Existentialism Essay Conclusion Example

Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism

The philosophical career of Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) focuses, in its first phase, upon the construction of a philosophy of existence known as existentialism. Sartre's early works are characterized by a development of classic phenomenology, but his reflection diverges from Husserl’s on methodology, the conception of the self, and an interest in ethics. These points of divergence are the cornerstones of Sartre’s existential phenomenology, whose purpose is to understand human existence rather than the world as such. Adopting and adapting the methods of phenomenology, Sartre sets out to develop an ontological account of what it is to be human. The main features of this ontology are the groundlessness and radical freedom which characterize the human condition. These are contrasted with the unproblematic being of the world of things. Sartre’s substantial literary output adds dramatic expression to the always unstable co-existence of facts and freedom in an indifferent world.

Sartre’s ontology is explained in his philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, where he defines two types of reality which lie beyond our conscious experience: the being of the object of consciousness and that of consciousness itself. The object of consciousness exists as "in-itself," that is, in an independent and non-relational way. However, consciousness is always consciousness “of something,” so it is defined in relation to something else, and it is not possible to grasp it within a conscious experience: it exists as "for-itself." An essential feature of consciousness is its negative power, by which we can experience "nothingness." This power is also at work within the self, where it creates an intrinsic lack of self-identity. So the unity of the self is understood as a task for the for-itself rather than as a given.

In order to ground itself, the self needs projects, which can be viewed as aspects of an individual’s fundamental project and motivated by a desire for "being" lying within the individual's consciousness. The source of this project is a spontaneous original choice that depends on the individual's freedom. However, self’s choice may lead to a project of self-deception such as bad faith, where one’s own real nature as for-itself is discarded to adopt that of the in-itself. Our only way to escape self-deception is authenticity, that is, choosing in a way which reveals the existence of the for-itself as both factual and transcendent. For Sartre, my proper exercise of freedom creates values that any other human being placed in my situation could experience, therefore each authentic project expresses a universal dimension in the singularity of a human life.

After a brief summary of Sartre’s life, this article looks at the main themes characterizing Sartre’s early philosophical works. The ontology developed in Sartre’s main existential work, Being and Nothingness, will then be analysed. Finally, an overview is provided of the further development of existentialist themes in his later works.

Table of Contents

  1. Sartre's Life
  2. Early Works
    1. Methodology
    2. The Ego
    3. Ethics
    4. Existential Phenomenology
  3. The Ontology of Being and Nothingness
    1. The Being of the Phenomenon and Consciousness
    2. Two Types of Being
    3. Nothingness
  4. The For-Itself in Being and Nothingness
    1. A Lack of Self-Identity
    2. The Project of Bad Faith
    3. The Fundamental Project
    4. Desire
  5. Relations with Others in Being and Nothingness
    1. The Problem of Other Minds
    2. Human Relationships
  6. Authenticity
    1. Freedom
    2. Authenticity
    3. An Ethical Dimension
  7. Other Contributions to Existential Phenomenology
    1. Critique of Dialectical Reason
    2. The Problem of Method
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
    1. Sartre's works
    2. Commentaries

1. Sartre's Life

Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. After a childhood marked by the early death of his father, the important role played by his grandfather, and some rather unhappy experiences at school, Sartre finished High School at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. After two years of preparation, he gained entrance to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, where, from 1924 to 1929 he came into contact with Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other notables. He passed the 'Agrégation' on his second attempt, by adapting the content and style of his writing to the rather traditional requirements of the examiners. This was his passport to a teaching career. After teaching philosophy in a lycée in Le Havre, he obtained a grant to study at the French Institute in Berlin where he discovered phenomenology in 1933 and wrote The Transcendence of the Ego. His phenomenological investigation into the imagination was published in 1936 and his Theory of Emotions two years later. During the Second World War, Sartre wrote his existentialist magnum opus Being and Nothingness and taught the work of Heidegger in a war camp. He was briefly involved in a Resistance group and taught in a lycée until the end of the war. Being and Nothingness was published in 1943 and Existentialism and Humanism in 1946. His study of Baudelaire was published in 1947 and that of the actor Jean Genet in 1952. Throughout the Thirties and Forties, Sartre also had an abundant literary output with such novels as Nausea and plays like Intimacy (The wall), The flies, Huis Clos, Les Mains Sales. In 1960, after three years working on it, Sartre published the Critique of Dialectical Reason. In the Fifties and Sixties, Sartre travelled to the USSR, Cuba, and was involved in turn in promoting Marxist ideas, condemning the USSR's invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and speaking up against France's policies in Algeria. He was a high profile figure in the Peace Movement. In 1964, he turned down the Nobel prize for literature. He was actively involved in the May 1968 uprising. His study of Flaubert, L'Idiot de la Famille, was published in 1971. In 1977, he claimed no longer to be a Marxist, but his political activity continued until his death in 1980.

2. Early Works

Sartre's early work is characterised by phenomenological analyses involving his own interpretation of Husserl's method. Sartre's methodology is Husserlian (as demonstrated in his paper "Intentionality: a fundamental ideal of Husserl's phenomenology") insofar as it is a form of intentional and eidetic analysis. This means that the acts by which consciousness assigns meaning to objects are what is analysed, and that what is sought in the particular examples under examination is their essential structure. At the core of this methodology is a conception of consciousness as intentional, that is, as 'about' something, a conception inherited from Brentano and Husserl. Sartre puts his own mark on this view by presenting consciousness as being transparent, i.e. having no 'inside', but rather as being a 'fleeing' towards the world.

The distinctiveness of Sartre's development of Husserl's phenomenology can be characterised in terms of Sartre's methodology, of his view of the self and of his ultimate ethical interests.

a. Methodology

Sartre's methodology differs from Husserl's in two essential ways. Although he thinks of his analyses as eidetic, he has no real interest in Husserl's understanding of his method as uncovering the Essence of things. For Husserl, eidetic analysis is a clarification which brings out the higher level of the essence that is hidden in 'fluid unclarity' (Husserl, Ideas, I). For Sartre, the task of an eidetic analysis does not deliver something fixed immanent to the phenomenon. It still claims to uncover that which is essential, but thereby recognizes that phenomenal experience is essentially fluid.

In Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, Sartre replaces the traditional picture of the passivity of our emotional nature with one of the subject's active participation in her emotional experiences. Emotion originates in a degradation of consciousness faced with a certain situation. The spontaneous conscious grasp of the situation which characterizes an emotion, involves what Sartre describes as a 'magical' transformation of the situation. Faced with an object which poses an insurmountable problem, the subject attempts to view it differently, as though it were magically transformed. Thus an imminent extreme danger may cause me to faint so that the object of my fear is no longer in my conscious grasp. Or, in the case of wrath against an unmovable obstacle, I may hit it as though the world were such that this action could lead to its removal. The essence of an emotional state is thus not an immanent feature of the mental world, but rather a transformation of the subject's perspective upon the world. In The Psychology of the Imagination, Sartre demonstrates his phenomenological method by using it to take on the traditional view that to imagine something is to have a picture of it in mind. Sartre's account of imagining does away with representations and potentially allows for a direct access to that which is imagined; when this object does not exist, there is still an intention (albeit unsuccessful) to become conscious of it through the imagination. So there is no internal structure to the imagination. It is rather a form of directedness upon the imagined object. Imagining a heffalump is thus of the same nature as perceiving an elephant. Both are spontaneous intentional (or directed) acts, each with its own type of intentionality.

b. The Ego

Sartre's view also diverges from Husserl's on the important issue of the ego. For Sartre, Husserl adopted the view that the subject is a substance with attributes, as a result of his interpretation of Kant's unity of apperception. Husserl endorsed the Kantian claim that the 'I think' must be able to accompany any representation of which I am conscious, but reified this 'I' into a transcendental ego. Such a move is not warranted for Sartre, as he explains in The Transcendence of the Ego. Moreover, it leads to the following problems for our phenomenological analysis of consciousness.

