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The Philosophy of Existentialism

Updated on July 9, 2019
Ansel Pereira profile image

Ansel is curious about other cultures and enjoys discussing philosophy and debating various beliefs and superstitions.

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While an existentialist thought process is often acknowledged commonly in the realms of freedom, its centrifugal virtue is authenticity, a concept associated with the discipline which deals with the varying degree of individual actions that are congruent to the systems of desires and beliefs. Lack of authenticity in existentialist theories denotes bad faith. The starting point of Existentialism is characterized by confusion, dread or disorientation in the crux of an absurd or meaningless world.

Existentialism: Origin and Usage of the Term

While Simon Kierkegaard is considered by many as the first existentialist philosopher, the term existentialism came into being when Gabriel Marcel, a French catholic philosopher applied the term to Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-1940s. The usage of the term is embroiled in debate, with scholars having different views and opinions. While one school of thought is of the opinion the term existentialism should only be used only with reference to the European cultural movement of the 1940s and 1950s associated with the research and works of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Merleau-Ponty, the other extends the usage of the term to a broader spectrum dating back to philosophers of the Classical Greek era. Although the origin of the term existentialism is attributed to Simon Kierkegaard, the term is largely associated with philosophical views of Sartre.

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What is Existentialism?

While varied perspectives bring meaning to the term existentialism, the term refers to the philosophical study that begins with the mind not just attributing to thinking but also feeling, acting and living. While coming to terms with a precise definition is relatively complicated, it is best understood through the words of Jean-Paul Sartre who in his 1945 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism described existentialism as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”.

Existentialism in a philosophical approach that emphasizes human existence as a responsible agent of being free determining creation and development by will. The concept of being has had diverse views and opinions in philosophical circles. The questions associated with meaning of being are explained through fundamental ontology in the 1927 book Being and Time by German Philosopher Martin Heidegger. While this philosophical work has been embroiled in controversy and debate it has had a deeply profound influence on philosophy, Existentialism in particular.

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Essence and Existence in Existentialism

Although existentialist theories and concepts vary in a contrasting manner, it’s the fundamental doctrine existence precedes essence that unifies different beliefs and mindsets. This central claim in existentialism theories refers to human beings who through their consciousness create their specific intrinsic values to determine the meaning and understanding of their life rather than fitting in preconceived stereotypical categories. There is no predetermined essence in the realms of humans. It’s how an individual acts, thinks, lives and creates life that defines essence. Existentialism theories and concepts bring to life questions about human existence and the varied conditions that attribute to this existence. Existence refers to each individual’s concrete life and how that individual acts and thinks while creating.

Authenticity in Existentialism

The views and opinions of authenticity in philosophical realms are diverse and often opposing. The concepts of authenticity are integral to existentialism. Authenticity refers to the varying degree to which a set of individual actions are congruent with desires and beliefs. Even though the presence of external pressures prevail, the conscious self is attributed to coming to terms encountering influences and external forces existing in a material world. Authentic existence theorizes the idea and concept that one has to create oneself and live in accordance with this created self. Authenticity in existentialist philosophy compels us to seek and follow our inborn core which accounts for preordained destiny attributing being true to oneself.

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Facticity in Existentialism

In philosophy facticity is associated with a multiplicity of concepts that attribute to human existence. Facticity refers to a concept that describes the various modalities of being and not being for humans. The doctrine relates to something we may encounter and behold directly. As an example we can consider mood. In moods facticity emphasizes on an enigmatic appearance, which gets human beings turning toward acceptance or turning away from it, non-acceptance. The thought-word relationship signifies varied perspectives of correlationism associated with a background perceived in the existence and limitations of human freedom. Facticity may manifest itself as angst through freedom choices associated with a limitation and condition. Regardless of values in society, one is responsible for his/her own values related to responsibility limits borne from existential freedom.

Angst and Dread in Existentialism

In Existentialist philosophy the usage of the term angst is also referred to as anguish, anxiety or existential dread. The experience of human freedom and human responsibility gives rise to negative feelings often associated with angst and dread. The terms are often used to describe or emphasize a deep-seated condition arising from the human experience of freedom choice which can be appealing and terrifying. The anxiety that comes with understanding of being free with endless possibilities of one’s life and the power of choice over that life can lead to experiencing human freedom as angst while being fully aware of the consequences. While in many contexts angst is referred in association with moral freedom linked with ambiguous feelings within a belief system in religion, it is also finds space in cultural norms, personal principles of conflicts, and despair.

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Despair in Existentialism

The loss of hope is associated with despair in existentialism. In a broader sense, despair doesn’t just relate to being an emotion but also the loss of self that emphasizes the state of an individual who has wrong conception of self. The concept of oneself in human beings takes shape and form through one’s own consciousness. Despair does not attribute to a specific fundamental level a person can find self, but several levels with each further in despair than the previous one. Theoretically when a person’s identity is relevant and dependent on qualities that can crumble or diminish that person is said to be in a state of perpetual despair. In conventional reality what constitutes the sense of identity of an individual relates to absence of essence which leads to despair associated with human condition.

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Existentialism in Art, Literature, and Theater

Existentialism has had a profound influence outside philosophy on art, literature and theatre. Existential themes have been showcased in the works of several painters. A number of contemporary films have dealt with existential perspectives and absurdist themes. Modern literature has showcased varying degrees of existential views. Proto-existential thoughts have been expressed in diverse proportions in works, books, poetry and also pulp literature. Existential elements and postmodernist views have been expressed in diverse perspectives through cultural activity in literature. Complex existential themes have been portrayed through the human condition in plays and dramas in the realms of theater.

While theories about existentialism are diverse in philosophical realms, understanding the meaning through a defined perspective makes complexities relatively simple. If you have something to say, feel free with your views and opinions in the comments section.

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© 2019 Ansel Pereira

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    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      10 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      Existentialism is fascinating. I like the prophet Solomon's (the king) existential work in the Bible.

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