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By Branch / Doctrine > Metaphysics > Existentialism

Introduction | Main Beliefs | History of Existentialism | Criticisms of Existentialism


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Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define
their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the
question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that,
as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in
life) is by embracing existence.
Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although
with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread). It therefore emphasizes action, freedom and decision as
fundamental, and holds that the only way to rise above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized
bysuffering and inevitable death) is by exercising our personal freedom and choice (a complete rejection of Determinism).
Often, Existentialism as a movement is used to describe those who refuse to belong to any school of thought, repudiating of
theadequacy of any body of beliefs or systems, claiming them to be superficial, academic and remote from life. Although it has
much in common with Nihilism, Existentialism is more a reaction against traditional philosophies, such
as Rationalism,Empiricism and Positivism, that seek to discover an ultimate order and universal meaning in metaphysical
principles or in the structure of the observed world. It asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning
to them, rather than what is rational.
Existentialism originated with the 19th Century philosophers Sren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither
used the term in their work. In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 1960), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes, such
as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and nothingness.

Main Beliefs

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Unlike Ren Descartes, who believed in the primacy of conciousness, Existentialists assert that a human being is "thrown
into" into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be "thought away", and therefore existence ("being in the
world") precedes consciousness, and is the ultimate reality. Existence, then, is prior to essence (essence is
the meaning that may be ascribed to life), contrary to traditional philosophical views dating back to the ancient Greeks.
As Sartre put it: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be."
Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the
world.Sartre saw rationality as a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally
irrational and random world of phenomena ("the other"). This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom,
and confines us within everyday experience.
Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective
standards.Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral
situations. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential in
arriving at the truth, and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a
detached, objective observer (similar to the concept of Subjectivism).
According to Camus, when an individual's longing for order collides with the real world's lack of order, the result
is absurdity. Human beings are therefore subjects in an indifferent, ambiguous and absurd universe, in which meaning is not
provided by thenatural order, but rather can be created (however provisionally and unstably) by human actions and

Existentialism can be atheistic, theological (or theistic) or agnostic. Some Existentialists, like Nietzsche, proclaimed that "God
is dead" and that the concept of God is obsolete. Others, like Kierkegaard, were intensely religious, even if they did not feel
able tojustify it. The important factor for Existentialists is the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe.

History of Existentialism

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Existentialist-type themes appear in early Buddhist and Christian writings (including those of St. Augustine and St.Thomas
Aquinas). In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal suggested that, without a God, life would be meaningless, boring and
miserable, much as later Existentialists believed, although, unlike them, Pascal saw this as a reason for the existence of a
God. His near-contemporary, John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination, but in the positive pursuit
of Liberalismand Individualism rather than in response to an Existentialist experience.
Existentialism in its currently recognizable form was inspired by the 19th Century Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard,
the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) and Edmund Husserl, and
writers like the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) and the Czech Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924). It can be argued
that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer were also important influences on the development of
Existentialism, because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or in opposition to them.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, like Pascal before them, were interested in people's concealment of the meaninglessness of life
and their use of diversion to escape from boredom. However, unlike Pascal, they considered the role of making free
choices on fundamental values and beliefs to be essential in the attempt to change the nature and identity of the chooser.
In Kierkegaard's case, this results in the "knight of faith", who puts complete faith in himself and in God, as described in his
1843 work "Fear and Trembling". In Nietzsche's case, the much maligned "bermensch" (or "Superman")
attains superiority andtranscendence without resorting to the "other-worldliness" of Christianity, in his books "Thus Spake
Zarathustra" (1885) and"Beyond Good and Evil" (1887).
Martin Heidegger was an important early philosopher in the movement, particularly his influential 1927 work "Being and
Time", although he himself vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense. His discussion of ontology is
rooted in an analysis of the mode of existence of individual human beings, and his analysis of authenticity and anxiety in
modern culture make him very much an Existentialist in the usual modern usage.
Existentialism came of age in the mid-20th Century, largely through the scholarly and fictional works of the French
existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986). Maurice MerleauPonty(1908 - 1961) is another influential and often overlooked French Existentialist of the period.
Sartre is perhaps the most well-known, as well as one of the few to have actually accepted being called an
"existentialist"."Being and Nothingness" (1943) is his most important work, and his novels and plays,
including "Nausea" (1938) and "No Exit(1944), helped to popularize the movement.
In "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942), Albert Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus (who is condemned for
eternity to roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again each time) to exemplify the pointlessness of existence,
but shows that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote
about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including "The Second Sex" (1949) and "The Ethics of
Ambiguity" (1947).
Although Sartre is considered by most to be the pre-eminent Existentialist, and by many to be an important and innovative
philosopher in his own right, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought that Sartre had
merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy of Descartes and Husserl,

