Existentialism. Key Themes and Art


Key Themes of Existentialism

Although a highly diverse tradition of thought, seven themes can be identified that provide some sense of overall unity. Here, these themes will be briefly introduced; they can then provide us with an intellectual framework within which to discuss exemplary figures within the history of existentialism.

1.Philosophy as a Way of Life

Philosophy should not be thought of primarily either as an attempt to investigate and understand the self or the world, or as a special occupation that concerns only a few. Rather, philosophy must be thought of as fully integrated within life. To be sure, there may need to be professional philosophers, who develop an elaborate set of methods and concepts (Sartre makes this point frequently) but life can be lived philosophically without a technical knowledge of philosophy.  Existentialist thinkers tended to identify two historical antecedents for this notion. First, the ancient Greeks, and particularly the figure of Socrates but also the Stoics and Epicureans. Socrates was not only non-professional, but in his pursuit of the good life he tended to eschew the formation of a 'system' or 'theory', and his teachings took place often in public spaces. In this, the existentialists were hardly unusual. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapid expansion of industrialisation and advance in technology were often seen in terms of an alienation of the human from nature or from a properly natural way of living (for example, thinkers of German and English romanticism).

The second influence on thinking of philosophy as a way of life was German Idealism after Kant. Partly as a response to the 18th century Enlightenment, and under the influence of the Neoplatonists, Schelling and Hegel both thought of philosophy as an activity that is an integral part of the history of human beings, rather than outside of life and the world, looking on. Later in the 19th century, Marx famously criticised previous philosophy by saying that the point of philosophy is not to know things – even to know things about activity – but to change them.  The concept of philosophy as a way of life manifests itself in existentialist thought in a number of ways. Let us give several examples, to which we will return in the sections that follow. First, the existentialists often undertook a critique of modern life in terms of the specialisation of both manual and intellectual labour. Specialisation included philosophy. One consequence of this is that many existentialist thinkers experimented with different styles or genres of writing in order to escape the effects of this specialisation. Second, a notion that we can call 'immanence': philosophy studies life from the inside. For Kierkegaard, for example, the fundamental truths of my existence are not representations – not, that is, ideas, propositions or symbols the meaning of which can be separated from their origin. Rather, the truths of existence are immediately lived, felt and acted. Likewise, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is essential to recognise that the philosopher investigating human existence is, him or herself, an existing human. Third, the nature of life itself is a perennial existentialist concern and, more famously (in Heidegger and in Camus), also the significance of death.

2.Anxiety and Authenticity

A key idea here is that human existence is in some way 'on its own'; anxiety (or anguish) is the recognition of this fact. Anxiety here has two important implications. First, most generally, many existentialists tended to stress the significance of emotions or feelings, in so far as they were presumed to have a less culturally or intellectually mediated relation to one's individual and separate existence. This idea is found in Kierkegaard, as we mentioned above, and in Heidegger's discussion of 'mood'; it is also one reason why existentialism had an influence on psychology. Second, anxiety also stands for a form of existence that is recognition of being on its own. What is meant by 'being on its own' varies among philosophers. For example, it might mean the irrelevance (or even negative influence) of rational thought, moral values, or empirical evidence, when it comes to making fundamental decisions concerning one's existence. As we shall see, Kierkegaard sees Hegel's account of religion in terms of the history of absolute spirit as an exemplary confusion of faith and reason. Alternatively, it might be a more specifically theological claim: the existence of a transcendent deity is not relevant to (or is positively detrimental to) such decisions (a view broadly shared by Nietzsche and Sartre). Finally, being on its own might signify the uniqueness of human existence, and thus the fact that it cannot understand itself in terms of other kinds of existence (Heidegger and Sartre).

Related to anxiety is the concept of authenticity, which is let us say the existentialist spin on the Greek notion of 'the good life'. As we shall see, the authentic being would be able to recognise and affirm the nature of existence (we shall shortly specify some of the aspects of this, such as absurdity and freedom). Not, though, recognise the nature of existence as an intellectual fact, disengaged from life; but rather, the authentic being lives in accordance with this nature. The notion of authenticity is sometimes seen as connected to individualism. This is only reinforced by the contrast with a theme we will discuss below, that of the 'crowd'. Certainly, if authenticity involves 'being on one's own', then there would seem to be some kind of value in celebrating and sustaining one's difference and independence from others. However, many existentialists see individualism as a historical and cultural trend (for example Nietzsche), or dubious political value (Camus), rather than a necessary component of authentic existence. Individualism tends to obscure the particular types of collectivity that various existentialists deem important.

