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WHAT IS EXISTENTIALISM?
Representative Historical Responses
 


Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903).  Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)
 

A. Introduction to the Question: What is Existentialism?

A sizable number of twentieth-century philosophers have warned about the great difficulty—even the impossibility—of defining existentialism adequately. Some have even criticized the mere attempt to do so as inherently contradictory. Nevertheless, the very same philosophers have advanced, from the 1940s to the present, a rich variety of very informative and interesting answers to the question "What is Existentialism?". As the representative responses to this question listed below illustrate, these answers exhibit diverse approaches, strategies, and emphases. Moreover, some of them directly contradict each other. However, more often than not, they contribute partial yet complementary perspectives on existentialism as a complex cultural, historical and philosophical phenomenon. As such, together they provide a composite or multi-perspectival portrait. Consequently, adapting an innovative concept of definition formulated by the prominent Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), we will primarily interpret these divergent definitions as exhibiting a family resemblance. Like the facial features of members of a family, for example, these definitions express a network or fabric of overlapping yet discontinuous similarities. Therefore, in our interpretation, existentialism cannot be reduced to a single set of essential common characteristics shared by all existentialists. Rather, it will signify a complex and dynamic network of distinct yet interrelated philosophical orientations, attitudes, methods, and themes.


Ludwig Wittgenstein
(1889-1951)


B. Representative Historical Responses to the Question

1. In any case, we can begin by saying that existentialism, in our sense of the word, is a doctrine that does render human life possible: a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity. The essential charge laid against us is, of course, that of over-emphasis upon the evil side of human life. (p. 26)

For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to explain to you is—is it not?—that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. To verify this, let us review the whole question upon the strictly philosophic level. What, then, is this that we call existentialism?

Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to explain its meaning…. It would appear that, for the lack of any novel doctrine such as that of surrealism, all those who are eager to join in the latest scandal or movement now seize upon this philosophy in which, however, they can find nothing to their purpose. For in truth this is of all teachings the least scandalous and the most austere: it is intended strictly for technicians and philosophers. All the same, it can easily be defined.

The question is only complicated because there are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence—or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective. What exactly do we mean by that? (p. 27)

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is a least one being whose existence comes before essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing—as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its "subjectivity," using the word as a reproach against us. (pp. 28-29)

If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders… Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism.

                                                            Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism (1945)

Stephen Priest, ed. Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

2. By way of contrast, Sartre expresses the basic tenet of existentialism in this way: Existence precedes essence. In this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which from Plato’s time on has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. (p. 250)

Sartre’s key proposition about the priority of existentia over essentia does, however, justify using the name "existentialism" as an appropriate title for a philosophy of his sort. But the basic tenet of "existentialism" has nothing at all in common with the statement from Being and Time—apart from the fact that in Being and Time no statement about the relation of essentia and existentia can yet be expressed, since there it is still a question of preparing something precursory. (pp. 250-251)

                                                            Martin Heidegger, Letter on Humanism (1946)

Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks. Ed. William McNeill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

3. The expression "philosophy of existence" has a history that is not wholly transparent. As far as I am aware it was first publicly used by Fritz Heinemann in his Newe Wege der Philosophie [New Path of Philosophy](1929); and he makes a claim to priority. By an anonymous process over the years since then, it has come to be a catch-word for contemporary philosophizing. Heinemann’s use of the word at that time did not strike me as strange, for I have been using it in my lectures since the middle twenties and, because of Kierkegaard, did not suspect it of being anything new. It was not my intention to teach a new philosophy by using it, nor did I think that I was doing so. In my lectures I used the phrase "elucidation of Existenz" for one part of philosophy. I thus did not take Heinemann’s book as in effect creating a new modern philosophy by giving it a name. But Heinemann carried the day as far as public usage is concerned. The word Existenzphilosophie (especially in referring to Heidegger as the originator of Existentialphilosophie) was seized upon to stigmatize contemporary philosophizing in so far as it is not logistical and traditional; and it is now ineradicable. Although all the authors who are considered its inaugurators have repudiated it, it remains like a phantom under whose name the most heterogeneous things are treated as identical. In my Man in the Modern Age (1931), I used this word for a philosophical way of thinking about man. My Philosophy, published at the same time, dealt with the elucidation of Existenz in only one of its three volumes. I also spoke of "the philosophy of existence," in the sense of these lectures, according to which "for the moment Existenz is the key word" of philosophy. Although I accepted the word as the title of these lectures, I wanted to avoid the catch-word. At that time it was not yet misleading. Sartre’s existentialism, which has conquered the world, did not yet exist. This has sprung from an alien philosophical frame of mind. It was still possible to designate something entirely different with the word. (pp. 95-96)

