Existentialism For Dummies®

Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: Introducing Existentialism

Part II: The Fundamental Problem: God Is Dead

Part III: Living a Meaningful Life in a Meaningless World

Part IV: The Enduring Impact of Existentialism

Part V: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: Introducing Existentialism

Chapter 1: What Is Existentialism?

Existentialism Is a Philosophy

The Top Ten Existential Themes

Existentialism’s Place in the History of Philosophy

Chapter 2: The Big Names of Existentialism

Kierkegaard Makes Philosophy Personal

Nietzsche Declares that God Is Dead

Heidegger Systematizes Existentialism

The French Popularize a Growing Movement

Contemporary Existentialists Keep the Movement Going

Part II: The Fundamental Problem: God Is Dead

Chapter 3: If God Is Dead, Is Life Meaningless?

Who Died? What the Death of God Means

Just an observation, not a celebration

The death of absolute systems of thought

Killing the God Called Reason

What reason is all about

Where’s the human element?

Plato: The good stuff is elsewhere

Kant: The world isn’t knowable

The Death of God and Religion

How Christianity lost its mojo

Being religious isn’t a “Get out of jail free” card

Science Becomes Its Own Religion

The scientific worldview: Science as God

Science can’t replace God after all

So What Have You Lost If God Is Dead?

No easy answers: Rejecting all absolutes

The baby with the bathwater: Meaning, truth, and value

The danger of nihilism

Chapter 4: Anxiety, Dread, and Angst in an Empty World

Are Emotions Key to Understanding Life?

Emotions: Not traditionally valued by philosophers

Emotion: A source of insight in existentialism

Recognizing the Insights That Moods Provide

Your moods disclose how you exist

Moods are the flavors of life

You’re always tuned in to the world

Everyday moods and existential moods

Anxiety: The Existentialists’ Favorite Mood

Distinguishing anxiety from fear

Having anxiety means you’re an individual, like it or not

Sensing nothingness everywhere

Revealing the dizziness of freedom

A love-hate relationship with anxiety

Chapter 5: The Challenge of Absurdity and Authenticity

Absurdity 101

Defining absurdity

Everyday conceptions of absurdity

Understanding the Irrationality of the World

What makes up the world

Different ways of seeing order in the world

Like it or not, the world is entirely irrational

Viewing Irrationality from a Human Perspective

How you can come to see accidents everywhere

You’re addicted to imposing order on the world

The absurdity of imposing order on the disorderly

Authenticity 101: Striving to Be Genuine

The connection between authenticity and genuineness

Everybody digs authenticity

Matching just the right template

Understanding authenticity as representing

Authentic people: In the driver’s seat and in control

Taking Stock: Who Am I? How Can I Be Authentic?

Why existentialists reject worldly authenticity

Embracing existential authenticity: Seeing the kind of being that you are

The central truth about who you are: Humans are absurd beings

The many truths of your absurd nature

Authenticity 102: Living Inauthentically Means Running Away

Inauthentic people take the path of least resistance

Suicide is not the answer

Covering up the truth won’t save you

Embracing Absurdity: “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Sisyphus and his punishment

Rebel without a cause . . . but a smile

Part III: Living a Meaningful Life in a Meaningless World

Chapter 6: Understanding Our Unique Way of Existing in the World

Different Ways to Investigate Existence

Investigating the meaning of existence

Knowing existence means knowing you

Science: Analyzing life from the outside

Viewing life from the inside out

Living in Your Everyday World

The nuts and bolts of your life

Space, the final frontier of life

Meaning: Life’s requirement

Life’s a workshop, and you need tools

Doing without thinking: Look, no hands!

Coming to Grips with Who You Are

Sensing others all around you

You’re everyone and no one

Falling away . . . from yourself

Being authentic: Determining the shape of your life

Chapter 7: Not Tonight, Honey: Why We Need More Passion in Our Lives

Seeing Passion as a Life of Engagement

Freedom reveals the individual

Cultivating a sense of passion

It’s not what you do but how you do it

Truly Passionate Life Finds a Cause

Your cause should express your life

You should commit to a cause worth dying for

Choices must include mystery and risk

Truth Is Passionate Living

What is truth?

