtleneck wearing nihilists decrying the futility of living in a world devoid of meaning, and even today echoes in the emo crowds of modern music and culture. The problem with the common and the diminutive nihilistic view of Existentialism is that it approaches only the shadow of it while straying far from its actual form.
Perhaps existentialism is so misunderstood because those people who began it often disagreed on what it actually meant. Some, like Albert Camus, denying they had any relation to it at all. Regardless of the reason for the misunderstanding of Existentialism, I hope to bring some clarity on what it means to be an existentialist, some relevance of it to your life and most importantly, some practical reasons why you might want to fold a little Existentialism into your living.
What is an Existentialist?
For those truly lacking any background in Existentialism – it is a philosophical school of thought that has murky origins coalescing somewhere around the late 19th century. Much of the credit for its initial exposition is due to such thinkers as Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, to varying degrees. These three philosophers were instrumental in resurrecting philosophies ancient mission of an activity that is to be pursued by all and not merely an intellectual pursuit for the elites.
While these three “founding fathers” may have been instrumental in laying the metaphysical and epistemological groundwork that would be needed to erect the final structure of Existentialism, the names most well-known surrounding this philosophy are that of, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to name but a few.
These four philosophical revolutionaries lived during the tumultuous times of World War II and the global political, cultural and geographic destruction that ushered in the reshaping of the world. This new world cried out for a new philosophy and a new type of philosopher. A philosophy that was lived and experienced. A philosophy of phenomenological addition and not academic subtraction. A philosophy that gave people a starting point to rebuild their lives. And so out of the rubble that was the aftermath of World War II there came the starving, broken orphan that was the existentialist.
The existentialist was a new breed of thinker that was concerned with the problems of the ordinary man. It made philosophy of everything – of all things – and by doing so it brought our everyday experience into the realm of the philosophical and called to task the old philosophical gods of Positivism and Rationalism that had the world believing that intellectual deduction alone could help us understand the world.
These new philosophers ached to expose the anguish, pain, absurdity and authenticity of living. They did not shy away from the dark, secret things that haunt the corners of philosophical rooms. No. They worked to shed a light on our individual experience as a means to understanding the world, and by doing so created a philosophy that captured the general malaise, but burgeoning hope, of the world that was hell-bent on rebuilding itself in a better way.
Existentialism is as relevant today, in the whipping swirl of global terrorism, political upheaval, and constant fear, as it was during those tumultuous times. And perhaps now, more than ever, it is a philosophy that should be explored by those looking for a better way forward amidst a growing cloud of anxiety and fear.
How To Be an Existentialist
So how does one go about pursuing the life of an existentialist?
While there are many major and minor points of departure developed between the Existentialist philosophers, there are a few salient tenets that can be approached that I think most existentialists would agree upon, in form if not function.
Existence Precedes Essence
Perhaps the most fundamental concept shared by nearly all the existentialist philosophers is the idea that existence precedes essence. This was such a profound, revolutionary shift in thinking from the old Platonic and Socratic ideas of Essentialism that existed for thousands of years. Where Essentialism asserted that we are all imbued with a fundamental essence or purpose and our goal in life is to live towards that purpose, existentialism proposed the opposite. First, we exist and then we have to go create our essence, and by doing so we create our purpose.
In Existentialism, we do not have the luxury of relying on something intrinsic in our being to give us our definition. In every moment of our life, we are given the great and weighty task of defining who we are. We must create our essence in every moment through the choices we make or defer and only then are we able to approach anything resembling our purpose.
There is nothing inside of you to discover. Existentialism claims that you must put things inside yourself for others to discover. You must create the person that will fall in love, that will be a good friend, that will value liberalism or conservatism. That will be altruistic or self-involved. That will, in fact, live or die. You alone are the creator and maintainer of yourself.
You may not realize it but I am willing to bet that you already accept and exercise this concept on a regular basis. Every time that you shrug off the labels thrown at you by someone else, despite your upbringing, your sexual orientation, your race, or whatever, you are telling the world that, because you exist as you do, you alone get to define what that means.
The concept of absurdity in Existentialism is where we find the moaning and groaning of the nihilists. They get stuck here, ghosts trapped in the idea that life is meaningless, and they never make it out the other side. While the existentialist idea of absurdity does assert that all of life, and the actions therein, are inherently meaningless, it does not stop there. The concept of absurdity in Existentialism is, in fact, the beginning of our search to give meaning to the meaningless, and therein lies the way out of nihilism in regards to this important concept in Existentialism.
To start off, yes, the existential belief is that the world is inherently meaningless. If you dive deep into the random workings of the world, they amount to nothing more than the meaning we have given to them. They hold no value in themselves and as such, no meaning. Despite this intrinsic meaningless, we are still very much capable, and in fact responsible, of furnishing the world with a multiplicity of meaning.