                                                           
Karl Jaspers (1956)

Karl Jaspers, Philosophy of Existence. Trans. Richard F. Grabau. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

My book [three-volume Philosophy] was comprehensive in intent, guided by the age-old philosophical idea. The world, the soul, and God became the themes of its three parts, as world orientation, self-elucidation, and metaphysics. Not for one moment did I regard self-elucidation, bringing lucidity to Existenz, as philosophy’s only theme. It was an indispensable element of the whole, but it was not the whole. In my book "Von der Wahrheit" [On Truth]—written just before and during the second World War, but not publishable, due to the political terror, until after the war—I discussed instances of absolutizing and thought I was inventing a word, "existentialism," to describe a possible decay of self-elucidation. After the war I was surprised to see this realized in France. I did not pursue or anticipate the road of this later existentialism. If it was timely, my philosophy was untimely from the start, untimely in principle. A literary public opinion turned this existentialism into the specter of a common modern philosophy by that name. If your philosophizing attracted notice today, you belonged to it and had to put up with the subsumption. For this philosophy was said to be that of the times, the philosophy in keeping with the times, praised or condemned for that reason. (pp. 11-12)

                                                           
Karl Jaspers (1955)

Karl Jaspers, Philosophy, Volume One. Trans. E. B. Ashton. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Existence-philosophy [Existenzphilosophie] is the way of thought by means of which man seeks to become himself; it makes use of expert knowledge while at the same time going beyond it. This way of thought does not cognise objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker…. This existence-philosophy cannot be rounded off in any particular work, nor can it acquire definitive perfectionment as the life of any particular thinker. It was, in modern times, originated by Kierkegaard, and through him procured widespread diffusion. (p. 175)

Existence-philosophy would be instantly lost if it were once more to imply a belief that we know what man is…. It awakens what it does not itself know; it elucidates and gives impetus, but it does not fixate…. But genuine existence-philosophy is that appealing questioning in which, to-day, man is again seeking to come to his true self. (pp. 176-177)

                                                           
Karl Jaspers (1931)

Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1951.

4. I believe that it is in my essay entitled Existence et Objectivité [Existence and Objectivity], published in the Revue de Métaphsique et de Morale in 1925 that the main lines of this new development [contemporary existentialist school] were first formulated in France. I had not then read Kierkegaard, who was still almost unknown in France nor had Heidegger or Jaspers as yet published their main works. (p. 5)

Hardly a day goes by without my being asked what is existentialism. (Usually it is a society lady who ask for this information, but to-morrow it may be my charwoman or the ticket-collector on the Underground.) It is perhaps hardly surprising that my answers tend to be evasive: I should like to say, "It is too difficult," or "It would take too long to explain": but I realize that such answers are disappointing and should not be given too often. What I propose to do now is not so much to define existentialism as to try to throw some light on what seems to me its essence by bringing out its key notions—that is, the notions which give the clue to it from my standpoint, which, I need hardly add, is very different from that of Sartre. Sartre has himself admitted that there is a Christian version of existentialism which is not to be confused with his own; though, for my part, I think it is insufficient and even incorrect to stress its Christian character, because I believe that many people are liable to adhere to it who do not regard themselves as Christians. (p. 91)

To sum up our main points; my testimony bears on something independent from me and objectively real; it has therefore an essentially objective end. At the same time it commits my entire being as a person who is answerable for my assertions and for myself. This tension between the inward commitment and the objective end seems to me existential in the highest degree. (pp. 94-95)

This brings us to the distinction between the onlooker and the witness, and a little reflection will show that it is a distinction between two opposite metaphysical attitudes. There are modern philosophers who try to impale us on the horns of a false dilemma by saying to us: "either you are only an onlooker, in that case you are not involved in reality; or you are an active and free being. You have nothing but the choice between these two ways, indeed you are nothing but this choice, or rather this way which chooses itself." But it must be asked: does not this dilemma leave out the essential factor? By adopting this standpoint, do we not forfeit all chance of understanding the essential point of our lives—the fact that we are witnesses and that this is the expression of our mode of belonging to the world? (pp. 96-97)

                                                           
Gabriel Marcel (1946)

Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism. Trans. Manya Harari. New York: Citadel Press, 1956.

