Lecture 1: Existentialism. Introductory Notes.
What is existentialism?
The term itself suggests one major theme, the stress on concrete, individual existence that is
introduced through subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice. Dictionaries and philosophy
textbooks offer simple definitions of existentialism:
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
Collins Publishers, Inc.
A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a
hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom
of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts. -
American Heritage Dictionary
of the English Language, Third Edition,
Houghton Mifflin Company.
What then is Existentialism? There exists now a widely accepted definition of existentialism. It
is that existentialism is the philosophic standpoint which gives priority to existence over essence.
What is meant by this is that existentialism gives priority in significance to existence, in the
sense of my existence as a conscious subject, rather than to any essence which may be assigned
to me, any definition of me, any explanation of me by science or philosophy or religion or
politics. Existentialism affirms the ultimate significance, the primacy of my existence as this
flickering point of consciousness of myself and of objects of which I am aware, my existence as
this conscious being against all efforts to define me, to reduce me to a Platonic essence, or to a
Cartesian mental substance, or to a Hegelian carrier of the spirit of my culture, or to a scientific
neurological mechanism, or to a social security number. On the other hand, classical and modern
rationalism have regarded rational essences or self-evident ideas as having primacy over
individual existence. Whereas rationalism claims that the individual existence can be
comprehended by the concept or essence or by any conceptual system. -
From Socrates to
Sartre: The Philosophic Quest
, by T.Z. Lavine, p. 328.
It is commonly accepted that existentialism is a revolt against traditional Western rationalistic
philosophy. It is also said that existentialist philosophy is very much a confirmation and logical
expansion of themes and problems in Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Husserl. But
existentialism is not simply a philosophy or a philosophical revolt. Existential philosophy is the
explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude
– a spirit of “the present age.”
It is a philosophical realization of a self-consciousness
living in a “broken world” (Marcel), an