Truth is subjective

The paradox of living in truth

Making truth yours alone

The crowd is untruth

Why Modern Life Drains You of Passion

The present age is so dull

Kierkegaard’s attack on the media

The Internet: A modern passion-killer?

Chapter 8: Sartre’s Existentialism: Learning to Cope with Freedom

What Does It Mean to Be Free?

Freedom means always having a choice

Free choice means free action

Our most basic choice is living

What Sartre Means by “Existence Precedes Essence”

A human being is not a watch

Being human means being free

Condemned to Be Free (And Responsible) Whether You Like It or Not

The inescapability of choice

You bear sole responsibility for your choices

Freedom Is So Important Because It Brings Hope

Free choice creates value and meaning

How your choices affect you

How your choices affect the world

Freedom is the highest good

Chapter 9: Finding Authenticity: Facing Death, Conscience, and Time

Embracing Death as the Key to Life

Confronting death is essential

Keeping an eye on the inevitable: The Grim Reaper is up ahead

Making choices becomes monumentalin light of death

Meeting death alone: It’s inevitable

Conscience Nags You to Be Yourself

The voice of conscience is always there

Conscience: You talking to you about you

Face it: You’re guilty!

Chin up! Face your limitations!

The Importance of Living in Time

The everyday view: You’re in time

The existential view: Lived time

Pulling Yourself Together through Time

You always exist in the future . . .

. . . And you always exist in the past

Joining future and past . . . in the present

Chapter 10: Kierkegaard: The Task of Being a Religious Existentialist

Sickness unto Death: To Be or Not to Be Your Self

The self: A tension of opposites

The hard work of being a self: Bringing together polar opposites

Being a self before God

Despair: Attempting toescape your true self

Despair: The path to sin

Inauthentic Life Stages: Aesthetic and Ethical

The aesthetic stage: Life without choices

The ethical stage: Finding your meaning within roles

Fear and Trembling: Embracing the Religious Life

The strange story of Abraham and Isaac

Why faith must be offensive

Why Abraham is an existential hero

The problem with contemporary Christians: They lack faith

Chapter 11: Nietzsche: Mastering the Art of Individuality

Investigating Who You Are

You can take charge of who you are

You’re a sea of desire

You’re biased: You can’t help it; it’s just you!

You can change: Analyzing the falsebelief that you’re a fixed object

You can be fooled by your own language

Understanding the Self As a Chaos Made Orderly

Getting a handle on your unorganized desires

Striving for selfhood through self-mastery

Being an Individual Means Being Noble

Nobles are in control of themselves

Nobles love themselves

Nobles have contempt for nonindividuals

Relishing Change As Essential to a Noble Life

Nobles embrace change

Nobles reject dogma

The noble life is a path, not a destination

Nobility Means Striving for Power

Life is all about power

True power seeks to develop internal beauty

Powerful nobles ignore neighbors

Nobles cultivate friendships with their enemies

Nobles live dangerously

Being a Slave: Rejecting Individuality through Hatred

Coping with oppression by changing your interpretation of the situation

Learning to see through the eyes of hate

Using hatred to creatively reinterpret the world

Letting resentment take control of your life

Interpreting Christianity as just more slave talk

Mediocrity of the Herd: Rejecting Individuality through Conformity

The crowd takes away self-control

The crowd represents the voice of the weak

The crowd preaches equality and mediocrity

Beyond good and evil: Breaking away from the crowd

Part IV: The Enduring Impact of Existentialism

Chapter 12: Fear and Loathing in Existential Politics

Are Existentialists Political?

Some are political; some aren’t

Does existentialism lead to specific politics?

Does Existentialism Lead to Evil?

Real and Imaginary Flirtations with Nazism

Nietzsche wasn’t a Nazi!

