Philosophy 101: Existentialism

Philosophy 101: Existentialism September 1, 2016

Last night we had a Tippling Philosophers session in a lovely pub in Portsmouth, and covered existentialism. I thought it would be a good time to continue my philosophy 101 series which has so far covered:

The philpapers results



Existentialism is a term that pops up a lot, even in the news these days (in the guise of an “existential threat” or “crisis”), but is often assumed as being understood when perhaps it is not. So this is for you budding philosophers starting out on your journey.


Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, and Christian, who is often seen as the one of the forefathers of existentialism. Although such ideas of his were largely rejected by his contemporaries, he influenced later thinkers a great deal, particularly those in the twentieth century. He was concerned with freedom, as well as meaning and purpose, in existence, and these are the core tenets of existentialism. Kierkegaard understood the importance of self-consciousness, and claimed that absolute freedom of the agent led to a sort of fear or dizziness. This was very relevant to those later thinkers. This freedom was wrapped up with morality – our moral choices are absolutely free and subjective. Though a critic of the Danish church, unlike most existentialists, he held on to the belief in God.


Jean-Paul Sartre took on these considerations about what makes us human beings. Previously, essentialism held. This is the idea that entities have an essence. In Plato’s world, there would be an ideal form of a cat to which all cats “aspired”, but were poor versions thereof. Every cat has a catness essence. In this way, humans have human essences, men have the essence of manness, women of womanness. We still see this prevailing today, particularly in religious thought (there are some religious commenters on this blog who hold to forms of essentialism).

Sartre saw this is fundamentally constraining what it is to be human – our freedom. Essentialism appears to be, in some sense, prescriptive. He used a paper-knife as an example. It has been designed for a function, and to succeed as a paper knife, it needs to be sharp, but not too sharp, made of a hard substance, but easy to wield. Metal, bone or wood work, but butter and feathers would fail in enabling it to be a paper knife, to have that essence. It would not make sense for a paper knife to exist without its creator knowing what it was to be used for. It is functional and designed as such. Its essence comes from before its existence, in any individual form.

Humans, Sartre claimed, are wholly difference. Our existence precedes our essence. Our essences are derived from our lives. This is very much wrapped up with atheism. There is no God because, in some manner, that would constrain our meaning, purpose and essence: our freedom. In the same way a craftsman makes a paper knife and decrees its purpose and essence, God would create and define humans.

Human nature, he claimed, is not fixed; there is no god to decree it as such. There is no place for such teleology.

On the other hand, we are the sorts of entities to define our own meaning and purpose (indeed, I wrote about this here), and this is a very human process. Without a god, we must define ourselves.

What differentiates ourselves from other entities is that we can define ourselves.

Now, he would admit some natural constraints, sometimes called facticity, whereby we cannot do anything we please. I cannot grow wings; I am somewhat constrained by the society I was born into and brought up in. But this facticity goes only so far.

My criticism of this is that there is a seemingly arbitrary cut-off that Sartre and others assign to where facticity ends. I would say it goes right up to choices, and includes vast causal variables of biology, genetics and environment. Indeed, Sartre has to make free will an assumption.

Sarte’s freedom is vital for his notions of moral responsibility, but it also connects humanity. Our choices, vastly free, affect the rest of humankind, he would claim, and this burdens us with a huge responsibility. Think back to Kierkegaard’s “dizziness” in considering such freedom. Sartre claimed we were, as such, “condemned to be free”. We have no excuses (those variables I mentioned) to hide behind – our freedom exposes us as the sole, responsible authors of our free actions.

This philosophy led him to become engaged in (socialist) politics, and emboldened young people at the time to those revolutionary ideals of the self defining itself, rather than traditional political forces constraining the individual. He had a significant relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, influencing her own writing in an existentialist manner.


Simone De Beauvoir

One of the earlier feminist thinkers, De Beauvoir threw out the essentialist rulebook after declaring that the self or “I” was ostensibly male, and that female was “Other” than male – passive, voiceless and powerless. Equality was seen in terms of how alike to men women were. Being born without purpose, we have to carve out “authentic” meaning for ourselves (this notion of authenticity is very important in existentialism). She sought to separate the bodily form of the female from the socially constructed femininity. Such constructs are variable and subject to change, so there are many ways of being a female. “One is not born but becomes a woman”. Women must existentially free themselves from the constrains of society. It is riskier and harder to be authentic, but it is the way to equality and freedom.


Albert Camus felt that because we have consciousness, we feel we have meaning, but since the universe is absurdly meaningless, there is a contradiction here. In order to overcome this contradiction, we have to fully embrace this meaningless of existence. The endless struggle (like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill) and drudgery of life is a reflection of its ultimate meaningless. There is a strong undercurrent of nominalism here. Meaning and purpose, as abstract ideas, do not exist “out there” in the universe, but are conceptually constructed in our minds. This is, like Sartre claimed, what makes us human. Recognising the ultimate meaningless is what allows us to live fully.

Hopefully, this gives some basic introduction to existentialism, and some of its proponents. Of course, there are others, and there is arguably much to disagree with as well as to agree with. Comments more than welcome!

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