Six Basic Themes of Existentialism

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Six Basic Themes of Existentialism

First, there is the basic existentialist standpoint, that existence precedes essence, has primacy over essence. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as a conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, or system. Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence. --by T. Z. Lavine

A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain streams of thought in Judaism and Christianity which see human existence as fallen, and human life as lived in suffering and sin, guilt and anxiety. This dark and forboding picture of human life leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, the serenity of Stoicism, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence.

A third existentialist theme is that of absurdity. Granted, says the existentialist, I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and wholly absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place---but why now? Why here? Kierkegaard asked. For no reason, without necessary connection, only contingently, and so my life is an absurd contingent fact. Expressive of absurdity are these words by Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher of Descarte's time, who was also an early forerunner of existentialism. Pascal says:

"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then." --by T. Z. Lavine

The fourth theme which pervades existentialism is that of nothingness or the void. If no essences define me, and if, then, as an existentialist, I reject all of the philosophies, sciences, political theories, and religions which fail to reflect my existence as conscious being and attempt to impose a specific essentialist structure upon me and my world, then there is nothing that structures my world. I have followed Kierkegaard's lead. I have stripped myself of all unacceptable structure, the structures of knowledge, moral value, and human relationship, and I stand in anguish at the edge of the abyss. I am my own existence, but my existence is a nothingness. I live then without anything to structure my being and my world, and I am looking into emptiness and the void, hovering over the abyss in fear and trembling and living the life of dread. ----by T. Z. Lavine

The fourth theme which pervades existentialism is that of nothingness or the void. If no essences define me, and if, then, as an existentialist, I reject all of the philosophies, sciences, political theories, and religions which fail to reflect my existence as conscious being and attempt to impose a specific essentialist structure upon me and my world, then there is nothing that structures my world. I have followed Kierkegaard's lead. I have stripped myself of all unacceptable structure, the structures of knowledge, moral value, and human relationship, and I stand in anguish at the edge of the abyss. I am my own existence, but my existence is a nothingness. I live then without anything to structure my being and my world, and I am looking into emptiness and the void, hovering over the abyss in fear and trembling and living the life of dread. ----by T. Z. Lavine

Related to the theme of nothingness is the existentialist theme of death. Nothingness, in the form of death, which is my final nothingness, hangs over me like a sword of Damocles at each moment of my life. I am filled with anxiety at times when I permit myself to be aware of this. At those moments, says Martin Heidegger, the most influential of the German existentialist philosophers, the whole of my being seems to drift away into nothing. The unaware person tries to live as if death is not actual, he tries to escape its reality. But Heidegger says that my death is my most authentic, significant moment, my personal potentiality, which I alone must suffer. And if I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life-- and only then will I be free to become myself. But here the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre begs to differ. What is death, he asks? Death is my total nonexistence. Death is as absurd as birth-- it is no ultimate, authentic moment of my life, it is nothing but the wiping out of my existence as conscious being. Death is only another witness to the absurdity of human existence. ----by T. Z. Lavine

Alienation or estrangement is a sixth theme which characterizes existentialism. Alienation is a theme which Hegel opened up for the modern world on many levels and in many subtle forms. Thus the Absolute is estranged from itself as it exists only in the development of finite spirit in historical time. But finite spirit also lives in alienation from its true consciousness of its own freedom, which it gains only slowly in the dialectic of history. There is also the alienation that exists in society: the alienation of individual human beings who pursue their own desires in estrangement from the actual institutional workings of their society, which are controlled by the Cunning of Reason. Alienated from the social system, they do not know that their desires are system-determined and system-determining. And there is the alienation of those who do not identify with the institutions of their own society, who find their society empty and meaningless. And there is also for Hegel the alienation which develops in civil society between the small class of the wealthy and the growing discontent of the large class of impoverished workers. The most profound alienation of all in Hegel's thought is the alienation or estrangement between my consciousness and its objects, in which I am aware of the otherness of the object and seek in a variety of ways to overcome its alienation by mastering it, by bringing it back into myself in some way.

As for Marx, we have seen that in the split between the two Marxisms, the young Marx is focused upon the concept of economic alienation. As a worker I am alienated from myself, from the product of my labor, from the money-worshipping society, from all those social institutions-- family, morality, law, government-- which coerce me into the service of the money-God and keep me from realizing my human creative potentiality. In mature Marxism, alienation is expressed through the division of labor and its many ramifications.

How, then, do existentialists use the concept of alienation? Apart from my own conscious being, all else, they say, is otherness, from which I am estranged. We are hemmed in by a world of things which are opaque to us and which we cannot understand. Moreover, science itself has alienated us from nature, by its outpouring of highly specialized and mathematicized concepts, laws, theories, and technologies which are unintelligible to the nonspecialist and layman; these products of science now stand between us and nature. And the Industrial Revolution has alienated the worker from the product of his own labor, and has made him into a mechanical component in the productive system, as Marx has taught us.

We are also estranged, say the existentialists, from human institutions-- bureaucratized government on the federal, state, and local levels, national political parties, giant business corporations, national religious organizations -- all of these appear to be vast, impersonal sources of power which have a life of their own. As individuals we neither feel that we are part of them nor can we understand their workings. We live in alienation from our own institutions. Moreover, say the existentialists, we are shut out of history. We no longer have a sense of having roots in a meaningful past nor do we see ourselves as moving toward a meaningful future. As a result, we do not belong to the past, to the present, or to the future.

And lastly, and perhaps most painfully, the existentialists point out that all of our personal human relationships are poisoned by feelings of alienation from any "other." Alienation and hostility arise within the family between parents and children, between the husband and the wife, between the children. Alienation affects all social and work relations, and most cruelly, alienation dominates the relationship of love.

These are the disturbing, provocative themes which can be found in contemporary existentialism. But now we must ask: If this is indeed the human condition, if this is a true picture of the world in which the human subject absurdly finds himself, how is it possible to go on living in it? Is there no exit from this anxiety and despair, this nothingness and absurdity, this fixation upon alienation, this hovering on the edge of the abyss? Is there any existentialist who can tell us how to live in such an absurd and hopeless world? Is there an existentialist ethics, a moral philosophy to tell us what is good, what can be said to be right or wrong, in such a meaningless world? --by T. Z. Lavine

 

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