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Sartre, like most of his existentialist colleagues, was too much the individualist to accept the idea of being part of a movement, no matter how exclusive. Both Heidegger and the writer Albert Camus rejected the label, offended by being so linked to Sartre.
But the name stuck, and Sartre, at least, accepted it with reservations. And so existentialism came to name one of the most powerful intellectual and literary movements of the last century and a half.
Sartre's philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy, and other figures are usually considered existentialists insofar as they resonate with certain Sartrean themes—extreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives.
Thus some key figures who might be considered existentialist, Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are sometimes excluded because they are not sufficiently Sartrean.
Existentialism can be defined as a philosophy that puts special emphasis on personal existence, on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings.
It tends to distrust abstractions and overgeneralized formulations of "human nature," on the grounds that each of us, in some important sense, makes his or her own nature. The first conception of a movement should be credited to Karl Jaspers —a German philosopher-psychiatrist who noted the similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and identified them as early practitioners of what he called "existence-philosophy" Existenzphilosophie.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche differed radically, most famously in their approach to religion Christianity in particular. Kierkegaard was devout while Nietzsche was a blasphemous atheist.
But so, too, twentieth-century existentialism would include both religious and atheistic philosophers. But existentialism also includes a number of more ambiguous figures, notably Martin Heideggerwho was certainly no orthodox Christian thinker but nevertheless bemoaned modernity's abandonment of religion and insisted that "only a new god can save us.
Twentieth-century existentialism was greatly influenced by phenomenology, originated by Edmund Husserl — and pursued into the existential realm by his student Heidegger. The "ontological" problem for Heidegger, "the problem of being," was to find out who one is and what to do with oneself or, as Nietzsche had asked earlier, how one is to become what one is.
Phenomenology, for Heidegger, becomes a method for "disclosing [one's] being. Oddly enough, the existentialists, perhaps the most moralistic or in any case moralizing philosophers of modern times, often seem to avoid ethics.
Kierkegaard noted that ethics was one choice among several. The Gay Science about dancing on morality's grave. Heidegger emphatically insisted that he was not offering any ethics, and he continued to speak with disdain about those who confusedly worry about values. Being and Nothingness, would be followed up by an ethics, which never came.
The existentialists were rejecting a certain "bourgeois" conception of morality, the kind of ethics that worries about keeping one's promises, paying one's debts, and avoiding scandal. Instead, they were after an ethic of a larger kind, an ethics of "authenticity" or what we would call personal integrity.
They called for responsibility, even heroism, in the face of the bourgeois modern world. They rejected traditional philosophical and scientific rationality and typically resorted to literature, prophecy, pamphleteering, and ponderous obfuscation, any means necessary to wake up the world from its boring bourgeois and at the same time brutal and irresponsible behavior.
Jaspers's special word, existence, which he took from Kierkegaard to summarize the centrality of self-doubt and painful freedom that defined the human condition, focused a new kind of attention on the individual. Thus existentialism tends to be a solitary philosophy. Kierkegaard, in particular, wrote at length about "subjective truth" and saving "The Individual" from the crowd, the "public," the Hegelian collective "Spirit.
Heidegger calls mass-man Das Man "inauthentic" and urges us to discover our own unique "authentic" self. Camus exploded onto the literary and philosophical scene with his novel The Stranger, whose protagonist had only the most tenuous connections with other people, lost as he was in his own sensuous experience.
Sartre focused on individual consciousness as "being-for itself" and treated "beingfor-others" as a continuous threat. In his play Huis clos ; English trans.
No Exit,he even tells us "Hell is other people. The existentialists share a concern for the individual and personal responsibility whether or not they embrace " free will ".
They tend to resist the submersion of the individual in larger public groups or forces. Thus Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both attacked "the herd," and Heidegger distinguished "authentic existence" from mere social existence.
Sartre, in particular, emphasizes the importance of free individual choice, regardless of the power of other people to influence and coerce our desires, beliefs, and decisions. Here he follows Kierkegaard, especially, for whom passionate, personal choice and commitment are essential for true "existence.
He was a pious Lutheran who once defined his task in philosophy as "a Socratic task," to define or redefine what it is to be a Christian. At the time, the rationalist influence of Immanuel Kant — and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel — dominated the Lutheran church, but Kierkegaard insisted that faith was by its very nature irrational, a passion and not a provable belief.
Against Hegelian Holism, Kierkegaard insisted on the primacy of the individual and the profound "Otherness" of God. And against the worldly Lutherans, Kierkegaard preached a stark, passionate, solitudinous, and unworldly religion that, in temperament, at least, would go back to the monastery.
To properly and passionately choose to be a Christian—as opposed to merely being born into the church and mindlessly reciting its dogmas—was to enjoy true existence. To be or become a Christian, according to Kierkegaard, it is necessary to passionately commit oneself, to make a "leap of faith" in the face of the "objective uncertainty" of religious claims.
One cannot know or prove that there is a God; one must passionately choose to believe.The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Questions and Answers.
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