The Heidegger problem: A Nazi in the family

Viva la Revolution! The French Left

The French political scene

Which Left is right? Sartre chooses Communism

Camus rejects violence

Politics of liberation versus politics of life

Chapter 13: Existentialism and Other Schools of Philosophical Thought

Existentialism’s Run in the 20th Century

Existentialism and Modern Philosophy: A Strained Relationship

Two branches of modern philosophy: Analytic and Continental

Where existentialism fits in

Postmodernism: Existentialism’s bratty stepchild

Existentialism and American philosophy

Existentialism and Philosophies of the Oppressed

Alienation and otherness

Racism as inauthenticity

Chapter 14: Doing Psychology the Existential Way

Points of Contact: Existentialism Meets Psychology

Stressing the importance of human uniqueness

Putting the patient’s world front and center

Focusing on freedom and anxiety

Seeing the people as goal directed

Finding meaning is central to your existence

The Existential Psychologists

Rollo May: Reconnecting with existence

Carl Rogers: Fully functional individuals

Viktor Frankl: Embracing the need for meaning

Part V: The Part of Tens

Chapter 15: Ten Great Existential Movies

Ikiru (1952)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Blade Runner (1982)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Pleasantville (1998)

Fight Club (1999)

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Superbad (2007)

Chapter 16: Ten Great Works of Existential Literature

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Notes from the Underground, by Feodor Dostoevsky

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Blood of Others, by Simone de Beauvoir

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice

Run with the Hunted, by Charles Bukowski

Existentialism For Dummies®

by Christopher Panza, PhD and Gregory Gale, MA


About the Authors

Christopher Panza was born and raised in New York. After struggling unsuccessfully to figure out the meaning of his existence as a young teenager, he decided to go to the State University of New York at Purchase, where he could major in philosophy and literature and figure out all the answers. He got his degree, but no final answers to the meaning of life. After college, he spent a few more years working in business and hammering away at that meaning-of-life question. In frustration, he decided to then attend the University of Connecticut to pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees (in philosophy) in order to finally get an answer. Once again, he accumulated more degrees but arrived no closer to the meaning of life. So he figured he’d at least put his degrees to work and has worked as a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Drury University, in Springfield, Missouri, since 2002. He received the University’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2004, which is surprising given that he tries to infect students with the same frustrating desire to seek answers to unanswerable questions. In addition to his interests in existentialism, Chris has interests in (and teaches on) a number of other topics such as ethics, Confucianism, free will, and modern philosophy. Chris is also married and has one three-year-old daughter, Parker, with one more addition to the family on the way. Chris is hoping to infect his own children one day with the same desire to investigate life that has long invigorated him and as a result made life an interesting and mysterious experience.

Gregory Gale discovered existentialism at the tender age of 15 and has been dancing over the abyss ever since. After receiving his BA in Philosophy from the Colorado College and his MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut, he went wandering the earth in search of his Dasein. He has spent most of the last 15 years teaching everything from Jean-Paul Sartre to Dr. Seuss, and prides himself on making difficult material accessible to everyone. Most recently, his search for meaning, value, and a really good bourbon took him across the country in a beat-up Toyota Tercel. He wound up in Las Vegas, Nevada where he lives, works, writes, and pursues his philosophical investigations into the existential significance of Elvis Impersonators, Showgirls, and the Poker Philosophy of Doyle Brunson.


Christopher Panza: To my wife, Christie, and my daughter, Parker, for their never ending source of love and support. Also to my mother Janice, my father Tony, and my sister Amy, all of whom have endured having a philosopher in the family for far too long.

Gregory Gale: I’d like to dedicate this book, with much love, to my father, Anthony Lloyd Gale, and my mother, Rosemary Gale. From the depth and breadth of your humanity, I learned to measure all things. I also dedicate this book to my Uncle Steve. Nietzsche said that style is a great art. You were my favorite artist.

Authors’ Acknowledgments

Christopher Panza: My primary acknowledgement is to my wife, Christie, and my daughter, Parker. Both of them had to endure many months of watching me type away at a computer instead of engaging in family-oriented projects and plans. Christie has been very understanding and supportive of this project, not to mention graciously agreeing to read and edit early drafts of a few chapters. I’d also like to thank Lisa Esposito, my department head, for helping to arrange work assignments (and for taking some on herself) so that this project could be completed. Also I’d like to thank Jason Swadley, a former student, for commenting on some early chapter drafts. Lastly, I’d like to thank Charlie Ess for agreeing to serve as the technical editor for this book and providing many good and insightful comments on how to improve the draft.