which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) as
a betterExistentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our way of being in the world, and for his more
complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger's work is often seen as deficient).
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Criticisms of Existentialism

Herbert Marcuse (1898 - 1979) has criticized Existentialism, especially Sartre's "Being and Nothingness",
for projecting some features of living in a modern oppressive society (features such as anxiety and meaninglessness) onto
the nature of existence itself.
Roger Scruton (1944 - ) has claimed that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith are
bothself-inconsistent, in that they deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone is bound to
abide by them.
Logical Positivists, such as A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), claim that existentialists frequently
become confusedover the verb "to be" (which is meaningless if used without a predicate) and by the word "nothing" (which is
the negation of existence and therefore cannot be assummed to refer to something).
Marxists, especially in post-War France, found Existentialism to run counter to their emphasis on the solidarity of human
beings and their theory of economic determinism. They further argued that Existentialism's emphasis on individual
choice leads tocontemplation rather than to action, and that only the bourgeoisie has the luxury to make themselves what
they are through their choices, so they considered Existentialism to be a bourgeois philosophy.
Christian critics complain that Existentialism portrays humanity in the worst possible light, overlooking
the dignity and gracethat comes from being made in the image of God. Also, according to Christian critics, Existentialists are
unable to account for the moral dimension of human life, and have no basis for an ethical theory if they deny that humans
are bound by thecommands of God. On the other hand, some commentators have objected to Kierkegaard's continued
espousal of Christianity, despite his inability to effectively justify it.
In more general terms, the common use of pseudonymous characters in existentialist writing can make it seem like the
authors are unwilling to own their insights, and are confusing philosophy with literature.

By Branch / Doctrine > Political Philosophy > Nationalism

Introduction | Types of Nationalism


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Nationalism is the doctrine that one's national culture and interests are superior to any other, and that nations should
actindependently (rather than collectively) to attain their goals. It holds that a nation, usually defined in terms
of language,ethnicity or culture, has the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community based on
a shared historyand common destiny. It can also refer to the aspiration for national independence felt by people
under foreign domination.
Nationalism seeks to order the world as a series of nation-states, each based on the geopolitical national homeland of its
respective nation, and holds that each nation has a moral entitlement to a sovereign state. It seeks
to guarantee thecontinued existence of a nation, to preserve its distinct identity, and to provide a territory where
the national culture andethos are dominant. In turn, nation-states appeal to a national cultural-historical mythos to justify

their existence, and to conferpolitical legitimacy.

Simplistically, Nationalism is the desire of a nation to self-determination. It is usually associated with patriotism (a positive
and supportive attitudes to a "fatherland"), but it can also lead to chauvinism (aggressive patriotism, or blind or biased
devotion to any group, attitude or cause), imperialism, racism and xenophobia, militarism, or ultimately to Fascism.
It is usually considered a relatively recent idea, based as it is on the concept of the nation-state which is a largely 19th
Centuryphenomenon and, until around 1800, very few people had more than local loyalties. National identity and unity were
originallyimposed from above by European states, in order to modernize the economy and society.

Types of Nationalism

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Nationalism may manifest itself along civic, ethnic, cultural, religious or ideological lines. These self-definitions of nations are
used to classify different types of Nationalism, although such categories are not mutually exclusive and many nationalist
movements combine some or all of these elements to varying degrees.

