If you’ve ever caught yourself questioning existence, our place in the universe, or even asked yourself what the meaning of life is, then you have taken part in existential philosophy. But what exactly is existentialism?
What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is associated with several 19th and 20th century European philosophers who shared an emphasis on human existence, despite profound theoretical and even academic differences.
It’s philosophy is centered on the belief that we are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives. Which implies that our purpose is not given to us solely by Gods , governments, or teachers, but is instead created as we experience and live our lives.
It examines our mortal search for meaning in a meaningless universe, instead of wondering “what is a good life?” it simply asks “what is life good for?”
Existentialism is often explained as the opposite of essentialism, a philosophy which originated with the Greek Aristotle.
Within this opposing school of thought, it is essence that is created prior to existence, and people are born with a predetermined purpose.
Soren Kierkegard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither labeled themselves existentialists.
The term itself was adopted by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid 1940s, who then applied it to Jean Paul Sartre. However, Sartre initially rejected the label, before adopting it in a lecture in 1945.
After Sartre, it became a common label with many philosophers after their death, with figures such as Martin Heidegger, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus all being considered, to some extent, existentialists.
There are four prominent concepts of existentialism: existence over essence, facticity, authenticity, and the absurd.
#1 Existence over essence
The major concept of existentialists is the idea that existence prevails over essence. It was argued by Satre that individuals shape themselves by existing and they are not born with inherent meaning or even personalities.
This insists that human beings, through conscious action, create their own values and determine a meaning for their life.
It was said best by Jean-Paul Sartre, “man is condemned to be free, because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
If we are to believe that it is only what we do that makes us who we are, and that every choice we make in this life determines who we are and how we are meant to live 24, we are seeing life through the existentialist lens.
In John Kakauer’s world famous novel “Into The Wild'', we find a character who is living exactly in this way. He has removed himself from society to live the remainder of his life in the moment, instead of living in accordance with future predictions, therefore choosing existence over essence, or in other terms the present moment over a predetermined future.
Facticity is a term often used in existentialist debate related to the idea that we are what our actions make us. This is easily understood in relation to our past, not that we are a product of it, but that it co-constitutes us through a process of cause and effect.
This may be understood through the popular film Batman, in which a young man went through traumatic experiences such as the losing of his parents at a very young age, and felt completely helpless as they were murdered in front of him. Instead of letting his fear rule his life, he made the choice to become a trained fighter and hero of the people.
An authentic existence is an integral part of existentialism. It invokes the idea that one has to create oneself and live in accordance with this self.
This concept may be difficult to understand in theory, however we can see it in many pop culture references such as in the extremely famous movie, Fight Club.
Just as existentialism invokes us to ask ourselves “what is life good for?”The character in Fight Club begins to question his consumer based life and wonders if there is something more than security and material possessions.
When he loses everything, he has a choice to make and decides to create his own reality in every possible way and therefore, finds meaning in his previously meaningless life.
The authentic act is one in accordance with one's own freedom. A component of freedom is facticity,as this involves acting on one's actual values when making a choice so that we take full responsibility for the act.
#4 The Absurd
Another of the concepts that often arises in existentialist thought is the absurd 43 defined not in terms of something odd or strange, but rather as the search for answers in an answerless world.
This relates back to other beliefs, as it's the idea of being born into a meaningless place that requires us to make meaning. The absurd positis there is no one truth, no major rules or guidelines, and one must develop their own moral code to live by.
We can easily see the concept of the absurd in many antiheros across pop culture. These characters were affected by their traumas in such a way that they created a new set of rules to live by, as opposed to following the guidelines that have been established by society.
The comedy film Deadpool from the Marvel cinematic universe, is the perfect example of this idea. In the film, this antihero is experimented on at a young age which leads to him to develop a harsh sense of humor, alongside a desire to live a life with purpose according to his own moral code, even though his personal mission does not align with what we consider to be a hero.
After this short article you may now feel like you’ve at least, in part, been a student of existentialist thought at one point in your life.
We will all ask questions that cannot be answered in logical terms, however, the point of existentialist thought is not to seek, instead, to let things come to you naturally by being yourself.