Existensialism

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(From LL. existentia). One of the most influential philosophical and cultural systems; a particular current of humanist thought that has as its objective the analysis and description of the meaning and contradictions of human life. From the point of view of e., the individual is not a mechanical part of a single totality (generation, class, social body), but an entity integral and complete in itself. In the philosophy of e. there are numerous tendencies, among them religious and atheist. A common problematic unites them, but each has its own approach to understanding life. In the religious, primacy is granted to the relation of humankind to God. The atheist branch considers the individual as the only God. These conceptions, however, influence each other reciprocally, exhibiting the same concern for the suffering of human beings, proclaiming the same ethical principles, and experiencing the same disillusionment regarding the absurdity and meaninglessness of modern life. The same spirit of pessimism and even despair characterizes all the tendencies of the existentialist movement. Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher and Protestant theologian, was one of the precursors of existentialist doctrine; he analyzed in great depth and detail such features of human existence as sorrow, fear, love, guilt, good and evil, death, consciousness, dread, etc. The permanent sense of dread that an individual experiences is a consequence of the feeling of abandonment in anticipation of inevitable death. Sincere faith is the only thing that allows the individual to live life consciously. Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), a Russian Orthodox philosopher, developed the line of thought of Kierkegaard further and founded what was termed “New Christianity.” According to Berdyaev, the existence of the individual is founded in freedom, while the meaning of life is constituted “in the birth of God in the individual and of the individual in God.” Only the individual exists, whereas everything else is simply there but does not exist because it has no consciousness of its existence, but merely adapts to objective conditions. In this form of e. three factors intersect: freedom, divine predestination, and the responsibility and personal energy of a being who knows how to think, feel and produce. The individual must be always in a state of renewal, i.e., become ever more human. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) understood this problem in his own way, attempting to separate the “temporal axis” of history and to focus attention on certain constants in life (sickness, death, suffering) that determine the principal meaning of existence. According to Jaspers, every being must seek its individuality in its present life. In Spanish philosophy and literature Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) developed existentialist ideas. He attributed special significance to the idea of Quixotism, according to which the human being undertakes a permanent struggle (as did Don Quixote) for an unreal ideal. Every concrete existence is made up of collisions between the ordinary and the sublime, between pragmatism and spiritual revelation. For many existentialists, Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900) represents another source of this doctrine, apart from Kierkegaard. Just as Marxists made use of the dialectical method of Hegel, more recent existentialists have employed the rigorous phenomenological method of Husserl in their descriptions. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) are other thinkers who have contributed in important ways to the development of e. José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) can also be considered part of this movement, even though his ratio-vitalist line of thought departs in many respects from a number of the basic assumptions of e. Independently of the diversity that characterizes the existentialist focus on the circumstances of human life, this conception is notable for its sensitivity toward all problems of human existence, as well as for its confidence in the personal, creative powers of human beings. The credo of many existentialists: “Existence means being human; human being means existence,” corresponds fully with the conception of N.H.