Existentialism – Philosophy Notes

The Problem of Being

Since the beginning of introspective thinking, philosophers, saints, and seers have pondered the issue of Being and Existence. This question has been directly addressed in the ancient Indian Upanishads, which investigate the essential element of human nature that endures beyond death and change. The problem of Existence has been a significant preoccupation of philosophers, both ancient and modern, from both Eastern and Western traditions.

All philosophical traditions must address ontological problems, making them fundamentally existentialist in nature. However, modern Existentialism differs from other philosophies in its emphasis on the problem of becoming over the problem of being, particularity over universality, and existence over essence. The father of modern Existentialism, S. Kierkegaard, asserted that the main concern of an existentialist Christian is not knowledge of Christian principles but rather, “how am I to become a Christian.” Non-Christian or atheist existentialists replace “Christian” with the term “Authentic Being.” Thus, existentialists focus on action and choice, instead of the usual emphasis on knowledge and explanation, and shift the question from “what?” to “how?”

Characteristics of Existentialism

The above description highlights the importance of the human person and their freedom in Existentialism. Personal growth and development are viewed as the result of an individual’s own efforts, without the aid of others. Consequently, Existentialism places great value on practical problems related to daily living.

The primary characteristics of Existentialism can be summarized as follows:

Critique of Idealism

Existentialism arose and developed as a reaction against Idealism. Existentialist philosophers hold a critical view of Idealism and conceptualism.

Idealism posits that the human person is essentially an expression of an underlying spiritual or psychic element that has a universal character. According to this view, all humans are fundamentally the same and share a universal character. The human freedom is, therefore, subject to the good of humanity in general.

Existentialists reject the notion that human freedom is arbitrary or solely based on individual will. They criticize the idealist belief that a universal element defines humanity and that individual good is subject to the general good. They view the pursuit of essence as misguided and argue that existence, not essence, is the true reality.

Critique of Naturalism

Existentialist philosophers also criticize the philosophy of Naturalism. Naturalists contend that life is governed by physico-biochemical laws that are subject to the universal law of causation.

The law of causation maintains that everything that happens is a result of antecedent causes, and there are no sudden events without a cause. If the law of causation is universally valid, then there can be no human freedom of action.

This view is strongly opposed by existentialists, who firmly defend the freedom of humans. In fact, according to Sartre, humans are so free that they are afraid of their freedom.

Critique of Scientific Philosophy

In addition to their criticism of idealism and naturalism, existentialist philosophers also reject scientific conceptualism. Science abstracts from immediate data and subsumes it under universal laws or general rules, whereas existentialists argue that all abstraction is false and that reality can only be found in immediate experience.

Moreover, rapid industrialization and urbanization, driven by the progress in science and technology, has resulted in crowded cities where individuals are lost in the masses. Everything is done on a large scale, and personal values and preferences are disregarded. Today, it is not the individual who chooses their destiny; decisions are instead made by computers or statistical laws and data. Science has thus rendered the value of human beings negligible.

Existentialism holds that any true philosophy must be grounded in axiology, the theory of values, rather than epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

Born of Despair

As mentioned previously, the advancement of science and technology has led to the emergence of vast industrial complexes and urban areas, resulting in a detachment from nature. In these large cities, human conflicts and issues have grown exponentially. The devastation of two world wars has shattered humanity’s belief in both the future and philosophy. Due to the growing mechanization of life, there is a sense of hopelessness and despair that has seeped into people’s hearts and minds. The world is becoming directionless, akin to a raft adrift on the open sea.

In such circumstances, individuals with sensitivity and awareness feel lost and hopeless. The existentialists seek to understand and describe these human predicaments, finding ways to navigate and escape them.

Value of Human Personality

Existentialism places great importance on the human personality, as evident from the above observations. In fact, according to existentialists, “Man” is the center of the universe, and nothing is equal to it, not even Brahman, god, or the universe.

The fundamental aspect of the human personality is its freedom, which is absolute and unconstrained. Society and social institutions exist for the sake of man, not the other way around, contrary to what idealists and others may believe. There is no general will to which the individual will is subservient. Any social law or principle that restricts human freedom is considered invalid and unjust in existentialism.

