Existentialism

*Revised on June 1, 2015
*Revised on June 3, 2015

[1] “Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence.” ~unknown

As stated, this philosophical mindset ponders the very existence of human life, or any life at all; it suggests that the meaning of one’s life is only determined by one’s own definition of said life. Existentialism is surrounded by many unanswerable questions such as, what is the meaning of life, does my life have purpose, is life worth dying for, what happens after death, is my existence significant, and so on and so forth. [2] One example of existentialism comes from French author, journalist, and philosopher, Albert Camus, and is as follows, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy: Must life have a meaning to be lived?” (Appignanesi, 1). However, Camus mainly focused his studies on absurdism, similar to existentialism, the ideology that the universe is meaningless.


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BASES OF EXISTENTIALISM AND EXISTENTIAL CONCEPTS
[3] Many of the most well-known existential ideologies come from another French philosopher by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre. Being a philosopher, and also an author and playwright, many of his lectures, plays, and stories revolve around various existential concepts. Taking a look at some of the stories Sartre has written, I personally find, can give really good insight into many of the basic concepts.

La Nausée (book, 1938)
La Nausée, or Nausea, is a very rich example of some of Sartre’s earlier existential concepts. In Nausea, the main character, Antoine Roquentin, ponders, “Why is it that everything I touch, like the feelings from my own body, makes me feel sick?” (Sartre, 17). Through thorough self-searching and investigation, he comes to the conclusion that, “Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident” (18). This is Roquentin discovering for himself that there is no reason for anything to exist; the fact that there is no justification for the world, and everything in it, is the cause of his nausea.[4] This demonstrates Sartre’s views of existential angst, that there is no particular reason for life or death, and it showcases the concept of “inescapable consciousness”, more thoroughly discussed in Sartre’s later book, L’Être et le Néant (i.e. Being and Nothingness, 1943).
Inescapable consciousness is the idea that we are always aware of ourselves. “We have the freedom to stand back from a situation, evaluate it, and decide what to do” (53). This consciousness is designated “le pour soi” (i.e. “for itself”), being aware of oneself and one’s ability to act, make decisions, and think. The parallel term for this, only found in inanimate objects or animals, is categorized as “en-soi” (i.e. “in itself”), meaning that the object’s physical existence is its entirety, there is nothing more to it, whereas humans are more complex. The ultimate goal would be to become both, having a complete understanding of one’s self and one’s existence, and the full awareness that we are such. Humans are incapable of achieving or being able to process such awareness because we are more than our physical existence; it is not what the person physically is, but what they do, think, and achieve that makes them. For example, at one point in La Nausée, Roquentin walks into a bar and notices the bartenders purple suspenders, but is disgusted by the fact that, in some lights, they appear to be blue. He believes he is creating the characteristics of the object by analyzing and interpreting its essence. This leads him to think the essences of objects are a form of deception formed by the human mind in order to comfort itself when it encounters something unfamiliar. Here is a short film that depicts some of Roquentin’s feelings and views throughout the book.
*Caution: This video contains body horror images and vomiting, so if you are uncomfortable with either of those things, I suggest you do not watch this video.

L’Être et le Néant (book, 1943)

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L’Être et le Néant (i.e. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology) is based around the idea of “l’existence précède l’essence” (i.e. existence precedes essence), when it comes to humanity.

[5]“(in regards to existence precedes essence) When we consider, for example, a hammer, we can understand its nature by listing its properties and examining the purpose for which it was created. Hammers are made by people for certain reasons — in a sense, the “essence” or “nature” of a hammer exists in the mind of the creator before the actual hammer exists in the world. Thus, one can say that when it comes to things like hammers, essence precedes existence.” ~Austin Cline.

In other words, since a hammer is an inanimate object, and therefore exists “en-soi”, the essence of what it is physically and what it was created for surpasses the sole existence of the hammer itself. In Sartre’s views, this does not apply to humanity.  Only after a human’s existence has ended can an essence of that person be created because people spend so much time developing and changing and redefining themselves that a specific essence or nature cannot be pinned down until they are not longer able to change.

Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (essay, 1947)
Similar concepts are touched upon in Sartre’s later work Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (i.e. What is Literature?). Another key element of existentialism is the idea of imagination and freedom. “It is only our ability to put a distance between ourselves and our immediate experience which enables us to understand what is going on in a text” (30). To further explain, freedom and imagination are directly linked; Sartre’s idea is that if we’re unable to detach ourselves from our immediate environment and imagine outside of what is real, then we are not free. This ties in again with consciousness. One’s ability to consciously remove one’s thoughts from a realistic state and imagine things that are nonexistent, in the situation or at all, cements the idea that one is in control of oneself, and is therefore free.

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Baudelaire (essay, 1947)
Baudelaire is a psychoanalytical essay written about the French poet Charles Baudelaire.
What do I care if you are good? Be beautiful and be sad!
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Baudelaire’s father died when he was young. When his mother remarried a year later, Baudelaire felt extremely betrayed, and was very jealous of his new stepfather, and wanted to kill him, which he eventually tried to do. One of the original psychoanalyses on this behaviour, made by neurologist Sigmund Freud, was that the desire the son captured to have complete obsession of his mother was the result of an Oedipus complex. ([6] According to Dictionary.com, the definition of an Oedipus complex is, “the unresolved desire of a child for sexual gratification through the parent of the opposite sex, especially the desire of a son for his mother. This involves, first, identification with and, later, hatred for the parent of the same sex, who is considered by the child as a rival.”) Freud also believes that this is something Baudelaire has no control over. Sartre has very different views on the matter. Sartre believes that, since he was influenced by his impulses, Baudelaire made the conscious decision to be influenced by his impulses, reinforced by the concept of mauvaise foi (i.e. bad faith). [7] (speaking of mauvaise foi)…the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice.” ~Neel Burton.
Here is a video in which Neel Burton further explains the term “mauvaise foi”.

CONCLUSION
Here is a video to further conclude and restate all of the main ideologies previously mentioned.

“Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice.” Camus, Sartre, and Freud, along with many other existential philosophers, all considered the idea of existence and its meaning, and why we, as humans, exist. However, they don’t all come to the same conclusions. The differences in their conclusions further prove “the view that humans define their own meaning in life.”

QUESTIONS
1) What is your opinion on the philosophy as a whole?
2) Do you agree with the main topics/ideas discussed? If so, which ones?
3) Do you disagree with the main topics/ideas discussed? If so, which ones?
4) How did the Nausea short film make you feel? Why?
5) Which analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s behaviour do you agree with (Freud or Sartre)?

CITATIONS

[1] Mastin, Luke. “Existentialism.” The Basics of Philosophy. N.p., 2008. Web. 18 May 2015. <http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_existentialism.html>.
[2] Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate. Introducing Existentialism. Cambridge: ICON, 2001. Print.
[3] Thody, Philip, and Howard Read. Sartre for Beginners. Duxford: Icon, 1998. Print.
[4] “Nausea.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/nausea/section6.rhtml>.
[5] Cline, Austin. “Existence Precedes Essence: Existentialist Thought.”Aboutreligion. About.com, n.d. Web. 26 May 2015. <http://atheism.about.com/od/existentialistthemes/a/existence.htm>.
[6] Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 30 May 2015. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/oedipus+complex>.
[7] Burton, Neel. “Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 31 May 2015. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/jean-paul-sartre-bad-faith>.


8 Responses to “Existentialism”

  • Brianna G. Says:

    I love how your style of writing is so informative and deep. With this article specifically, you leave a lot for the reader to think about and I think that is great. I also find it interesting that this topic can have many different views and you left it open for people to develop their own views on it by staying very factual and not adding in anything that would alter someone’s opinion by blind sighting it with your own. I found this article to be very well written and I am curious as to what your view on an existential crisis is. Do you have any advice for someone who may be dealing with this?

