Existentialism was defined by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre as an ethical and philosophical theory that would place importance on freedom as inherently valuable and the base of all other values (Webber)1. Being human for Sartre was summarised perfectly in the motto “existence precedes essence” (Webber, Sartre).2 The phrase explores the idea that human beings do not have an innate essence or fixed identity, but that they create them through the values and tasks that they embrace throughout life (Webber, Sartre)3. This means that people have complete free will and so must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Existentialism confronts a variety of different questions that arise from the nature of being human and the realisation that being human is not consequential and renounces the notion that there is a predestined way that humanity should live.
Sartre’s meaning is that man has no essence antecedent to his free choices, to the essence however his existential is difficult to take him altogether seriously or to suppose that the proposition, 'existence precedes essence,'4 amounts to much more than just an emphatic assertion of liberty and a denial of any form of physical or psychological determinism a theory which states that individual human beings lack free will this theory also brokes the argument that if free will doesn’t exist then it is impossible to hold anyone morally responsible for their actions. Satre’s proposition is certainly bound up with atheism, in the sense that he denies the existence of an archetypal idea or divine idea of man, which is realized or unfolded on the plane of created existence; but if the proposition is understood in a sense which would be acceptable not only to Sartre and Camus but also to Marcel, it can hardly involve atheism, though what they have in common would be the rejection of determinism as a whole.. 5 6
Existentialism can be controversial for the fact that the concept of existentialism picks out a distinctive cluster of philosophical problems and identifies a relatively distinct current of philosophical inquiry, one that has had a significant impact on other fields such as theology and psychology. 7
There is not a fixed classification of ways of thinking or issues should be classified as an existentialist (Webber)8. But, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger, Camus and Marcel are normally classified as existentialists (Copleston)9. The common ground for them in their philosophies is a disregard for the for any form of “totalitarian” philosophy meaning the ones that minimize the importance of the individual as the main entry for experience (Copleston)10 11.
For Kierkegaard the thinking is personal, and the ultimate election would be the relationship with God; his work was Christian in nature but opposed to the organized church (Copleston, Notes)12. Kierkegaard was certainly a personal thinker, in the sense that he philosophized based on his personal experience,13. Far from attempting to construct an 'objective system,' he directed a great deal of his polemics precisely against 'the System' and against 'objectivity' 14.
Karl Jaspers believed that the function of philosophy was not to teach a view of life but to make individuals aware of choices and what authentic choices are (Copleston). 16 Jaspers who considers the concrete possibilities open to the human being, without aiming at the development of any general theoretical ontology. Jaspers has indeed declared that it is the task of the philosopher to awaken man to the possibilities of choice and that existentialism as a general theory, is the death of the philosophy of existence; but he is much more of an observer, a philosopher of philosophies, than a personal thinker where Kierkegaard was a personal thinker relying on original ideas..17
The freedom offered by this branch of philosophy can be quite confronting interviewing with nihilist philosophy regarding life being meaningless including ethics and upholding the moral code as so this is where existentialist philosophy diverges into two paths the 'Christian' and the 'atheist'.18 This idea was introduced by Sartre who is considered an atheist existentialist, both types of existentialist have various disagreements, even as they have many overarching similarities in beliefs. Gabriel Marcel is a good example of the Christian side of existentialism as both he as Sartre knew each other in the time they were writing their ideas19. They had, however, a significant difference in core beliefs that caused them to become estranged for the rest of their lives. The most influential figures of the 'atheist' side of existentialism apart from Sartre include Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Friedrich and many others. The 'Christian' aspect was mainly represented by philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers and Nikolay Berdyayev and more.20 21
The philosophies of existentialism and Spinoza’s differ greatly when it comes to humanity. According to existentialism, we can be called beings for itself, is a being for itself means that we have no fixed purpose, we can change our purpose from one day to the other. 22Spinoza claims that God is the only thing that is real and that we are all made out of or derived from one substance, God and all of our attributes are necessitated by God. According to Spinoza, it is useless to look for an end goal as we already have a fixed purpose and that free will is an illusion. This philosophy is in stark contrast to existentialism as existentialism is all about choices and free will and living the consequences of our actions. 23
Brand Blanshard, is a philosopher of rationalism and in some ways, this could be seen as a direct contradiction to existentialism24. Existentialism holds a broader view of the world and people as being irrational or making irrational choices. This would mean that the only meaning in the world is the one that we give to it, the meaning is personal25. Rationalism states that people are for the most part rational and that meaning should be derived from reason.26 An example of this division in beliefs can be seen when it comes to death. Depending on the person death can be given several meanings apart from the scientific cause of death which would be the rational response. 27However, existentialism does not deny that some things are universal and that the true importance relies on that there is not necessarily a pattern to life or that it will remain constant28. In its most basic form, rationalism and existentialism are simply different orientations towards the world one of which is focused on the logical and rational and the other that could be described as being a part of irrationalist group or way of thinking.29
In conclusion, I believe that despite the lack of evidence supporting this theory it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot to cover in terms of offering a potential structure for human beings and life. It has been considered by some to be a pessimistic theory as it focuses on how alone we are as human beings, however when considering the advancements in modern society and the gradual improvements we are making when it comes to tolerance of differences, scientific advancement and the general decrease of international wars existentialism can be viewed in a very positive light. If all of this has not been influenced by a higher being or power then it means that we are slowly learning from our mistakes as a species and capable of so much goodness that can come through the power of choice.
This reaffirms the nature of human beings and the common good of man, that despite the meaningless and directionless existence we share we have also done a good job in choosing the beneficial options for our growth as a species. Despite other philosophical branches emphasising the negative aspects of humanity, the selfishness, ego, flaws existentialism should do the opposite. Taking pride in the decisions made and learning from mistakes rather than undermining or reducing it.