It is not simply by a pure accident that the 20th century is now being strongly associated with the initial rise of existentialism, as an entirely new branch of Western philosophic thought, which is concerned with the matters of one’s existence, as opposed to the matters of gnoseology, epistemology, and metaphysics – by the beginning of 20th century, many Western intellectuals had realized the fact that it does not make much of a sense to contemplate on the subjects of classical philosophy, without understanding the phenomenological nature of individual’s existence.
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This is the reason why such existentialist philosophers as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, strived to discover the meaning of life as such correspond to particularities of one’s psyche. In other words, the rise of existentialism in the 20th century reflected the fact that, by this time, the development of Western philosophical thought had reached a qualitatively new level, which is why existentialist philosophers of the era had embarked on creating a conceptually new philosophical methodology, meant to be applied within a context of analyzing the integral components of individual’s longing towards “existential sovereignty”. In this paper, we will aim at exploring this thesis to a further extent and also at revealing the classical “trademarks” of existentialist perception of the surrounding reality.
The methodological apparatus of existentialism differs from traditional philosophical methods that idealize rationale, as the only pathway to discovering “higher truth”. For example, Nietzsche and Heidegger address one’s existence as something that defines its quintessence. According to both philosophers, the meaning of every ontological idea varies, in its relation to every particular individual. This is because the emotional subtleties of a person’s character are the ones that affect his destiny more than anything else does. Unlike positivists, like Rene Descartes, who used to say: “I can think, therefore I am”, existentialists say: “Even though that I might exist in the physical sense of this word, my existence can only be thought of in terms of objectivity, for as long as it derives out of emotional depths of my psyche”.
This is why, for existentialists, the notions of passion, immediacy, intensity, integrity, responsibility represent foremost importance, as such that defines the essence of the existential mode of every human being. According to existentialists, it is not logical reasoning that motivates our actions but a passion. The life of every individual is limited in the space-time continuum, even though its flow is directed towards infinity. Therefore, existentialists perceive people’s existence as being absurdist in principle. Our subconscious strive towards immortality is not the product of our logical considerations – it is being motivated by irrational factors alone.
For example, existentialism’s ideological precursor, Friedrich Nietzsche, promoted the idea that it is a blind will to power that encourages people to go on with their daily routine because, for many of them, their lives would lose meaning, if they only thought of existence from purely rationalist perspective. In his famous work “On the Genealogy of Morality”, Nietzsche refers to will as one’s subconscious longing to shape surrounding reality according to its wishes, which can be rationalized to legitimize strong-willed individual’s existential superiority: “Man who has become free, who has the right to make promises, this master of free will, this sovereign—how can he not realize the superiority he enjoys over everyone who does not have the right to make a promise and make pledges on his behalf?” (Nietzsche, Second Essay, 2).
However, it was not up until the beginning of the fifties that the philosophy of existentialism had evolved to consider passion as a sublimation of one’s will, with the concepts of immediacy and intensity being incorporated in its methodological apparatus. The notion of immediacy corresponds to our desire for instant gratification. In addition, it also corresponds to the fact that people tend to view their lives as extrapolations of their psychological anxieties. For example, for us to be able to think of our existence as something that makes sense, our memory associates it with the moments that we think are representative.
However, there is no rational reason for us to consider some of these moments as representative and others as such that has nothing to do with the actual essence of our beings, which serves as another proof as to the absurdist nature of people’s existence. In its turn, this brings existentialists to the conclusion that some people’s lives are less real than the lives of others because they are less intense. This is why individuals can only appreciate the wholesomeness of existence when their lives are being endangered. For example, it is namely soldiers at the front line, during the time of war, which enjoy their lives to their fullest, simply because they are well aware of the fact that they might be getting killed at any moment. This explains why many people seek an adrenaline rush – they simply want to add meaning to their lives by taking a walk on the edge of death.
Albert Camus refers to the extreme states of our existence as “enlightenment through fear”. In his famous book “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Camus suggests that it is only through exploring different aspects of our unconscious psyche, by subjecting it to different sets of extreme circumstances, which can raise our value as individuals: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone” (Camus 51).
According to existentialist philosophy, existence precedes essence. Therefore, the essence is a subjective category and there can be no “things in itself”, as suggested by metaphysics. This is why existentialists use terms from the vocabulary of ethics when it comes to assessing surrounding reality. One of such terms is integrity. Integrity is our ability to adjust the way we act to our beliefs because only this allows us to achieve psychological comfort.
The concept of psychological comfort is what existentialist thought revolves around. We cannot become psychologically satisfied by discovering the universal meaning of life, because the principle of universality simply does not apply to the existential mode of homo sapiens. The positivist notions of duty, responsibility and ethical imperative have a subjective nature because they derive out of our understanding of morality. Thus, we evaluate our lives by assessing them through the lenses of subjectivism, to achieve psychological comfort, which in its turn; our subconsciousness considers as being an objective category.
Therefore, existentialists talk about the absurd as a truly universal principle that defines people’s existence. Jean Sartre used to say that people strive to conceal the absurdist nature of their lives even from themselves by suggesting that there is a higher cause for everything; however, on a subconscious level, these people know perfectly well that such their tendency can never allow them to attain happiness. This is why, in post-industrial society, where the influence of the Church continues to rapidly decline; existentialist worldview comes as something natural to many people, as it encourages them to focus on their own emotional experiences as such that might provide them with an insight onto the purpose of their lives. In the post-industrial world, the actual meaning of people’s political or religious beliefs is of very little importance.
All that matters is whether the people that profess these beliefs are willing to actively impose them on others or not. According to Camus, the person suffers the most from the fact that others cannot understand the full scope of his or her individuality, and it is only the aggressive manifestation of such individuality, which represents the pathway to achieving psychological comfort, on the part of religiously and politically disillusioned citizens.
Nowadays, there are many indications as to the fact that the popularity of existentialism will continue to increase, as time goes by, simply because the existentialist outlook on socio-political processes provides people with the clue on how to avoid being affected by “existential alienation”, within the context of addressing the realities of post-industrial living. Only the individuals capable of affecting the lives of others, by turning their existence into political or cultural statements, can achieve immortality, in the existentialist sense of this word.
Whereas, the realities 20th century have been marked by strongly defined political tensions between states, the realities of the 21st century will be marked by ever-increased tensions between organizations and states, on one hand, and “communities” and “existentialist individuals”, on the other. For example, the group Hamas (single “existentialist” community), with the membership of fewer than 1000 men, has been keeping the whole region of the Middle East (and consequentially, the whole world) in the state of permanent political tension, for the duration of last 10 years, even though it does not even exist officially.
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Osama bin Laden (single “existentialist” individual) has declared a war on the U.S. in 2001, which continues even today, whereas it has only taken four years for America to defeat both: Germany and Japan, during WW2. George Soros (single “existentialist” individual) has been dictating the governments of many sovereign countries in Eastern Europe how to pursue with designing these countries’ social and political policies, etc. Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that despite existentialism’s absurdist overtones, it can be referred to as the dominant philosophy of not too distant future.
Camus, Albert “The Myth of Sisyphus”. NY: Penguin. 1975.
Sartre, Jean-Paul “The Transcendence of the Ego”. London: Routledge. 2004.
Nietzsche, Friedrich “On the Genealogy of Morality”.  2001. IT Department. University of Helsinki. Web.