Jean Paul Sartre, in his 1948 book, Existentialism and Humanism, tried to tell us what existentialism is; he said that "existence precedes essence". Let me try to explain what he meant and, perhaps, in the process shade light on what existentialism is.
Most forms of philosophy and religion posit what they call human nature; that is, they postulate the essence of who people are supposed to be. Having posited an abstract conception of who they think that people are, they then try to fit real people into their mental constructs of who they are supposed to be. In effect, essence precedes existence.
Existentialism, on the other hand, says that essence or whatever we say is the nature of human beings is an abstraction produced by the human mind and is not necessarily true.
What is true is life as people live it. People live a life and from their living draw conclusions as to who they are.
A child is born; his body interacts with his physical and social world in a certain manner and over time he develops an idea of who he thinks that he is.
The child's inherited body and social experience impact him in a certain manner and from them he constructs a self-concept (develops a pattern of behavior, a personality).
Who one is is a result of ones experience with life, a phenomenology (ala Husserl), but not the other way around.
Christianity, for example, tells us who we are supposed to be; according to Christianity, we were created by God. God created us to be in a certain way and we deviate from it; our deviation from how God created us is our problem; we are saved when we return to being how God created us as.
Question: how do we know how God created us to be? What we say about how God created us to be is an assumption, an abstraction construed by the human mind and is not self-evident.
How do we even know that God exists? If we have no evidence that God exists how can we say that that which does not exist created us? The idea of God creating us and giving us a certain nature is an unproved assumption.
Existentialism says that what you do in your life shapes you; there is no human nature apart from what people experience from their life; behavior, action shapes who you are.
Who you are should not be fitted to some frame of reference posited by some religion or philosophy.
A course in miracles, for example, like most religions and philosophies, begin by telling its readers how God created them to be and how they subsequently deviated from it.
God is supposed to have created them one with him and each other but they separated from that one shared self and one shared mind. In the temporal universe, the fallen state, people are now in separated ego states; they need to jettison their separation and return to unified state in God and his heaven.
But how do we know that this is how God created them? First of all, we do not know that God exists; we have not heard God tell us who we are; whatever we say that God says about us is our ideas, not facts.
To try to fit yourself to what A course in miracles says that God says you are is reductionist and not necessarily true.
What we know as factual is that on earth people are born in body and feel pain; they engage in actions to defend against (fear alerts people to what could cause them pain and or kill them and urge them to run away from it or fight it).
You do not run away from danger because you have need for danger to run away from but because you feel your life threatened, anticipate pain and death and fear it hence run away from whatever could cause you pain or destroy your earthly existence.
Let me see what I have, so far, said. I have said that existentialism does not have an apriori notion of who people are supposed to be but builds its notion of who people are from their experience in the here and now world. It does not accept what academic philosophers tell us is who people are, for those are mental constructs designed to fit people into them, but not fit them to people as they are.
A human being finds his self in body and society and from those develops ideas of who he is; he does do not develop ideas of who he is from mere abstraction from what a philosopher or religion says that he is.
We are born in body; our bodies experience pain and we feel fear; we experience sickness and know that we shall die and rot.
We do not know for sure if there is life after death but we hope that there is one. Hope is not fact. The fact is that we die and seem to disappear from existence.
We seem to have come from oblivion and return to oblivion. Consider what Big Bang cosmology tells us. Contemporary cosmology tells us that out of nothing a particle of light emerged and developed into what we now call our universe; our stars, galaxies, planets, trees, animals and people came from one particle of light. Nothingness produced seeming somethingness.
Our bodies are composed of twenty-six elements, mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen with traces of calcium, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, magnesium, phosphor, sulfur and others.
Those elements are composed of particles, such as electrons, protons and neutrons. Those particles are composed of quarks and photons (and over 100 sub-atomic particles).
When we die our bodies decay to the atoms and particles that they are composed of; those, along with the universe, in trillions of years decay to the nothingness from whence they came during the Big Bang.
We came from nothing and return to nothing. This much we know from science and experience. Whatever else we say about who we are is speculative and not empirically derived.
