Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1971), Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that became associated with the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (who rejected the name as too confining) and whose roots extend to the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Sartre, like most of his existentialist colleagues, was too much the individualist to accept the idea of being part of a movement, no matter how exclusive. Both Heidegger and the writer Albert Camus rejected the label, offended by being so linked to Sartre. But the name stuck, and Sartre, at least, accepted it with reservations. And so existentialism came to name one of the most powerful intellectual and literary movements of the last century and a half.
Sartre's philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy, and other figures are usually considered existentialists insofar as they resonate with certain Sartrean themes—extreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives. Thus some key figures who might be considered existentialist, Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are sometimes excluded because they are not sufficiently Sartrean. Existentialism can be defined as a philosophy that puts special emphasis on personal existence, on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. It tends to distrust abstractions and overgeneralized formulations of "human nature," on the grounds that each of us, in some important sense, makes his or her own nature. Søren Kierkegaard emphasized the "existence" of the individual and the importance of individual choice. The first conception of a movement should be credited to Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), a German philosopher-psychiatrist who noted the similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and identified them as early practitioners of what he called "existence-philosophy" (Existenzphilosophie).
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche differed radically, most famously in their approach to religion (Christianity in particular). Kierkegaard was devout while Nietzsche was a blasphemous atheist. But so, too, twentieth-century existentialism would include both religious and atheistic philosophers. The religious existentialists include, among others, Karl Barth (1886–1968), Martin Buber (1878–1965), Gabriel Marcel (1887–1973), Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), and Paul Tillich (1886–1965). Among those labeled atheistic existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) are prominent. But existentialism also includes a number of more ambiguous figures, notably Martin Heidegger, who was certainly no orthodox Christian thinker but nevertheless bemoaned modernity's abandonment of religion and insisted that "only a new god can save us." So, too, existentialism usually embraces such tormented literary figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), André Gide (1869–1951), and Franz Kafka (1883–1924), writers like Norman Mailer (b. 1923), and sympathetic international figures like Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) and Keiji Nishitani (1900–1990).
Twentieth-century existentialism was greatly influenced by phenomenology, originated by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and pursued into the existential realm by his student Heidegger. The "ontological" problem for Heidegger, "the problem of being," was to find out who one is and what to do with oneself or, as Nietzsche had asked earlier, how one is to become what one is. Phenomenology, for Heidegger, becomes a method for "disclosing [one's] being." Following both Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre used the phenomenological method to defend his central thesis that humans are essentially free, and Merleau-Ponty further refined both that method and the resulting notion of freedom to incorporate a more bodily conception of human existence, pointing to the complexities of freedom in a politically conflicted and ambiguous world.
Oddly enough, the existentialists, perhaps the most moralistic or in any case moralizing philosophers of modern times, often seem to avoid ethics. Kierkegaard noted that ethics was one choice among several. Nietzsche insisted that Western morality is slave morality, and he wrote with delight (in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882, 1887; English trans. The Gay Science) about dancing on morality's grave. Heidegger emphatically insisted that he was not offering any ethics, and he continued to speak with disdain about those who confusedly worry about values. Even Sartre, moralist par excellence, followed Heidegger in insisting that his existentialism was not an ethical philosophy, although he did promise that the "phenomenological ontology" of his great tome L'être et le néant (1943; English trans. Being and Nothingness, 1956) would be followed up by an ethics, which never came.
The existentialists were rejecting a certain "bourgeois" conception of morality, the kind of ethics that worries about keeping one's promises, paying one's debts, and avoiding scandal. Instead, they were after an ethic of a larger kind, an ethics of "authenticity" or what we would call personal integrity. They called for responsibility, even heroism, in the face of the bourgeois modern world. They rejected traditional philosophical and scientific rationality and typically resorted to literature, prophecy, pamphleteering, and ponderous obfuscation, any means necessary to wake up the world from its boring bourgeois and at the same time brutal and irresponsible behavior.
Jaspers's special word, existence, which he took from Kierkegaard to summarize the centrality of self-doubt and painful freedom that defined the human condition, focused a new kind of attention on the individual. Thus existentialism tends to be a solitary philosophy. Kierkegaard, in particular, wrote at length about "subjective truth" and saving "The Individual" from the crowd, the "public," the Hegelian collective "Spirit." Nietzsche encouraged a muscular individualism in which the "higher man" should reject "the herd" and follow his own noble instincts. Heidegger calls mass-man (Das Man) "inauthentic" and urges us to discover our own unique "authentic" self. Camus exploded onto the literary and philosophical scene with his novel The Stranger, whose protagonist had only the most tenuous connections with other people, lost as he was in his own sensuous experience. Sartre focused on individual consciousness as "being-for itself" and treated "beingfor-others" as a continuous threat. In his play Huis clos (1944; English trans. No Exit, 1947), he even tells us "Hell is other people."
One might generalize that existentialism represents a certain attitude particularly appropriate for modern (and post-modern) mass society. The existentialists share a concern for the individual and personal responsibility (whether or not they embrace "free will"). They tend to resist the submersion of the individual in larger public groups or forces. Thus Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both attacked "the herd," and Heidegger distinguished "authentic existence" from mere social existence. Sartre, in particular, emphasizes the importance of free individual choice, regardless of the power of other people to influence and coerce our desires, beliefs, and decisions. Here he follows Kierkegaard, especially, for whom passionate, personal choice and commitment are essential for true "existence."
- Existentialism - Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
- Existentialism - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
- Existentialism - Martin Heidegger (1889–1971)
- Existentialism - Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)
- Existentialism - Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986)
- Existentialism - Albert Camus (1913–1960)
- Existentialism - Bibliography
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