The ego would have to feature as an object in all states of consciousness. This would result in its obstructing our conscious access to the world. But this would conflict with the direct nature of this conscious access. Correlatively, consciousness would be divided into consciousness of ego and consciousness of the world. This would however be at odds with the simple, and thus undivided, nature of our access to the world through conscious experience. In other words, when I am conscious of a tree, I am directly conscious of it, and am not myself an object of consciousness. Sartre proposes therefore to view the ego as a unity produced by consciousness. In other words, he adds to the Humean picture of the self as a bundle of perceptions, an account of its unity. This unity of the ego is a product of conscious activity. As a result, the traditional Cartesian view that self-consciousness is the consciousness the ego has of itself no longer holds, since the ego is not given but created by consciousness. What model does Sartre propose for our understanding of self-consciousness and the production of the ego through conscious activity? The key to answering the first part of the question lies in Sartre's introduction of a pre-reflective level, while the second can then be addressed by examining conscious activity at the other level, i.e. that of reflection. An example of pre-reflective consciousness is the seeing of a house. This type of consciousness is directed to a transcendent object, but this does not involve my focussing upon it, i.e. it does not require that an ego be involved in a conscious relation to the object. For Sartre, this pre-reflective consciousness is thus impersonal: there is no place for an 'I' at this level. Importantly, Sartre insists that self-consciousness is involved in any such state of consciousness: it is the consciousness this state has of itself. This accounts for the phenomenology of 'seeing', which is such that the subject is clearly aware of her pre-reflective consciousness of the house. This awareness does not have an ego as its object, but it is rather the awareness that there is an act of 'seeing'. Reflective consciousness is the type of state of consciousness involved in my looking at a house. For Sartre, the cogito emerges as a result of consciousness's being directed upon the pre-reflectively conscious. In so doing, reflective consciousness takes the pre-reflectively conscious as being mine. It thus reveals an ego insofar as an 'I' is brought into focus: the pre-reflective consciousness which is objectified is viewed as mine. This 'I' is the correlate of the unity that I impose upon the pre-reflective states of consciousness through my reflection upon them. To account for the prevalence of the Cartesian picture, Sartre argues that we are prone to the illusion that this 'I' was in fact already present prior to the reflective conscious act, i.e. present at the pre-reflective level. By substituting his model of a two-tiered consciousness for this traditional picture, Sartre provides an account of self-consciousness that does not rely upon a pre-existing ego, and shows how an ego is constructed in reflection.

c. Ethics

An important feature of Sartre's phenomenological work is that his ultimate interest in carrying out phenomenological analyses is an ethical one. Through them, he opposes the view, which is for instance that of the Freudian theory of the unconscious, that there are psychological factors that are beyond the grasp of our consciousness and thus are potential excuses for certain forms of behaviour.

Starting with Sartre's account of the ego, this is characterised by the claim that it is produced by, rather than prior to consciousness. As a result, accounts of agency cannot appeal to a pre-existing ego to explain certain forms of behaviour. Rather, conscious acts are spontaneous, and since all pre-reflective consciousness is transparent to itself, the agent is fully responsible for them (and a fortiori for his ego). In Sartre's analysis of emotions, affective consciousness is a form of pre-reflective consciousness, and is therefore spontaneous and self-conscious. Against traditional views of the emotions as involving the subject's passivity, Sartre can therefore claim that the agent is responsible for the pre-reflective transformation of his consciousness through emotion. In the case of the imaginary, the traditional view of the power of fancy to overcome rational thought is replaced by one of imaginary consciousness as a form of pre-reflective consciousness. As such, it is therefore again the result of the spontaneity of consciousness and involves self-conscious states of mind. An individual is therefore fully responsible for his imaginations's activity. In all three cases, a key factor in Sartre's account is his notion of the spontaneity of consciousness. To dispel the apparent counter-intuitiveness of the claims that emotional states and flights of imagination are active, and thus to provide an account that does justice to the phenomenology of these states, spontaneity must be clearly distinguished from a voluntary act. A voluntary act involves reflective consciousness that is connected with the will; spontaneity is a feature of pre-reflective consciousness.

d. Existential Phenomenology

Is there a common thread to these specific features of Sartre's phenomenological approach? Sartre's choice of topics for phenomenological analysis suggests an interest in the phenomenology of what it is to be human, rather than in the world as such. This privileging of the human dimension has parallels with Heidegger's focus upon Dasein in tackling the question of Being. This aspect of Heidegger's work is that which can properly be called existential insofar as Dasein's way of being is essentially distinct from that of any other being. This characterisation is particularly apt for Sartre's work, in that his phenomenological analyses do not serve a deeper ontological purpose as they do for Heidegger who distanced himself from any existential labelling. Thus, in his "Letter on Humanism", Heidegger reminds us that the analysis of Dasein is only one chapter in the enquiry into the question of Being. For Heidegger, Sartre's humanism is one more metaphysical perspective which does not return to the deeper issue of the meaning of Being.

Sartre sets up his own picture of the individual human being by first getting rid of its grounding in a stable ego. As Sartre later puts it in Existentialism is a Humanism, to be human is characterised by an existence that precedes its essence. As such, existence is problematic, and it is towards the development of a full existentialist theory of what it is to be human that Sartre's work logically evolves. In relation to what will become Being and Nothingness, Sartre's early works can be seen as providing important preparatory material for an existential account of being human. But the distinctiveness of Sartre's approach to understanding human existence is ultimately guided by his ethical interest. In particular, this accounts for his privileging of a strong notion of freedom which we shall see to be fundamentally at odds with Heidegger's analysis. Thus the nature of Sartre's topics of analysis, his theory of the ego and his ethical aims all characterise the development of an existential phenomenology. Let us now examine the central themes of this theory as they are presented in Being and Nothingness.

3. The Ontology of Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness can be characterized as a phenomenological investigation into the nature of what it is to be human, and thus be seen as a continuation of, and expansion upon, themes characterising the early works. In contrast with these however, an ontology is presented at the outset and guides the whole development of the investigation.

One of the main features of this system, which Sartre presents in the introduction and the first chapter of Part One, is a distinction between two kinds of transcendence of the phenomenon of being. The first is the transcendence of being and the second that of consciousness. This means that, starting with the phenomenon (that which is our conscious experience), there are two types of reality which lie beyond it, and are thus trans-phenomenal. On the one hand, there is the being of the object of consciousness, and on the other, that of consciousness itself. These define two types of being, the in-itself and the for-itself. To bring out that which keeps them apart, involves understanding the phenomenology of nothingness. This reveals consciousness as essentially characterisable through its power of negation, a power which plays a key role in our existential condition. Let us examine these points in more detail.

a. The Being of the Phenomenon and Consciousness

In Being and Time, Heidegger presents the phenomenon as involving both a covering and a disclosing of being. For Sartre, the phenomenon reveals, rather than conceals, reality. What is the status of this reality? Sartre considers the phenomenalist option of viewing the world as a construct based upon the series of appearances. He points out that the being of the phenomenon is not like its essence, i.e. is not something which is apprehended on the basis of this series. In this way, Sartre moves away from Husserl's conception of the essence as that which underpins the unity of the appearances of an object, to a Heideggerian notion of the being of the phenomenon as providing this grounding. Just as the being of the phenomenon transcends the phenomenon of being, consciousness also transcends it. Sartre thus establishes that if there is perceiving, there must be a consciousness doing the perceiving.

How are these two transphenomenal forms of being related? As opposed to a conceptualising consciousness in a relation of knowledge to an object, as in Husserl and the epistemological tradition he inherits, Sartre introduces a relation of being: consciousness (in a pre-reflective form) is directly related to the being of the phenomenon. This is Sartre's version of Heidegger's ontological relation of being-in-the-world. It differs from the latter in two essential respects. First, it is not a practical relation, and thus distinct from a relation to the ready-to-hand. Rather, it is simply given by consciousness. Second, it does not lead to any further question of Being. For Sartre, all there is to being is given in the transphenomenality of existing objects, and there is no further issue of the Being of all beings as for Heidegger.

b. Two Types of Being

As we have seen, both consciousness and the being of the phenomenon transcend the phenomenon of being. As a result, there are two types of being which Sartre, using Hegel's terminology, calls the for-itself ('pour-soi') and the in-itself ('en-soi').

Sartre presents the in-itself as existing without justification independently of the for-itself, and thus constituting an absolute 'plenitude'. It exists in a fully determinate and non-relational way. This fully characterizes its transcendence of the conscious experience. In contrast with the in-itself, the for-itself is mainly characterised by a lack of identity with itself. This is a consequence of the following. Consciousness is always 'of something', and therefore defined in relation to something else. It has no nature beyond this and is thus completely translucent. Insofar as the for-itself always transcends the particular conscious experience (because of the spontaneity of consciousness), any attempt to grasp it within a conscious experience is doomed to failure. Indeed, as we have already seen in the distinction between pre-reflective and reflective consciousness, a conscious grasp of the first transforms it. This means that it is not possible to identify the for-itself, since the most basic form of identification, i.e. with itself, fails. This picture is clearly one in which the problematic region of being is that of the for-itself, and that is what Being and Nothingness will focus upon. But at the same time, another important question arises. Indeed, insofar Sartre has rejected the notion of a grounding of all beings in Being, one may ask how something like a relation of being between consciousness and the world is possible. This issue translates in terms of understanding the meaning of the totality formed by the for-itself and the in-itself and its division into these two regions of being. By addressing this latter issue, Sartre finds the key concept that enables him to investigate the nature of the for-itself.

c. Nothingness

One of the most original contributions of Sartre's metaphysics lies in his analysis of the notion of nothingness and the claim that it plays a central role at the heart of being (chapter 1, Part One).

