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Comparative Studies, part 3: Existentialists
The prototypical "existential crisis" and search for meaning is often depicted as a dour and miserable experience, and one is forgiven if one thinks that the existential philosophers were, too. However, this is a mistake — the miserable state of being we think of usually points to when one is stuck in a state of nihilism. As documented by the biographer Sarah Bakewell in her book At the Existentialist Cafe, the heavyweight existentialist philosophers were vibrant personalities. Many of them refused to let the World Wars sink them into despair. Their philosophies were their personal reflections on how to move past nihilism towards an energetic life. For them, existential philosophy was optimistic.
Fast forward to today, the “existential” label is moreso for our convenience rather than a reflection of how the philosophers identified themselves (indeed, they often quibbled with one another over what existentialism is. Camus even rejected the label for himself). To that end, I apologize to these dead thinkers (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Frankl and co.) for lumping them all together.
In crude brush strokes, existential philosophers were grappling with a central question: what if the assumptions of essentialist thinking fails us? What do we do if there is no timeless, externally-granted telos (or purpose of life) as people often assume (e.g. in God or stories of national greatness)? What happens, if the “essence” of life was not primary (or did not exist), and instead there was just “existence?”
Staring down this potentiality and fathoming the crumbling of one's identity (especially if the identity is founded on shaky essentialist understandings of telos) can easily bring despair. The freedom and responsibility in realizing that one's actions may not be dictated and guided by telos can bring great anxiety. Grappling alone with the many “facticities of life” that constrain our lives, with no guarantee of success or outcome, leads to angst.
In short, the existential philosophers were concerned with 1) moving past nihilism (i.e. when one fails to locate absolute, eternal, essential meaning, leading to despair, anxiety, angst) via 2) a turn towards what they call authenticity.
Although the philosophers differed greatly in their understandings and definitions of authenticity, what they shared was that one must embrace one's active role in the search for and creation of one's own authentic meaning. This led to a very practical bent in their philosophies, here expressed by the OG existentialist Kierkegaard, who claimed:
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act... I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.
A crucial distinction that Kierkegaard makes is that it is not simply enough to “know.” Instead, the whole journey is to have that knowledge “come alive” in you. For these philosophers, philosophy was not about finding some stodgy truths, but rather about understanding our lives and living with the world. Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, for example were deeply engaged in political activism (and at times disagreed with one another).
With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps appropriate to say that although these philosophers did not solve once and for all where to find meaning, their body of work as a whole illustrated the many ways and places that one may find meaning in a post-essentialist world. Life is scary, life has no guarantees. But if you embrace the responsibility of living you can make something of it.
P.S. Upon further reflection, the existentialists' embrace of being proactive touches upon what I call the second force of the soul.
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Sartre called this “existence precedes essence.”
The philosophers differed greatly in their understandings and definitions of authenticity, but in general it involves facing the facts of reality. VERY crudely...
- Kierkegaard: Meaning can be found in God, but you have to get there yourself. This meaning can't be forced on you. This feeling of meaning must “come alive” in you.
- Nietzche: Will to Power.
- Heidegger: Seeking to Be, fully absorbed in the world and history.
- Sartre: Rebel against conformity, embrace your freedom. “Humans are condemned to freedom.”
- de Beauvoir: Feminism. Will the freedom of others. Embrace ambiguity.
- Camus: Embrace the world's absurdism. You might find something sufficiently meaningful, but it won't be an absolute answer, so don't get too attached to the pursuit of meaning. Never forget this. Rebel and live anyway.
- Frankl: Not so much that life has meaning, but rather the need for meaning is sated by living: doing, creating, experiencing, doing, being with someone, choosing our attitude towards suffering.
- Merleau-Ponty: wrote “A more complete definition of what is called existentialism than we get from talking of anxiety and the contradictions of the human condition might be found in the idea of a universality which men affirm or imply by the mere fact of their being and at the very moment of their opposition to each other, in the idea of a reason immanent in unreason, of a freedom which comes into being in the act of accepting limits....” In other words, "...humans are condemned to meaning." Or, as professor Nick Gier wrote, "The full essence of human experience will forever escape cognitive reflection, but it is nonetheless meaning-laden and meaning-giving."