For many existentialists, the conditions of the modern world make authenticity especially difficult. For example, many existentialists would join other philosophers (such as the Frankfurt School) in condemning an instrumentalist conception of reason and value. The utilitarianism of Mill measured moral value and justice also in terms of the consequences of actions. Later liberalism would seek to absorb nearly all functions of political and social life under the heading of economic performance. Evaluating solely in terms of the measurable outcomes of production was seen as reinforcing the secularisation of the institutions of political, social or economic life; and reinforcing also the abandonment of any broader sense of the spiritual dimension (such an idea is found acutely in Emerson, and is akin to the concerns of Kierkegaard). Existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Hanna Arendt or Gabriel Marcel viewed these social movements in terms of a narrowing of the possibilities of human thought to the instrumental or technological. This narrowing involved thinking of the world in terms of resources, and thinking of all human action as a making, or indeed as a machine-like 'function'.


The next key theme is freedom. Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of anguish, because my freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge. Many existentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values. This might be traced back to familiar reasons such as an increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide. It is important to note, however, that for existentialism these historical conditions do not create the problem of anguish in the face of freedom, but merely cast it into higher relief. Likewise, freedom entails something like responsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being on its own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility are absolute. The isolation that we discussed above means that there is nothing else that acts through me, or that shoulders my responsibility. Likewise, unless human existence is to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibility must stretch across time. Thus, when I exist as an authentically free being, I assume responsibility for my whole life, for a ‘project’ or a ‘commitment’. We should note here that many of the existentialists take on a broadly Kantian notion of freedom: freedom as autonomy. This means that freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness, consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities. This borrowing from Kant, however, is heavily qualified by the next theme.


The next common theme we shall call ‘situatedness’. Although my freedom is absolute, it always takes place in a particular context. My body and its characteristics, my circumstances in a historical world, and my past, all weigh upon freedom. This is what makes freedom meaningful. Suppose I tried to exist as free, while pretending to be in abstraction from the situation. In that case I will have no idea what possibilities are open to me and what choices need to be made, here and now. In such a case, my freedom will be naïve or illusory. This concrete notion of freedom has its philosophical genesis in Hegel, and is generally contrasted to the pure rational freedom described by Kant. Situatedness is related to a notion we discussed above under the heading of philosophy as a way of life: the necessity of viewing or understanding life and existence from the ‘inside’.  For example, many 19th century intellectuals were interested in ancient Greece, Rome, the Medieval period, or the orient, as alternative models of a less spoiled, more integrated form of life. Nietzsche, to be sure, shared these interests, but he did so not uncritically: because the human condition is characterised by being historically situated, it cannot simply turn back the clock or decide all at once to be other than it is (Sartre especially shares this view). Heidegger expresses a related point in this way: human existence cannot be abstracted from its world because being-in-the-world is part of the ontological structure of that existence. Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me (for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty). I must also be situated socially: each of my acts says something about how I view others but, reciprocally, each of their acts is a view about what I am. My freedom is always situated with respect to the judgements of others. This particular notion comes from Hegel’s analysis of ‘recognition’, and is found especially in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Jaspers. Situatedness in general also has an important philosophical antecedent in Marx: economic and political conditions are not contingent features with respect to universal human nature, but condition that nature from the ground up.


Although, of course, existentialism takes its name from the philosophical theme of 'existence', this does not entail that there is homogeneity in the manner existence is to be understood. One point on which there is agreement, though, is that the existence with which we should be concerned here is not just any existent thing, but human existence. There is thus an important difference between distinctively human existence and anything else, and human existence is not to be understood on the model of things, that is, as objects of knowledge. One might think that this is an old idea, rooted in Plato's distinction between matter and soul, or Descartes' between extended and thinking things. But these distinctions appear to be just differences between two types of things. Descartes in particular, however, is often criticised by the existentialists for subsuming both under the heading 'substance', and thus treating what is distinctive in human existence as indeed a thing or object, albeit one with different properties. (Whether the existentialist characterisation of Plato or Descartes is accurate is a different question.) The existentialists thus countered the Platonic or Cartesian conception with a model that resembles more the Aristotelian as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. The latter idea arrives in existentialist thought filtered through Leibniz and Spinoza and the notion of a striving for existence. Equally important is the elevation of the practical above the theoretical in German Idealists. Particularly in Kant, who stressed the primacy of the 'practical', and then in Fichte and early Schelling, we find the notion that human existence is action. Accordingly, in Nietzsche and Sartre we find the notion that the human being is all and only what that being does. My existence consists of forever bringing myself into being – and, correlatively, fleeing from the dead, inert thing that is the totality of my past actions. Although my acts are free, I am not free not to act; thus existence is characterised also by 'exigency' (Marcel). For many existentialists, authentic existence involves a certain tension be recognised and lived through, but not resolved: this tension might be between the animal and the rational (important in Nietzsche) or between facticity and transcendence (Sartre and de Beauvoir).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the human sciences (such as psychology, sociology or economics) were coming to be recognised as powerful and legitimate sciences. To some extend at least their assumptions and methods seemed to be borrowed from the natural sciences. While philosophers such as Dilthey and later Gadamer were concerned to show that the human sciences had to have a distinctive method, the existentialists were inclined to go further. The free, situated human being is not an object of knowledge in the sense the human always exists as the possibility of transcending any knowledge of it. There is a clear relation between such an idea and the notion of the 'transcendence of the other' found in the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas.