    • Katherine B Says:

      Thank you so much, that all means a lot! In terms on existential crises, I’m not sure if I’d be the best person to ask for advice, because I suffer from them very, very often. Thinking about thoughts as complex and open-ended as such can be very daunting and difficult to deal with, because there are no certain answers to these questions. However, although this may not be of help, it can be reassuring to use existentialism as a type of comfort, instead of the source of one’s worries. If you think about it from a more positive perspective (e.g. it can be a cure for one’s anxieties when one thinks about the fact that they have complete freedom, that other people will not care or remember if you mess up, and your failures and insecurities will not even be noticed in the vastness of the world or universe), it can ease the worry a bit. Although there are no definite answers as to why people exist, that gives people the ability to define their own lives. With that freedom, one can make their life whatever they wish it to be, and one’s failures, along with themselves, will eventually be forgotten. Thank you again for reading it!

  • Mr. Puley Says:

    Hi, there. I fixed your comments so that they thread and run from oldest to newest. It appears as if you have added your videos using the Mediacore button – videos published this way will be private and no one will be able to watch them. To fix this, move the videos from your ‘My Folder’ and move them into something else, like “Literature Studies”. Alternatively, just put the share link from Youtube on it’s own line within your post and it was embed automatically. Let me know if this doesn’t work for you.

  • Subhan A Says:

    Wow! This post was very informative. It’s not for everyone, but I was interested. It was very deep and really got me thinking. Although I don’t agree with the majority of the things in this post, I am open to other’s ideas on the purpose of life and other philosophies. I do not believe in existentialism for I am religious (Muslim) and use the holy book (Quran) to guide me and help me answer some of life’s biggest questions. The purpose for man’s creation is to worship the creator (Allah) and to follow the rules of the holy book. I also believe in the concept of destiny and that Allah has already planned everything out in your life, for example, from the moment your born, your soulmate is chosen and you are to spend the rest of time with that person once you have met them. This is undoubtedly a very personal topic and one to explore further, thanks for allowing me to understand this philosophical concept.

    • Katherine B Says:

      Thank you, Subhan! It’s nice to see that even though you don’t believe in the core ideas of the philosophy, you were still interested to learn more about it, and I hope I did a decent job of conveying it to you. Thank you for reading it, and for sharing your beliefs and outlook on life with me, I appreciate it a lot. Religion and similar types of beliefs can be very comforting in this regard, since they give answers to a lot of the things that people with no religion do not have explanations to. And yes, this is a very individual and personal topic, as not all people will have the exact same beliefs, but, again, I’m really glad you took the time to read this and share your thoughts with me, so thank you again.

  • Alex E. Says:

    Very detailed post on a complex topic! There are a good amount of media elements that help enhance what you wrote. Although existentialism seems like an interesting philosophy, as it involves asking meaningful questions about one’s existence, I don’t really agree with “…the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence”. Holding existentialism as your primary way at looking at life also implies Atheism, which is not a belief I associate myself with. Concerning the question about Charles Baudelaire’s behavior, I think that he wasn’t completely responsible for his impulses, as drastic decisions that the people who gave birth to you can mean a lot and can provoke strong emotions.
    Have you heard of the philosophy of objectivism (devised by Ayn Rand)? If so, do you know what the key differences are? I’ve read one of Rand’s works (Anthem) and existentialism sounds very similar. Here’s a link to the Chapter’s page for it (it’s pretty cheap): http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/product/9780451191137-item.html?gclid=Cj0KEQjwqe-rBRCv_J6qs6isp6EBEiQAmbctFjdxbO4fnuWrF2n1NR7sQnOL0kRwAdQYmCRz7cTy7kUaAs4l8P8HAQ
    Or you can pick it up from our school library.
    Again, very good post, and I’ll make sure to do more research on the philosophy!

    • Katherine B Says:

      Thank you very much for reading my post, Alex. It makes sense that some of the main concepts of existentialism, as well as many other philosophies, would clash with beliefs of religion, as they both strive to provide answers to similar questions, but with very different results. In terms of your thoughts on Baudelaire, very true, but do you believe he could have chosen to act against his impulses for a more civil approach to solving his distress?
      I have heard very little about objectivism; I know that it aims to define human nature and the nature of the world, but not much more. As far as I know, objectivism, in terms of existence, states that if something does not have attributes or any kind of nature, it does not exist (my knowledge is very limited, is this correct?) Existentialism explains more that existence means freedom, and the fact that only humans possess this freedom differentiates humans from objects, which are more define by their essence than their existence. Thank you so much for your input! I’ll consider looking more into objectivism in the future.

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