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Continental Philosophy - Existentialism

sartre heidegger beauvoir existence

Existentialism, as originally presented by Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (1913–1960), emphasized the importance of individual existence, choice, and personal responsibility. It was opposed to impersonal systems of thought and to modern mass society. Partially rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of faith, existentialism has also been influenced by Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), Nietzsche, and by Husserl and Heidegger. Kierkegaard's ethical-religious works impacted many twentieth-century religious existentialists such as Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Gabriel-Honoré Marcel, and Emmanuel Lévinas, while Nietzsche's supposed nihilism and atheism ("God is dead') deeply influenced Karl Theodor Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Luce Irigaray.

Sartre was a philosopher, playwright, social critic, and political activist who became famous with his work L'existentialism est un humanism (1946; Existentialism Is a Humanism) and his phrase "Existence is prior to essence." In the late 1950s, he supplemented this individualistic, existential humanism with social and critical Marxism as expressed in his book Critique de la raison dialectique (1976, 1985; Critique of Dialectical Reason). In his early work L'être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness), influenced by Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre described the tension between human consciousness ("beingfor-itself," pour soi), which is "not a thing" but an activity, and the brute existence of things ("being-in-itself," en soi). According to Sartre, man has absolute freedom, even in the most constrained situations as exemplified by Sartre's own experiences in the French resistance movement and his imprisonment in Germany. For Sartre, the self is always an embodied, situated self. Sartre also talked about "bad faith," which he defined as "inauthentic" flight from the anguished burden of choice and responsibility.

Sartre's lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir, who had a great influence upon Sartre, especially upon his later socially oriented work, wrote the famous early feminist work The Second Sex (1949), which described the historical and existential situation of women. According to de Beauvoir, women continue to be defined within a masculine worldview, which assumes an "eternal feminine," an unchanging biological destiny, and a feminine "essence." Men assume that women are "the other," a designation limiting women's freedom and autonomy. De Beauvoir insisted that femaleness is a social construct: "One is not born but rather becomes a woman." De Beauvior proposed the way for the first philosophical discussion of "sexual difference" within the context of the structures of powers, and forces of desire in later feminist writers.

Camus, like Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty, one of the famous representatives of the post-war existentialist movement in France, is known for his notion of the "absurd" as expressed in his poetic writings such as The Plague (1947). According to Camus, the absurdity of existence provokes the question of the meaning of life and the act of suicide as "the only truly serious philosophical problem" (Le mythe de Sisyphe, 1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 1). The human being must engage in an ongoing "revolt" against absurdity: "I rebel—therefore we exist" (L'homme révolté, 1951; The Rebel, p. 22).

Jaspers (1883–1969), similar to the early Heidegger, saw the historically situated freedom of the individual within certain "boundary situations" such as guilt, suffering, anxiety, and death. Existence can only be realized in communication. He considered existences a gift of Being, which he called Transcendence, God, or the "Encompassing."

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who had studied under Husserl, Heidegger, and Jaspers, emigrated to the United States and became a renowned political philosopher despite her sometimes controversial involvement with the Jewish cause. In her works on totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism she took a stance against National Socialism and Heidegger's involvement with it, and against Marxism. She favored political freedom, constitutional democracy, and pluralism in her adopted country, the United States. In addition to Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis (b. 1932), and Habermas, Arendt is the best known political philosopher in the continental tradition.

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