5. During a discussion organized during the summer [of 1945]…Sartre had refused to allow Gabriel Marcel to apply this adjective to him. ‘My philosophy is a philosophy of existence; I don’t even know what Existentialism is.’ I shared his irritation. I had written my novel [The Blood of Others] before I had even encountered the term Existentialism; my inspiration came from my own experience, not from a system. But our protests were in vain. In the end, we took the epithet that everyone used for us and used it for our own purposes. (p. 4)

                                                           
Simone de Beauvoir (1960)

Simone de Beauvoir, The Force of Circumstance. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

6. As to vocabulary, it is commonly known that it is chiefly owing to the influence of Kierkegaard that the word ‘existential’ has become part of current speech, particularly in Germany. Twenty years ago…many philosophers, from Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel to Berdyaeff and Chestov, were already calling themselves ‘existential’ philosophers. It was sometime later that the word ‘existentialism’ passed into common usage, and with such success indeed that to-day, as M. Sartre remarked recently, ‘it no longer signifies anything at all.’ Apart from this incidental disadvantage, it is in itself a useful, nay an excellent word…. Let it be said right off that there are two fundamentally different ways of interpreting the word existentialism. One way is to affirm the primacy of existence, but as implying and preserving essences or natures and as manifesting the supreme victory of the intellect and of intelligibility. This is what I consider to be authentic existentialism. The other way is to affirm the primacy of existence, but as destroying or abolishing essences or natures and as manifesting the supreme defeat of the intellect and of intelligibility. This is what I consider to be apocryphal existentialism, the current kind which ‘no longer signifies anything at all’…. An existentialism of this sort is self-destroying. (pp. 12-13)

                                                           
Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain, Existence and Existent. Trans. Lewis Galantiere and Gerald B. Phelan. Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1956.

7. Does existentialism have a character of its own with respect to traditional philosophy? And does this character justify the interest it has provoked even outside philosophy circles, and its claim to permeate literature, art, and contemporary culture in general?

Let us begin to answer this question by considering the attitude of existentialism with respect to the problem of philosophy. There has always been a problem of philosophy. This discipline could never simply presuppose its nature, its method and its objects, but has always had to begin with a definition of itself…. (p. 276)

The fact that philosophy ought to wrestle ceaselessly for its life, that it ought to begin by giving itself a form and a feature and then fight to defend and maintain them—should this fact, or better, this destiny, rightly fall outside of philosophy, or should philosophy make of it its very heart and soul? Existentialism is born from this alternative, and on this very point marks a definitive break with philosophic naiveté. Existentialism finds those positions and systems of philosophy characterized by ignorance of this alternative impossible…. (pp. 276-77)

                                                           
Nicholas Abbagnano (1947)

Nicholas Abbagnano, "Existentialism Is a Positive Philosophy." In Nino Langiulli, ed., The Existentialist Tradition: Selected Writings. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1971.

8. One day not long ago, as I was leaving a café in Paris, I passed a group of students, one of whom stepped up to me and said: "Sûrement, Monsieur est existentialiste!" [Surely, you are an existentialist!] I denied that I was an existentialist. Why? I had not stopped to consider, but doubtless I felt that terms suffixed by ist usually conceal vague generalities. The subject of existentialism, or philosophy of existence, has begun to receive as much attention in New York as in Paris. Sartre has written an article for Vogue; a friend informs me that Mademoiselle, a magazine for teen-age young ladies, has featured an article on existentialist literature; and Marvin Farber has written in his periodical that Heidegger constitutes an international menace. The philosophy of existence has become, not only a European problem, but a world problem.

