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Existentialism: A History
Existentialism is a philosophical school of thought that addresses the "problem of being" (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010). Existentialist questions involve the nature of man in relation to the universe, the subjective nature of "I" versus the objective "we," the creation and measure of meaning in a world with no intrinsic meaning, standards of morality in the absence of Divine Law (God), and the creation and measure of success in a world with no intrinsic standard of success. While the term "Existentialism" is often related with the European cultural movement of the 1940s and 50s, in which thinkers the likes of John Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior rejected traditional institutions of self-description and traditional concepts of being in the world, it was the 19th century philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche who inspired the reluctant "father" of Existentialism, Martin Heidegger, to first raise the question of the meaning of being (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010).
In Being in Time (1927), Heidegger addresses the canopy theme of the meaning of being by breaking it down into the following sub-themes:
The tension of the subjective individual vs. The "public," i.e. The objective mass.
The reason for humanity's fascination with experiences of dread, fear, anxiety, and perceptions of nothingness.
The rejection of previously established institutions of understanding -- to include traditional philosophy and causality-based science -- as insufficient to address and comprehend the meaning of being for humanity.
The introduction of "authenticity" as the categorical norm of subjective self-identity.
The application of authenticity to concepts of freedom, choice, duty and commitment. (Heidegger, 1927).
Referencing Edmund Husserl's phenomenological method -- systematic reflection and analysis of the structures of consciousness -- Heidegger sought to reflect and analyze the structures of consciousness specific to human beings, which he believed to be possessed of a higher, or at any rate, different plane of consciousness than other beings. In order to understand this consciousness, and in turn answer the question of the meaning of being for human beings, Heidegger advocated the adoption of new framework of understanding, one that included aspects of traditional science and philosophy but also transcended the limitations of these traditional frameworks. Essentially, Heidegger claimed that thinking about human existence requires new categories not found in the conceptual repertoire of ancient or modern thought; human beings can be understood neither as substances with fixed properties, nor as subjects interacting with a world of objects. (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010).
In other words, while Heidegger did not deny the validity of scientific categories such as matter, force, function, and even causality, he believed them insufficient to describe the human species in all its complexities. Similarly, he rejected traditional categories of moral theory -- to include virtue, intention, duty, commitment and character -- as insufficient. "Existentialism,' therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence" (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010). It is not enough simply to think of human beings in terms of physical properties; neither is it enough to think of human beings as a collective species for whom the same is true of all members, as each member is a subjective individual whose "truth" -- i.e. authenticity -- is subjectively different. For Keirkegaard, the key to understanding the meaning of being for a human being lay in understanding this concept of authenticity.
In order to understand the meaning of authenticity, we must first understand how the Existentialist perceives man in relation to the world around him. Rather than simply reacting as one fixed property to a set of surrounding fixed properties -- i.e. circumstances and the actions of other beings -- Existentialists perceive man as an active agent in creating these circumstances, and insofar as how he reacts to them, creating himself. Man is both of the world and set apart from the world, insofar as man's creation of himself is both a response and a precedent of the world around him. Likewise, he is both of the mass and set against the mass, insofar as he is a part of the group of "man," yet he is also a singular man -- "I" -- that exists independent of the mass of man.
For Kierkegaard, a person becomes conscious of himself as a "singular individual" at the moment his personal sense of personal morality comes in conflict with his religious faith. For example, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham became aware of his subjective identity for the first time.
God's command here cannot be seen as a law that would pertain to all; it addresses Abraham in his singularity. If Abraham's life is meaningful, it represents, from a philosophical point-of-view, the "paradox" that through faith the "single individual is higher than the universal." Existence as a philosophical problem appears at this point: if there is a dimension to my being that is both meaningful and yet not governed by the rational standard of morality, by what standard is it governed? For unless there is some standard it is idle to speak of "meaning." (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010).
This is where authenticity comes in. If the subjective "I" should take precedence over the objective "we," then the success of man can be measured by how well he promotes the "I" over the "we" in his way of existing. To put it simply, a person's authenticity is the degree to which he remains true to himself despite the external force of the mass, and it is this standard by which Existentialists measure the moral success of a man.
This need for a new standard of moral success is related to Frederick Nietzsche's assertion that "God is dead" (Nietzsche, 1974). As Nietzsche considered the complicity between God and morality to be life-denying -- nihilistic -- he sought to remove God from the equation and construct a new and distinctly human ethical framework. Far from agreeing with Dostoevsky that "if God is dead, then everything is permitted" (Dostoevsky, 2003), Nietzsche saw the death of God as a liberating opportunity to break free of the bonds of theistic morality, which he asserted was based not on moral principles -- such as virtue, honor, honesty and benevolence -- but on the sheer "will to power" (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010).
On the account given in On the Genealogy of Morals, the Judeo-Christian moral order arose as an expression of the ressentiment of the weak against the power exercised over them by the strong. A tool used to thwart that power, it had over time become internalized in the form of conscience, creating a "sick" animal whose will is at war with its own vital instincts. Thus Nietzsche arrived at Kierkegaard's idea that "the crowd is untruth": the so-called autonomous, self-legislating individual is nothing but a herd animal that has trained itself to docility and unfreedom by conforming to the "universal" standards of morality. The normative is nothing but the normal. (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010).
Once again, therefore, the individual is set against the mass in his quest for the simple freedom to exist. In order to become a truly authentic individual and so attain this freedom, the individual must cast aside the moral laws created and accepted by the ruling mass, and reconstruct subjective moral laws from the self, out.
While Nietzsche's nihilism is often referred to as believing in nothing, or rather as believing that nothing has meaning, it is important to distinguish between intrinsic meaning -- an apple is a meaningful apple regardless of who eats it -- and meaning that can be given to a thing by the way it is treated -- an apple is a meaningful apple if I eat the apple and gain sustenance from it. While Nietzsche's nihilism does indeed deny the existence of intrinsic meaning, it by no means denies the potential of a thing to become meaningful. Though life has no intrinsic meaning in and of itself, the strong willed person can choose to give his life meaning by what he makes of himself, as it is not, for the Existentialist, what a man is but who he becomes that is important.
Nietzsche refers to the person able to create his own meaning as the "over-man" or ubermensch, as such a person is above the need of mass support for the values he embodies.
The overman represents a form of life, a mode of existence, that is to blossom from the communalized, moralized "last man" of the nineteenth century. He has understood that nihilism is the ultimate meaning of the moral point-of-view, its life-denying essence, and he reconfigures the moral idea of autonomy so as to release the life-affirming potential within it. (Stanford Encyclopedia, 2010)
The point -- or shall we dare say the 'meaning' -- of man's existence, therefore, can be expressed as the following:
to create meaning and value in a world from which all transcendent supports have fallen away . . . [and] to give unique shape to one's immediate inclinations, drives, and passions; to interpret, prune,…[continue]
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