Monday, May 26, 2008
Existentialism in a Nutshell
Jean-Paul Sartre in 1970. His cigarettes and pipes were constant companions.
Photo: Leon Herschtritt/Rapho
Existentialism is a philosophy that espouses that there is no purpose at the core of existence, that we are born without specific purpose, and we do not exist because of god or some abstract cause; we are not fated to behave in certain ways, or to accomplish certain things; instead, we are born free of meaning.
Finding a way to counter this, by embracing existence itself, is the fundamental theme of existentialism (and the root of the philosophy's name). Given that someone who believes in reality might be called a “realist,” and someone who believes in a deity might be called a “deist,” someone who believes fundamentally in existence and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist.
Nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were pioneers of this philosophy that reached its peak through the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Collectively they were the triumvirate of existentialist writers based in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, although all three refuted that label. They wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes such as “dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness.”
Sartre’s major work, Being and Nothingness, written in 1943, set out his philosophy that, because humans are free in every situation, they are also responsible for their our own “essence,” and the choices that they make.