It is no less of a problem to define this philosophy satisfactorily. The word "existence," in the philosophic connotation which it has today, was first used by Kierkegaard. But may we call Kierkegaard an existentialist, or even a philosopher of existence? He had no desire to be a philosopher, and least of all, a philosopher with a fixed doctrine. In our own times, Heidegger has opposed what he terms "existentialism," and Jaspers has asserted that "existentialism" is the death of the philosophy of existence! So it seems only right to restrict our application of the term "existentialism" to those who willingly accept it, to those whom we might call the Philosophical School of Paris, i.e., Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty. But we still have not found a definition of the terms. (pp. 1-2)

At any rate, it is clear that one of the consequences of the existentialist movement and the philosophies of existence is that we have to destroy the majority of the ideas of so-called "philosophical common-sense," and of what has often been called "the eternal philosophy." In particular, we have to destroy the ideas of essence and substance. Philosophy—so goes the new affirmation—must cease to be philosophy of essence and must become philosophy of existence. We are observing a whole philosophical movement which dislodges previous philosophical concepts, and which tends to make more acute our subjective understanding at the same time as its makes us feel more strongly than ever our union with the world. In this sense, we are witnessing and participating in the beginning of a new mode of philosophizing. (pp. 33-34)

                                                           
Jean Wahl (1946)

Jean Wahl, A Short History of Existentialism. Trans. Forrest Williams and Stanley Maron. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

9. I write as someone who has experienced at first hand the rise of this movement in Germany, its transplantation to France, and its recent reception in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 1929 I published a book, Neue Wege der Philosophie [New Path of Philosophy], in which I introduced the term Existenzphilosophie; and to my knowledge I was the first to describe this phenomenon. (p.1)

But what is existentialism? Its representative or expressive value cannot be doubted. It represents one of the essential forms of West European philosophy in the age of European collapse. German Existenzphilosophie, French Existentialisme and Italian Esistenzialismo, though profoundly differing in form and content, have this in common—that they arise in the wake of national catastrophes. (p. 3)

                                                       
F. H. Heinemann (1953)

F. H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. New York: Harper and Row, 1953.

10. In reply to all these misconstructions we emphasize that existentialist philosophy is a technical philosophical position which first came to its full development in our time and can be traced back no further than Kierkegaard, and that it has articulated itself into doctrines which diverge very widely—only those views which are held in common can be regarded as the existentialist philosophy….Within the limits of the present account it seemed convenient first to enumerate the philosophers who are regarded as members of the school and then to bring out their common features. There are at least four contemporary philosophers who should undoubtedly be labeled ‘existentialists,’ Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. (p. 156)

1) The commonest characteristic among the various existentialist philosophies of the present is the fact that they all arise from a so-called existential experience which assumes a different form in each one of them. (p.159)

2) The existentialists take so-called existence as the supreme object of inquiry, but the meaning which they attach to the word is extremely difficult to determine. However, in each case it signifies a peculiarly human mode of being. (p.159)

3) Existence is conceived as absolutely actualistic; it never is but freely creates itself, it becomes; it is a pro-jection…. (p.159)

4) Furthermore, subjectivity is understood in a creative sense; man creates himself freely, and is his freedom. (pp. 159-160)

5) …man is an incomplete and open reality; thus his nature pins him tightly and necessarily to the world, and to other men in particular. This double dependence is assumed by all representatives of existentialism…. (p. 160)

6) All existentialists repudiate the distinction between subject and object, thereby discounting the value of intellectual knowledge for philosophical purposes. (p. 160)

                                                           
I. M. Bocheński (1947)

I. M. Bocheński, Contemporary European Philosophy. Trans. Donald Nicholl and Karl Aschenbrenner. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964.

11. The more fashionable a philosophy becomes, the more elusive is its definition. So the proponents of existentialism proclaim that, though many attack, few understand them. They insist on the essential optimism of their doctrine that "man makes himself," for there is always, until death, another chance. Granted, they would say, that, in their wide humanity, they explore the far corners of human life, the horrors and perversions uncharted by timorous captives of gentility. Granted, too, that, with honest ruthlessness, they expose the cant of a fraudulent, strictly bourgeois "human dignity." But just because of this very humaneness, this very honesty, they are decried as perverts and iconoclasts, as philosophic nihilists and artistic freaks. So, finally, as the word goes around, every treatise that dooms man to destruction, every novel whose characters are mad or bad, every play that depresses without elevating, is labeled "so existential"; and hence existentialism…comes to mean the shocking, the sordid, or the obscene. (p.1)

                                                       
Marjorie Grene (1948)

Marjorie Grene, Dreadful Freedom: A Critique of Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