English empiricism, aka logical positivism accepts only what we have evidence, facts, for; Anglo American analytic philosophy and French and continental philosophy of language were over impressed by the scientific method and see philosophy as a waste of time since its conclusions are not subject to the type of proof science demands. They therefore escaped from thinking and instead concentrated on the trivial, such as telling us that language determines how we see reality, which is true but so what?
Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus and Jacques Derrida in his writings on the philosophy of language were twentieth century academic escapees from real thinking, philosophy; they accepted their been made eunuchs by their contemporary society; they were no longer men talking about how to govern their society but, instead, talked about how the language spoken by people shaped their perception of reality.
It is probably true that language shapes reality; we can equally say that reality shapes language; the situation is similar to the chicken or egg question; we do not know which caused the other.
But why don't these folks have the courage to attempt telling us what reality is rather than dancing around that question. Twentieth century academic philosophers became useless; no one these days studies philosophy: what are you going to do with it, flip hamburgers at MacDonald?
But for the generosity of taxpayers supporting academic philosophers they would become homeless street beggars for what they are teaching no one on wants to buy. A man ought to teach what there is a market for or get out of that line of work.
It is a big joke to even have departments of philosophy at our colleges, for they do not help people solve the problems thrown at them by existence. Believe it or not, students now go to physics and psychology to find out what life is supposed to be all about, not to philosophy that is supposed to do so for them!
Who are we? We do not know. What we know for a fact is that we live in bodies; we know that there is something in us that can study and understand us and the universe we live in. What that thing that thinks through us is we do not know; some say that it is a product of the configuration of elements in our brains; that our thinking is epiphenomenal and is not from some kind of spirit but is a product of our bodies.
Pure science suggests that we are the product of matter and therefore the philosophy of materialism seems to better describes us than other philosophies.
In our experience we see society and the physical environment trying to determine us. We seem the product of the physical and social environment; we seem constrained by our environment.
We do not seem to have freedom but seem determined. Try this experiment and see how free you are: try lifting your hands when the wind is blowing. If the wind is strong enough despite your effort to lift up your hands you cannot do so.
That is, nature seems to determine you and constrains you. Yet, we want to feel that we are free. Human beings like to see themselves as having freedom and do choose to do certain things and not others.
Whether freedom is inherent in us or not we desire freedom and must assume that it is a quality we need to have.
Existentialism says that despite the apparent lack of freedom in our lives that we must behave as if we are free and do make choices. Belief in our freedom apparently gives us a sense of dignity.
But do we have freedom? B.F. Skinner, in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity contends that the environment determines us.
We are born, suffer and die. We have brains and thinking that appreciate the absurdity of our predicament.
Our bodies are meat for other animal's to eat just as we eat other animal's meat.
Our very existence seems absurd. How can this compilation of matter think and not only understand itself but the universe?
And how can such a creature that thinks as if he were the gods (as the imaginary gods are supposed to do) die, rot and smell worse than feces?
Human beings have existential angst in the sense that their situation is depressing. You begin to die from the moment that you are born. Do whatever you like you are an animal and must die and smell like shit.
If your body is cremated it is less than three pounds of ashes that have no monetary value. We came from nature and return to nature. This reality deprives us of our valued sense of worth and specialness; it is maddening.
To be a human being is to know about ones impending death and not liking it but die one must. Thus, we see ourselves as absurd creatures.
How could a loving God create us to die? A God that created us to die is as absurd as we are. Even if there is resurrection the fact that we must first die and get eaten by worms is humiliating; death strikes a deep blow to our narcissism.
Everywhere we try to deny our existential injury and pretend that we are very important persons.
According to Alfred Adler, the condition of living in body and society makes us feel inferior and we deny it and live "as if" we are fictive superior selves hence are neurotic (deluded).
Like other animals, we are motivated to seek food and must eat to survive. Apart from our ceaseless searching for food and the means of obtaining food (money via working) there does not exist apparent meaning to our lives.
We live pointless and meaningless lives and as the German idealistic philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said, our existence seems a mistake made by the universe; we ought to not have been invented by the universe.