Sartre (BN, 9-10) discusses the example of entering a café to meet Pierre and discovering his absence from his usual place. Sartre talks of this absence as 'haunting' the café. Importantly, this is not just a psychological state, because a 'nothingness' is really experienced. The nothingness in question is also not simply the result of applying a logical operator, negation, to a proposition. For it is not the same to say that there is no rhinoceros in the café, and to say that Pierre is not there. The first is a purely logical construction that reveals nothing about the world, while the second does. Sartre says it points to an objective fact. However, this objective fact is not simply given independently of human beings. Rather, it is produced by consciousness. Thus Sartre considers the phenomenon of destruction. When an earthquake brings about a landslide, it modifies the terrain. If, however, a town is thereby annihilated, the earthquake is viewed as having destroyed it. For Sartre, there is only destruction insofar as humans have identified the town as 'fragile'. This means that it is the very negation involved in characterising something as destructible which makes destruction possible. How is such a negation possible? The answer lies in the claim that the power of negation is an intrinsic feature of the intentionality of consciousness. To further identify this power of negation, let us look at Sartre's treatment of the phenomenon of questioning. When I question something, I posit the possibility of a negative reply. For Sartre, this means that I operate a nihilation of that which is given: the latter is thus 'fluctuating between being and nothingness' (BN, 23). Sartre then notes that this requires that the questioner be able to detach himself from the causal series of being. And, by nihilating the given, he detaches himself from any deterministic constraints. And Sartre says that 'the name (...) [of] this possibility which every human being has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it (...) is freedom' (BN, 24-25). Our power to negate is thus the clue which reveals our nature as free. Below, we shall return to the nature of Sartre's notion of freedom.

4. The For-Itself in Being and Nothingness

The structure and characteristics of the for-itself are the main focal point of the phenomenological analyses of Being and Nothingness. Here, the theme of consciousness's power of negation is explored in its different ramifications. These bring out the core claims of Sartre's existential account of the human condition.

a. A Lack of Self-Identity

The analysis of nothingness provides the key to the phenomenological understanding of the for-itself (chapter 1, Part Two). For the negating power of consciousness is at work within the self (BN, 85). By applying the account of this negating power to the case of reflection, Sartre shows how reflective consciousness negates the pre-reflective consciousness it takes as its object. This creates an instability within the self which emerges in reflection: it is torn between being posited as a unity and being reflexively grasped as a duality. This lack of self-identity is given another twist by Sartre: it is posited as a task. That means that the unity of the self is a task for the for-itself, a task which amounts to the self's seeking to ground itself.

This dimension of task ushers in a temporal component that is fully justified by Sartre's analysis of temporality (BN, 107). The lack of coincidence of the for-itself with itself is at the heart of what it is to be a for-itself. Indeed, the for-itself is not identical with its past nor its future. It is already no longer what it was, and it is not yet what it will be. Thus, when I make who I am the object of my reflection, I can take that which now lies in my past as my object, while I have actually moved beyond this. Sartre says that I am therefore no longer who I am. Similarly with the future: I never coincide with that which I shall be. Temporality constitutes another aspect of the way in which negation is at work within the for-itself. These temporal ecstases also map onto fundamental features of the for-itself. First, the past corresponds to the facticity of a human life that cannot choose what is already given about itself. Second, the future opens up possibilities for the freedom of the for-itself. The coordination of freedom and facticity is however generally incoherent, and thus represents another aspect of the essential instability at the heart of the for-itself.

b. The Project of Bad Faith

The way in which the incoherence of the dichotomy of facticity and freedom is manifested, is through the project of bad faith (chapter 2, Part One). Let us first clarify Sartre's notion of project. The fact that the self-identity of the for-itself is set as a task for the for-itself, amounts to defining projects for the for-itself. Insofar as they contribute to this task, they can be seen as aspects of the individual's fundamental project. This specifies the way in which the for-itself understands itself and defines herself as this, rather than another, individual. We shall return to the issue of the fundamental project below.

Among the different types of project, that of bad faith is of generic importance for an existential understanding of what it is to be human. This importance derives ultimately from its ethical relevance. Sartre's analysis of the project of bad faith is grounded in vivid examples. Thus Sartre describes the precise and mannered movements of a café waiter (BN, 59). In thus behaving, the waiter is identifying himself with his role as waiter in the mode of being in-itself. In other words, the waiter is discarding his real nature as for-itself, i.e. as free facticity, to adopt that of the in-itself. He is thus denying his transcendence as for-itself in favour of the kind of transcendence characterising the in-itself. In this way, the burden of his freedom, i.e. the requirement to decide for himself what to do, is lifted from his shoulders since his behaviour is as though set in stone by the definition of the role he has adopted. The mechanism involved in such a project involves an inherent contradiction. Indeed, the very identification at the heart of bad faith is only possible because the waiter is a for-itself, and can indeed choose to adopt such a project. So the freedom of the for-itself is a pre-condition for the project of bad faith which denies it. The agent's defining his being as an in-itself is the result of the way in which he represents himself to himself. This misrepresentation is however one the agent is responsible for. Ultimately, nothing is hidden, since consciousness is transparent and therefore the project of bad faith is pursued while the agent is fully aware of how things are in pre-reflective consciousness. Insofar as bad faith is self-deceit, it raises the problem of accounting for contradictory beliefs. The examples of bad faith which Sartre gives, serve to underline how this conception of self-deceit in fact involves a project based upon inadequate representations of what one is. There is therefore no need to have recourse to a notion of unconscious to explain such phenomena. They can be accounted for using the dichotomy for-itself/in-itself, as projects freely adopted by individual agents. A first consequence is that this represents an alternative to psychoanalytical accounts of self-deceit. Sartre was particularly keen to provide alternatives to Freud's theory of self-deceit, with its appeal to censorship mechanisms accounting for repression, all of which are beyond the subject's awareness as they are unconscious (BN, 54-55). The reason is that Freud's theory diminishes the agent's responsibility. On the contrary, and this is the second consequence of Sartre's account of bad faith, Sartre's theory makes the individual responsible for what is a widespread form of behaviour, one that accounts for many of the evils that Sartre sought to describe in his plays. To explain how existential psychoanalysis works requires that we first examine the notion of fundamental project (BN, 561).

c. The Fundamental Project

If the project of bad faith involves a misrepresentation of what it is to be a for-itself, and thus provides a powerful account of certain types of self-deceit, we have, as yet, no account of the motivation that lies behind the adoption of such a project.

As we saw above, all projects can be viewed as parts of the fundamental project, and we shall therefore focus upon the motivation for the latter (chapter 2, Part Four). That a for-itself is defined by such a project arises as a consequence of the for-itself's setting itself self-identity as a task. This in turn is the result of the for-itself's experiencing the cleavages introduced by reflection and temporality as amounting to a lack of self-identity. Sartre describes this as defining the `desire for being~ (BN, 565). This desire is universal, and it can take on one of three forms. First, it may be aimed at a direct transformation of the for-itself into an in-itself. Second, the for-itself may affirm its freedom that distinguishes it from an in-itself, so that it seeks through this to become its own foundation (i.e. to become God). The conjunction of these two moments results, third, in the for-itself's aiming for another mode of being, the for-itself-in-itself. None of the aims described in these three moments are realisable. Moreover, the triad of these three moments is, unlike a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad, inherently instable: if the for-itself attempts to achieve one of them, it will conflict with the others. Since all human lives are characterised by such a desire (albeit in different individuated forms), Sartre has thus provided a description of the human condition which is dominated by the irrationality of particular projects. This picture is in particular illustrated in Being and Nothingness by an account of the projects of love, sadism and masochism, and in other works, by biographical accounts of the lives of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Jean Genet. With this notion of desire for being, the motivation for the fundamental project is ultimately accounted for in terms of the metaphysical nature of the for-itself. This means that the source of motivation for the fundamental project lies within consciousness. Thus, in particular, bad faith, as a type of project, is motivated in this way. The individual choice of fundamental project is an original choice (BN, 564). Consequently, an understanding of what it is to be Flaubert for instance, must involve an attempt to decipher his original choice. This hermeneutic exercise aims to reveal what makes an individual a unity. This provides existential psychoanalysis with its principle. Its method involves an analysis of all the empirical behaviour of the subject, aimed at grasping the nature of this unity.

d. Desire

The fundamental project has been presented as motivated by a desire for being. How does this enable Sartre to provide an account of desires as in fact directed towards being although they are generally thought to be rather aimed at having? Sartre discusses desire in chapter I of Part One and then again in chapter II of Part Four, after presenting the notion of fundamental project.