12. "Give me a one-sentence definition of existentialism." This statement is often more a ritual defense against the insecurity aroused by not being au courant than a genuine desire for knowledge. It typifies more than any other the phenomenal popularization and distortion that the movement called existentialism has undergone since Jean-Paul Sartre’s widely publicized visit to the United States in 1946. The very notion that existentialism is something that can be defined in a catch phrase, or that one can merely know about it without understanding it from within, has made it, for some people, into an intellectual fad and robbed it of its proper seriousness. Yet existentialism is not merely a fad any more than it is a single, well-defined movement within philosophy. It is a powerful stream, welling up from underground sources, converging and diverging, but flowing forward and carrying with it many of the most important intellectual tendencies and literary and cultural manifestations of our day.

It is time, therefore, that a mature view of existentialism replace the easy definitions and the popular oversimplifications. Such a view can only come from looking at the existentialist writers themselves, understanding them in their uniqueness, their similarities and differences concerning the issues they have in common. (p. 3)

"Existentialism" is not a philosophy but a mood embracing a number of disparate philosophies; the differences among them are more basic than the temper which unites them. This temper can best be described as a reaction against the static, the abstract, the purely rational, the merely irrational, in favor of the dynamic and concrete personal involvement and "engagement," action, choice, and commitment, the distinction between "authentic" and "inauthentic" existence, and the actual situation of the existential subject as the starting point of thought. Beyond this the so-called existentialists divide according to their views on such matters as phenomenological analysis, the existential subject, the intersubjective relation between selves, religion, and the implications of existentialism for psychotherapy. (pp. 3-4)

Insofar as one can define existentialism, it is a movement from the abstract and general to the particular and the concrete…. Existentialism is a direction of movement toward particulars, but it is not and can never be an espousal of the particulars at the expense of all generality and abstraction. Therefore, existentialism is actually a relative thing—a tendency rather than a platform. (pp. 4-5)

Whether we like it or not, existentialism remains a complex converging and diverging of streams. (p. 13)

                                                           
Maurice Friedman (1964)

Maurice Friedman, ed. The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

13. Negative judgments about existentialism have been loudly voiced. These criticisms have ranged from the belittling of existentialism as just another version of nonconformity or a requiem to a dying European culture to the biting condemnation of existentialism as a strange mixture of "Parisian pornography and Teutonic brooding." On the other hand, existentialism has also acquired serious and fervent adherents. One can safely say, however, that the most common American reaction to existentialism has been a widespread bewilderment.

Both opponents and advocates have had their share in bringing about this bewilderment. But one of its more fundamental causes has been the philosophy of existentialism itself with its peculiar structure. Nobody has yet or will ever put down "the" tenets of existentialism in a systematic work of so many volumes, nor will there at any time appear an "Existentialist Manifesto" which would neatly spell out easy-to-grasp maxims. Even the word existentialism itself must be used with great caution, since it refers not to a rigid set of propositions but rather to a number of themes which recur in the works of existentialist writers, themes which resemble neither prescriptions for cure-alls nor ready-made explanations of all that puzzles man. Instead they dwell on the eternal tensions present in the human condition and shared by men of all ages. (p. 4)

Admittedly, so brief a glimpse of some of the major themes of existentialist philosophy—life as an adventure, hostility against systems, authentic existence, and man’s estrangement from his true self—adds still more questions to those one already has. But it does reveal the tenor of this philosophy. Existentialism emerges as a philosophy which demands a radical, personal, and never-ceasing questioning of the purpose of human life…, a questioning which is demanded in the interest of what can justifiably be called the central existential concern, the actually existing individual. (p. 6)

                                                           
Ernst Breisach (1962)

Ernst Breisach, Introduction to Modern Existentialism. New York: Grove Press, 1962.

14. Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living "existentialists" have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other….

Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of "existentialists"—Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre—are not in agreement on essentials. (p. 11)

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism.

Existentialism is a timeless sensibility that can be discerned here and there in the past; but it is only in recent times that it has hardened into a sustained protest and preoccupation. (p. 12)

                                                           
Walter Kaufmann (1956)

Walter Kaufmann, ed. Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1975.

