Existentialism, a family
of philosophies devoted to an interpretation of human existence in the
world that stresses its concreteness and its problematic character. As
a self-conscious movement it is primarily a 20th-century phenomenon, embracing
Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gabriel Marcel, and Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, but its characteristic features occur earlier, especially
in the 19th-century thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.
Edmund Husserl and W.F. Hegel, though not Existentialists, are major influences,
the latter mainly by virtue of reaction against him.
Philosophical Schools and Doctrines, Western. Though often seen as an irrationalist revolt against traditional philosophy, Existentialism is largely a coherent development within it. For several reasons it rejects epistemology and the attempt to ground human knowledge. Firstly, human beings are not solely or even primarily knowers; they also care, desire, manipulate, and, above all, choose and act. Thus Heidegger regards objects not primarily as "things" for cognition—this is a derivative characteristic—but as tools for use; Merleau-Ponty holds that lived experience begins with one's experience of one's own body. Secondly, the self or ego, required by some if not all epistemological doctrines, is not a basic feature of the prereflective experience. It emerges from one's experience of other people. The cognizing ego presupposes rather than infers or constitutes the existence of external objects. Finally, man is not a detached observer of the world, but "in the world." He "exists" in a special sense in which entities like stones and trees do not; he is open to the world and to objects in it. Contrary to Descartes's view, however, he is open to them without any intermediary stratum of ideas or sensations. There is no distinct realm of consciousness, on the basis of which one might infer, project, or doubt the existence of external objects. Their rejection of Cartesian dualism is one reason why Existentialists are concerned with being rather than knowing, and why they argue that phenomenology is also ontology. The claim that man exists in this unique sense also means that he is open to a future which he determines by his choices and actions; he is free. Other entities—stones, trees, tigers—have a fixed nature or essence that determines what they are and what they do. In contrast, neither as a species nor as individuals do human beings have such an essence that governs their conduct. Man makes himself what he is by his choices, choices of ways of life (Kierkegaard) or of particular actions (Sartre). Even when he seems simply to be acting out a "given" role or following "given" values—given, for example, by God or by society—he is in fact choosing to do so, for there are no given values that can determine, in and of themselves, rationally or causally, man's choices. It does not follow that the choices available are unlimited. His "being in the world" implies that man is "thrown" (Heidegger) into a specific situation, and not all the choices that that seems to leave open are in fact possible; but which ones are possible and which are not cannot be known in advance. Existentialists have inferred, controversially, that man's choices are not explicable, physically or otherwise, and have rejected scientific Materialism. They have also argued that the openness of the future and the specificity of individuals and of their situations elude rationalist philosophical systems. This is another reason for their concern with "being." Being contrasts not only with knowing, but also with abstract concepts, which cannot fully capture what is individual and specific. Since man's choices cannot, in their view, be rationally grounded, Existentialists do not propose, except incidentally, an ethic in the sense of a set of rules or values, but rather a framework in which action and choice are to be viewed. This framework does not tell one what to choose, but it does imply that there are right and wrong ways of choosing. One can be authentic or inauthentic (Heidegger), act in bad faith or with sincerity (Sartre). To act in bad faith is, for example, to follow the herd unquestioningly, or to suppose that given values, given institutions, or one's own character curtails one's choices. It is especially in the face of "limit situations" (Jaspers) such as death, struggle, guilt, or anxiety that one becomes aware of one's responsibility as an agent, as well as of the ultimate inexplicability of the world in which one must act. Existentialism has had an enormous influence outside philosophy, on, for example, psychology (Jaspers, Ludwig Binswanger, R.D. Laing) and—although it is compatible with atheism (Heidegger, Sartre), as well as with Christianity (Kierkegaard, Marcel)—on theology (Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann).
Existentialism as such entails no particular political doctrines, but its stress on responsibility and its aversion to conformism and to whatever impairs human freedom can be conducive to political activism (Sartre). Although most Existentialists have disregarded Kierkegaard's exclusive recommendation of "indirect communication," the importance of specific situations and autonomous choices implies that existential truths can be conveyed in drama and fiction as well as in direct philosophical discourse; the concerns of the movement have inspired a large body of imaginative literature (Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir). In addition, the philosophy has provided a means of articulating and interpreting these same themes as discerned in works of literature from all periods (e.g., Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner).
© 1994 By Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.