In the first short discussion of desire, Sartre presents it as seeking a coincidence with itself that is not possible (BN, 87, 203). Thus, in thirst, there is a lack that seeks to be satisfied. But the satisfaction of thirst is not the suppression of thirst, but rather the aim of a plenitude of being in which desire and satisfaction are united in an impossible synthesis. As Sartre points out, humans cling on to their desires. Mere satisfaction through suppression of the desire is indeed always disappointing. Another example of this structure of desire (BN, 379) is that of love. For Sartre, the lover seeks to possess the loved one and thus integrate her into his being: this is the satisfaction of desire. He simultaneously wishes the loved one nevertheless remain beyond his being as the other he desires, i.e. he wishes to remain in the state of desiring. These are incompatible aspects of desire: the being of desire is therefore incompatible with its satisfaction. In the lengthier discussion on the topic "Being and Having," Sartre differentiates between three relations to an object that can be projected in desiring. These are being, doing and having. Sartre argues that relations of desire aimed at doing are reducible to one of the other two types. His examination of these two types can be summarised as follows. Desiring expressed in terms of being is aimed at the self. And desiring expressed in terms of having is aimed at possession. But an object is possessed insofar as it is related to me by an internal ontological bond, Sartre argues. Through that bond, the object is represented as my creation. The possessed object is represented both as part of me and as my creation. With respect to this object, I am therefore viewed both as an in-itself and as endowed with freedom. The object is thus a symbol of the subject's being, which presents it in a way that conforms with the aims of the fundamental project. Sartre can therefore subsume the case of desiring to have under that of desiring to be, and we are thus left with a single type of desire, that for being.

5. Relations with Others in Being and Nothingness

So far, we have presented the analysis of the for-itself without investigating how different individual for-itself's interact. Far from neglecting the issue of inter-subjectivity, this represents an important part of Sartre's phenomenological analysis in which the main themes discussed above receive their confirmation in, and extension to the inter-personal realm.

a. The Problem of Other Minds

In chapter 1, Part Three, Sartre recognizes there is a problem of other minds: how I can be conscious of the other (BN 221-222)? Sartre examines many existing approaches to the problem of other minds. Looking at realism, Sartre claims that no access to other minds is ever possible, and that for a realist approach the existence of the other is a mere hypothesis. As for idealism, it can only ever view the other in terms of sets of appearances. But the transphenomenality of the other cannot be deduced from them.

Sartre also looks at his phenomenologist predecessors, Husserl and Heidegger. Husserl's account is based upon the perception of another body from which, by analogy, I can consider the other as a distinct conscious perspective upon the world. But the attempt to derive the other's subjectivity from my own never really leaves the orbit of my own transcendental ego, and thus fails to come to terms with the other as a distinct transcendental ego. Sartre praises Heidegger for understanding that the relation to the other is a relation of being, not an epistemological one. However, Heidegger does not provide any grounds for taking the co-existence of Daseins ('being-with') as an ontological structure. What is, for Sartre, the nature of my consciousness of the other? Sartre provides a phenomenological analysis of shame and how the other features in it. When I peep through the keyhole, I am completely absorbed in what I am doing and my ego does not feature as part of this pre-reflective state. However, when I hear a floorboard creaking behind me, I become aware of myself as an object of the other's look. My ego appears on the scene of this reflective consciousness, but it is as an object for the other. Note that one may be empirically in error about the presence of this other. But all that is required by Sartre's thesis is that there be other human beings. This objectification of my ego is only possible if the other is given as a subject. For Sartre, this establishes what needed to be proven: since other minds are required to account for conscious states such as those of shame, this establishes their existence a priori. This does not refute the skeptic, but provides Sartre with a place for the other as an a priori condition for certain forms of consciousness which reveal a relation of being to the other.

b. Human Relationships

In the experience of shame (BN, 259), the objectification of my ego denies my existence as a subject. I do, however, have a way of evading this. This is through an objectification of the other. By reacting against the look of the other, I can turn him into an object for my look. But this is no stable relation. In chapter 1, Part Three, of Being and Nothingness, Sartre sees important implications of this movement from object to subject and vice-versa, insofar as it is through distinguishing oneself from the other that a for-itself individuates itself. More precisely, the objectification of the other corresponds to an affirmation of my self by distinguishing myself from the other. This affirmation is however a failure, because through it, I deny the other's selfhood and therefore deny that with respect to which I want to affirm myself. So, the dependence upon the other which characterises the individuation of a particular ego is simultaneously denied. The resulting instability is characteristic of the typically conflictual state of our relations with others. Sartre examines examples of such relationships as are involved in sadism, masochism and love. Ultimately, Sartre would argue that the instabilities that arise in human relationships are a form of inter-subjective bad faith.

6. Authenticity

If the picture which emerges from Sartre's examination of human relationships seems rather hopeless, it is because bad faith is omnipresent and inescapable. In fact, Sartre's philosophy has a very positive message which is that we have infinite freedom and that this enables us to make authentic choices which escape from the grip of bad faith. To understand Sartre's notion of authenticity therefore requires that we first clarify his notion of freedom.

a. Freedom

For Sartre (chapter 1, Part Four), each agent is endowed with unlimited freedom. This statement may seem puzzling given the obvious limitations on every individual's freedom of choice. Clearly, physical and social constraints cannot be overlooked in the way in which we make choices. This is however a fact which Sartre accepts insofar as the for-itself is facticity. And this does not lead to any contradiction insofar as freedom is not defined by an ability to act. Freedom is rather to be understood as characteristic of the nature of consciousness, i.e. as spontaneity. But there is more to freedom. For all that Pierre's freedom is expressed in opting either for looking after his ailing grandmother or joining the French Resistance, choices for which there are indeed no existing grounds, the decision to opt for either of these courses of action is a meaningful one. That is, opting for the one of the other is not just a spontaneous decision, but has consequences for the for-itself. To express this, Sartre presents his notion of freedom as amounting to making choices, and indeed not being able to avoid making choices.

Sartre's conception of choice can best be understood by reference to an individual's original choice, as we saw above. Sartre views the whole life of an individual as expressing an original project that unfolds throughout time. This is not a project which the individual has proper knowledge of, but rather one which she may interpret (an interpretation constantly open to revision). Specific choices are therefore always components in time of this time-spanning original choice of project.

b. Authenticity

With this notion of freedom as spontaneous choice, Sartre therefore has the elements required to define what it is to be an authentic human being. This consists in choosing in a way which reflects the nature of the for-itself as both transcendence and facticity. This notion of authenticity appears closely related to Heidegger's, since it involves a mode of being that exhibits a recognition that one is a Dasein. However, unlike Heidegger's, Sartre's conception has clear practical consequences.

For what is required of an authentic choice is that it involve a proper coordination of transcendence and facticity, and thus that it avoid the pitfalls of an uncoordinated expression of the desire for being. This amounts to not-grasping oneself as freedom and facticity. Such a lack of proper coordination between transcendence and facticity constitutes bad faith, either at an individual or an inter-personal level. Such a notion of authenticity is therefore quite different from what is often popularly misrepresented as a typically existentialist attitude, namely an absolute prioritisation of individual spontaneity. On the contrary, a recognition of how our freedom interacts with our facticity exhibits the responsibility which we have to make proper choices. These are choices which are not trapped in bad faith.

c. An Ethical Dimension

Through the practical consequences presented above, an existentialist ethics can be discerned. We pointed out that random expressions of one's spontaneity are not what authenticity is about, and Sartre emphasises this point in Existentialism and Humanism. There, he explicitly states that there is an ethical normativity about authenticity. If one ought to act authentically, is there any way of further specifying what this means for the nature of ethical choices? There are in fact many statements in Being and Nothingness which emphasise a universality criterion not entirely dissimilar from Kant's. This should come as no surprise since both Sartre and Kant's approaches are based upon the ultimate value of a strong notion of freedom. As Sartre points out, by choosing, an individual commits not only himself, but the whole of humanity (BN, 553). Although there are no a priori values for Sartre, the agent's choice creates values in the same way as the artist does in the aesthetic realm. The values thus created by a proper exercise of my freedom have a universal dimension, in that any other human being could make sense of them were he to be placed in my situation. There is therefore a universality that is expressed in particular forms in each authentic project. This is a first manifestation of what Sartre later refers to as the 'singular universal'.

