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Continental Philosophy: Existentialism and Phenomenology Essay

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Existentialism is based on the assumption that traditional philosophy is remote from the concerns of real life while the true philosophy should focus on the individual confrontation with the world. World is irrational and absurd, it is impossible to find the true reasons and explanations of events, and humans confront the world only to be able to choose how to live within this world. Phenomenology, similar to existentialism, is the product of earlier philosophers as well as artists and writers. It is based on the assumption that knowledge of truth can be obtained only through considering the entire experience at the moment and supposing that there is a second world lying beyond this experience. Both existentialism and phenomenology developed in the respond to Hegelian idealism and questioned the philosophical assumptions of nineteenth century.

Existentialism

Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre are the most influential Continental philosophers of twenties century. Prominent existentialists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche strongly disagreed with optimistic Hegelian idealism and metaphysics in general (Moore-Bruder, 2005). They believed that without confrontation of human existence problems, life could only deteriorate. Kierkegaard disliked the system proposed by Hegel in which humans dissolved into abstract unreality. On the contrary, he emphasized that human are capable of making important choices. He was especially concerned with the causes why and how people make choices. The major theme of existentialism is irrationality of the world in opposition to Hegel’s rationality.

Nietzsche widened the writings of Kierkegaard to include the themes of emptiness and decadence. He was concerned with the each person’s disdain for meaningless systems, thoughts, and denial of rationality (Moore-Bruder, 2005). Nietzsche believed that humans strive to find the reason of existence only because they want to avoid entire despair. Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that people live and die without realizing their true essence and seeing things as they really are. Unlike Hegelian optimism, existentialism is pessimistic. Camus noted that people waste their lives in self-confidence instead of realizing the tragic nature of life. He completely rejected Hegel’s idealism and labeled it as forced optimism. Camus wrote that optimism is self-deception which dominates the mode of being (Moore-Bruder, 2005). Life is absurd and there is not ultimate reason why things are the way they are. Thus, humans are strangers to themselves and are unable to meet the fundamental needs (need for understanding and need for social contact).

Unlike Camus who was agnostic, Sartre was atheistic and had a strong belief that God does not exists. The main theme of his philosophy and existentialism in general is abandonment of man. Sartre held that there is no God and therefore, there is no divine conception of man. Thus, there is no such thing as human nature and there is no essence that defines what it is to be a human (Moore-Bruder, 2005). Earlier philosophers assumed that human existence has a definite essence, while for Sartre existence precedes essence and humans are what they make of themselves. Sartre rejected determinism and stated that if there is no God, there is no plan that determines what must happen and humans are free, nobody and nothing forces them to do what they do. Therefore, humans are responsible to live authentically and have to make intentional choices.

Phenomenology

Phenomenology, similar to existentialism, is rooted in the essential structures of conscious experience. The structures of phenomena manifest themselves independently from scientific assumptions. Edmund Husserl, the first phenomenologist, rekindles Hegel’s faith in possibility of certainty. The purpose of his work was to investigate the phenomena without making any assumptions about the world, to examine the meaning produced by pure consciousness (Moore-Bruder, 2005). He strived to find the meaning of real life in term of essences shared by all humans. Heidegger continued the work of Husserl and supported the claim that to be able to understand the reality it is necessary to look at the things without presuppositions. Unlike Husserl who focus on phenomena, Heidegger saw Being as the ultimate source. He noted that the assumption that humans are masters of nature is arrogant and humans do not have absolute power.

Heidegger rejected the assumption that humans have power over nature and, as the result, they have no power to make decisions. Thus, phenomenological vision of essence is in opposition to existentialistic assumption about human ability to choose and decide. Emmanuel Levinas, Heidegger’s follower, tried to establish a philosophy rooted in radical otherness (Moore-Bruder, 2005). He assumed that time, language, and existence are other and God is an Absolute Otherness. According to his writings, understanding of true meaning can be reached only by a meeting with the radical other. Unlike Sartre who rejected existence of God, Levinas argument is founded on the assumption that God is the only unachievable Absolute Otherness.

In conclusion, both existentialism and phenomenology evolved in response to Hegel’s idealism, however, these two philosophical thoughts have developed in opposition to each other. Existentialism supports the assumption that humans are free and, therefore, build reality by themselves and have responsibility for their choices. Phenomenology, on the contrary, rejects the reality of essence and human power. Phenomenology assumes that ultimate reality exists, however, it is not achievable. Existentialism and phenomenology deal with the questions of essence, human power, and vision of the world, and even though both philosophies evolved in response to Hegel’s idealism, they promote opposite views on human existence.

References

Moore-Bruder. (2005). Metaphysics and Epistemology: Existence and Knowledge (Ch. 8). Philosophy: The Power of Ideas (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill Companies.

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