Does existentialism exist? Or is it just an idea in the mind of Sartre?
The instant expert: existentialism
Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur undertakes a Sisyphean task, a look at the big names of existentialism - from Sartre to... Oprah
THE BASICS, PART ONE Existentialism is a philosophy. (That's the easy part; now the sledding gets heavy, students, but bear with us.) Its founding premise is the individual's existence. Everything it espouses about our world, feelings, thoughts, knowledge and ethics rests on this lodestone. It is not for the faint of heart.
THE BASICS, PART TWO Existentialism was also a cultural movement that thrived in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s through the literary and philosophical works of Jean-Paul Sartre and his kindred spirits, especially Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus. Thus, it is a term some would consign to intellectual history. Indeed, one could, amusingly, ask the question - echoing the gloomy curmudgeon Friedrich Nietzsche's speculation about God, and the famed April 8, 1996, cover of Time magazine - is existentialism dead?
IT'S ALL UP TO YOU "Existence precedes essence," the French thinker Sartre famously wrote. In short, the individual defines himself, gives his or her life meaning and chooses to live passionately and sincerely, even at the expense of suffering existential angst as a consequence.
BIG DADDY The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is seen as the father of existentialism, though he never used the term. The self was everything to him, each human creating a self, resulting in "the dizziness of freedom" and "fear and trembling".
HOW ABSURD Camus rejected the label existentialist and considered his work as concerned with the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus (see box), he likens the human condition to the plight of the Greek condemned eternally to roll a rock uphill only to have it plummet down from the summit each time. Absurd, yes? Yet Camus argues that Sisyphus, by applying himself to his task, finds meaning in it.
IS NOTHING SACRED? It's easy to confuse existentialism and nihilism, given that Nietzsche is important in both. Here's the difference:existentialists believe one can create value and meaning; nihilists deny this.
SOME FORERUNNERS... Buddha, Socrates, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Islamic philosopher Mulla Sadra, Henry David Thoreau, Blaise Pascal, Voltaire's Candide and Shakespeare's Hamlet all could be said to have been proto-existentialists. They'd make for quite the interesting dinner party, wouldn't they?
... AND SOME DESCENDANTS... Modern existentialists could be said to include the film directors Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hideaki Anno and the tedious and eternally navel-gazing Woody Allen.
... INCLUDING A PROVOCATIVE CHOICE The US sociologist and author Shayne Lee, writing in The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year, anoints Oprah Winfrey as perhaps the Greatest Existentialist of All. "The breadth of Oprah's personal talent and the scope of her intellectual reach enlist us to ferret the deep-seated metaphor lurking at the surface of our core being," Lee posits. "She helps us to conquer a clearer vision of our purpose and potential." Huh? And we thought she was vapid.
THE DISSENTING OPINION As you might expect, existentialism has its critics, notably Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Roger Scruton and various logical positivists, whatever they are. They all give the Instant Expert a headache, but read them if you feel so inclined.
Five seminal works on existentialism
BEING AND NOTHINGNESS (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1943) Sartre argues for the ruthless examination and dissolution of one's illusions (being) to solve the problem of the human condition (nothingness).
BEING AND TIME (Martin Heidegger, 1927) The German sage dissects the experiences of angst and mortality and progresses to a search for authenticity and "Dasein" (literally, "being-there").
FEAR AND TREMBLING (SørenKierkegaard, 1843) This influential philosophical work about the anxiety of the human condition and resignation to one's fate is universally praised as one of the linchpins of existentialism.
THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS (Albert Camus, 1942) Camus concludes that revolt, not suicide, is the proper response to man's absurd and futile search for meaning in a world that he maintains lacks God and enduring truths or values.
THE OUTSIDER (Colin Wilson, 1956) This best-seller by the then-24-year-old Wilson examines the role of the social "outsider" in works by Camus, Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, TE Lawrence, Vincent van Gogh and others.