7. Other Contributions to Existential Phenomenology

If Being and Nothingness represents the culmination of Sartre's purely existentialist work, existentialism permeates later writings, albeit in a hybrid form. We shall briefly indicate how these later writings extend and transform his project of existential phenomenology.

a. Critique of Dialectical Reason

The experience of the war and the encounter with Merleau-Ponty contributed to awakening Sartre's interest in the political dimension of human existence: Sartre thus further developed his existentialist understanding of human beings in a way which is compatible with Marxism. A key notion for this phase of his philosophical development is the concept of praxis. This extends and transforms that of project: man as a praxis is both something that produces and is produced. Social structures define a starting point for each individual. But the individual then sets his own aims and thereby goes beyond and negates what society had defined him as. The range of possibilities which are available for this expression of freedom is however dependent upon the existing social structures. And it may be the case that this range is very limited. In this way, the infinite freedom of the earlier philosophy is now narrowed down by the constraints of the political and historical situation.

In Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre analyses different dimensions of the praxis. In the first volume, a theory of "practical ensembles" examines the way in which a praxis is no longer opposed to an in-itself, but to institutions which have become rigidified and constitute what Sartre calls the 'practico-inert'. Human beings interiorise the universal features of the situation in which they are born, and this translates in terms of a particular way of developing as a praxis. This is the sense Sartre now gives to the notion of the 'singular universal'.

b. The Problem of Method

In this book Sartre redefines the focus of existentialism as the individual understood as belonging to a certain social situation, but not totally determined by it. For the individual is always going beyond what is given, with his own aims and projects. In this way, Sartre develops a 'regressive-progressive method' that views individual development as explained in terms of a movement from the universal expressed in historical development, and the particular expressed in individual projects. Thus, by combining a Marxist understanding of history with the methods of existential psychoanalysis which are first presented in Being and Nothingness, Sartre proposes a method for understanding a human life. This, he applies in particular to the case of an analysis of Flaubert. It is worth noting however that developing an account of the intelligibility of history, is a project that Sartre tackled in the second volume of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, but which remained unfinished.

8. Conclusion

Sartre's existentialist understanding of what it is to be human can be summarised in his view that the underlying motivation for action is to be found in the nature of consciousness which is a desire for being. It is up to each agent to exercise his freedom in such a way that he does not lose sight of his existence as a facticity, as well as a free human being. In so doing, he will come to understand more about the original choice which his whole life represents, and thus about the values that are thereby projected. Such an understanding is only obtained through living this particular life and avoiding the pitfalls of strategies of self-deceit such as bad faith. This authentic option for human life represents the realisation of a universal in the singularity of a human life.

9. References and Further Reading

a. Sartre's Works

  • "Intentionality: a Fundamental Ideal of Husserl's Phenomenology" (1970) transl. J.P.Fell, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 1 (2), 4-5.
  • Psychology of the Imagination (1972) transl. Bernard Frechtman, Methuen, London.
  • Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1971) transl. Philip Mairet, Methuen, London.
  • The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness (1957) transl. and ed. Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, Noonday, New York.
  • Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1958) transl. Hazel E. Barnes, intr. Mary Warnock, Methuen, London (abbreviated as BN above).
  • Existentialism and Humanism (1973) transl. Philip Mairet, Methuen, London.
  • Critique of Dialectical Reason 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles (1982) transl. Alan Sheridan-Smith, ed. Jonathan Rée, Verso, London.
  • The Problem of Method (1964) transl. Hazel E. Barnes, Methuen, London.

b. Commentaries

  • Caws, P. (1979) Sartre, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
  • Danto, A. C. (1991) Sartre, Fontana, London.
  • Howells, C. (1988) Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Howells, C. ed. (1992) Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Murdoch, I. (1987) Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, Chatto and Windus, London.
  • Natanson, M. (1972) A Critique of Jean-Paul Sartre's Ontology, Haskell House Publishers, New York.
  • Schilpp, P. A. ed. (1981) The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, Open Court, La Salle.
  • Silverman, H. J. and Elliston, F.A. eds. (1980) Jean-Paul Sartre: Contemporary Approaches to his Philosophy, Harvester Press, Brighton.

Author Information

Christian J. Onof
Email: c.onof@imperial.ac.uk
University College, London
United Kingdom

"Existential" redirects here. For the logical sense of the term, see Existential quantification. For other uses, see Existence (disambiguation).

Not to be confused with Essentialism.

Existentialism ()[1] is a tradition of philosophical enquiry associated mainly with certain 19th and 20th-century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences,[2][3][4] shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.[5] While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity.[6] In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.[7] Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.[8][9]

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher,[2][10][11] though he did not use the term existentialism.[12] He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or "authentically".[13][14] Existentialism became popular in the years following World War II, and strongly influenced many disciplines besides philosophy, including theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.[15]

Definitional issues and background[edit]

The term is often seen as a historical convenience as it was first applied to many philosophers in hindsight, long after they had died. In fact, while existentialism is generally considered to have originated with Kierkegaard, the first prominent existentialist philosopher to adopt the term as a self-description was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre posits the idea that "what all existentialists have in common is the fundamental doctrine that existence precedes essence", as scholar Frederick Copleston explains.[16] According to philosopher Steven Crowell, defining existentialism has been relatively difficult, and he argues that it is better understood as a general approach used to reject certain systematic philosophies rather than as a systematic philosophy itself.[2] Sartre himself, in a lecture delivered in 1945, described existentialism as "the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism".[17]

Although many outside Scandinavia consider the term existentialism to have originated from Kierkegaard himself, it is more likely that Kierkegaard adopted this term (or at least the term "existential" as a description of his philosophy) from the Norwegian poet and literary critic Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven.[18] This assertion comes from two sources. The Norwegian philosopher Erik Lundestad refers to the Danish philosopher Fredrik Christian Sibbern. Sibbern is supposed to have had two conversations in 1841, the first with Welhaven and the second with Kierkegaard. It is in the first conversation that it is believed that Welhaven came up with "a word that he said covered a certain thinking, which had a close and positive attitude to life, a relationship he described as existential".[19] This was then brought to Kierkegaard by Sibbern.

The second claim comes from the Norwegian historian Rune Slagstad, who claims to prove that Kierkegaard himself said the term "existential" was borrowed from the poet. He strongly believes that it was Kierkegaard himself who said that "Hegelians do not study philosophy 'existentially'; to use a phrase by Welhaven from one time when I spoke with him about philosophy".[20]

Concepts[edit]

Existence precedes essence[edit]

Main article: Existence precedes essence

Sartre claimed that a central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings ("existence")—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit ("essence"). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their "true essence" instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life.[21] Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the phrase, similar notions can be found in the thought of existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger, and Kierkegaard:

"The subjective thinker’s form, the form of his communication, is his style. His form must be just as manifold as are the opposites that he holds together. The systematic eins, zwei, drei is an abstract form that also must inevitably run into trouble whenever it is to be applied to the concrete. To the same degree as the subjective thinker is concrete, to the same degree his form must also be concretely dialectical. But just as he himself is not a poet, not an ethicist, not a dialectician, so also his form is none of these directly. His form must first and last be related to existence, and in this regard he must have at his disposal the poetic, the ethical, the dialectical, the religious. Subordinate character, setting, etc., which belong to the well-balanced character of the esthetic production, are in themselves breadth; the subjective thinker has only one setting—existence—and has nothing to do with localities and such things. The setting is not the fairyland of the imagination, where poetry produces consummation, nor is the setting laid in England, and historical accuracy is not a concern. The setting is inwardness in existing as a human being; the concretion is the relation of the existence-categories to one another. Historical accuracy and historical actuality are breadth." Søren Kierkegaard (Concluding Postscript, Hong pp. 357–58)

Some interpret the imperative to define oneself as meaning that anyone can wish to be anything. However, an existentialist philosopher would say such a wish constitutes an inauthentic existence - what Sartre would call 'bad faith'. Instead, the phrase should be taken to say that people are (1) defined only insofar as they act and (2) that they are responsible for their actions. For example, someone who acts cruelly towards other people is, by that act, defined as a cruel person. Furthermore, by this action of cruelty, such persons are themselves responsible for their new identity (cruel persons). This is as opposed to their genes, or human nature, bearing the blame.

As Sartre writes in his work Existentialism is a Humanism: "... man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards". The more positive, therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: A person can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person. Here it is also clear that since humans can choose to be either cruel or good, they are, in fact, neither of these things essentially.[22]

Sartre's definition of existentialism was based on Heidegger's magnum opus "Being and Time". In a set of letters, Heidegger implies that Sartre misunderstood him for his own purposes of subjectivism, and that he did not mean that actions take precedence over being so long as those actions were not reflected upon. This way of living, Heidegger called "average everydayness".

The Absurd[edit]

Main article: Absurdism

The notion of the Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or "unfairness" of the world. This contrasts with the notion that "bad things don't happen to good people"; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a "good" person as to a "bad" person.[23]

Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the Absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Many of the literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Miguel de Unamuno, Luigi Pirandello,[24][25][26][27]Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Heller and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world.