Gregory Gale: There are too many people to thank, and I apologize in advance to anyone I may have forgotten. First off, thanks to the folks at Wiley Publishing for making this such a positive experience, and for all the hard work to make Existentialism For Dummies the best book it could be. Thanks to our project editor, Tim Gallan, for all his patience, hard work, and clear direction, which has consistently kept me on the right path. Our copy editor, Sarah Faulkner, was magnificent and often knew what I was trying to say better than I did. Our acquisitions editor, Michael Lewis, helped us distill a massive subject matter into a workable project and get it ready for prime time. Charlie Ess kept us honest by policing our content and making sure we knew what we were talking about. The book is deeper and truer for his efforts. I am deeply grateful to you all for your assistance.

I owe my involvement in this project to Adam Potthast; for getting the ball rolling I am deeply grateful. Many other friends and family members also made this possible through their support and criticism. In particular, Andrea and JJ Christensen, Tara Vazquez, David Maddow, and Lorraine Miller threw themselves into the project and were a tireless source of interest, questions, encouragement, and thoughtful criticism. Each of you has contributed to this work and I appreciate each and every one of you.

Finally, I want to thank the teachers who helped make philosophy and existentialism essential parts of my life. Fr. Richard M. Jacobs got me hooked on philosophy when he introduced me to Plato at 14, and used Theology class to open my mind rather than close it. Dr. Clark “Doc” Thayer immersed me in existentialism and postmodernism. For the former I thank you, for the latter I forgive you. Thanks also to John Riker for giving me the courage to follow my heart and live the philosophy I was studying. Finally, I must thank too many professors to name in the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut for pushing me harder than I’ve ever been pushed; for teaching me that even analytic philosophy can be done with passion, flair, love, and joy; but most of all, for your understanding when I decided it was time for me to go. Thank you.

And special thanks to my brilliant and tireless partner, Chris Panza. I could not have asked for better. Hey, Chris, I think we’ve almost got that boulder up the hill. . . .

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Existentialism is the philosophy of existence, of the nature of human existence, its value, and its meaning. Because questions about existence have very little interest when people exist as rotting corpses, existentialism is really the philosophy that studies what it is to be alive. It isn’t defined so much by any unified answer to this question, but by the way in which it rejects traditional answers to questions concerning the meaning and value of human life, and the way that it insists that such questions are real and that the lack of any real answer is a problem. Existentialists, both theist and atheist, reject not only traditional religious systems that attempt to systematically provide pat answers, but also the possibility of any ultimate answers. They insist that even if a God and a heaven exist, the meaning of this life and how you should live will always be open questions, requiring decisions you must face as an individual. Because existentialism considers the questions to be important, it seeks a way of living with the fact that no answers will be forthcoming.

The French existentialist Albert Camus says the fundamental question of philosophy is that of suicide, of whether life is worth living. Although not all the existentialists approach the question from this exact vantage point, it illustrates a widely held theme — while traditional religious and ethical systems ask, “How should I live?” the existentialist’s more fundamental question is, “How can I live?” If life is meaningless, if the inherited stories aren’t valid, how can you even approach the question of how you should live? How can human beings hungry for meaning live and flourish without giving in to despair when no meaning is provided to them?

About This Book

Although this book is about the philosophy of existentialism and about the philosophers who developed it, it isn’t a book for philosophers. It’s for you.

We try to strike a balance in writing and structure. We want to meet the needs of the student who’s encountering these issues in a classroom setting, as well as the needs of the interested layperson who’s encountering them in real life. For both, we provide what we hope is an easy-to-read introduction in which we attempt to explain the often-complex theories of the existentialists in plain, easy-to-understand language.

Existentialism is a philosophy that attempts to be relevant to real people and real lives, and we attempt to present the material in such a way as to highlight its relevance to your own life. We expect that many of the ideas we present here will resonate with your own thoughts and concerns. Although we encourage you to dive into the rich world of existential philosophy, literature, and even movies, none of that is required. Each chapter and each section stands on its own, independent not only of the other chapters, but also of any knowledge of existentialism or philosophy in general. Everyone’s welcome; come on in!