15. Even the terminology of existentialism calls for brief notice here. For it was not until 1944, i.e., one year after the appearance of Sartre’s L’Être et le néant [Being and Nothingness], that the label "existentialism" was officially accepted by him and by others of its present protagonists, as well as, though only temporarily, by Gabriel Marcel. Previously the word had turned up only sporadically since the late twenties in France, Germany, and Italy (earliest known occurrence), and was in use mostly among the opponents of the new way of thinking. It has been rejected consistently by both Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, supposedly its initiators; instead, Jaspers speaks only of Existenzphilosophie, Heidegger of existenziale Analytik [existential analytic] or Fundamentalontologie [fundamental ontology]. (pp. 408-409)

                                                           
Herbert Spiegelberg (1959)

Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978.

16. Nowadays, when existentialism is spoken of in philosophical circles, its meaning is taken for granted. Yet, quite a few different types of things fall under this heading, although they are certainly neither without a common denominator nor lacking an internal coherence. With existentialism one thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Gabriel Marcel; of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers;…Actually, the word existentialism was a French creation. It was introduced by Sartre in the 1940s—during the very period that Paris was occupied by the Germans—as he was developing the philosophy that he later presented in his voluminous book Being and Nothingness. He was acting on the stimulus he had received from his studies in Germany during the 1930s. (p. 1)

But it must be made clear that the German stimulus standing behind this, which is mainly associated with Heidegger’s name, was in essence completely different from that which Sartre himself had produced from it. At that time one referred to such things in Germany with the expression philosophy of existence, and the word existential was quite in vogue during the late 1920s. If it was not "existential," it simply did not count. It was primarily Heidegger and Jaspers who were known as the representatives of this movement, although neither of them met this characterization with real conviction or approval. (pp. 1-2)

                                                           Hans-Georg Gadamer (1981)

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s Way. Trans. John W. Stanley. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994.

17. There have been enough popular accounts of the general ideas of existentialists. It is time to discriminate between these thinkers; they are not exponents of a school, and yet not the least impressive thing about their highly individual thought, separated by age, nationality, and temperament, is the interrelatedness of their family; each throws light on the others, and together they develop the content of certain common themes. (p. 2)

                                                           
H. J. Blackham (1952)

H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers. New York: Harper and Row, 1959

18. In continental Europe, to some extent in England and America, and quite markedly in Asia, existentialism has aroused the interests not merely of the beatniks in the various cultures but also of the professional philosophers and the serious students of ideas. (p. 97)

Whatever shortcomings we may find in these ideas when we view them in the light of their contribution to the philosophical problems to which they address themselves, we must also recognize that to evoke such an interested response on the part of so many people they must in some way or other bear on matters of very deep and widespread concern. To my mind, that is no small recommendation for any philosophy: when a philosopher speaks only to other philosophers, it is seldom that what he says is both philosophical and worth saying. Since this quality of relevance is perhaps the greatest virtue that I will ascribe to existentialism, I want to be sure that it is fully appreciated. (p. 98)

Existentialism, moreover, is a philosophy which does not content itself with a mere description and evaluation. It returns to the classical philosophical tradition in insisting that philosophy is quite different from other intellectual pursits in a very fundamental way—namely, that its goal is not merely to arrive at a certain system of propositions, however logical the system and however true the propositions of which it is composed. A philosophy is not a body of propositions but a way of life…. Because of this conception of philosophy, existentialism sets itself quite firmly against any system or school—so much so, indeed, that existentialists don’t like to be identified as "existentialists." (p. 99)

                                                           
Abraham Kaplan (1961)

Abraham Kaplan, The New World of Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

19. What is existentialism? The term is notoriously difficult to define, and no single definition will be adequate to fit all the works usually labeled "existentialist." But there are a number of features most existentialists have in common. We might start by saying that existentialism arises as a response to some of the major shifts that occurred with the emergence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of what is called the modern worldview. This modern outlook results in part from the radically new view of reality created by the rise of modern science. The sociologist Max Weber described this shift as the "disenchantment of the world." (p. XIV)

In attempting to understand our predicament in the modern age existentialists have formulated an insightful new way of thinking about human existence. In contrast to much of the philosophical tradition, which has sought to understand a human as a thing or an object of a particular sort (whether a mind or a body or some combination of the two), existentialists have characterized human existence as involving a profound tension or conflict, an ongoing struggle between opposing elements. (p. XVII)

                                                           
Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom (1995)

Charles Guignon, Derk Pereboom, eds. Existentialism: Basic Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1995.