It is in relation to the concept of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that Albert Camus claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in his The Myth of Sisyphus. Although "prescriptions" against the possibly deleterious consequences of these kinds of encounters vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. The possibility of having everything meaningful break down poses a threat of quietism, which is inherently against the existentialist philosophy.[28] It has been said that the possibility of suicide makes all humans existentialists.[29]

Facticity[edit]

Main article: Facticity

Facticity is a concept defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness as the in-itself, which delineates for humans the modalities of being and not being. This can be more easily understood when considering facticity in relation to the temporal dimension of our past: one's past is what one is, in the sense that it co-constitutes oneself. However, to say that one is only one's past would be to ignore a significant part of reality (the present and the future), while saying that one's past is only what one was, would entirely detach it from oneself now. A denial of one's own concrete past constitutes an inauthentic lifestyle, and the same goes for all other kinds of facticity (having a human body — e.g., one that doesn't allow a person to run faster than the speed of sound — identity, values, etc.).[30]

Facticity is both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one's facticity consists of things one couldn't have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition of freedom in the sense that one's values most likely depend on it. However, even though one's facticity is "set in stone" (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one's facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. As an example, consider two men, one of whom has no memory of his past and the other who remembers everything. They both have committed many crimes, but the first man, knowing nothing about this, leads a rather normal life while the second man, feeling trapped by his own past, continues a life of crime, blaming his own past for "trapping" him in this life. There is nothing essential about his committing crimes, but he ascribes this meaning to his past.

However, to disregard one's facticity when, in the continual process of self-making, one projects oneself into the future, that would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and thus would be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one's projection must still be one's facticity, though in the mode of not being it (essentially). An example of one focusing solely on one's possible projects without reflecting on one's current facticity:[30] if one continually thinks about future possibilities related to being rich (e.g. a better car, bigger house, better quality of life, etc.) without considering the facticity of not currently having the financial means to do so. In this example, considering both facticity and transcendence, an authentic mode of being would be considering future projects that might improve one's current finances (e.g. putting in extra hours, or investing savings) in order to arrive at a future-facticity of a modest pay rise, further leading to purchase of an affordable car.

Another aspect of facticity is that it entails angst, both in the sense that freedom "produces" angst when limited by facticity, and in the sense that the lack of the possibility of having facticity to "step in" for one to take responsibility for something one has done, also produces angst.

Another aspect of existential freedom is that one can change one's values. Thus, one is responsible for one's values, regardless of society's values. The focus on freedom in existentialism is related to the limits of the responsibility one bears, as a result of one's freedom: the relationship between freedom and responsibility is one of interdependency, and a clarification of freedom also clarifies that for which one is responsible.[31][32]

Authenticity[edit]

Main article: Authenticity

Many noted existentialist writers consider the theme of authentic existence important. Authentic existence involves the idea that one has to "create oneself" and then live in accordance with this self. What is meant by authenticity is that in acting, one should act as oneself, not as "one's acts" or as "one's genes" or any other essence requires. The authentic act is one that is in accordance with one's freedom. As a condition of freedom is facticity, this includes one's facticity, but not to the degree that this facticity can in any way determine one's transcendent choices (in the sense that one could then blame one's background [facticity] for making the choice one made [chosen project, from one's transcendence]). The role of facticity in relation to authenticity involves letting one's actual values come into play when one makes a choice (instead of, like Kierkegaard's Aesthete, "choosing" randomly), so that one also takes responsibility for the act instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values.[33]

In contrast to this, the inauthentic is the denial to live in accordance with one's freedom. This can take many forms, from pretending choices are meaningless or random, through convincing oneself that some form of determinism is true, to a sort of "mimicry" where one acts as "one should".

How "one should" act is often determined by an image one has, of how one such as oneself (say, a bank manager, lion tamer, prostitute, etc.) acts. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre relates an example of a "waiter" in bad faith: he merely takes part in the "act" of being a typical waiter, albeit very convincingly.[34] This image usually corresponds to some sort of social norm, but this does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is inauthentic: The main point is the attitude one takes to one's own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which one acts in accordance with this freedom.

The Other and the Look[edit]

Main article: Other (philosophy)

The Other (when written with a capital "O") is a concept more properly belonging to phenomenology and its account of intersubjectivity. However, the concept has seen widespread use in existentialist writings, and the conclusions drawn from it differ slightly from the phenomenological accounts. The experience of the Other is the experience of another free subject who inhabits the same world as a person does. In its most basic form, it is this experience of the Other that constitutes intersubjectivity and objectivity. To clarify, when one experiences someone else, and this Other person experiences the world (the same world that a person experiences)—only from "over there"—the world itself is constituted as objective in that it is something that is "there" as identical for both of the subjects; a person experiences the other person as experiencing the same things. This experience of the Other's look is what is termed the Look (sometimes the Gaze).[35]

While this experience, in its basic phenomenological sense, constitutes the world as objective, and oneself as objectively existing subjectivity (one experiences oneself as seen in the Other's Look in precisely the same way that one experiences the Other as seen by him, as subjectivity), in existentialism, it also acts as a kind of limitation of freedom. This is because the Look tends to objectify what it sees. As such, when one experiences oneself in the Look, one doesn't experience oneself as nothing (no thing), but as something. Sartre's own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: at first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom. The Look is then co-constitutive of one's facticity.

Another characteristic feature of the Look is that no Other really needs to have been there: It is quite possible that the creaking floorboard was nothing but the movement of an old house; the Look isn't some kind of mystical telepathic experience of the actual way the other sees one (there may also have been someone there, but he could have not noticed that the person was there). It is only one's perception of the way another might perceive him.

Angst and dread[edit]

Main article: Angst

See also: Living educational theory

"Existential angst", sometimes called existential dread, anxiety, or anguish, is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The archetypical example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that "nothing is holding me back", one senses the lack of anything that predetermines one to either throw oneself off or to stand still, and one experiences one's own freedom.[23]

It can also be seen in relation to the previous point how angst is before nothing, and this is what sets it apart from fear that has an object. While in the case of fear, one can take definitive measures to remove the object of fear, in the case of angst, no such "constructive" measures are possible. The use of the word "nothing" in this context relates both to the inherent insecurity about the consequences of one's actions, and to the fact that, in experiencing freedom as angst, one also realizes that one is fully responsible for these consequences. There is nothing in people (genetically, for instance) that acts in their stead—that they can blame if something goes wrong. Therefore, not every choice is perceived as having dreadful possible consequences (and, it can be claimed, human lives would be unbearable if every choice facilitated dread). However, this doesn't change the fact that freedom remains a condition of every action.

Despair[edit]

Main article: Despair

See also: Existential crisis

Despair, in existentialism, is generally defined as a loss of hope.[36] More specifically, it is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. If a person is invested in being a particular thing, such as a bus driver or an upstanding citizen, and then finds their being-thing compromised, they would normally be found in a state of despair—a hopeless state. For example, a singer who loses the ability to sing may despair if they have nothing else to fall back on—nothing to rely on for their identity. They find themselves unable to be what defined their being.

What sets the existentialist notion of despair apart from the conventional definition is that existentialist despair is a state one is in even when they aren't overtly in despair. So long as a person's identity depends on qualities that can crumble, they are in perpetual despair—and as there is, in Sartrean terms, no human essence found in conventional reality on which to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition. As Kierkegaard defines it in Either/Or: "Let each one learn what he can; both of us can learn that a person’s unhappiness never lies in his lack of control over external conditions, since this would only make him completely unhappy."[37] In Works of Love, he said:

When the God-forsaken worldliness of earthly life shuts itself in complacency, the confined air develops poison, the moment gets stuck and stands still, the prospect is lost, a need is felt for a refreshing, enlivening breeze to cleanse the air and dispel the poisonous vapors lest we suffocate in worldliness. ... Lovingly to hope all things is the opposite of despairingly to hope nothing at all. Love hopes all things—yet is never put to shame. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of evil is to fear. By the decision to choose hope one decides infinitely more than it seems, because it is an eternal decision. pp. 246–50

Opposition to positivism and rationalism[edit]

See also: Positivism and Rationalism

Existentialists oppose definitions of human beings as primarily rational, and, therefore, oppose positivism and rationalism. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on subjective meaning rather than pure rationality. The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. Kierkegaard advocated rationality as a means to interact with the objective world (e.g., in the natural sciences), but when it comes to existential problems, reason is insufficient: "Human reason has boundaries".[38]

Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena—"the Other"—that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder people from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress their feelings of anxiety and dread, people confine themselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing their freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the Look" of "the Other" (i.e., possessed by another person—or at least one's idea of that other person).