Conventions Used in This Book

Philosophy is a very precise discipline, and writing about philosophy normally requires endless caveats and multiple subclauses and clarifications that would make even a lawyer’s head swim. To make a book about the existentialists readable, we have to gloss over certain distinctions, and to keep you from hunting us down and killing us, we avoid endlessly bringing up the fine print. But with that in mind, we use the following conventions throughout the book:

The use of the term existentialism: Many people reject the notion of a unified school of thought by this name. One of the things the writers we deal with tend to have in common is that they reject the usefulness of -isms and would reject the notion that they were part of one. We feel it makes perfect sense to speak of existentialism as a school of thought, a philosophy, or even a movement as long as you understand that we aren’t using the term to imply a definitive statement of what existentialism is or of what its proponents accept or believe. Rather, when we talk about existentialism, we refer to a set of overlapping themes and concerns that unite what we recognize are often, in many respects, vastly different philosophical positions.

The use of the term existentialists: Each of the writers we deal with was fiercely independent, and many of them explicitly rejected the label. Again, we feel each of the philosophers we discuss in the book qualifies as an existentialist, by virtue of addressing a common family of concerns.

Phrases like “the existentialists believed” and “existentialism holds”: To the extent that existentialism exists at all, it exists at the intersection of, and in the overlapping content of, the thoughts of these various philosophers. Sometimes when presenting the big picture, however, we gloss over the differences among them. When we use phrases like these, you can be assured that a general tendency of those we call existentialists is to believe some version of the idea we ascribe to them as a group. Be warned, however, that with just about any general statement about this group, at least one member of the group will disagree entirely; the rest likely will agree in some sense but disagree on the fine print. Never assume from statements like these that all the existentialists believe exactly that in exactly that way.

One philosopher at a time: What the existentialists have in common are themes and concerns, such as anguish, passion, individuality, and death. In approaching these themes, we usually emphasize one philosopher at a time. For example, we focus on Nietzsche when dealing with individuality and Kierkegaard when dealing with passion. We feel this format has the advantage of focusing the discussions on these topics while giving you quality time with each philosopher. These discussions are a good way to help you get your head around the subject and understand one philosopher’s point of view. Just don’t assume that the philosopher we choose represents the final or definitive word of the existentialists on that topic.

The use of both past and present tense: Like all important movements, existentialism was both of its time and timeless. It reached its zenith in the past, and its greatest thinkers lived (and died) in the past. We give you this kind of historical information in past tense, but because existentialism is still very much alive for us, we refer to its themes and the writings of the great philosophers in the present tense.

Foolish Assumptions

Philosophers are trained to avoid assumptions, but Nietzsche said to live dangerously, so we went nuts. Here are some of the things we assume about you. We assume at least one of these things is true about you; if even one is true, this book was written for you:

You don’t wear black all the time, and you have better things to do than spend all your time drinking coffee, chain-smoking, and cursing an impotent God (unlike your coauthors, Chris and Greg).

You’ve heard the word existentialism thrown around a lot but aren’t really sure what it is and what it’s all about. You’re curious, and you want to know more.

You’re a student enrolled in a class, and you need to learn about existentialism as a whole, a particular thinker, and/or a particular existential theme.

You know about one or more of the existentialists, and you want to learn more about him or her and the movement he or she was part of.

You’re interested in art, film, literature, history, cultural studies, philosophy, psychology, European history, or one of the numerous other fields of human endeavor upon which existentialism has had an impact, and you want to go to the source to learn more about it.

You’ve at some point questioned the meaning of your life or how to live, or you’ve wondered whether there’s anything more.

You’re a Christian, Hindu, atheist, Jew, or agnostic, or you have any other belief or concern about what’s ultimately true and ultimately real.

You saw that Brad Pitt movie in which a bunch of guys beat one another up and want to know what the point was.

You exist.

How This Book Is Organized

We arranged this book so that you can dive in at any point. Taking a class on Sartre? Start with Chapter 8. Kierkegaard? Go straight to Chapter 10. For those who want a general overview, we tried to structure the book so that it also tells a larger story. The book is broken up into five parts, each of which contains a number of chapters covering a related set of topics. You may consider reading Part I to get your feet wet and then skipping around to the subjects that interest you. Any way you feel like doing it works!

