What is existentialism? The word makes appearances in pop culture from time to time, two examples that come to mind are Wes Anderson’s screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr.Fox and David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. In varying degrees both make reference to existentialism. Many people have a vague general idea of what existentialism is but when asked to give a clear and concise explanation or definition of what the word actually means they’re at a loss.
Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that deals with human existence or the human condition; what it means to be human. It asks what the meaning or purpose of life is, if any. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “what existentialist have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity is the starting point.”
He used the example of artisan who wishes to fashion a paper cutter. She first pictures the paper cutter in her mind and then fashions it to perform a specific task. The essence, or the idea, of the paper cutter existed before the actual paper cutter. It was brought into existence first in the mind of it’s creator in order to fulfill a need. Existentialists believe the human first exists and then defines itself. “First of all man turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself. If a man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. He is only what he wills himself to be after he is thrust into existence.”
I’ve been asked by several people recently about the difference between existentialism and nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that there isn’t any point to life and so anything a person does, or doesn’t do, is of no consequence. Existentialism states the opposite, that the human defines who and what it is, therefore the choices we make, collectively and as individuals, define our reality and are extremely important.
Existential philosophers speak of human anguish which Sartre defines as “the man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be but also a law maker, who is, at the same time choosing all of humankind as well as himself, cannot escape the deep feeling of responsibility.” He said the existentialist must ask themselves , “What if everyone acted in this way” or “what would happen if everyone looked at a thing in that way.”
Sartre wrote that man is condemned to be free “condemned because he did not create himself , yet, in other respects is free; because once thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does. Man is the future of man. There is nothing else than his life. There can be no other truth to start from than this. I think therefore I exist. It is the only theory that gives man dignity, the only one that does not reduce him to an object.”
The implications of existentialism are striking both on a personal and societal level. We, as individuals, a society and a species, have the ability to define what we are and what we will become. The starting point is simply the realization of our freedom, consciousness becoming aware of itself, a deep realization that one doesn’t have to accept the reality of another and all that surrounds a person is but a construct of a collective take on reality. “I build the universal in choosing myself; I build it in understanding the configuration of every other man, whatever age he might have lived in. This absoluteness of choice does not do away with the relativeness of each epoch. What existentialism shows is the connection between absolute character of free involvement and the relativeness of the cultural ensemble which may result from such a choice.”
A major problem with dogmatic religions isn’t that many religionists are closed minded, believe in nonsensical, non corroborating stories constructed by people who had a much more vague understanding of the world than we or accost others on the street to spread the good news. The fault lies in the fact that when one makes a normative claim on the truth and gives that normative claim the seal of approval from the creator of the universe it justifies their take on reality above that of another, negating the freedom of anyone that doesn’t share in the “truth” from constructing their own set of values. Divine approval of values allows judgment to be passed on the values and reality of others but insulates the holder of divine beliefs from criticism.
A striking example of the danger of normative claims on truth is the suppression and destruction of the works of the Ionian philosopher scientists, from Thales to Democritus. These men rejected superstition and the notion of mysticism and instead relied on experimental method in attempt to figure out the secrets of the universe. Their ideas and experimental method spread throughout Greece and led to many discoveries. From the time of the first Ionian scientist, Thales, to the last, Democritus, mysticism gained popularity in the ancient world and destroyed the observational and experimental methods they had worked to build. Plato, who believed there were gods in everything, encouraged that all the works of Democritus be burnt and so of the seventy three books that he wrote not one has survived. There are those in the world today who would like to see all books, ideas, and philosophies they don’t agree with destroyed. People who want to recreate the world in their own image and it’s something we all have to be vigilant about. As soon as the right of another to define themselves and their existence is trampled underfoot we must react swiftly and call foul.
“Consequently, when in all honesty, I’ve recognized that man is a being in whom existence precedes essence, that he is a free being who in various circumstances, can want only his freedom, I have at that time recognized that I can want only the freedom of others.”
Note: All Sartre quotes taken from his essay The Humanism of Existentialism
Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, will be published in June 2013.