Sure, things have no innate meaning, but that does not mean that things are meaning-less. It means that things are a blank slate of meaning. Things are meaning-neutral. We are responsible for giving things their meaning. We have the power to provide the meaning to everything in our life and by doing so, we impart a personal meaning on things and understand that other people will put another meaning on them.
As a brief metaphor, I know my cat cannot understand me when I talk to her, but god damn if I am not going to keep on debating her on the nuance of meaning in Hegelian Phenomenology. Yes, it is meaningless to talk to her and expect her to understand me but it is meaningful to me because no one else is willing to listen to my pseudo-philosophical nonsense!
My point is, just because we know that something is ridiculous, absurd and inherently meaningless, that does not mean we cannot give it meaning, and by doing so, pull it out of the dark trenches of nihilism and breathe new life into it. Just as we exist and then must create our essence, the world exists in absurdity and we must create a meaningful essence for it.
The concept of freedom in Existentialism is one closely tied to absurdity and anguish. It is through our discovery that we have complete freedom and responsibility to shape the meaning of the world and what we value in it that we come to experience our absurd anguish.
The existential idea of freedom is not the common understanding that is tossed around in political circles. The existential experience of freedom is one of consistent responsibility of action towards your values. It is a recognition that we are perpetually and utterly free in every moment to choose our meaning, direction, and destination. We must freely do so at every moment, in fact, unable to rest our faculties of choice upon past decisions.
The constant requirement of freedom in life is one of accountability for the life that we lead and the way that it shapes up. We alone are the artists of our lives and we alone are completely free to accept the condition of what we create or, if we are unsatisfied with our life, choose freely to change it.
You cannot look to your parents, or politicians, or clergy or anyone, to define the proper way to live. These are all mere existences that have already created their own essence and have no answers for you outside of the cobbled together values that they themselves had to find alone.
And so you are tasked, in complete freedom, to go into the dark alone and feel around for the values that you hold dear, and bring them to the light of your life by choosing them freely again and again.
Another key hallmark of Existentialism is the idea of authenticity. You might ask, “How I am supposed to live authentically if I don’t have any purpose inside of myself?” And I think that is a fair question that gets at the root of the problem regarding the current understanding of authenticity.
Today, most people will describe “being authentic” as something you just do. Just be authentic. Just be who you are. Just be yourself. The problem here, as presented by Existentialism is, there is no me that is intrinsic to my being. I have no reference point to “just be myself” because myself is not yet defined.
The idea of authenticity that is espoused by Existentialism is a much more actionable mode of living and one that holds more value than the current idea of it. It asserts that authenticity is about accepting your “radical freedom” and striving to live fully in the essence that you have created for yourself. The existential idea of authenticity is one of glorious rebellion against the labels that are forced upon you in favor of living true to those that you have adopted for yourself.
Existentialism says that we must first create our authentic self and then, we must live according to the perpetual freedom that we are subject to. To live authentically is to live according to the essence you have created, despite the pressures of society to live differently. It is about shrugging off the roles that are imposed upon you be your wealth, your race, your age, your upbringing, and other “facticities” and living true to your values in spite of these things.
Why be an Existentialist?
So why would you want to be an existentialist? Besides the badass turtle necks and the wicked awesome sense of existential dread and anguish regarding your complete and ultimate radical freedom? You should be an existentialist because you have no choice! At least that is what Sartre might say. And I do not think he would be that far from the truth.
The truth is, existentialism’s appeal is in the rigid sense of personal responsibility it applies to all of us. In Existentialism, we find a template for approaching a sense of personal responsibility for our places in the world and for the people we have become.
Existentialism exposes the dark underbelly of our radically free existence and screams for us to change what we want to be changed, to live authentically despite the pressures to do otherwise and to explore endlessly those things that we have come to value in order that we might constantly be on the meaningful side of living.
To be an existentialist is to take action, not just to think. It is to bring philosophy into everyday life. It is to understand that reason alone cannot help us approach the beauty and meaning of living. We must venture off the map and blaze new trails, create new experiences and values, choose constantly what we would like to see of the world and live boldly to stay true to those ideals.
The beauty of Existentialism is that it is nearly shapeless. It as well exists without an essence. Only gaining one when it is given by the person that adopts it and puts it into action. Existentialism is a personal philosophy – one that seeks to confront personal things in a way that does not shield itself from the rough exposure to life’s many miseries. It is brutally honest, but in that honesty, you can find the tough love you need to take responsibility for your actions, redefine the value and meaning of your life and live authentically in whatever way that means for you!
The intellectually superior minds at Crash Course Philosophy do a great job in distilling my ramblings into a more edible bit of brain food. I encourage you to check out this video they have on Existentialism:
Along with the many others, they have on many other philosophies!