The impact of existentialist
thinkers upon religion and the arts in the West has been profound. Perhaps
that's why existentialism is difficult to define. The best that can be
done in this summary is to lay out some general themes.
If one thinks about existence at all, an initial insight may be that
the way we exist as humans differs from the way everything else exists.
That is, our existence seems to differ in quality from, say, the existence
of a stone. It also differs, though to a lesser extent, from the existence
of a chimpanzee, our nearest animal relative.
What are we to make of
this difference? To put the question another way, what does it mean to say
"I exist" as a person?
Some propose that self-awareness sets us apart from
all other beings. Recent experiments have shown, however, that some primates
are undoubtedly self-aware. Teilhard de Chardin thinks in The
Phenomenon of Man that it is primarily the ability to reflect on
our self-awareness which differentiates us from all other beings.
Existentialists seem to think that our awareness of death as "ceasing to
exist" is critically important. It forces us to question our authenticity (a
term emphasised by Martin Heidegger). This in turn moves us away from purely
conceptual, theoretical attitudes to life. These produce only empty
reassurances. Instead we must move towards immediate, real-life, concrete
ways of relating to the fact that we exist and will cease to exist. Perhaps
here we'll discover whatever meaning underpins the way we are.
remarked that existentialism appears to arise when life-threatening
upheavals and deep-set anxieties make us question our very existence. This
may explain why existentialism is largely confined to Europe and why it
seems to have peaked soon after wars. More stable and homogeneous societies
like Britain and the United States have not found existentialism quite so
As John Macquarrie remarks,
... existentialism is not a body of doctrines but a way of doing
philosophy. It is the way which begins by interrogating existence, where
by "existence" is understood the kind of being which belongs to man in
his concrete living, acting and deciding" .
Existentialists don't much care for metaphysics - that
is, the rational search for truth in other than the physical. It is, they
say, a speculative way of thinking which disregards the concrete. Martin
Heidegger said that human beings provide access to the problem of being in
general. We are, he said, rather like clearings in the forest of being. We
are points at which being is lit up and becomes "unconcealed". This
"unconcealedness" is the same as truth.
if we define our existence in terms of a greater metaphysical scheme of
things, we relegate ourselves to a secondary category. In the existentialist
scheme of things this is wrong. All conceptual schemes derive from human
beings, not the other way around. We are beings who invent theories rather
than beings who are defined by theories.
Reality ("what is") can't be understood from within a conceptual system.
This applies particularly to the individual person. By "conceptual system"
the existentialist seems to mean an all-embracing set of necessary truths,
usually deduced from one axiom or several. Reality isn't like that say the
existentialists. It consists of discontinuities and paradoxes. It can't be
If that's the case,
one can understand the existentialist assertion that the universe isn't a
total system, a meaningful and integrated set of events. They contend that
any pattern or order we might find in the universe is imposed by us. In
other words, the universe doesn't make sense. Any order we might perceive
is, as it were, a deceptive mask put on by those who need the security of an
ultimate pattern in life.
Those of us,
therefore, who tend to rely on reasonable conclusions can expect to be let
down. Instead of meaning, order and purpose we will only find "nothing in
particular" - which Heidegger thinks is a fact of the universe. This tends
to produce in us fear or dread, an intense angst
or deep-seated anxiety which can paralyse us. What are we to do when we
look into the terrifying face of meaninglessness?
The existentialist answer lies in affirming a personal freedom to choose.
Authentic human nature is derived not from any order outside ourselves, but
from an inner resolution of existential angst.
If reality can't be expressed by concepts, then "being" becomes not a
quality or description but a name - the "name" of that which we can't
comprehend. Existence is essentially absurd. Only when people come to terms
with this conclusion do they experience true personal freedom. This freedom
consists of existing "in themselves" (pour-soi), as Sartre puts it.
Freedom of this sort implies that meaning comes through personal choice. So
if I want to describe my "being" I describe that individual nature which has
come into existence as a result of my choices. "I am who I choose to be",
rather than "What I choose depends on who I am." Sartre emphasises the
anxiety we may experience in the face of such absolute freedom. Soren
Kierkegaard, whose existentialism was more religious in nature, finds the
roots of existential anxiety in original sin.
If reason can't delineate reality, how are existentialists ever to talk
about what's real? This question exposes a potential weakness in their
position. If we can't validly think out a system of meaning for reality
("everything that is"), how are we to talk about meaning and purpose at all?
Later existentialists like Heidegger, Sartre and Karl Jaspers defend reason
as a means of analysing how existence is constituted. Alasdair MacIntyre
suggests that their primary escape route was an implicitly broadened
definition of what reason is. Theirs was not irrationalism, but the valid
use of reason to argue reason's limits.
If reason does have limits, is it possible to have any sort of discourse
about what lies "outside" reason? We all have experiences which can't be
described in terms of reason alone. What of them? If there are no rational
grounds for choosing any way of being over any other way of being, how can
one ever move forward in life?
existentialist response was to invite others to deliberately court the
so-called "exceptional experience". It can be recognised by an increased
level of angst. Going through the experience of existential anxiety
is to discover freedom. The exceptional experience can also be recognised by
an utter contrast to deadening, pre-digested, ordinary ways of life.
Another response was to use art - primarily painting, literature and drama -
to imaginatively illustrate true freedom of being and the kind of
exceptional experience which leads to it.
Sartre thought that the pour-soi entails freedom and transcendence to
order the world and create our own priorities. We fail whenever we seek a
godlike being upon whom to depend. Man is "condemned to be free". Sartre
illustrated his point in his play No Exit
(1947), for example, through the well-known phrase "Hell is other people".
When people interact they make objects of each other and every relationship
must therefore end in frustration.
Jaspers and others proposed a somewhat different route out of the problem of
lost reason. Jaspers thought that there is the realm of the objective
(physical objects, ideas, institutions, culture and the like). There is also
that of personal existence, in which we may become fully aware of in our
choosing and doing. Then there is "being in itself" - the realm of the
When our existence is
impacted by extreme experience, says Jaspers, we may reach, as it were, the
end of our tether. This is when we encounter the transcendent, "... the
being that is neither only subject nor only object, that is rather on both
sides of the subject-object split" .
The encounter isn't automatic, nor is it a perception as when we see or hear
something. We can't talk about it rationally, but only obliquely by using
"ciphers". The transcendent makes itself known through events in the world.
The impact of existentialist thought on theology has been profound. To say
that is also to note that Kierkegaard, among the earliest existentialist
writers, was a theologian in his own right. It was perhaps inevitable that
other theologians in Europe should follow his lead.
the most influential existentialist theologians was Karl Barth. His seminal
study of the New Testament Letter to the Romans owed as much to Soren
Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as to Paul of Tarsus. Jaspers had created
his "philosophical faith" in which the transcendent is beyond comprehension.
Barth held that, similarly, Christianity could not in the end rest on a