Among the most famous ideas associated with existentialism is that of 'absurdity'. Human existence might be described as 'absurd' in one of the following senses. First, many existentialists argued that nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing. Although the natural world can apparently be understood by physical science or metaphysics, this might be better thought of as 'description' than either understanding or explanation. Thus, the achievements of the natural sciences also empty nature of value and meaning. Unlike a created cosmos, for example, we cannot expect the scientifically described cosmos to answer our questions concerning value or meaning. Moreover, such description comes at the cost of a profound falsification of nature: namely, the positing of ideal entities such as 'laws of nature', or the conflation of all reality under a single model of being. Human beings can and should become profoundly aware of this lack of reason and the impossibility of an immanent understanding of it. Camus, for example, argues that the basic scene of human existence is its confrontation with this mute irrationality.  A second meaning of the absurd is this: my freedom will not only be undetermined by knowledge or reason, but from the point of view of the latter my freedom will even appear absurd. Absurdity is thus closely related to the theme of 'being on its own', which we discussed above under the heading of anxiety. Even if I choose to follow a law that I have given myself, my choice of law will appear absurd, and likewise will my continuously reaffirmed choice to follow it. Third, human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself. A free action, once done, is no longer free; it has become an aspect of the world, a thing. The absurdity of human existence then seems to lie in the fact that in becoming myself (a free existence) I must be what I am not (a thing).  If I do not face up to this absurdity, and choose to be or pretend to be thing-like, I exist inauthentically (the terms in this formulation are Sartre's).

7.The Crowd

Existentialism generally also carries a social or political dimension. Insofar as he or she is authentic, the freedom of the human being will show a certain 'resolution' or 'commitment', and this will involve also the being – and particularly the authentic being – of others. For example, Nietzsche thus speaks of his (or Zarathustra's) work in aiding the transformation of the human, and there is also in Nietzsche a striking analysis of the concept of friendship; for Heidegger, there must be an authentic mode of being-with others, although he does not develop this idea at length; the social and political aspect of authentic commitment is much more clear in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus.

That is the positive side of the social or political dimension. However, leading up to this positive side, there is a description of the typical forms that inauthentic social or political existence takes. Many existentialists employ terms such as 'crowd', 'horde' (Scheler) or the 'masses' (José Ortega y Gasset). Nietzsche's deliberately provocative expression, 'the herd', portrays the bulk of humanity not only as animal, but as docile and domesticated animals. Notice that these are all collective terms: inauthenticity manifests itself as de-individuated or faceless. Instead of being formed authentically in freedom and anxiety, values are just accepted from others because ‘that is what everybody does’. These terms often carry a definite historical resonance, embodying a critique of specifically modern modes of human existence. All of the following might be seen as either causes or symptoms of a world that is 'fallen' or 'broken' (Marcel): the technology of mass communication (Nietzsche is particularly scathing about newspapers and journalists; in Two Ages, Kierkegaard says something very similar), empty religious observances, the specialisation of labour and social roles, urbanisation and industrialisation. The theme of the crowd poses a question also to the positive social or political dimension of existentialism: how could a collective form of existence ever be anything other than inauthentic? The 19th and 20th century presented a number of mass political ideologies which might be seen as posing a particularly challenging environment for authentic and free existence. For example, nationalism came in for criticism particularly by Nietzsche. Socialism and communism: after WWII, Sartre was certainly a communist, but even then unafraid to criticise both the French communist party and the Soviet Union for rigid or inadequately revolutionary thinking. Democracy: Aristotle in book 5 of his Politics distinguishes between democracy and ochlocracy, which latter essentially means rule by those incapable of ruling even themselves. Many existentialists would identify the latter with the American and especially French concept of 'democracy'. Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset both espoused a broadly aristocratic criterion for social and political leadership.

Existentialism and Art

The philosophy of Existentialism was an influential undercurrent in art that aimed to explore the role of sensory perception, particularly vision, in the thought processes. Existentialism stressed the special character of personal, subjective experience and it insisted on the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Jean-Paul Sartre was Existentialism's most prominent advocate in the post-war period, and the bohemian circles in which he moved
while in Paris included many artists. In this way, figures such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Wols became associated with Existentialist philosophy. It also had some impact in the United States, particularly through the writing of art critic Harold Rosenberg. The philosophy was often poorly understood, even by those who called themselves Existentialists. Nevertheless, it shaped discussion of themes such as trauma, anxiety, and alienation; ideas which were pervasive in post-war art.


Popular Posts