Ethnic Nationalism: where the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity and descent from previous generations. It also
includes the idea of a culture shared between members of the group, and usually a shared language.
Civic Nationalism: where the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry and from
the degree to which it represents the "will of the people".
State Nationalism: a variant of Civic Nationalism, where the nation is assumed to be a community of those
whocontribute to the maintenance and strength of the state, and that the individual exists in the community
expressly to contribute to this goal. This often results in Fascism.
Expansionist Nationalism: a radical form of imperialism (and not really true Nationalism at all) that incorporates
autonomous, patriotic sentiments with a belief in expansionism, usually by military aggression,
e.g. Nazism (orNationalist-Socialism) in Germany.
Romantic Nationalism: a form of Ethnic Nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy as
a natural (or"organic") consequence and expression of the nation. It relies upon the existence of a historical ethnic
culture which meets the romantic ideal (folklore developed as a Romantic Nationalist concept).
Cultural Nationalism: where the nation is defined by shared culture, and neither purely civic nor purely ethnic.
Chinese nationalism is an example of Cultural Nationalism, partly because of the many national minorities within
Third World Nationalism: where nationalist sentiments result from resistance to colonial domination in order to
survive and retain a national identity.
Liberal Nationalism: where it is claimed that individuals need a national identity in order to lead meaningful,
autonomous lives, and that liberal democracies need national identity in order to function properly. John Stuart
Millexpressed similar sentiments.
Religious Nationalism: where a shared religion can be seen to contribute to a sense of national unity, and
a common bond among the citizens of the nation.
Pan-Nationalism: where Ethnic or Cultural Nationalism applies to a nation which is itself a cluster of related ethnic
groups and cultures (such as the Turkic peoples).
Diaspora Nationalism: where there is nationalist feeling among a diaspora, (an ethnic population living outside their
traditional homelands) e.g. the Irish in the United States, the Jews in the United States and elsewhere, etc.
Stateless Nationalism: where an ethnic or cultural minority within a nation-state seeks independence on nationalist
grounds (e.g. the Catalans and Basques in Spain).
National Conservatism: a political term, used primarily in Europe, to describe a variant of Conservatism which
concentrates more on national interests than standard Conservatism, while not being unduly Nationalist or pursuing
an excessively far-right agenda.

I think therefore I am. Though reduced now to the level of clich, Rene Descartes famous maxim
sums up perfectly the philosophical underpinnings of existentialist thought. Existentialism has its
roots in the writings of several nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers, among them Friedrich
Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Sren Kierkegaard. The philosophy is by most standards a very
loose conglomeration of perspectives, aesthetics, and approaches to dealing with the world and its
inherent difficulties. There are therefore countless permutations and flavors of existentialism which
cross disciplinary lines and modes of inquiry. In the most general sense, existentialism deals with the
recurring problem of finding meaning within existence. From this perspective, there are no meanings
or structures that precede ones own existence, as one finds in organized religion. Therefore, the
individual must find or create meaning for his or her self. Existentialist thought has garnered an
unfair reputation for pessimism and even full-blown nihilism. This reputation is somewhat
understandable. The idea of created meaning strikes some as ultimately meaningless or even
absurd. Some of the popular tropes associated with existential philosophy, such as angst, boredom,
or fear, likewise strike the average observer as dripping with pessimism. However, nothing in the
philosophical train of thought of existentialism dictates a negative view of humanity or reality. In fact,
much of the philosophy revolves around the limitless capacity for ethically and intellectually engaged
persons to enact change in the world. Positive change is then an imperative for the true
existentialist; otherwise existence is a complete void. To put it another way, it is not simply enough to
be. One has to be something or life truly lacks meaning or purpose. From this point of view,
existentialism has the potential to indeed be a very positive means of approaching reality.
The writings of Sren Kierkegaard provided the base upon which later thinkers and artists built up
the edifice of existential philosophy. Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher deeply interested in
human psychology and Christian ethics. His principal concerns were with how people responded
under crisis, and the choices one made in the shaping of ones life. One of his most famous works
is Fear and Trembling, an exploration of the nature of faith in the face of complete loss and fear. A
speculation on the psychology and emotions of Abraham when asked by God to sacrifice his son
Isaac, Fear and Trembling is a fundamental work in the canon of Christian existentialism. More than
that, Kierkegaard paints a portrait of total loneliness, secrecy, doubt, and finally resignation to fate.
His work complicates the simplistic and ideal notions of religious faith, showing real and absolute
faith to be a kind of limitless, timeless sacrifice to an unknowable being. Later existential thinkers
would frame their discourse differently, but Kierkegaards basic tenets have remained powerfully
influential for generations of artists and thinkers.
The art world has been enormously influenced by the current of existential thought, even from its
very beginnings in the nineteenth century. First the novel, and later the cinema each had unique
contributions to make to existential philosophy. Many existential philosophers have intimated that
literature is especially well positioned to communicate the central tenets of their philosophy. From
this perspective, art tends to act as a lens which either focuses or diffuses certain modes of thinking
which pass through it. In that sense, an existential novelist absorbs the ideas in vogue at the time
and reproduces them within literature. Just as existential philosophy is difficult to fit neatly into a box,
one cannot simply boil the literature of existentialism down to a simple recipe. There are multiple
strains and variations from one author to the next, yet still just enough commonalities to see the
shared underlying principles. It is perhaps more productive to discuss the work of several individual
authors than to attempt a sweeping overview of the whole movement.
In world literature, few have been as universally admired as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He has been
grouped with several different literary movements because his novels display so many
characteristics so well. While his work is distinctly, unmistakably Russian, his characters and their
specific dilemmas transcend cultural boundaries and speak to the shared problems of all humans
living in modern times. Crime and Punishment is a profound example of how some of the principles

