What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is a not a branch of philosophy, as some scholars would have us believe. Existentialism is a philosophical movement formally initiated by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard during the second half of the 19th century and was developed and popularized by the famous French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre during the postwar period. In fact, many scholars lately almost equate the term “existentialism” with the name “Sartre”.
It is important to note that there is not a single, universally accepted definition of the term existentialism as many existential philosophers view it from different vantage points. As a matter of fact, the famous German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger intentionally avoided the use of the term existentialism. Heidegger prefers the term “existential philosophy” over existentialism.
The least that we can do to understand this philosophical movement is simply to describe it rather than “define”. As we may already know, to define something is to “limit” something. But since existentialism cannot be limited to one, absolute understanding, again, we can only describe it.
So, what is existentialism? What are its characteristics?
Taking from the root word “existence”, existentialism is generally considered as a philosophy of life. To be specific, it is generally considered as the philosophy of the “meaning of life”. Hence, existentialism stresses the individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for making meaningful, authentic choices. Existentialism, therefore, is characterized by its concern with individual existence, freedom, and choice.
Existentialism’s emphasis on the idea of a “meaningful life” or “meaningful existence” suggests that life, as it appears and experienced, is characterized by “absurdity”. Philosophically speaking, the term “absurd” refers to “the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.”
Thus, what is common among different brands of existential philosophy is the view that life is “absurd”, that it seemingly appears to be meaningless, purposeless. However, despite the fact that life appears to be absurd, existential philosophers believe that humans can make rational decisions and eventually define their own meaning in life. And for the existential philosophers, one of the best ways to make life meaningful is to embrace it despite the absurdities it harbors. As we may already know, this existential attitude is expressed most visibly in Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of Amor Fati, or “the love of one’s fate”, which is also understood as a resolute, enthusiastic acceptance of everything that has happened in one’s life.
In the final analysis, there is, in existentialism, the idea of the absurd life in an irrational world; yet humans are entirely free to make choices and decide to rise above these essentially absurd condition of humanity.