Existentialism: What Is It?

I asked this question to a friend of mine who is a philosophy scholar, and the only answer he could really give me was, "Well, it depends." That's how you know you're talking about philosophy! However, I was a little disheartened, seeing how I've taken a few classes that have covered this idea and still really have no concrete grasp of what is meant when I come across the word "existentialism" in my day-to-day life. Certainly it's a popular topic (for those who are pursuing collegiate studies, at least) and something assumed to be well within grasp of any student. However, this is obviously not the case. At least for me it seems a nebulous term, at best, and something altogether contrived, in many instances. So, I thought a little run-through here on the blog might help to clarify both my and your notions of "existentialism," which certainly plays such a huge part in the world of modern thought and in all disciplines of contemporary study.

A preliminary definition of the term, "existentialism," might be this: an emphasis on the existence of the human person as a free individual, capable of forming his or her own future by autonomous choices. Although this phrase doesn't capture all the nuances and uses of the term, it's a good starting place. Part of the problem with defining "existentialism" is that there is no real 'doctrine of existentialism' to turn to (as opposed to, say, scholastic philosophy.) The formulation of existential philosophy has been a long, broad-spanning process, occurring through philosophical discourse (viz. Jean-Paul Sartre [left], who adopted the term for himself; Martin Heidegger, who despised the label), literary output (viz. Fyodor Dostoevsky, who embodied the idea in his characters) and artistic and political commentary (viz. Gabriel Marcel, playwright and 20th century philosopher). Although few of its proponents officially classified themselves as 'existentialists,' their contributions were integral in providing the groundwork for the whole movement.

One hallmark of existential philosophy, generally, seems to be the idea that "existence precedes essence." For anyone familiar with Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy, this idea seems completely absurd since the 'form' of any existing object must first be in the mind of God before being actualized in an individual existence. The opposite is true in existentialism, though; the existing individual determines its own essence, or nature, by its chosen course of existence. In this sense, existentialism picks up where Cartesian and Kantian philosophy leave off, namely in a primary consideration of the 'self' before that of the 'other' (or, in similar terms, the Creator). Thus, existential philosophy contributes greatly to the modern humanism that continues to inundate our society, for better or worse, and places the burden of consideration not on God, but on human freedom.

As problematic as this can obviously be (since we immediately lose perspective of all metaphysical order given to us in scholastic philosophy), we cannot discount existential philosophy as something altogether bad. In fact, many 'existentialists' contribute greatly to a truly Christian sense of philosophy: e.g. Marcel [right], Dostoevsky, etc. In many cases, the seemingly self-destructive perceptions of reality that existentialism holds are instead converted into healthy, productive stances; take for instance Marcel's idea of the "broken world," and his obvious recognition of some objective, Almighty beauty that transcends yet intervenes in this world through mystery and wonder, which we fail to make time for. Here, what is truly a part of the corpus of 'existentialism' also breaks into other areas of philosophy, illustrating further the difficulty in defining just what it means to be "existential."

There is no way to treat this immense topic here, but hopefully this little reflection has sparked some of you to think about it more. I intend to write more on this subject, namely in terms of Dostoevsky's novels, which I've recently been working through; this should both provide good basis for discussion as well as a foundation for digging deeper into the question of existentialism. If we are to be contributors to the world of modern thought, we must understand it's premises well, and hopefully these posts will help to accomplish that goal in some small way.

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    # by Jack D'Emic - March 26, 2008 at 12:42 PM

    The Old Testament embodies, in many
    ways, the existentialist concept.
    Take for example the Book of Job,
    that valiant man. God engages him
    in a long conversation...with God
    doing the listening....almost like
    a psychotherapit....allowing Job to
    embrace his unique identity as a
    human being through his long,
    thoughtful, painful, prayer to his
    God. All of which is to say that
    Job's essence is well, perhaps it is wrong to say created...but certainly it was "discovered" through what Job went through--with God as his audience.