Part I: Introducing Existentialism

In this part, we give you a short historical introduction to existentialism and its major thinkers. Discover who they were and why they were so important to its development.

Part II: The Fundamental Problem: God Is Dead

In many respects existentialism is a response to a collection of problems that confront you as you try to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. The chapters in this part deal with recognizing and defining these problems. We examine Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead (a statement that’s about far more than just God!) as the fundamental statement of the challenges you face. We investigate how God was killed, who’s to blame, and what it really means. People feel horrible about this statement and what it means, so we discuss those feelings. Have a good cry if you want, but it isn’t necessary. Finally, we discuss what kind of world you face now that God has turned up deceased and why the problem this statement represents exists not just for atheists, but for believers as well.

Part III: Living a Meaningful Life in a Meaningless World

If the existentialists just moped and cried over everything, they’d never have been invited to any parties. Much of the existentialists’ work was devoted to finding ways of living, and even flourishing, in a world with the problems we describe in Part II. Part III is a collection of these methods, insights, and solutions. Consider it our description of their how-to guide to healthy and satisfying living.

Part IV: The Enduring Impact of Existentialism

In this part we examine the impact existentialism has had on philosophy and psychology. We examine why the impact on psychology has been so profound, why its impact on academic philosophy hasn’t been altogether great, and what this means for its overall legacy and significance.

Part V: The Part of Tens

Every For Dummies book has a Part of Tens, and we wouldn’t dream of leaving it out of this one. For ours, we decided to focus on what makes existentialism so accessible and relevant — namely, the way it finds its way (intentionally or unintentionally) into nonphilosophical, popular work. So we list ten terrific books and ten great films that deal with existential themes.

Icons Used in This Book

Remember.eps This icon alerts you to items that are particularly important for understanding what existentialism is all about. Pay close attention to these sections and keep them in mind while you read other sections. Although the text attached to this icon isn’t strictly necessary for understanding other parts of the book, it often resonates with things you find elsewhere. Keeping text marked with this icon in mind can lead to a deeper, richer understanding of what the existentialists are up to.

Warning(bomb).eps This icon alerts you to common confusions and misconceptions about existentialism and to information that will help you avoid these pitfalls. Read these sections carefully to make sure you have the right idea about what the existentialists are saying.

WordsOfWisdom(Exist).eps This icon alerts you to direct quotes from the existentialists or other great philosophers. These quotes not only give you the philosopher’s ideas straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, but also help you get some of the color and flavor of the rich writing style many of these thinkers employ.

Anecdote.eps Existentialism is a complicated business, but it’s also very personal. Many of the existentialists used personal anecdotes to bring the subject down to earth and make it more immediate. We try to do the same. Whenever we relay one of the existentialists’ anecdotes or one of ours, you see this icon.

PonderThis.eps We use this icon when we want you to think about a discussion point as it relates to your own life. Or sometimes we want you to stop and really decide whether what we’re discussing has merit. It’s our way of saying, “Take a moment.”

Tip.eps Sometimes understanding something difficult becomes a piece of cake when you look at it from a certain angle or think about it in a certain way. We use this icon to alert you to useful pointers that help get you oriented so you know the best way to approach this material.

Where to Go from Here

This book is arranged like an existential smorgasbord. Go where you want; take what you want! If you know nothing about existentialism at all, you may want to take a look at the first chapter. To find out who the players are and what they were doing, check out Chapter 2. Or try a sampling from Part II to see what problems existentialism is trying to tackle. Or just jump into a chapter that looks interesting. Don’t be afraid; you don’t need to know any of the other stuff to understand what’s going on.

If you’re a student, check out the Table of Contents to see what chapters deal with the thinkers or issues you’re studying. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Need more? Check out the Index, and find out everywhere we talk about Nietzsche, anguish, or lasagna. Most of the major names have at least one chapter devoted to their thinking, but they also crop up in various other places.

So where do you go from here? As Sartre might say, you’re free, so choose!

Part I

Introducing Existentialism


In this part . . .

