Existentialism is a European philosophy that started in the mid-1800s and hit its stride in the years around World War II. It has two parts:
- Life has no inherent meaning. Nothing we do matters in an absolute sense. There is no God, no objective morality, and no cosmic “purpose” in life.
- That’s OK. Or even better than okay, because it means that life can have the meaning that we give it—that we are more important than any pre-conceived notions about our lives.
If you have only the first part and not the second, you’d be considered a nihilist; with both parts, you become an existentialist. The reason it’s called existentialism is the idea that our actual existence—what we’re doing or experiencing at any given moment, is primary, rather than some absolute reality, like god, behind the scenes. So, existentialism is a positive alternative to nihilism. Existentialism also grew out of phenomenology, a philosophy which attempted to make a new firmer foundation for philosophy by only making statements about what you know to be true, 100%, without a doubt, which turns out to be only that you are having such-and-such an experience, right now. So, phenomenologists strongly justified the idea that your individual experience here and now is more real than any gods or abstract ideals.
So, existentialists focus on individual experience and freedom; for existentialists, it’s OK that the universe has no inherent meaning, because that leaves us free to create our own meanings, which are more real, and may even turn out to be more beautiful and inspiring than the old universal certainties of religion and traditional philosophy. On the other hand, the risks are considerable; if meaning in life is entirely up to us, then what do we say to people who make their meaning by harming others?
II. Existentialism vs. Transcendentalism
Existentialists and Transcendentalists both originated around the same time, and both responded to the threat of nihilism. People in this time were worried that they were slipping into nihilism because rationalism and contact with non-European cultures were making it difficult for European and American thinkers to believe in absolute religious meanings. Both philosophies were partially influenced by Eastern philosophies like Buddhism, which has no dogma and focus on experience rather than belief. In fact, some people consider Buddhism a nihilistic religion.
Whereas existentialism accepted the basic claims of nihilism (part 1 of the idea) and then tried to re-interpret them, Transcendentalism rejected part 1 entirely, arguing instead that meaning and purpose in life do come from a universal, transcendent source, but one which does not rely on a particular religious dogma – some kind of divinity which pervades all nature and is consistent with reason and science; it was a kind of pantheism.
As such, Transcendentalism can be consistent with many different religions, as long as one believes that god is in everything; some Transcendentalists are Christians, others are inspired by Eastern religions, and still others are Secular Humanists, believing in no traditional religion.
III. Famous Quotes About Existentialism
“We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (Albert Camus)
Albert Camus, a French philosopher, is widely considered an existentialist, although he might have disagreed; he promoted a unique kind of existentialism called absurdism. This short quote sums up the idea pretty well. Sisyphus was a character in Greek mythology, a man condemned to Hades by the gods. He was given a boulder to roll up a hill and told that if he pushed it to the top he would be set free; but every time he would get within inches of the top, the boulder would slip from his grasp to roll all the way back down to the bottom. Camus argued that this was a good metaphor for human life – pointless, endless, absurd. But he believed that we could imagine Sisyphus smiling as he worked in spite of all that. Sisyphus, after all, makes a choice: every time the boulder rolls down the hill, he chooses to go back to the bottom and start again, rather than choosing to give up. For Camus, this is how human beings must learn to be happy – we must choose, over and over again, to go about our daily lives and fight for what we believe, even though it’s certainly all absurd in the end.
“The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” (Carl Sagan)
Carl Sagan was an astronomer who dedicated his life to showing people the beauty of the natural universe. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson today, Sagan was a popular figure who made poetry out of science. In this quote, Sagan sounds like an existentialist, as he suggests that there is no inherent purpose or meaning in the universe.
IV. The History and Importance of Existentialism
The history of existentialism can be traced back to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It wasn’t called existentialism then, but Kierkegaard is still considered the first existentialist. Given that Existentialism involves a lack of belief in God or inherent purpose in life of faith, it may be surprising to learn that Kierkegaard was a devout Christian! Not only that, his whole philosophy was based on trying to explain why faith in God was important. Kierkegaard argued that no logic, science, or philosophy could ever prove God’s existence, and therefore that a “Leap of Faith” was necessary. But there was no reason for this Leap of Faith other than the fact that it would help make human life worth living! In other words, Kierkegaard was existentialist because he claimed that we humans are responsible for giving meaning to our own lives—through the leap of faith. We’ll see another example of this “religious existentialism” in the next section.
Kierkegaard died in 1855, but the philosophy of existentialism didn’t truly come into its own until almost a hundred years later, in the aftermath of World War II. During the Holocaust, many Jewish intellectuals suffered through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and nearly all lost family members and friends. These intellectuals, and many sympathetic non-Jews, found it impossible to believe that the world had any inherent meaning after that experience. If God allowed the Holocaust to happen, then He was either evil, or too weak to be worth worshipping. Many people abandoned their faiths and tried to make new meaning in their lives based on existentialist ideas.
The biggest name in existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, write during this period and defined existentialism more than any other philosopher. He is most famed for saying “existence precedes essence” which means that what you are or do in each moment comes before (is more real) than any general category or idea that might be applied to you—which is the opposite of the way many people had thought in the western world, at least since ancient Greece.
Existentialism had the greatest impact on western thinking in the late 20th Century in all sorts of different areas. Psychologists, sociologists, and even some physical scientists adopted this stance toward the meaning of life. They asked questions like: why didn’t more Jews and other Holocaust victims commit suicide? How is it possible to live on after such trauma? Meanwhile, the idea that we make meaning, rather than being given it, became central to all of the humanities—linguistics, anthropology, history, literary theory, etc. Later in the 20th century, after people had had time to explore the implications of existentialism, it evolved into a variety of further philosophies, especially deconstructionism, which focuses on the idea that all meanings are constructed by people and have no absolute foundation.
V. Existentialism in Popular Culture
“[They say] the world is a fine place and worth fighting for . . . I agree with the second part.” (Detective Somerset, SE7EN)
The horror movie SE7EN features an Existentialist detective who, after years of chasing serial killers, has pretty much given up on humanity. However, he doesn’t slip into nihilism despite his grim view of the world. Instead, he dedicates himself to his job and gains some solace from the choice to keep fighting even though he believes it’s a lost cause.
“Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that! The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it.” (Gary, South Park)
In one of the most popular episodes of South Park, a Mormon kid moves into town from Utah. Much of the episode ridicules Gary’s religion, poking all sorts of holes in its sacred stories. In the end, though, we learn that Gary’s commitment to his religion is based on faith in its deeper teachings, not belief in the stories themselves. This is a very existentialist way to relate to your religion – not to see it as based on eternal, sacred, or transcendent truths, but simply as a set of ideas and rituals that help you live a better life in the here-and-now. The element of choice at the end makes this quote particularly existentialist.