Subjectivity and its importance

Søren Kierkegaard, asserted that truth is subjective and that objectivity and abstraction are mere illusions. While scientists emphasize the importance of objectivity, existentialists take an extreme view that only immediate feeling or apprehension reveals the truth and that abstraction in any form is a corruption of reality.

Existentialists believe that conflicts, pains, and anxieties arising from individuals’ direct experiences reveal the quality of their lives. They analyze and describe these conflicts to trace their causes, which are often moral in nature and indicative of an inauthentic existence. Existentialist thinking transcends reasoning and is grounded in unguarded descriptions of direct experiences.

An honest and sincere biographical account of one’s experiences can help others understand and appreciate the truth of their own situation. By probing into the depths of one’s subjectivity, one can discover the truth of one’s being and find an authentic role in life. This creative process generates fresh insights and allows individuals to confront their true selves. The ability to be alone and stand by oneself is the true freedom and the basis of all morality. According to existentialists, the origins of values lie not in the social situation but in personal insight.

No Construction of Philosophical System

Throughout history, philosophers have deeply contemplated and explored various concepts such as God, the soul, space, time, the physical world, and its origins and evolution. They have attempted to present philosophies that encompass all of these problems and developed comprehensive theoretical systems.

However, existentialists have a different approach. They are skeptical of system-building and theorizing, and instead focus on action as the true aim of philosophy. As a result, they do not spend their time pondering over traditional problems.

Emphasis on the problem of the relation of Individual and World

The existentialists consider the relation between the individual and the world to be a crucial problem. They find traditional explanations unsatisfactory, particularly those that reduce the individual to a mere element of a universal Absolute. This view, as advocated by Hegel, negates the individual’s uniqueness and freedom, something that existentialists strongly oppose. They reject any law, rule, or principle that seeks to subject man, be it universal, natural, social, or political. The existentialists believe in absolute free will and are highly skeptical of any external interference with human freedom.

Emphasis on the Problem of Inner Conflict

The existentialists consider the relation between the individual and the world to be a crucial problem. They find traditional explanations unsatisfactory, particularly those that reduce the individual to a mere element of a universal Absolute. This view, as advocated by Hegel, negates the individual’s uniqueness and freedom, something that existentialists strongly oppose. They reject any law, rule, or principle that seeks to subject man, be it universal, natural, social, or political. The existentialists believe in absolute free will and are highly skeptical of any external interference with human freedom.

Existence Precedes Thinking (Critique of Descartes)

Kierkegaard asserts that truth and existence always take precedence over thinking and that true knowledge is subjective, derived from direct and unmediated experience. He vehemently criticizes Descartes’ famous assertion “Cogito ergo sum,” arguing that existence must come before any thinking can occur. In Kierkegaard’s view, “I” must exist before any mental activity can take place. While thinking is logically necessary for self-knowledge, in the realm of existence, “I” comes before “thinking.”

All existentialists hold the belief that ontology is more fundamental and prior to epistemology. Kierkegaard asserts that “I think” is redundant because it simply adds the proposition “I am” to the self-evident proposition “I think.” Descartes made the philosophical mistake of attempting to know the self as an object, whereas the self is pure consciousness, always a “knower” and never the “known.” The self is not open to doubt, as all doubting originates from the self. The knowledge of self is the knowledge of the knower, which is entirely subjective and cannot be objectified. Everyone has a personal experience of their own self, and introspection is the only way to access it; observation is impossible.

Criticism of Universal Self

Kierkegaard vehemently criticizes the notion of a “universal self” or “universal spirit.” He argues that philosophers have derived this idea from the aggregation of multiple individual selves, much like the concept of hoarseness is derived from many horses. However, this “universal self” is not a concrete entity but rather an objective construct resulting from reason. All products of reason exist only logically, and are not existential realities. Only particulars have actual existence, while universals are merely abstractions that exist only in the realm of thought or reason.

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