Existentialism refers to the philosophical movement or tendency of thenineteenth and twentyth centuries. Because of the diversity of positions associatedwith existentialism, a precise definition is impossible; however, it suggests one majortheme: a stress on individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individualfreedom, and choice 3}. Existentialism also refers to a family of philosophiesdevoted to an interpretation of human existence in the world that stresses itsconcreteness and its problematic character. Existentialism is often seen as anirrationlist revolt against tradiational phylosphy. Although this may be true to acertain point, existentialism has played a key role in the way people look at the world.
Existentialism, for several reasons, rejects epistemology and the attempt toground human knowledge. First of all,existenalist believe, human beings are notsolely or even primarily knowers. They also care, desire, manipulate, and, above all,choose and act. Secondly, the self or ego, required by some if not all epistemologicaldoctrines, is not a basic feature of the prereflective experience. It emerges from one’sexperience of other people. The cognizing ego presupposes rather than infers orconstitutes the existence of external objects. In other words, you are not born with anego, or thought of ones self, but it is created through experiences with other people.
Finally, man is not a detached observer of the world, but in the world. He exists in aspecial sense in which objects suck as stones and trees do not; he is open to the worldand to objects in it. There is no distinct realm of consciousness, on the basis of whicha person might infer, reason why project, or doubt the existence of external objectsMost philosophers since ancient Greek thinker Plato have held that the highestethical good is universal. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard4, 333} reacted against this tradition, insisting that the individual’s highest good is tofind his or her own unique vocation. In terms of moral choice, existentialists haveargued that there is no objective, rational basis for decisions; they stress theimportance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and truth. Mostexistentialists have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible but thatlife’s most important questions are not accessible to reason or science. The first to anticipate existentialism’s major concerns was seventeenth-centuryFrench philosopher Blaise Pascal, who denounced a systematic philosophy thatpresumes to explain God and humanity. He saw life in terms of paradoxes: Thehuman self, combining mind and body, is itself a contradiction. Later, Kierkegaardrejected a total rational understanding of humanity and history, stressing theambiguity and absurdity of the human situation. Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche espoused tragicpessimism and life-affirming individual will. Heidegger argued that human beings cannever hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual must choose agoal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and theultimate meaninglessness of one’s life. Twentieth-century French philosopher JeanPaul Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his ownphilosophy. Explicitly atheistic and pessimistic, his philosophy declared that humanlife requires a rational basis but the attempt is a “futile passion” 2, 99-106}. Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing freedomFreedom of choice, through which each human being creates his own nature, is aprimary theme. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, they must acceptthe risk and responsibility of their actions. Kierkegaard held that a feeling of generalapprehension, which he called dread, is God’s way of calling each individual to commit toa personally valid way of life1}. The twentyth-century German philosopher MartinHeidegger 3} felt that anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with theimpossibility of finding ultimate justification for his or her choices. There are many otherthemes in existentialism, here are just a few. First, there is the basic existentialiststandpoint, that existence precedes essence, has primacy over essence. “Man is aconscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as aconscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, orsystem. Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence.”4,21-22}.A second existentialist theme is that anxiety, or the sense of anguish, ageneralized uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed to any specific object.
Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence. This theme is as old asKierkegaard 5} within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying,all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certainstreams of thought in Judaism and Christianity which see human existence as fallen, andhuman life as lived in suffering and sin, guilt and anxiety. This dark picture of human lifeleads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense ofwell-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive andfoolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence. A thirdexistentialist theme is that of absurdity. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, andwholly absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place—but why now?Why here 5}? All existentialist have pondered these very questions. Blaise Pascal, aFrench mathematician and philosopher of Descartes time, once said, “When I considerthe short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and the littlespace I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I amignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being hererather than there, why now rather than then 6}.” In the 20th century, the novels of the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Kafka,such as The Trial and The Castle, present isolated men confronting vast, elusive,menacing bureaucracies1}. Kafka’s themes of anxiety, guilt, and solitude reflect theinfluence of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche. The influence of Nietzsche isalso discernible in the novels of the French writers Andr Malraux and in the plays ofSartre. The work of the French writer Albert Camus is usually associated withexistentialism because of the prominence in it of such themes as the apparentabsurdity and futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity ofengagement in a just cause1}. Existentialist themes are also reflected in the theaterof the absurd 1}, notably in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugne Ionesco. In theUnited States, the thought can be found in the novels of Walker Percy and JohnUpdike, and vainfluence of existentialism on literature has been more indirect anddiffuse, but traces of Kierkegaard’s existentialist themes are apparent in the work ofsuch diverse writers as Mailer Norman , John Barth, and Arthur Miller3}.
Ever since the introduction of existentialism it has played a very important rolein the way people think. It may seem depressing and almost pointless at times, but that iswhat makes it so inturging. Existentalism can been seen in books, plays, and moviesalike. Some of the greatest minds in history were existentialist.Bibliography:Works Cited1) Existentialism. 3 May 2000. 2 April 2001 2)Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Satre. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1956.
3)Kolumbus. 21 Jan. 1999. Kolumbus. 2 April 20014)Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. New York: BantamBooks, 1984.
5)Neo-Tech. 15 June 2000. Neo-Tech. 2 April 2001 6)University of Florida. 9 March 2001. University of Florida. 2 April 2001