Existentialism in the Early 19th CenturyMajor ThemesBecause of the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, the termis impossible to define precisely. Certain themes common to virtually allexistentialist writers can, however, be identified.
The term itself suggests onemajor theme: the stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, onsubjectivity, individual freedom, and choice.Moral IndividualismMost philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is thesame for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resemblesother morally perfect individuals. The 19th-century Danish philosopher SorenKierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reactedagainst this tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual isto find his or her own unique vocation. As he wrote in his journal, “I must finda truth that is true for me . .
. the idea for which I can live or die.” Otherexistentialist writers have echoed Kierkegaard’s belief that one must chooseone’s own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Against thetraditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right andwrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can befound for moral decisions.
The 19th-century German philosopher FriedrichNietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations areto count asmoral situations.SubjectivityAll existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance ofpassionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth.They have insisted, accordingly, that personal experience and acting on one’sown convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. Thus, the understandingof a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of adetached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individualagent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning.Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and other existentialist writers have been deliberatelyunsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies, preferring to expressthemselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despitetheir antirationalist position, however, most existentialists cannot be said tobe irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought.
Theyhave held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that themost important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science.Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as iscommonly supposed. Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientificassumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction.Choice and CommitmentPerhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice.Humanity’s primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is thefreedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have afixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makeschoices that create his or her own nature.
In the formulation of the 20th-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choiceis therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusalto choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility.Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists haveargued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following theircommitment wherever it leads.Dread and AnxietyKierkegaard held that it is spiritually crucial to recognize that oneexperiences not only a fear of specific objects but also a feeling of generalapprehension, which he called dread. He interpreted it as God’s way of callingeach individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life. The wordanxiety (German Angst) has a similarly crucial role in the work of the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger; anxiety leads to the individual’sconfrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimatejustification for the choices he or she must make.
In the philosophy of Sartre,the word nausea is used for the individual’s recognition of the pure contingencyof the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the totalfreedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.HistoryExistentialism as a distinct philosophical and literary movement belongs to the19th and 20th centuries, but elements of existentialism can be found in thethought (and life) of Socrates, in the Bible, and in the work of many premodernphilosophers and writers.PascalThe first to anticipate the major concerns of modern existentialism was the17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal rejected the rigorousrationalism of his contemporary Rene Descartes, asserting, in his Pensees (1670),that a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and humanity is a formof pride. Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms ofparadoxes: The human self, which combines mind and body, is itself a paradox andcontradiction.KierkegaardKierkegaard, generally regarded as the founder of modern existentialism, reactedagainst the systematic absolute idealism of the 19th-century German philosopherG. W.
F. Hegel, who claimed to have worked out a total rational understanding ofhumanity and history. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, stressed the ambiguity andabsurdity of the human situation. The individual’s response to this situationmust be to live a totally committed life, and this commitment can only beunderstood by the individual who has made it.
The individual therefore mustalways be prepared to defy the norms of society for the sake of the higherauthority of a personally valid way of life. Kierkegaard ultimately advocated a “leap of faith” into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensibleand full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individualfrom despair.NietzscheNietzsche, who was not acquainted with the work of Kierkegaard, influencedsubsequent existentialist thought through his criticism of traditionalmetaphysical and moral assumptions and through his espousal of tragic pessimismand the life-affirming individual will that opposes itself to the moralconformity of the majority. In contrast to Kierkegaard, whose attack onconventional morality led him to advocate a radically individualisticChristianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God” and went on to reject theentire Judeo-Christian moral tradition in favor of a heroic pagan ideal.HeideggerHeidegger, like Pascal and Kierkegaard, reacted against an attempt to putphilosophy on a conclusive rationalistic basisin this case the phenomenology ofthe 20th-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl.
Heidegger argued thathumanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. Human beingscan never hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual mustchoose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certaintyof death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one’s life. Heidegger contributedto existentialist thought an original emphasis on being and ontology as well ason language.SartreSartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for hisown philosophy and by becoming the leading figure of a distinct movement inFrance that became internationally influential after World War II. Sartre’sphilosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that humanbeings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one,and thus human life is a “futile passion.” Sartre nevertheless insisted that hisexistentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom,choice, and responsibility. He eventually tried to reconcile theseexistentialist concepts with a Marxist analysis of society and history.
Existentialism and TheologyAlthough existentialist thought encompasses the uncompromising atheism ofNietzsche and Sartre and the agnosticism of Heidegger, its origin in theintensely religious philosophies of Pascal and Kierkegaard foreshadowed itsprofound influence on 20th-century theology. The 20th-century German philosopherKarl Jaspers, although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, influencedcontemporary theology through his preoccupation with transcendence and thelimits of human experience. The German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich andRudolf Bultmann, the French Roman Catholic theologian Gabriel Marcel, theRussian Orthodox philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, and the German Jewishphilosopher Martin Buber inherited many of Kierkegaard’s concerns, especiallythat a personal sense of authenticity and commitment is essential to religiousfaith.Existentialism and LiteratureA number of existentialist philosophers used literary forms to convey theirthought, and existentialism has been as vital and as extensive a movement inliterature as in philosophy.
The 19th-century Russian novelist FyodorDostoyevsky is probably the greatest existentialist literary figure. In Notesfrom the Underground (1864), the alienated antihero rages against the optimisticassumptions of rationalist humanism. The view of human nature that emerges inthis and other novels of Dostoyevsky is that it is unpredictable and perverselyself-destructive; only Christian love can save humanity from itself, but suchlove cannot be understood philosophically. As the character Alyosha says in TheBrothers Karamazov (1879-80), “We must love life more than the meaning of it.”In the 20th century, the novels of the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Kafka, suchas The Trial (1925; trans. 1937) and The Castle (1926; trans. 1930), presentisolated men confronting vast, elusive, menacing bureaucracies; Kafka’s themesof anxiety, guilt, and solitude reflect the influence of Kierkegaard,Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche.
The influence of Nietzsche is also discernible inthe novels of the French writers Andre Malraux and in the plays of Sartre. Thework of the French writer Albert Camus is usually associated with existentialismbecause of the prominence in it of such themes as the apparent absurdity andfutility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity ofengagement in a just cause. Existentialist themes are also reflected in thetheater of the absurd, notably in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.In the United States, the influence of existentialism on literature has beenmore indirect and diffuse, but traces of Kierkegaard’s thought can be found inthe novels of Walker Percy and John Updike, and various existentialist themesare apparent in the work of such diverse writers as Norman Mailer, John Barth,and Arthur Miller.