Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards…then he will be what he makes of himself.

-Jean Paul Sartre
(Existentialism and Humanism, 1946)

Sartre, in the above statement, speaks of the basic theory of Existentialism. It is a philosophical view that pervaded the twentieth century Europe, especially in the 1940s. This view gives priority to man’s existence over his essence. Existentialism, therefore, concerns with man’s nature of being. It works on the principle that man has no certain essence and no fixed norm given in advance. Hence, human being alone is responsible either to succumb to his situation of meaninglessness or to define himself by creating his own norms.

The word ‘exist’ originates from the Latin word ‘exist’, meaning ‘to stand out’ or ‘to emerge out of’. Human being’s existence, then, implies man defining himself in a unique way so as to stand out from his surroundings. For this, it is important that he be conscious of his existence, and also of everything around him. Owing to this fact, existentialists focus solely on human beings as conscious beings. In fact, Sartre draws a clear distinction between a being (‘en soi’ or ‘being in itself) and a conscious being (‘pour soi’ or ‘being for itself’). He says that the former points to a being independent of any consciousness, and therefore, without any freedom. The latter, on the other hand, holds tremendous freedom to choose from various possibilities.

One must note that consciousness is never pure, it is rather a ‘consciousness of’ something. Hence, as mentioned before, a human being is conscious not only of his own existence, but also of other objects around him. He is aware, thus, of differences between himself and all other things. Through this act of separation, humans gain a sense of an ‘I’. Existentialism also points out that a human being can project himself into the future, as he can work out his possibilities through the act of negation. In other words, the human being is conscious not only of himself, but also of what he lacks within him.

Existentialism further emphasizes upon the problematic character of human situation. It argues that a necessary concomitant of human freedom to defining oneself is anxiety. This anxiety arises from the enormous responsibility that falls on a being’s shoulder while choosing from diverse possibilities. As Sartre comments, humanity is condemned to be free. Thus, freedom is also seen as a terrible inheritance. In order to escape this situation, humans take recourse to what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’. So they may make various excuses to avoid decision-making – excuses such as some situations are unavoidable, or that they are waiting for an external agency to make decisions for them. Moreover, the notion of availability of infinite possibilities to a human being is undercut by certain facticities – the most prominent being the facticities of birth and death – over which the human being has no control.

Existentialism also states that the human being’s life is characterized by absurdity, nothingness, and alienation. Existentialism concedes that human existence is absurd. This sense of absurdity has been described literarily by Sartre in his novel Nausea (1938), and philosophically by Camus in his essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1942). Further, a sense of nothingness springs from human consciousness that comes through acts of separation and negation. Along with this sense of nothingness, the thought of death as the final act also seeps into human consciousness. Further, to be a fully conscious being, a human being has to be conscious of the fact that he, too, is an object of scrutiny in others’ eyes. This consciousness creates a sense of ‘otherness’ in humans. Sartre opines that this is the unending hostility of people towards each other, and leads to a sense of alienation. This concept of alienation is quite different from Marxist notion of the same. Sartre talks about alienation in relationships, such as that of love. It is a relationship in which one confines the other by constantly placing the other in an ideal picture. Of course, the other is unable to live up to that ideal picture, thus creating a sense of alienation.

This human predicament leads to a sense of meaninglessness of life. It runs as a theme in many works of Soren Kierkegaard, who is considered the father of Existentialism. His important works include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Concept of Dead. In all of his works Kierkegaard explores the meaninglessness of life that fills humans with anxiety and despair. He also suggests that human life is not designed for pleasure, and that is an inescapable state. Therefore, humans must learn to accept this state rather than to despair. However, Kierkegaard’s philosophy finally provides a Christian solution to combat despair – it exhorts humans to leap into faith. His philosophy is countered by another major influence on Existentialism, that is, Friedrich Nietzsche. He suggests that ‘God is dead’, meaning humans’ faith in God is dead. So he goes on to say, ‘let the superman live’. Thus, he differs from Kierkegaard, in that he stresses on human ability to use one’s free will and create a ‘superman’ in oneself.

In conclusion, Existentialism is not seen as an easy philosophy to live with, neither is it applicable to everybody. Also, it leaves one wondering as how to choose personal ethics while shaping one. Moreover, this philosophical view is limited by the fact that human choices are guided by many extraneous factors. This undermines the notion of infinite freedom attributed to human beings by Existentialism. However, one must concede that Existentialism takes up many important ideas, which are subjected to investigation, especially in literature.


(c) Riya Payal 2016


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