Existentialism is not a school of thought so much as a trend that appears throughout philosophy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to this time, philosophical thought had grown to become increasingly more complex and abstract. In dealing with ideas of nature and truth, philosophers began to exclude the importance of human beings.
However, starting with Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, several philosophers emerged placing a newfound focus on the human experience. Though there are significant differences between philosophers of existentialism (a term that would not be used until the twentieth century), the one common theme among all of them is the notion that philosophy should focus on the experience of human existence in this world. In other words, existentialism seeks out the meaning of life and finding oneself.
Though existentialist thought varies from philosopher to philosopher, there are several common themes. One of the key ideas of existentialism is that the meaning of life and discovering oneself can only be attained by free will, personal responsibility, and choice.
Existentialism deals with the question of what it means to exist as a human being. Existentialists believe that humans have been thrown into this universe, and therefore it is existing in this world, and not consciousness, that is the ultimate reality. A person is an individual who has the ability to think and act independently and should be defined by his actual life. It is through an individual’s own consciousness that values and purpose are determined.
Existentialist philosophers believe that all humans have free will. The ability to have free will leads to life choices. Structures and values of society have no control over a person. Personal choices are unique to every individual and are based on outlook, beliefs, and experiences, not external forces or society. Based on these choices, people begin to discover who and what they are. There is no purpose for desires such as wealth, honor, or pleasure, for these are not responsible for having a good life.
The notion of personal responsibility is a key component of existentialism. It is entirely up to the individual to make decisions— and these decisions are not without their own consequences and stress. However, it is in the moments when an individual fights against his very nature that he is at his best. In essence, the very choices we make in life determine our nature, and there are things in this world that are unnatural and irrational.
Existentialists place great emphasis on moments when truths about our existence and nature bring a new awareness into what life means. These existential moments of crisis produce feelings of anxiety, angst, and dread afterward, and are the result of the freedom and independent responsibility we all have.
Because humans have been thrown into this universe, there is a certain meaninglessness to our existence. Our freedom means we are uncertain of the future, and our lives are determined by the choices we make. We believe we have an understanding about the universe around us, and when we discover something that tells us differently, we experience an existential crisis that forces us to re-evaluate aspects of our lives. The only way to have meaning and value is through making choices and taking responsibility.
To be authentic, one must truly be in harmony with his freedom. In existentialism, the notion of authenticity means really coming to terms with oneself, and then living accordingly. One must be able to come to terms with his identity while also not letting his background and history play a part in his decision-making process. Making choices should be done based on one’s values, so that there is a responsibility that comes with the decision-making process.
If one does not live within a balance of his freedom, he is inauthentic. It is in the inauthentic experience that people allow ideas like determinism, believing choices are meaningless, and acting as “one should” to persuade their choice-making.
Absurdity is one of the most famous notions affiliated with existentialism. It is often argued in existentialism that there is no reason to exist and that nature has no design. While sciences and metaphysics might be able to provide an understanding of the natural world, these provide more of a description than an actual explanation, and don’t provide any insight into meaning or value.
According to existentialism, as humans, we should come to terms with this fact and realize that the ability to understand the world is impossible to achieve. The world has no meaning other than the meaning that we provide it.
Furthermore, if an individual makes a choice, it is based on a reason. However, since one can never truly understand meaning, the reasoning is absurd, and so too is the decision to follow through with the choice.
While there are some very famous Christian and Jewish philosophers who use existentialist themes in their work, on the whole, existentialism is commonly associated with atheism. This does not mean that all atheists are necessarily existentialists; rather, those who subscribe to existentialist thought are often atheists.
Why is this the case? Existentialism does not set out to prove that God does or does not exist. Rather, the main ideas and themes of existentialism (such as complete freedom) simply do not mesh well with the notion of there being an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being. Even those existentialists who maintain a belief in a higher being agree that religion is suspicious. Existentialism asks human beings to search and discover their meaning and purpose from within themselves, and this is not possible if they believe in some external force controlling humanity.