Religion[edit]

See also: Atheistic existentialism, Christian existentialism, and Jewish existentialism

An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that (s)he is an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" that are outside and unrelated to the reader, but may develop a sense of reality/God. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon her/him, but as though they are inside her/him and guiding her/him from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life - or the learner who should put it to use?"[39]

Confusion with nihilism[edit]

See also: Existential nihilism

Although nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another. A primary cause of confusion is that Friedrich Nietzsche is an important philosopher in both fields, but also the existentialist insistence on the inherent meaninglessness of the world. Existentialist philosophers often stress the importance of Angst as signifying the absolute lack of any objective ground for action, a move that is often reduced to a moral or an existential nihilism. A pervasive theme in the works of existentialist philosophy, however, is to persist through encounters with the absurd, as seen in Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus ("One must imagine Sisyphus happy"),[40] and it is only very rarely that existentialist philosophers dismiss morality or one's self-created meaning: Kierkegaard regained a sort of morality in the religious (although he wouldn't himself agree that it was ethical; the religious suspends the ethical), and Sartre's final words in Being and Nothingness are "All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory (or impure) reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane. We shall devote to them a future work."[34]

Etymology[edit]

The term "existentialism" was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s.[41][42][43] At first, when Marcel applied the term to him at a colloquium in 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre rejected it.[44] Sartre subsequently changed his mind and, on October 29, 1945, publicly adopted the existentialist label in a lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris. The lecture was published as L'existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism is a Humanism), a short book that did much to popularize existentialist thought.[45] Marcel later came to reject the label himself in favour of the term Neo-Socratic, in honor of Kierkegaard's essay "On The Concept of Irony".

Some scholars argue that the term should be used only to refer to the cultural movement in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s associated with the works of the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus.[2] Other scholars extend the term to Kierkegaard, and yet others extend it as far back as Socrates.[46] However, the term is often identified with the philosophical views of Jean-Paul Sartre.[2]

History[edit]

19th century[edit]

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche[edit]

Main article: Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche

Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Unlike Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser.[47] Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are representative of people who exhibit Freedom, in that they define the nature of their own existence. Nietzsche's idealized individual invents his own values and creates the very terms they excel under. By contrast, Kierkegaard, opposed to the level of abstraction in Hegel, and not nearly as hostile (actually welcoming) to Christianity as Nietzsche, argues through a pseudonym that the objective certainty of religious truths (specifically Christian) is not only impossible, but even founded on logical paradoxes. Yet he continues to imply that a leap of faith is a possible means for an individual to reach a higher stage of existence that transcends and contains both an aesthetic and ethical value of life. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism, and various strands of psychotherapy. However, Kierkegaard believed that individuals should live in accordance with their thinking.

Dostoyevsky[edit]

The first important literary author also important to existentialism was the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky.[48] Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground portrays a man unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book on existentialism Existentialism is a Humanism, quoted Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as an example of existential crisis. Sartre attributes Ivan Karamazov's claim, "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"[49] to Dostoyevsky himself, though this quote does not appear in the novel.[50] However, a similar sentiment is explicitly stated when Alyosha visits Dimitri in prison. Dimitri mentions his conversations with Rakitin in which the idea that "Then, if He doesn't exist, man is king of the earth, of the universe" allowing the inference contained in Sartre's attribution to remain a valid idea contested within the novel.[51] Other Dostoyevsky novels covered issues raised in existentialist philosophy while presenting story lines divergent from secular existentialism: for example, in Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov experiences an existential crisis and then moves toward a Christian Orthodox worldview similar to that advocated by Dostoyevsky himself.[52]

Early 20th century[edit]

See also: Martin Heidegger

In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of philosophers and writers explored existentialist ideas. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, in his 1913 book The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, emphasized the life of "flesh and bone" as opposed to that of abstract rationalism. Unamuno rejected systematic philosophy in favor of the individual's quest for faith. He retained a sense of the tragic, even absurd nature of the quest, symbolized by his enduring interest in Cervantes' fictional character Don Quixote. A novelist, poet and dramatist as well as philosophy professor at the University of Salamanca, Unamuno wrote a short story about a priest's crisis of faith, Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr, which has been collected in anthologies of existentialist fiction. Another Spanish thinker, Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1914, held that human existence must always be defined as the individual person combined with the concrete circumstances of his life: "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" ("I am myself and my circumstances"). Sartre likewise believed that human existence is not an abstract matter, but is always situated ("en situation").

Although Martin Buber wrote his major philosophical works in German, and studied and taught at the Universities of Berlin and Frankfurt, he stands apart from the mainstream of German philosophy. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1878, he was also a scholar of Jewish culture and involved at various times in Zionism and Hasidism. In 1938, he moved permanently to Jerusalem. His best-known philosophical work was the short book I and Thou, published in 1922. For Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is "man with man", a dialogue that takes place in the so-called "sphere of between" ("das Zwischenmenschliche").[53]

Two Russian thinkers, Lev Shestov and Nikolai Berdyaev, became well known as existentialist thinkers during their post-Revolutionary exiles in Paris. Shestov, born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family in Kiev, had launched an attack on rationalism and systematization in philosophy as early as 1905 in his book of aphorisms All Things Are Possible.

Berdyaev, also from Kiev but with a background in the Eastern Orthodox Church, drew a radical distinction between the world of spirit and the everyday world of objects. Human freedom, for Berdyaev, is rooted in the realm of spirit, a realm independent of scientific notions of causation. To the extent the individual human being lives in the objective world, he is estranged from authentic spiritual freedom. "Man" is not to be interpreted naturalistically, but as a being created in God's image, an originator of free, creative acts.[54] He published a major work on these themes, The Destiny of Man, in 1931.

Gabriel Marcel, long before coining the term "existentialism", introduced important existentialist themes to a French audience in his early essay "Existence and Objectivity" (1925) and in his Metaphysical Journal (1927).[55] A dramatist as well as a philosopher, Marcel found his philosophical starting point in a condition of metaphysical alienation: the human individual searching for harmony in a transient life. Harmony, for Marcel, was to be sought through "secondary reflection", a "dialogical" rather than "dialectical" approach to the world, characterized by "wonder and astonishment" and open to the "presence" of other people and of God rather than merely to "information" about them. For Marcel, such presence implied more than simply being there (as one thing might be in the presence of another thing); it connoted "extravagant" availability, and the willingness to put oneself at the disposal of the other.[56]

Marcel contrasted secondary reflection with abstract, scientific-technical primary reflection, which he associated with the activity of the abstract Cartesian ego. For Marcel, philosophy was a concrete activity undertaken by a sensing, feeling human being incarnate—embodied—in a concrete world.[55][57] Although Jean-Paul Sartre adopted the term "existentialism" for his own philosophy in the 1940s, Marcel's thought has been described as "almost diametrically opposed" to that of Sartre.[55] Unlike Sartre, Marcel was a Christian, and became a Catholic convert in 1929.

In Germany, the psychologist and philosopher Karl Jaspers—who later described existentialism as a "phantom" created by the public[58]—called his own thought, heavily influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Existenzphilosophie. For Jaspers, "Existenz-philosophy is the way of thought by means of which man seeks to become himself...This way of thought does not cognize objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker".[59]

Jaspers, a professor at the University of Heidelberg, was acquainted with Martin Heidegger, who held a professorship at Marburg before acceding to Husserl's chair at Freiburg in 1928. They held many philosophical discussions, but later became estranged over Heidegger's support of National Socialism (Nazism). They shared an admiration for Kierkegaard,[60] and in the 1930s, Heidegger lectured extensively on Nietzsche. Nevertheless, the extent to which Heidegger should be considered an existentialist is debatable. In Being and Time he presented a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence (Dasein) to be analysed in terms of existential categories (existentiale); and this has led many commentators to treat him as an important figure in the existentialist movement.

After the Second World War[edit]

Following the Second World War, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement, mainly through the public prominence of two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who wrote best-selling novels, plays and widely read journalism as well as theoretical texts.[61] These years also saw the growing reputation of Heidegger's book Being and Time outside Germany.