Many ideas past and present are described as existential, but we use “existentialism” to refer specifically to a philosophical movement that came about in Europe in the late-19th century and achieved its zenith in the early- to mid-20th century. Here we put that movement into its philosophical and historical context, and introduce the individual thinkers who developed existential philosophy. Because these thinkers were so diverse and idiosyncratic, using the term “existentialist” to describe them all is somewhat controversial. We discuss the commonalities in their thinking that link them all together, if somewhat loosely, and the individual contributions of each philosopher that make him or her so important to existentialism.

Chapter 1

What Is Existentialism?

In This Chapter

Discovering what existentialism is

Understanding that existentialism is a philosophy

Seeing existentialism in an historical context

Existentialism is the philosophy that makes life possible.

As incomplete as this statement seems, when you understand what it means you’re well on your way to understanding what existentialism is all about and what the existentialists saw themselves as doing.

But if existentialism is the philosophy that makes life possible, you may ask why you need a philosophy for that. Doesn’t oxygen do a pretty good job? Yes, quite good — if all you want to do is breathe. According to the existentialists, however, you want to live a full and authentic human life, a rewarding and fulfilling life that embraces your human dignity. For that, they say, you need, at a minimum, oxygen and a healthy dose of existentialism. To understand why, it may help to consider that many philosophies come about as responses to a problem. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

On a very general level, the problem the existentialists were concerned with was the problem of meaning. Human beings crave meaning; they crave an orderly universe that they can make sense of. When you find that the universe isn’t going to cooperate, when you discover that the stories you’ve told yourself in an attempt to force it to have meaning have ceased to work, you feel like you’re a stranger in the world.

This historical circumstance is precisely the one that the existentialists found themselves in. As the scientific and Industrial Revolutions came to a head in the 19th century, and society became increasingly secularized, the traditional social order underwent radical change in a very short time. During this period, people began to feel disconnected from the traditional belief systems that had helped them make sense of the world and of their lives. In these conditions, people may not literally commit suicide, but a kind of spiritual death — a spiritual suicide — becomes a very real danger. It occurs when people give up to resignation and surrender in the face of what they see as the pointlessness of their existence.

Remember.eps Existentialism is the philosophy that recognizes this problem and attempts to address it. If you want to spruce up the description we start with, you might say that existentialism is the philosophy that makes an authentically human life possible in a meaningless and absurd world.

Because the existentialists were fiercely independent and differed widely in both their precise analyses of this problem and in the details of their responses, presenting a more detailed definition — one that’s both illuminating and accurate — is hard to do. What unites the existentialists, besides the problems of meaning and existence with which they all wrestled, is a series of themes and concerns that informed their discussion of these issues. We have, to a large extent, organized this book by these different themes and concerns.

Existentialism Is a Philosophy

If you’ve ever asked, “What does it all mean?” or “Why are we here?” or “What should I do with my life?” you’ve asked an existential question. Of course, these questions have been around since humans came down from the trees. Or at least since after they perfected farming, settled down, and had time for questions beyond “Where will I get my next meal?” and “Is the big toothy thing dangerous?” and “Will eating those mushrooms prevent me from living long enough to have offspring who will someday ask about the meaning of life?”

Remember.eps But asking a deep question doesn’t make you a philosopher. What makes existentialism a philosophy of existence? Philosophers analyze, they pick apart, and they try to come up with reasons for their beliefs and reasoned answers for their questions. They also tend to develop systems, but as we discuss in Chapter 3, the existentialists aren’t big fans of systems. In the most primitive times, human beings didn’t have the time or the literacy necessary for such extended reflection and investigation. Even in today’s remarkably literate society, the situation is much the same. Think of your own life. You may have asked existential questions from time to time, but between taking the kids to soccer practice, meeting your boss’s or teacher’s latest deadline, and doing your taxes, have you had the time to come up with much in the way of a detailed answer?

Philosophy develops when a society gets to the point at which at least some of the people within it have the leisure not only to sit around asking these questions, but also to work out detailed, reasoned responses. Because of philosophy’s complex and abstract nature, it also helps if you can write this stuff down. The oral tradition is great for telling historical and religious stories. These stories have great complexity, weight, and depth, and many — like the epic of Gilgamesh — are even existential in nature. The powerful themes and concepts that underlie these stories were fully abstracted from those stories only with the advent of writing. The gods’ involvement in the battle of Troy over the most beautiful woman in the world is a great story to tell at the campfire over a few beers. You can hear it again and again until you know it by heart and can start telling it yourself and discussing what it means at the next campfire over a few more beers. Plato’s theory of the forms? Heidegger’s theory of Dasein? Sartre’s explanation of the for-itself? Not so much.