But the facts on the ground are that a meaningless universe produced a creature that lives a meaningless existence and we must deal with our meaningless lives and make the most of it. Existentialism proposes to help us make the most of our meaningless existence. It does not want us to deny our meaningless selves but encourages us to accept our meaningless reality without complaining about it (or escaping into the fantasy promised by religion).
If we see ourselves as victims of the universe and society what good is that going to do us since it would not change our condition! Therefore, do not cry over spilled milk, just make lemonade with the lemon life gave to you.
Existentialism has a long history in Western philosophy; for example, some Greek thinkers insisted on rooting their views on their experience not on some wooly abstraction about the nature of reality (such as Socrates and Empedocles).
In recent Western history, existentialism is generally rooted in the writings of Pascal, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Kafka; in the twentieth century such philosophers as Karl Jasper (Jasper was trained in psychiatry) and the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger and the Jewish religious thinker, Paul Tillich were existentialists.
However, existentialism as we now know it sprout from war-time Paris, France. During the Second World War and its Nazi occupation of France French men saw death and dying up close; they lived through the horrors of Nazism and realized that human beings are no more than clothed tigers, lions and other predatory animals; they demarcate territories and kill those who enter their staked out territories.
Periodically, human beings embrace absurd ideas, such as the Nazi idea that Jews are not intelligent. In reality, Jews have made more contribution to religion (they gave the West Christianity), science and philosophy. Yet, Nazis saw them as not intelligent and wanted to kill all of them.
People have propensity to evil; Germans, for example, despite possessing the best culture in Europe (they gave us Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart; Max Planck, Emil Schrodinger, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein and other scientists) killed over 50 million people. French men saw all these killings and wondered what it means to be a human being.
They concluded that people are not the moral beings they present themselves as; they are mere animals eating other animals, including people. Civilization is skin deep.
Yet, people seek to make their lives seem meaningful. In the pursuit of meaning they often do evil things: Nazis killed to make their race pure, to prevent what they saw as contamination of their race by inferior Slavic, Jewish and black people.
Existentialism says that the idea of inevitable human progress is a chimera. What matters is for the individual to decide what to him makes sense and devote his life to doing it. In Joseph Campbell's terms, follow your bliss and tune out the big ugly world out there; have no illusions about people, for given the opportunity they would enslave you and use your labor for free and rationalize doing sot with their pseudo-science and or religion.
White Americans bastardized the loving gospel of Jesus to mean that they should use their fellow human beings as slaves to make life easier for them.
If you really got to know the evil human beings are capable of doing you would throw up. It is better you looked away from them and did what makes you feel good and alive.
Figure out what you like to do, what you are good at and study it and do it twenty- four -seven. Work hard, live well, and then die. This is kind of like what the Roman stoic philosopher, Horace, said: seize the day for tomorrow you will die; carpe dien.
There is a field called existential psychotherapy; essentially, it tells people to reconcile themselves to their meaningless existence and make the most of it; people ought to grind their teeth and take it in the chin and while at it do what they like doing; they ought to live authentic and freedom based existence without conforming to other people's expectations from them. Live free and then die.
Existentialism appeals to writers who are expressing their desire to be free. In fact, the major existentialists were writers, such as Sartre, Camus and other artists.
In our age it seems that existentialism is no longer popular, certainly not in America. In America when people become aware of the meaninglessness of their existence they tend to flee into infantile religions and or absurd spirituality. May be such escape from freedom (as Erich Fromm called it) is good, for why should people live meaningless existence if religion offers them meaning even if it is false meaning!
What is the alternative to false meaning; what is true meaning? What is the truth, anyway?
Be that as it may, some folks may still want to explore existentialism. For such folks, I hope that this brief essay helps explicate what existentialism is.
I will append a bibliography that I borrowed from Wikipedia to help those who want to read up on existentialism, especially the aspect of it that appeals to me, existential psychotherapy.
(This further reading was taken from Wikipedia; the essay is my cogitation.)
Frankl, Viktor (1997). Man's Search for Meaning. Pocket.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books.
Cooper, Mick (2003). Existential Therapies. Sage Publications.
