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There is no purpose to our presence in the universe. We simply find ourselves here; we do not know and will never find out why. Compared with the eternity of time that preceded our birth and will follow our death, the short duration of our existence seems trivial and inexplicable. And death, which irrevocably terminates our existence, testifies to the ultimate absurdity of life.

We must face squarely the fact that existence is purposeless and absurd. Only in doing so can we begin to give our lives meaning. It is in the act of choosing freely from among different possibilities that we shape an authentic existence. There is a dynamic quality to human existence; we have the potential to become more than we are right now. So choose to go watch TV. Or choose to go read a book. Or choose to drop out of school and play saxaphone in the New York subways.

Choose to believe in something you can't prove, or choose to go with what you know to be true rather than what you want to be true. Live authentically. Most philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is the same for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles other morally perfect individuals. As he wrote in his journal, "I must find a truth that is true for me.

Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational, basis can be found for moral decisions. Another 19th-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations. All existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth.

Personal experience and acting on our own convictions are essential for arriving at the truth. Thus, the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individual agent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning.

Existentialist History and Thought

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Albert Camus a 20th-century philosopher , and other existentialist writers have been deliberately unsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies, preferring to express themselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despite their anti-rationalist position, however, most existentialists aren't irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought.

They have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science. Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as is commonly supposed. Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientific assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction.

Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity's primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose.

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The reason for this is that life is "good" for existentialists insofar as it is "authentic. Existentialism is also not caught up in the idea that everything in life can be made better by science. That doesn't mean that existentialists are automatically anti-science or anti-technology; rather, they judge the value of any science or technology based on how it might affect a person's ability to live an authentic life. If science and technology help people avoid taking responsibility for their choices and help them pretend that they are not free, then existentialists will argue that there is a serious problem here.

Existentialists also reject both the arguments that people are good by nature but are ruined by society or culture, and that people are sinful by nature but can be helped to overcome sin through proper religious beliefs. Yes, even Christian existentialists tend to reject the latter proposition, despite the fact that it fits with traditional Christian doctrine. The reason is that existentialists, especially atheist existentialists , reject the idea that there is any fixed human nature to begin with, whether good or evil. Now, Christian existentialists aren't going to completely reject the idea of any fixed human nature; this means that they could accept the idea that people are born sinful.

Nevertheless, the sinful nature of humanity simply isn't the point for Christian existentialists. What they are concerned with is not so much the sins of the past but a person's actions here and now along with the possibility of their accepting God and uniting with God in the future. The primary focus of Christian existentialists is on recognizing the moment of existential crisis in which a person can make a "leap of faith" where they can completely and without reservation commit themselves to God, even if it seems irrational to do so.

In such a context, being born sinful just isn't particularly relevant. For atheistic existentialists, obviously enough, the whole notion of "sin" will play no role at all, except perhaps in metaphorical ways. Because existentialism is a trend or mood involving philosophical themes rather than a coherent system of philosophy, it is possible to trace through the past a number of precursors to the self-aware existentialism that developed in Europe during the early twentieth century.

These precursors involved philosophers who may not have been existentialists themselves, but did explore existentialist themes and thereby paved the way for the creation of existentialism in the 20th century. Existentialism has certainly existed in religion as theologians, and religious leaders have questioned the value of human existence, questioned whether we can ever understand whether life has any meaning, and meditated on why life is so short. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes , for example, has a lot of humanist and existentialist sentiments in it - so many that there were serious debates about whether it should even be added to the biblical canon.

Among the existentialist passages we find:. Ecclesiastes , This is appropriate even though he lived in the first half of the nineteenth century because his influence outside of Denmark was only pronounced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Kierkegaard makes for interesting archetypal contrasts with other important thinkers, both before and after him.

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If Kant is the archetypal rationalist than Kierkegaard is the archetypal romantic. If Hegel is the archetypal systematician, resolving contradictions, Kierkegaard is the archtypal attender to details, relishing paradoxes. And while he shared with the atheist Nietzsche an impression of a harsh world, Kierkegaard thinks that God is the ground and end of the world and of every human longing. The first stage is the aesthetic, the quest for sensual and intellectual pleasure. This eventually leads to boredom and then suicide, however, so there is an impulse to move to a form of life in which there is a conception of oughtness.

The second stage is thus the moral in which we freely align ourselves with the moral law, determined to be good.


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Hegel tried to synthesize the moral life and the aesthetic life but this is actually the highest form of aestheticism. Kierkegaard argued that a jump is involved in moving from one to the other and that we must simply choose. The third stage is the religious in which we must be open to a teleological suspension of the ethical. In the religious life, divine command is paramount and true love for God is expressed in the willingness to set aside moral habits and respond to the divine command. Whereas Kant took everything, even God, to be consistent with the moral imperative this is really his definition of rationality , Kierkegaard argued that the divine command is rationally unapproachable; we must just do it.

The contrast between the moral and religious stages is movingly expressed in the discussion of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trmbling. Abraham becomes for Kirkegaard the one whose life of faith the religious stage transcends moral categories through obedience to God even divine whims. The movement from the aesthetic to the ethical to the religious is premised on a vision of the holiness, the unaproachability of God; morality derives from God, it does not rule God.

This has a very Lutheran, and actually Scotist, accent. God has set us in a situation in which these choices particularly regarding the second movement cannot be made rationally but are finally criterialess; this is essential to the life of faith.

Introduction to Existentialism

Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warders Freely and friendly and clearly, As though it were mine to command. They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune Equably, smilingly, proudly, Like one accustomed to win. Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself, Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, Trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, Tossing in expectation of great events, Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine. Existentialism can be thought of as the twentieth century analogue of nineteenth-century romanticism.

As such, they express a form of resistance to reductionistic analyses of life and its meaning for human beings. Existentialism is typically focused on individual human lives and the poignant inevitability6 of suffering and choice for each individual whereas romanticism tended to be more oriented to the whole of nature and saw human beings as a part of that wider picture.

Introducing the Existentialists: Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger and Camus

Furthermore, romanticism flourished before the wars and genocides of the twentieth century whereas existentialism flourished amid those horrors Wesley J. His intention is to recognize that a diversity of ideas, emphases, and conclusions are to be found among a group of various thinkers who, nevertheless, have enough in common in the way they think to warrant naming them together.

Typically, existentialists take the existing human being as a starting point. The existing human being is distinct from objective nature as a whole because she is a subject , undetermined by laws of nature. She is distinct from previous modern, Western philosophical conceptions of the subject e. Again, she is distinct because she is preoccupied with the problematic finitude of her existing way of being. This last distinction is key. Existence understood as a distinctive way of being, is the common and fundamental concern of these thinkers. Existentialism has had at least as much impact through the arts, especially literature, as it has through philosophy.

Jean-Paul Sartre won Nobel Prizes in philosophy and literature. For the interests of this class, philosophical existentialism may be roughly divided into irreligious and religious existentialism. However it is very difficult to delineate exactly where the division should be drawn. To be an existing human being means to be free.