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Existentialism 101

Visual by Karen Wilfred Coelho

Influential beyond Philosophy classes or literary texts, Existentialism and its themes percolate into everyday expressions, spoken word poetry, modern art , and cinema. As a philosophical movement, Existentialism is characterised by diverse modes of thought, unified by shared concerns over human existence. Originating in Europe around the 19th to 20th Century, it inherited from the phenomenological tradition and further influenced postmodernism.. A popularly quoted cohort, the movement housed thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marcel, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus. Writing in different styles, within different genres, and advocating differing doctrines, an eclectic collection of ideas were generated with recurring themes like individualism, freedom, meaning, anxiety, and authenticity.

Advocating for an experience-driven philosophy, existentialism, while acknowledging the need for professional philosophers, insists on consistent and deliberate reflection in the everyday. It rejects all-encompassing solutions plagued with a singular mode of thought, like religion or science. Systemic meta-narratives, reportedly, masked the complexities of human existence. An existence that is intrinsically and objectively meaningless. Hence, the maxim: “Existence precedes essence.” As per this school of thought, humans have no essence, no preordained purpose, no predetermined life path that fits all. The ontic primacy of existence, namely a mode of being one’s own is all that is. Rather, humans need to cultivate a purposeful essence through the choices that they make, creating subjective meaning. And in this way, humans are free. But with this freedom, comes a responsibility to take charge of one’s existence. However, this freedom which seems absolute has the constraints of particularity It is determined by the situatedness of one’s biology and psychology and the historical and socio-political variants of the physical world one inhabits. Fancying freedom in the abstract paralyses the ability to choose, as the possibilities are determined by such variables.

As the sole bearer of responsibilities of such an ambiguous life, humans feel alienated. This further induces feelings of anxiety - a heightened emotional perceptivity of the oscillating moods of human life. Recognising and affirming such an existence littered with turbulent emotions like angst, anguish, or anxiety leads to an authentic life if one dares to choose despite it all. Boxed and boarded, yet exhilarating and transcendent, the human existence is such; pervaded by meaninglessness, freedom, and choices. And the responsibility of choice is accompanied by the duty of acting as an individual who ought to do so as per their meaning-making, avoiding herd mentality. However, there are positive instances where one can develop authentic modes of being-with-others, through friendship or as an individual within a community. An authentic will, that includes resolution and commitment towards ideas and objects, can also be projected towards the Other.

Accomodating and diverse, Existentialism harbours conflicting views regarding God, community, situatedness, the problem of the Other, death and so much more. It birthed Absurdism which acknowledges the absurdity of even crafting a subjective meaning. Criticisms abound, many dismiss its philosophical position altogether. Nonetheless, its popularity is built on the fact that people can often resonate with the broader themes mentioned above. Often called a dismal read, it is equally therapeutic as it spurs the individual to take responsibility within their limiting physical realities.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Existentialism

Deepshikha is a Teaching Fellow at Krea University. She recently received her Master's in Philosophy from the University of Delhi. Her research interests lie on the intersections of epistemology, science and technology studies, and gender.

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