of existentialist thinking can be perverted, leading to ethical decay and personal destruction. The
lead character one hesitates to label him a protagonist Raskolnikov believes that he can justify
for himself the murder of a greedy pawnbroker who lives near him. In his own mind, Raskolnikov
hypothesizes that he can justify the crime of nature by using the stolen money to perform good
works. This kind of moral calculus, carried out by a lone individual and not sanctioned by the greater
society, is ultimately bankrupt and doomed to failure. In addition to the quasi-moralistic
rationalizations for murder, Raskolnikov mythologizes himself as imbued with personal power in the
mold of a Napoleon. He posits that certain individuals are born with the right and the privilege to act
outside of ordinary societal rules and expectations. That all these machinations fall away and leave
Raskolnikov with nothing but animalistic fear demonstrates the real danger of elevating ones ego
too high. Dostoyevsky knew a little something about feeling powerless. He spent five years as a
political prisoner in the gulags of Siberia. It is no coincidence that his greatest works would be
produced upon return from exile.
The writings of Franz Kafka have long been associated with twentieth century existentialism. Born to
Jewish parents in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka lived through the turmoil of the First World
War. The death and destruction which ravaged Central and Western Europe most definitely had an
impact on Kafkas aesthetics. He actually never completed a full-length novel, and is most famous
for his novella The Metamorphosis, in which a man awakens to find himself transformed into
something hideous. Critics have pointed out that in the translation from German to English, a great
deal of the wit of Kafkas writing is lost. However, the primary themes which Kafka wished to convey
are understandable in any language. Like many existential writers, Franz Kafka saw the individual as
being caught up in systems and bureaucracies that were beyond understanding. Even existence
becomes a kind of control over personal autonomy. The natural response to this is to resign from
life, but Kafka presents the situation with dry humor. He approaches the inherent terror of existence
with a wink and a nod, and embraces the absurdity of everything. Later in the twentieth century, the
comedy troupe Monty Python would in a sense follow in Kafkas steps, presenting life as ultimately
absurd and as meaningful or meaningless as one chose to make it.
The name most synonymous with existential literature is Albert Camus, despite the fact that he
himself rejected the label. His novels typically represent characters caught up in situations and
systems well beyond their control, and the ways in which they cope with such seeming futility. In The
Stranger, the protagonist Meursault almost randomly commits a murder on the beach, yet seems to
lack deep human feelings. He by all accounts feels no remorse for his act, nor sadness for the
recent passing of his mother. The prevailing themes of the novel are isolation and ostracism, and the
sense of being insignificant within the larger systems of society. In the prison awaiting execution,
Meursault is incapable of any sort of epiphany regarding his actions or place in the world all that he
understands is absurdity. The absurd and the isolated nature of human existence is definitely a
recurring theme for Camus. A somewhat more positivist example of Camus point of view can be
found in The Plague, a novel recounting an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a small port city.
Those trapped within the city walls with the disease are forced to summon inner reserves of strength
and determination in the face of the ultimate negative force death.
The twentieth centurys greatest existential thinker was undoubtedly Frenchman Paul Sartre.
Uniquely, Sartre was the only person to ever decline the Nobel Prize in Literature award. His was a
life committed to activism and the advancement of social causes. His literary contributions were
relatively few, but profound. In The Nausea, Sartre tells that story of an academic who becomes
aware of the intense singularity of his own existence. Objects and even other people are completely
outside of his experience, no matter what steps he takes to impart his own meanings onto them.
This leads to the realization of complete freedom, but also complete isolation. In the novel, this
freedom is terrifying. The title explains perfectly the feelings of the protagonist when confronted with
his own essential Being. In real life, Sartre saw this complete freedom as an imperative towards
action. Given ultimate freedom, humans had ultimate responsibility for their own actions. In this way,