20. The word ‘existentialism’ has an additional and very important source. For many philosophers, the word ‘existential’ is most at home in the expression existential phenomenology. There is general agreement that the most significant versions of twentieth-century existentialism are developments, welcome or perverse, from phenomenology, the philosophy elaborated by Edmund Husserl in the early years of the century. Heidegger describes Being and Time as a work of phenomenology, while Merleau-Ponty and Sartre use the word in the title or subtitle of their main works. (p. 5)

                                                           
David E. Cooper (1990)

David E. Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction, 2nd ed. London: Blackwell, 1999.

21. Existentialism as a philosophical orientation can be difficult to define; in fact, numerous attempts by commentators to proffer a comprehensive definition often fall foul to one or another Existentialist writer who denies or in some other way contradicts some components of the definition. It looks like a grand name for a philosophical orientation or discipline that focuses on ‘existence’. (p. 4)

                                                          
 Paul S. MacDonald (2000)

Paul S. MacDonald, ed. The Existentialist Reader: An Anthology of Key Texts. New York: Routledge, 2000.

22. The doctrine that existence takes precedence over essence and holding that man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of dread and anguish that encompass mankind.

        Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition. Cleveland: William Collins Publishers, 1979.

23. existentialism: a twentieth-century philosophical movement that developed in France and Germany through the work of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. It’s basic theme is human freedom and responsibility, the lack of any given rules and the need for us to be responsible for our actions. (p. 211)

                                                            Robert C. Solomon (1977)

Robert C. Solomon, Introducing Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives, 2nd edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

24. EXISTENTIALISM. Movement of philosophers, particularly in France after World War II. Name derives from their claim that "existence precedes essence," which is a way of saying that humans have no nature, are absolutely free, and are blessed (or cursed) with "monstrous spontaneity of consciousness." Existentialists hold that absolute freedom generates free-floating anxiety and the need to create meaningfulness through arbitrary commitment. (pp. 272-273)

                                                            William James Earle (1992)

William James Earle, Introduction to Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

25. existentialism. ‘Existentialism’ is a loose term for the reaction led by Kierkegaard, against the abstract rationalism of Hegel’s philosophy. As against Hegel’s conception of ‘absolute consciousness’ within which all oppositions are supposedly reconciled, Kierkegaard insisted on the irreducibility of the subjective, personal dimension of human life. He characterized this in terms of the perspective of the ‘existing individual’, and it is from this special use the term ‘existence’ (Existenz in both Danish and German) to describe a distinctively human mode of being that existentialism gets its name. Kierkegaard’s successors include the German philosophers Heidegger and Jaspers and the French philosophers Sartre and Marcel (who actually coined the term ‘existentialism’). (pp. 257-259)

                                                            Thomas Baldwin (1995)

Ted Honderich, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

26. Existentialism The philosophical doctrine, associated originally with Soren Kierkegaard, according to which our being as subjective individuals (our existence) is more important than what we have in common objectively with all other human beings (our essence). Of primary concern for Kierkegaard was his relationship to God. Later existentialists emphasized the individual’s creation of himself or herself through free individual choices. (p. 447)

                                                            Robert Paul Wolff (1976)

Robert Paul Wolff, About Philosophy, 7th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

27. The background reviewed in the two previous paragraphs facilitates a quick appreciation of what is meant by Existentialism. This is not the name for a system of doctrine in the way that Christianity and Marxism are. Even the description Existentialist itself has apparently been repudiated by most of the leading contemporary figures to whom it has been applied. Nevertheless the term has been widely employed and, given a sensibly limited interpretation, is useful. Crucially an existentialist is one who insists upon and develops the notion that existence is prior to essence, particularly with regard to man. This development brings it an enormous emphasis on the scope and significance of human decision. It is presumably this which has given existentialism its special appeal both for professional playwrights and for all those who have a taste for—in a very broad sense—dramatics….

The best introductory source is a lecture given in 1946 by the French man of letters J.-P. Sartre (1905-80). The original title was L’existentialisme est un humanisme [Existentialism is a Humanism], but it is published in the United States as Existentialism and Humanism and in England simply as Existentialism. (p. 462)

                                                            Antony Flew (1971)

Antony Flew, An Introduction to Western Philosophy, Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.


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