Sartre dealt with existentialist themes in his 1938 novel Nausea and the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall, and had published his treatise on existentialism, Being and Nothingness, in 1943, but it was in the two years following the liberation of Paris from the German occupying forces that he and his close associates—Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others—became internationally famous as the leading figures of a movement known as existentialism.[62] In a very short period of time, Camus and Sartre in particular became the leading public intellectuals of post-war France, achieving by the end of 1945 "a fame that reached across all audiences."[63] Camus was an editor of the most popular leftist (former French Resistance) newspaper Combat; Sartre launched his journal of leftist thought, Les Temps Modernes, and two weeks later gave the widely reported lecture on existentialism and secular humanism to a packed meeting of the Club Maintenant. Beauvoir wrote that "not a week passed without the newspapers discussing us";[64] existentialism became "the first media craze of the postwar era."[65]

By the end of 1947, Camus' earlier fiction and plays had been reprinted, his new play Caligula had been performed and his novel The Plague published; the first two novels of Sartre's The Roads to Freedom trilogy had appeared, as had Beauvoir's novel The Blood of Others. Works by Camus and Sartre were already appearing in foreign editions. The Paris-based existentialists had become famous.[62]

Sartre had traveled to Germany in 1930 to study the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger,[66] and he included critical comments on their work in his major treatise Being and Nothingness. Heidegger's thought had also become known in French philosophical circles through its use by Alexandre Kojève in explicating Hegel in a series of lectures given in Paris in the 1930s.[67] The lectures were highly influential; members of the audience included not only Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but Raymond Queneau, Georges Bataille, Louis Althusser, André Breton, and Jacques Lacan.[68] A selection from Heidegger's Being and Time was published in French in 1938, and his essays began to appear in French philosophy journals.

Heidegger read Sartre's work and was initially impressed, commenting: "Here for the first time I encountered an independent thinker who, from the foundations up, has experienced the area out of which I think. Your work shows such an immediate comprehension of my philosophy as I have never before encountered."[69] Later, however, in response to a question posed by his French follower Jean Beaufret,[70] Heidegger distanced himself from Sartre's position and existentialism in general in his Letter on Humanism.[71] Heidegger's reputation continued to grow in France during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s, Sartre attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason. A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility.

Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, Summer in Algiers, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Stranger, the latter being "considered—to what would have been Camus's irritation—the exemplary existentialist novel."[72] Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works concerned with facing the absurd. In the titular book, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it. The first half of the book contains an extended rebuttal of what Camus took to be existentialist philosophy in the works of Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, and Jaspers.

Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life as Sartre's partner, wrote about feminist and existentialist ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre,[73] de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time, resulting in alienation from fellow writers such as Camus.[52]

Paul Tillich, an important existentialist theologian following Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, applied existentialist concepts to Christian theology, and helped introduce existential theology to the general public. His seminal work The Courage to Be follows Kierkegaard's analysis of anxiety and life's absurdity, but puts forward the thesis that modern humans must, via God, achieve selfhood in spite of life's absurdity. Rudolf Bultmann used Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's philosophy of existence to demythologize Christianity by interpreting Christian mythical concepts into existentialist concepts.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an existential phenomenologist, was for a time a companion of Sartre. Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1945) was recognized as a major statement of French existentialism.[74] It has been said that Merleau-Ponty's work Humanism and Terror greatly influenced Sartre. However, in later years they were to disagree irreparably, dividing many existentialists such as de Beauvoir,[52] who sided with Sartre.

Colin Wilson, an English writer, published his study The Outsider in 1956, initially to critical acclaim. In this book and others (e.g. Introduction to the New Existentialism), he attempted to reinvigorate what he perceived as a pessimistic philosophy and bring it to a wider audience. He was not, however, academically trained, and his work was attacked by professional philosophers for lack of rigor and critical standards.[75]

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Art[edit]

Film and television[edit]

Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war filmPaths of Glory "illustrates, and even illuminates...existentialism" by examining the "necessary absurdity of the human condition" and the "horror of war".[76] The film tells the story of a fictional World War I French army regiment ordered to attack an impregnable German stronghold; when the attack fails, three soldiers are chosen at random, court-martialed by a "kangaroo court", and executed by firing squad. The film examines existentialist ethics, such as the issue of whether objectivity is possible and the "problem of authenticity".[76]Orson Welles' 1962 film The Trial, based upon Franz Kafka's book of the same name (Der Process), is characteristic of both existentialist and absurdist themes in its depiction of a man (Joseph K.) arrested for a crime for which the charges are neither revealed to him nor to the reader.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a Japanese science fiction animation series created by the anime studio Gainax and was both directed and written by Hideaki Anno. Existential themes of individuality, consciousness, freedom, choice, and responsibility are heavily relied upon throughout the entire series, particularly through the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard. Episode 16's title, "The Sickness Unto Death, And…" (死に至る病、そして,Shi ni itaru yamai, soshite) is a reference to Kierkegaard's book, The Sickness Unto Death. Some contemporary films dealing with existentialist issues include Melancholia, Fight Club, I Heart Huckabees, Waking Life, The Matrix, Ordinary People, and Life in a Day.[77] Likewise, films throughout the 20th century such as The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, Taxi Driver, the Toy Story films, The Great Silence, Ghost in the Shell, Harold and Maude, High Noon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Groundhog Day, Apocalypse Now, Badlands, and Blade Runner also have existentialist qualities.[78]

Notable directors known for their existentialist films include Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hideaki Anno, Wes Anderson, Gaspar Noé, Woody Allen, and Christopher Nolan.[79]Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York focuses on the protagonist's desire to find existential meaning.[80] Similarly, in Kurosawa's Red Beard, the protagonist's experiences as an intern in a rural health clinic in Japan lead him to an existential crisis whereby he questions his reason for being. This, in turn, leads him to a better understanding of humanity. The French film, Mood Indigo (directed by Michel Gondry) embraced various elements of existentialism.[citation needed] The film The Shawshank Redemption, released in 1994, depicts life in a prison in Maine, United States to explore several existentialist concepts.[81]

Literature[edit]

Existential perspectives are also found in modern literature to varying degrees, especially since the 1920s. Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932) celebrated by both Sartre and Beauvoir, contained many of the themes that would be found in later existential literature, and is in some ways, the proto-existential novel. Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea[82] was "steeped in Existential ideas", and is considered an accessible way of grasping his philosophical stance.[83] Between 1900 and 1960, other authors such as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Herman Hesse, Luigi Pirandello,[24][25][27][84][85][86]Ralph Ellison,[87][88][89][90] and Jack Kerouac, composed literature or poetry that contained, to varying degrees, elements of existential or proto-existential thought. The philosophy's influence even reached pulp literature shortly after the turn of the 20th century, as seen in the existential disparity witnessed in Man's lack of control of his fate in the works of H.P. Lovecraft.[91] Since the late 1960s, a great deal of cultural activity in literature contains postmodernist as well as existential elements. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (now republished as Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and Formless Meanderings by Bharath Srinivasan[92] all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing existential themes.

Theatre[edit]

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning In Camera or "behind closed doors"), which is the source of the popular quote, "Hell is other people." (In French, "L'enfer, c'est les autres"). The play begins with a Valet leading a man into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell. Eventually he is joined by two women. After their entry, the Valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All three expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively by probing each other's sins, desires, and unpleasant memories.

Existentialist themes are displayed in the Theatre of the Absurd, notably in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two men divert themselves while they wait expectantly for someone (or something) named Godot who never arrives. They claim Godot is an acquaintance, but in fact, hardly know him, admitting they would not recognize him if they saw him. Samuel Beckett, once asked who or what Godot is, replied, "If I knew, I would have said so in the play." To occupy themselves, the men eat, sleep, talk, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide—anything "to hold the terrible silence at bay".[93] The play "exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos."[94] The play also illustrates an attitude toward human experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can be reconciled only in the mind and art of the absurdist. The play examines questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in human existence.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdisttragicomedy first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966.[95] The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare'sHamlet. Comparisons have also been drawn to Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, for the presence of two central characters who appear almost as two halves of a single character. Many plot features are similar as well: the characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time. The two characters are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world beyond their understanding. They stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications, and muse on the irrationality and randomness of the world.

Jean Anouilh's Antigone also presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas.[96] It is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and the play of the same name (Antigone, by Sophocles) from the 5th century BC. In English, it is often distinguished from its antecedent by being pronounced in its original French form, approximately "Ante-GŌN." The play was first performed in Paris on 6 February 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regards to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation have been drawn. Antigone rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The crux of the play is the lengthy dialogue concerning the nature of power, fate, and choice, during which Antigone says that she is, "... disgusted with [the]...promise of a humdrum happiness." She states that she would rather die than live a mediocre existence.

Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existentialist belief that we are absurd beings loose in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled "Absurdist" (based on Esslin's book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example Ionesco often claimed he identified more with 'Pataphysics or with Surrealism than with existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to existentialism based on Esslin's observation.[97]

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy[edit]

Main article: Existential therapy

A major offshoot of existentialism as a philosophy is existentialist psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Otto Rank, Freud's closest associate for 20 years. Without awareness of the writings of Rank, Ludwig Binswanger was influenced by Freud, Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who briefly met

French-Algerian philosopher, novelist, and playwright Albert Camus

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