By the time philosophy got up and running, then, many of these big questions already had answers that were widely accepted — even if they weren’t true or very helpful. With pockets of exceptions and the stray rebel here and there, this general acceptance lasted until the end of the Middle Ages. Only then do you see the first real stirrings of modern existentialism, but even then, the philosophy is a quiet whisper in the wind for centuries: a monologue in Shakespeare, maybe a few stanzas in Milton. By the 18th century, elements of what became existentialism started cropping up regularly in literature and even philosophy; the whisper grew to a loud murmur. In the 19th century, it sprang to life as a cry in the desert, and by the 20th century, it was shouted from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

The Top Ten Existential Themes

What unifies the existentialists are the themes and concerns that tend to show up in their work. Here are the top ten themes that recur again and again in existential philosophy, as well as in art, literature, movies, and any number of other fields:

Absurdity: For the existentialists, life is absurd; it makes no sense and has no meaning or ultimate purpose, but human beings need it to make sense, to have meaning and purpose.

Rejection of meaning-giving narratives: It isn’t enough to say that life is absurd; the existentialists repeatedly make the point that when philosophy, religion, or science tries to make sense of it, the attempts always fail.

Alienation: This is the feeling that you’re a stranger in your own life, a stranger in the world.

Anxiety: This is the feeling of unease you get when you start to recognize that life is absurd.

Forlornness: This is the feeling of loneliness you get when you realize that no one can help you make sense of your existence.

Responsibility: Everyone bears responsibility. If no one is going to give you a guidebook to life, you have to bear responsibility for making your way through it and creating some kind of meaning for it.

Authenticity: People want authenticity — to live in a way that’s in tune with the truth of who they are as human beings and the world they live in.

Individuality: An important part of developing an authentic and satisfying life is individuality. Reason, science, and systems that try to cover up the absurdity of life often take individuality from you.

Passion/engagement: Being passionate or engaged is another important aspect of living an authentic life, and it’s under attack from the same forces that take away your individuality.

Death: This is the ultimate context for all human actions and an important source of the absurdity of life.

Existentialism’s Place in the History of Philosophy

In the ancient world, philosophy was the study of everything there was to study. The specialization in most modern endeavors simply wasn’t present. This gave philosophy a broad perspective; nothing was off limits. The place of human beings in the universe and the meaning of life were questions to which the earliest philosophers gave ample attention. Thinkers from Epicurus, who advised the pursuit of pleasure, to Aristotle, who advocated the pursuit of philosophy, tried to determine what constituted the good life and how it could be attained.

Socrates and Plato, two of the earliest and greatest of the major philosophers, were particularly concerned with how a person should live. For them, the issue was moral and spiritual. Plato saw justice as the right ordering of the soul and compared the philosopher to a doctor whose job it is to look after the health and well-being of the soul. Philosophy, then, was a highly pragmatic activity aimed at living well.

As society and philosophy developed, however, this orientation changed. Over the centuries, the overall tendency in philosophy was to become more and more specialized and more and more abstract. Indeed, after Sir Isaac Newton became everyone’s paradigm for knowledge, philosophy aimed more and more at being scientific. Questions about the meaning of life and health of the soul gave way to more technical issues, well removed from the concerns of everyday life. Even ethics became a narrow discipline of separating right from wrong, as opposed to determining what makes an entire life successful.

This is where philosophy was when existentialism burst upon the scene and why existentialism was seen as such a radical departure from philosophy as it had come to be practiced. We think that in many ways existentialism represents a return to the roots of philosophy, a return to the ancients’ concern with living well and even to their concern with the health of the soul. Although most of the existentialists wouldn’t accept the existence of a soul in the sense that Plato gives it in his more spiritual moments, they were certainly concerned with the health of all those things traditionally associated with the soul, such as will, vitality, joy, and mental strength.