Sartre took existentialism in a very positive direction. He advocated for the downtrodden, and
continually struggled for a more egalitarian society based on the worth of each individual.
The theater of Samuel Beckett brings together themes and concepts common to several periods of
literary and intellectual history. His drama is most frequently characterized by spare, minimalist
settings, peopled by beings that seem incomplete and strange. There is a distinct rejection of
traditional stage play structures and expectations. The conflicts which Beckett presents to the
audience for all drama must have some conflict are sometimes so obfuscating as to frustrate and
distort meaning entirely. Characters do not know where they are or what their purpose is or their
purpose lacks discernible meaning. Audiences often find Beckett extremely frustrating and
inaccessible, but one could argue that inaccessibility is precisely the point. Existence itself is difficult,
confusing, frustrating and even at its very end refuses to divulge any meaning other than what the
individual has created for him or herself. With that in mind, the theater of Beckett is truly a mirror
held up to the insanity of modern existence. Seemingly fantastic and meaningless settings mimic
those same settings which people inhabit daily, from the office to the mall to the subway train.
Anyone who has stopped in the middle of their daily routine and realized, This is crazy, is a coconspirator with Samuel Beckett.
Contemporary film and literature have by no means given up the ghost of existential thought. Chuck
Palahniuk, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch all have created works of art that follow a direct line
from nineteenth century existential philosophy. Palahniuk offers a prime example of how
existentialist ideas can still permeate work that is firmly rooted in the contemporary idiom. In Fight
Club, readers are introduced to a fast-talking, mentally unstable protagonist who regurgitates a lot of
the ideas of existentialism, yet simultaneously cannot grasp the import of the philosophy he recites.
The modern world, which commodifies everything, even ones internal life, has rendered all
philosophies essentially bankrupt. The reaction of the protagonist is to rail against that
commodification in ever more violent ways, but nevertheless he cannot escape the commercial,
postmodern world which he inhabits. Part of him understands this, and resists the urge to simply
annihilate things this provides the greatest twist of the novel and that part of him is ultimately
correct. The unfortunate conclusion that Palahniuk forces the reader to grapple with is that existence
as such has become a commodity, a blank slate for advertisers, and the individual no longer has
self-ownership and self-determination. Of course given that Palahniuk is writing in a very
contemporary idiom, many interpretations are absolutely possible. One could even read that an
embrace of commodity culture, a sell-out to buy-in, is the most meaningful response possible in the
world that has come to pass in the twenty-first century.
As quickly as it came into the mainstream, existentialist philosophy and literature fell out of fashion.
There are several reasonable explanations for this. In the first place, the labels that critics give to
periods of intellectual and literary history are frequently applied in hindsight. Existentialism was
never really a cohesive body of thought, but instead a vague and amorphous intersection of ideas,
questions, and methods of inquiry. Few people labeled themselves as existentialists. Many, in fact,
resisted the appellation altogether. Second, the adoption of existentialist philosophical principles in
popular art reduced its significance to that of a product, a kind of kitsch that many self-respecting
thinkers shied away from. Contemporary literature adopts, discards, and modifies so many
philosophical and aesthetic perspectives that holistic points of view like existentialism gets washed
out by all the competing voices. However, the influence of existential thought is not totally swept
away, as many filmmakers and novelists still claim the likes of Kafka or Sartre as prime inspirations.
This article is copyrighted 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh
Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a
Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.