Existentialism can most certainly be defined as one of the few philosophies that impressed the writers and philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The term existentialism among political philosophers, scientists, and students are as famous as terms like liberalism, realism, or constructivism. However, it is less understood and learned as compared to others.
The main aim of this essay is to understand the clear meaning and idea of the term. As the word itself suggests, the philosophy of existentialism focuses on the idea of the existence of humans in the world. If words like choice, freedom, independence, individuality, and existence come to a person’s mind, it is safe to turn to the concept of existentialism as these are the main points on which this theory stands.
To easily comprehend a topic fully, we first need to uncover its history. Some of the well-connected names that come to mind when talking about existentialism are Soren Kierkegaard (a Danish philosopher and poet whose major work focused on individuality, choice, and commitment. He is also deemed as the first existentialist philosopher), Albert Camus ( a famous French Public intellectual), Martin Heidegger ( a German philosopher celebrated widely for his contributions to existentialism), Rudolf Bultman (another German influential figure famous for his views and work on existentialism), Jean-Paul Sartre (the French novelist famous for his defense of atheistic existential philosophy), and the very famous Friedrich Neitzche (a modern German existentialist thinker acted as another precursor of this philosophy). The list does not end here. Simone De Beauvoir, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Karl Jasper, Edmund Husserl, and a few others acted as significant existentialists of their times. The term emerged in continental Europe as a cultural movement in the 1940s. It gained momentum between the 19th and 20th centuries with the help of the philosophical works of famous philosophers.
It is said that the second world war left people confused, exhausted, and meaningless. Hence, in the post-war era, these famous existentialists emerged and worked to bring people’s attention to the human condition and help them find the meaning of self and life.
Existentialism covers a broad area. More than a philosophy, existentialism is best known as a movement and culture. A person who follows the concept of Existentialism believes that it’s necessary for everyone to ponder on the mysteries of life. Existentialists also prefer choice over destiny. They claim that we are born without destiny and it is up to us how we lead and form our lives. We are responsible to ask questions and know why we are here, what is the purpose of our life and how we ought to live it. They believe that we are free but the laws, norms, and traditions of the world have bound us. But, a person should be responsible to choose and make decisions with his own will and freedom and without laws and traditions.
The father of Existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated, ‘ What all the existentialists have in common is the doctrine that ‘Existence precedes essence’. This quote became a way to define the concept of existentialism too. It means everything comes after the existence of humans. A person’s soul first enters this world and then he is the one who makes up his essence (he is free to live, interact with society, and then chose what is best for him). The idea also advocates that people should find out who they are and what they want with the help of their life experiences and perspectives. Existentialism is an approach that can be learned through experiences rather than studies.
Sartre claims that we humans are born free and its the society and family that puts a label on us without our choices. He further states that it does not mean we can do whatever we want. Because our actions, responsibilities, and practices define us and we are ones who have to faces consequences for it too. For instance, if a person behaves badly and cruelly then he will be known as cruel. In short, existentialists believe a person enters the world first, surges himself, and then defines his own self through his actions.
Conclusion: The basic idea of existentialists is that humans are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. People have to find the purpose of their lives and live according to their choices rather than laws and external pressures of society. At the same time, it is necessary for a person to live by the truth and not against your essence. This can also mean that the decision of finding a job, attending school, adopting a certain profession, etc should be left to a person’s choice and not on society or family.