Spinelli, Ernesto (2002). The Mirror and the Hammer: Challenging Orthodoxies in Therapeutic Thought. Sage Publications.
Kierkegaard, Søren; The Concept of Dread and the Sickness unto Death, Princeton University Press.
Längle, Alfried (1990); Existential Analysis Psychotherapy, The Internat. Forum Logotherapy, Berkeley, 13, 1, 17-19.
Längle, Alfried (2003a); Special edition on Existential Analysis, European Psychotherapy 4, 1
Längle, Alfried (2003b); The Search for Meaning in Life and the Fundamental Existential Motivations, Psychotherapy in Australia, 10, 1, 22-27
Längle Silvia, Wurm CSE (2015); Living Your Own Life: Existential Analysis in Action, London: Karnac.
Van Deurzen, E. (2002). Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy in Practice (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
ibid (1997) Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy, London: Routledge. (2nd edition 2006)
van Deurzen, E. (1998). Paradox and Passion in Psychotherapy. Chichester: Wiley.
van Deurzen, E.; Kenward, R (2005). Dictionary of Existential Psychotherapy and Counseling. London: Sage Publications. .
Deurzen, E. van and Arnold-Baker, C., eds. (2005) Existential Perspectives on Human Issues: a Handbook for Practice, London: Palgrave, Macmillan.
Glasser, William (1998). Choice Theory. HarperPerennial.
Willburg, Peter, "The Therapist as Listener: Martin Heidegger and the Missing Dimension of Counseling and Psychotherapy Training"
Wilkes, R and Milton, M, (2006) Being an Existential Therapist: An IPA study of existential therapists' experiences, Existential Analysis. Jan 2006
Friedman, M. (1985). The Healing Dialogue in Psychotherapy. J. Aronson. .
Milton, M., Charles, L., Judd, D., O'Brien, Tipney, A. and Turner, A . (2003) The Existential-Phenomenological Paradigm: The Importance for Integration, Existential Analysis.
Judd, D. and Milton, M. (2001) Psychotherapy with Lesbian and Gay Clients: Existential-Phenomenological Contributions to Training, Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review, 2(1): 16-23
Corrie, S. and Milton, M . (2000) "The Relationship Between Existential-Phenomenological and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapies", European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counseling and Health.
May, R. (1994). The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology. W. W. Norton & Company..
May, R. (1991). The Cry for Myth. W. W. Norton & Company..
May, R. (1998). Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. W. W. Norton & Company..
May, R (2009). Man's Search for Himself. W. W. Norton & Company.
Milton, M. and Judd, D. (1999) "The Dilemma that is Assessment", Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 102-114.
Milton, M. (1999) "Depression and the Uncertainty of Identity: An existential-phenomenological exploration in just twelve sessions", Changes: An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy,
Milton, M (1997) "An Existential Approach to HIV Related Psychotherapy", Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, V8.1, 115-129
Milton, M (1994) "The Case for Existential Therapy in HIV Related Psychotherapy", Counselling Psychology Quarterly, V7 (4). 367-374
Milton, M. (1994) "HIV Related Psychotherapy and Its Existential Concerns", Counselling Psychology Review, V9 (4). 13-24
Milton, M (1993) "Existential Thought and Client Centered Therapy", Counselling Psychology Quarterly, V6 (3). 239-248
Sanders, Marc, Existential Depression. How to recognize and cure life-related sadness in gifted people, Self-Help Manual, 2013.
Schneider, K.J. (2004). Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Schneider, K.J. (2008). Existential-integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice. New York: Routledge.
Schneider, K.J. (2009). "Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation." Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
Schneider, K.J., & Krug, O.T. (2010). "Existential-Humanistic Therapy." Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
Schneider, K.J. (2011). "Existential-Humanistic Therapies". In S.B. Messer & Alan Gurman (Eds.), Essential Psychotherapies. (Third ed.). New York: Guilford.
Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. pp 10–12.
Tillich, Paul (1952). The Courage to Be. Yale University Press.
Wilberg, P. (2004) The Therapist as Listener - Martin Heidegger and the Missing Dimension of Counselling and Psychotherapy Training.
December 17, 2015