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Existentialism • Existentialism is the philosophy that individuals create their own meaning in their lives, as opposed to having a deity or higher power creating it for them. Existentialists believe that life has no meaning because we are all here for no reason other than the fact that our parents gave birth to us. Accepting that life is meaningless means that there is no real reason to live, and this causes a major crisis for the existentialist. What is the point of living if we all die anyway?
Existentialism • Kierkegaard—The individual is responsible for giving life meaning. • Life should be lived sincerely and passionately in spite of obstacles—despair, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. • Emphasis on concrete, human experience—a reaction against the abstraction of humanity resulting from science and philosophy.
Sartre • Limitless and therefore anxiety-producing human freedom. • Life is a series of situations requiring choices and acts; the acts that one chooses determine what one is. • Humanity is not given being, but only existence. There is no God. No absolute standards. Each person must create his or her own morality and truth—must create their own being out of existence. • Awareness comes first, then a Nietzschean “re-evaluation of all values.” But there is no superman. Only the individual.
Existentialism • Plato’s psyche. • Existentialism insists on reuniting the lower, irrational parts of the psyche with reason, taking the whole human into account. Man contains intellect, but also guilt, anxiety, and passionate drives. This image of the human is a complicated being full of contradictions and tensions.
Existentialism--Themes 1. The importance of the individual: “What does it mean to be existing as a human being? • How do you conduct in a meaningful way of life in a world where all purpose seems obscure? • In the midst of an unstable world, it becomes imperative to “be an individual.”
Existentialism--Themes 2. The importance of choice: we are made up of, or formed by, our experiences. • Subjectivity: “We cannot appeal to law or tradition to furnish decisions for life choices. We must make our choices on our own.
Choice • Existentialists write about the widening range of human freedoms. • Sartre--we are condemned to freedom. Because there is no God, we must accept individual responsibility for our own becoming. Nothing explicitly implies that in becoming a free individual one becomes a virtuous person. • Freedom is the acceptance of responsibility for choice and a commitment to one’s choice. • The acts that one chooses determine what one is.
Existence Precedes Essence • Human life is understandable only in terms of an individual man’s existence, his particular experience of life. A man lives rather than is, and every man’s experience is unique, radically different from everyone else’s and can be understood truly only in terms of his involvement in life or commitment to it. • there is no universal of human nature of which each man is only one example. Don’t ask “What is mankind?” Ask: “Who am I?” • The existentialist insists that each person is unique. He is an entire universe—the center of infinity.
3. Anxiety regarding life, death and extreme situations. • Lost optimism from the Age of Enlightenment that problems can be solved through reason, science. Nature can be “conquered.”
Anxiety and Fear • “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?” –William Faulkner, from his Nobel Prize speech.
Anxiety and Fear • Lost optimism from the age of enlightenment. Less faith in reason. Was the war reasonable? • Think about life today. What are our common fears and anxieties? • Too many moral choices. Ethical questions are primarily first person.
Existentialism--Themes 4. Authenticity • “We need to face up to our situation rather than making things worse with self-deceptive approaches to religion, metaphysics, morality, or science.” • “We need to be honest with ourselves and make decisions courageously; the key to this is accepting our own limitations and realizing that we cannot achieve certainty in the making of such decisions.”
Existentialism--Themes 5. Social Criticism • “Existentialist literature often carried out this unmasking of convention and social patterns with enormous effect (especially in the novels of Camus).”
5. Absurdity • “Sartre spoke of an unfulfillable desire for complete fulfillment.” • Life is absurd, and reason has no power to penetrate the depths of human life. • There are “dark places” in human life that do not involve reason.
Absurdity • We are forced to ask ultimate questions by the very nature of our lives and by our yearning for orientation and purpose in our lives, yet decisive answers prove unachievable. • Meaning must therefore be constructed through courageous choice in the face of this absurd situation.
Absurdity • This kind of choice cannot be understood as achieving moral certainty; rather it is moral heroism within an essentially morally vague and chaotic world. • Existentialists found strength in the undominatable human spirit. They resisted even during torture. “I can say no, therefore I exist.”
6. Alienation and Estrangement • We live in alienation from God, nature, and other men. Man has been collectivized by science, and separated from his sense of individuality. -crowded cities -subdivision of labor -centralized government -advertising, propaganda, the mass media • All of these things destroy individuality and make us live on the surface of life, content to deal with things and not people.
7. Nothingness • If man is alienated from self, God, nature, and other men, what is left? • Why do people who have “everything” feel empty and discontent? • Nothingness is the “placeholder of possibility.” It is the awareness of anything that is not your own existence—what you are not, and what you could become.
Sources • Witt, The Humanities • soma.sbcc.edu/.../LectureNotes_La%20Jetee_Existentialism.pdf • http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/wphil/lectures/wphil_theme20.htm • http://www.viterbo.edu/perspgs/faculty/GSmith/Existentialism.htm