Following on from a recent post, in which I talked about the absolute basics and a little bit of the history of Existentialism, I thought I’d go into a little more depth with regards the main beliefs of existentialism as a whole. Now, there are a range of variations of existentialism, but the primary tenements tend to remain the same.
What Are The Major Beliefs Of Existentialism?
Existentialists tend to believe – if they believe in anything – that the human being, this solitary, animalistic figure – has been thrown, head-first, into a cement universe; something real, something solid, something which cannot simply be ignored or thought away, even if you close your eyes really tightly whenever you happen to see a shooting star or, if you’re Billy Bragg, a satellite.
Existence, then, by this standard, is something that precedes the human perception. It was there before consciousness and it will be there after consciousness has ended – what is, what exists, is the ultimate reality.
Existence before essence is a phrase that is often thrown around when it comes to existentialism, just like content is king for digital marketers, or YOLO for dead-eyed morons. Essence, in this case, is defined as any meaning or substance which one may ascribe to one’s life. Whilst this might not seem like such a revolutionary idea – yeah, everything’s shit and pointless, we get it – but this idea ran contrary to views which could be traced back as far as the ancient Greek civilisations.
Sartre was potentially the writer to put it best, as he so often was, when he wrote: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” in his 1946 essay – Existentialism is a Humanism.
The Role Of Rationality In Existentialism
As I’ve mentioned before, Kierkegaard was one of the primary philosophers behind the creation of Existentialism, but he leant towards the inverse of Sartre’s perspective. He stressed that individuals utilised their ability to rationalise actions as a means of countering their anxieties – in particular, their fear of existing in this concrete world which they could, at best, make only a miniscule mark on.
For his part, Sartre believed that rationality was nothing so much as a perverse religion. He saw it as an attempt by the self – the human in question – to impose their own preferred structure on a world which was, at its very core, irrational and little more than a random series of events.
Rationality, then, was a toxic belief, something that dictated order and sanctity to the world – it stops humans from finding any real meaning in absolute freedom, and is used to confine humanity within the bars of their everyday experiences.
In particular, this is particularly relevant today – we are so concerned with things that really don’t matter. However, it must be understood that this same freedom that Existentialists crave – the freedom to go where they want, think what they want, do what they want, is essentially the freedom of anarchy, with all the dangers that implies.
The Self Vs The Other
With his argument, came the definition of “the other”, which is the opposite of the self. The “other” is everything that is not oneself – everything. Now, that can be quite difficult to wrap your head around, but it characterises everything as one object. It sets the individual up for a war against everything else, for the preservation of oneself above all else.
This does bear some similarity to Solipsist theories, which state that only the self is real and everything else may well be an illusion, or perhaps there is a real world, but it is only the world that we perceive that we can possibly comprehend.
Finding Your Own Way
Another part of Existentialism states that it is up to individuals to find their own way, without the support of any external standards – this can include universal or objective standards, or even such things as the law and societal moralities. Whilst the basics of this theory were put down by Kierkegaard, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who then went on to contend that individuals must decide which situations are to be defined as moral situations.
A key component of this belief is the understanding that one needs to act on one’s own merits, perceptions and personal moralities. Personal experience and following your own convictions are essential if you ever hope to arrive at the “truth” – which then leads into a whole other argument revolving around whether there is any great “truth” besides the idea that we are all alone in a world of solid rock and a universe of a billion, billion stars and the endless space between.
What Is Absurdism?
Absurdism is an idea which was developed by the Algerian-born, French writer Albert Camus. He built upon the basics of Existentialism by stating that when an individual’s longing for order collided with the cement world’s lack of order or any kind of logical system, the result was absurd. Human beings, therefore, are subjects in a universe which, simply, doesn’t care about them and has no real right to recognise their existence at all – what is a man, after all, but a “mammal who thinks he is something, straining against the universe”?
Meaning then, this “truth” that existentialists seek, is not, and can never be, provided by the natural order – instead, it can be created by human theatrics, actions and interpretations. This argument could, of course, be applied to other species as well – and has been – but there is also the point that the search for this “truth” is as important as the actual finding of the “truth” and that animals who have developed more practical skills than existentialist theory are unaware of the universe as a whole.
Perhaps, then, dogs and cats, fish and mice and all manner of other creatures have a greater intrinsic existentialist worth than we do, as humans. Who knows – I don’t speak dog very well, I’ve got a really bad accent.
Religion In Existentialism
Whilst most existentialists, in my experience, are atheists or, at least, agnostics, there are some who still believe in the potential of mysticism, et cetera. For example, Nietzsche was often heard to proclaim that “God is dead” (so are Black Sabbath but, you know, it’s probably not the same way), this suggests that there may very well have been a God at some point – neatly side-stepping the whole unresolved (at the time) issue of creation. It is more likely, however, that he meant that the concept of God no longer had any meaning in the face of thought and philosophical theory and, above all, the personal nature of existentialism. To Nietzsche, God was not so much dead, as he was obsolete.
Kierkegaard, however, remained fiercely religious all throughout his life – even if he was actually unable to explain why or offer any justification for his beliefs. However, from an existentialist perspective, he needn’t actually justify his beliefs to anyone, save perhaps himself.
Existentialism, as well as being a humanism, is in fact the ultimate freedom – whilst it jars with modern life, with rules, regulations and health and safety precautions, it is still the pathway which offers the reward of a potential truth, but a personal, potential truth – almost a subjective truth.
For me, existentialism has the potential to be something of a light in the dark – only the light is Me and the dark is everything else; how much more positive can a philosophy be?