Existentialism is arguably one of the most prevailing schools of philosophy in our day and age. What makes it so appealing? Existentialism is a wonderful way of finding one’s place or purpose in the universe (or lack thereof), especially when you are disconnected from a faith or religion. Not saying that faith and existentialism are mutually exclusive. An example of this is Søren Kierkegaard, who was a Christian existentialist. Kierkegaard is credited with establishing much of the preliminary thought when it comes to existentialism. Existentialism has been defined in many ways but the consensus lies in the idea that humans may shape their own life without definite knowledge of good or bad. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as follows:
“A philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”
Existentialism often contends the fact that the universe has coherent agency or more simply put the idea that the universe has some level of control over our lives. Some philosophers put this idea into separate lenses. Oxford’s Dictionary of Philosophy points this out with their more detailed definition, “Different writers who united in stressing the importance of these themes nevertheless developed very different ethical and metaphysical systems as a consequence. In Heidegger existentialism turns into scholastic ontology; in Sartre into a dramatic exploration of moments of choice and stress; in the theologians Barth, Tillich and Bultmann it becomes a device for reinventing the relationships between people and God.” This theme has become diluted in definition by its many European forefathers but the consistency in all of them is recognizing the self and the insignificance we have.
Some questions that are faced by existentialists are regarding “The Human Condition”. This is more easily conceptualized as (1) Why are we here? (2) What or where is my identity? (3) What does it mean to be human? Existential philosophers reject systems in these answers, such as religion, God, or something else that is a timeless absolute. Especially when these systems claim they have the answers definitive to all human experience.
Many instances in which contemporary society uses the term existentialism in any context is in the term “existential crisis” or “existential dread”. Existentialism can be an unsettling awareness of how insignificant we are. Part of it is realizing how vast the universe is and how, at that level, humans are insignificant. It’s the thoughts you hear from a stoner or the ones you have at three in the morning. More often than not, these thoughts provoke some level of anxiety. It is when you learn to face the disillusion of grandeur that you are at peace.
Existentialism is the answer to the much older philosophy of essentialism. This is the idea that humans have an inherent purpose given by a higher being or the universe. Essentialism was and is common in religion, especially Christianity. Nietzsche and Sartre pushed against this quite a bit. One of Sartre’s most influential and quoted sentences is from a lecture (later novelized in 1946) that summarizes this contention in three words “Existence precedes essence.” 1 This means that we don’t have a personality or essence that predates our existence. This argues against the idea of human nature or design and claims that we determine that throughout our life.
With this elementary explanation of existentialism established, we can finally ask ourselves why we gravitate towards it so much in the 21st century when it couldn’t prevail at its inception. This is not uncommon in any philosophy or new thought process. These types of thought generally don’t catch traction until after the pioneers of said thoughts have died. The pressing question I have is, is the nature of existentialism the reason it is so prevalent in today’s political and socio economic climate?
Whenever I start up on a new essay, I search my planned title on Google (Why Existentialism? if you forgot). I do this to avoid copying someone else. On the first page of results, there were four different articles2 vouching for the relevance of existentialism. Each article argued their own reason (obviously there is and will be overlap), but their existence and first page placement argue that existentialism is still very much an important school in philosophy (among nihilism, hedonism, Epicureanism and others). Existentialism was relatively popular in France during World War 2 and after it moved into jazz bars and cafes. It took a firm hold in the civil rights movements in the United States because leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. read Sartre and Kierkegaard.
It is curious that this ideology emerges as a sort of intellectual fad in times of distress and crisis. By that line of logic, we need to analyze the material realities that the human condition is facing in 2019. If this philosophy emerged during the Nazi occupation of France and as a revolutionary force for civil rights, why is it resurfacing now?
One reason may be the accessibility of the it in the Age of Information. Existentialism hasn’t been obscured or censored, this may be due to the fact that this “awareness” has the potential to lead towards inaction. My point is that it has been taught in school, colleges and it is open to common dialogue (unlike Marxism for example). We can go online without worrying about being surveilled for looking up Simone de Beauvoir or Friedrich Nietzsche and study their ideas or download a .pdf of their collections. All that is to say, this philosophy is not some secret or lost knowledge, it is rather recent and accessible. With the internet, however, most philosophy is accessible, so why would this apparent emergence be existentialism and not something like Confucianism or pragmatism?
While existentialism is hard to define, the philosophy itself may be the reason it has caught traction. The nature of existentialism lends itself to be a great coping mechanism and equally a fuel for rebellious tendencies. One could argue that we are in a time that this reasoning is valuable. If we recognize that there is still (at least to some degree) injustice in this world, that alone is enough for a gravitation to existentialism. Rather this oppression or injustice has roots in misogynist patriarchy, racism, homophobia or whatever else it may be, existentialism can be a way to cope with this. This is because existentialists believe that they are in control of their own life.
Sure there are very real and substantial forces enacting systematic oppression towards marginalized people, that should not be trivialized, but how do we respond to that? We should take control of our own lives and enact autonomy. Existentialism can be a call to action against those who would try to impose on our livelihood or pursuit of happiness. Whether it be traditional gender roles, climate change, white supremacy or any of the issues plaguing our society, we are responsible in challenging the arbitrary limitations set by “the powers that be”. It is our responsibility to shape the face of humanity since there is no meaning or purpose set by something outside of humanity.
In a society that has nearly rejected God we face the idea that without a higher purpose we are left with a dread (anxiety) that is overwhelming. Pair this with existential crises like that of climate catastrophe and other things then it may be only rational to resort to some belief that embraces and accepts our condition. To answer the titular question (why existentialism?), as beings with critical thinking we have moved past divine explanation and into a sickening awareness of our reality, material or otherwise. Existentialism is a reassuring answer to this daunting problem.
1.) Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism Is A Humanism, 1946