Existentialism (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger)


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Mostly associated with 19th and 20th-century European Philosophers, Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes the importance of freedom, and individual existence as defined by choice. It is the belief that despite living in an irrational universe, one that can be described as ‘absurd,’ humans define their own purpose in life and attempt to make rational judgments to the best of their abilities within their own interpretations and actions. Existentialism rejects the idea that existence, or life, has an intrinsic meaning, and instead, demands that each person define his or her own subjective values. Unlike other branches of philosophy, existentialism does not treat the individual as a concept and prioritizes subjectivity over being objective. It places human emotions, decisions, and individuality at the center.


Although existentialist thinkers have some similar characteristics, there are significant discrepancies and conflicts among them, and not all of them even associate themselves with or embrace the word "existentialism."


Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher. His focus was on living one’s life authentically, and on how each individual is responsible for giving meaning to it themselves, not through society or religion and the rules they make. On the route to creating a true self, Kierkegaard argued that the individual goes through three stages: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Each of these "stages on life's path" indicates opposing points of view on life, which could lead to conflict. Kierkegaard takes the unique step of having a new pseudonymous figure describe and represent each stage of existence. As a result, determining which of Kierkegaard's assertions he supports becomes extremely difficult. This is consistent with Kierkegaard's general aversion to giving answers. Readers should come to their own judgments, he says.


On the other hand, according to Sartre's existentialism thesis, "existence precedes essence," meaning that we can only provide meaning to our lives by existing and acting in certain ways. There is no predetermined design for how a human being should be, and no God to give us a purpose, according to him. As a result, we bear sole responsibility for defining ourselves, and by extension, humanity. Sartre refers to the "anguish of freedom" as a lack of pre-defined goals combined with an "absurd" existence that provides us with unlimited choices. He coined the phrase "living in bad faith" to describe the phenomena of people agreeing that things must be a certain way and then refusing to acknowledge or pursue alternative possibilities. People who convince themselves that they have to do a certain type of work or live in a certain place are living in bad faith, according to Sartre. As a result of his belief in the importance of freedom, Sartre was an ardent believer of Marxism his whole life. Jean-Paul Sartre said money is the one factor that restricts a person's freedom.


Heidegger's "existentialist" philosophy begins with a fierce anti-Cartesianism, an uncompromising holism that denies any dualism in mind and body, the distinction between subject and object, and even the terms of "consciousness," "experience," and "mind." As a result, he starts with a discussion of Dasein ("being-there"). But, because we are "ontological" (self-questioning) creatures, the question of who this Dasein is arises. As a result, Heidegger's philosophy becomes a quest for authenticity, "own-ness," or personal integrity. This quest for authenticity will lead us to Heidegger's central theory of "Being-unto-Death," as well as the already familiar but never-ending issues concerning the nature of the self and the meaning of existence. It will also lead to Heidegger's appreciation of tradition and "heritage," emphasizing the significance of firmly devoting oneself to one's culture. The true self is discovered in intense times of one-of-a-kind self-awareness, such as while facing one's own death. It is insufficient to admit that "we will all die." That, according to Heidegger, is only objective truth and therefore unauthentic. It is one's own death that is important here, and one's "own-ness" becomes "Being-unto-Death," or facing one's own mortality head on.

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