What Is Existentialism?

Existentialism is sometimes treated as a school of philosophy like empiricism or idealism, but it is not really a school of philosophy at all, because it does not deal with any of the fundamental issues of philosophy like metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, or aesthetics, except peripherally.

There is also no way to generalize what existentialism is philosophically, because there is nothing more to existentialism than a handful of common themes shared by those writers who are today classified as existentialists, even though most of them never heard of existentialism, or, with the exception of Jean-Paul Sartre, repudiated the label.

One way some authors have attempted to classify existentialism is to identify it as a common theme or emphasis in the works of certain writers, such as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, Franz Kafka, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and others.

Nevertheless, existentialism is given credit for influencing much of Western thought and literature, predominantly European. Philosophically, existentialism is not important, but it is not possible to read widely without encountering it, and some knowledge of what is meant by existentialism may be useful.

The Irony of Existentialism

There is something very charming in the writing of many of the existentialists, and the concept of existence as the beginning of everything sounds very much like an objective view of reality. The emphasis on individualism beginning with Kierkegaard and the view that all meaning resides in individuals, and all values depend on individual choice, making every individual responsible for who and what they are appeals to anyone who embraces individualism. Even Ayn Rand, the ultimate proponent of individualism, toyed with naming her own philosophy existentialism, but ultimately chose the name 'Objectivism,' because she did not want her philosophy associated with any of those who were identified by the name existentialism.

Contrived Insanity

In the introduction to The Autonomist's Notebook, I wrote about becoming free, which every individual must become to be all that is possible to a human being:

"It must begin with an agreement with yourself to seek and follow the truth above all other things. Until you hold the truth above all other things, above all feelings, all desires, all allegiances or commitments, you can never be free and are doomed to perpetual servitude to any irrational feeling, whim, or passion to which you are willing to sacrifice your reason and therefore your will. The beginning of freedom is to free yourself from all those emotions, which uncontrolled, are demons which possess and control you, but under your control become your servants, providing you strength, enthusiasm, motivation, pleasure, and joy in every aspect of your life."

This is the view of life based on a philosophy of sanity. This is the view of a fully integrated mind, a mind that seeks the truth that describes existence as it actually is, an existence that is the source of all that has meaning and is worth living for. To that kind of mind, existence, his own and the world's he lives in, is the reality that is the source of all that is possible, and for the rational individual, it is the real world that makes all meaning, all virtue, all joy, all ecstasy possible, and it is the purpose of his life to discover that possibility and to achieve it.

Existentialism begins with the same existence, but does not see it as that which makes life one of endless possibility, but as a cause of endless problems, and suffering, if not physical suffering, than at least emotional suffering. Existentialism is the philosophy of mental disintegration.

There are no real principles in existentialism. There are concepts, but they are not real concepts either, because existentialism proceeds entirely by means of floating abstractions—words with meanings disconnected from any objective base with foundationless assumptions as premises.

No system of thought, no matter how wrong, can be put over if it contradicts all truth. There is truth in existentialism, but it is truth that is so obvious it is apparent to even the most simple-minded. Existentialism takes obvious truths and raises them to the level of the philosophically profound. "You cannot just do anything you choose. You are responsible for your choices. If you base your choices on anything other than your own best reason, your are not being 'authentic,' you are a fake or a phony." This pablum is called philosophy.

The Neurotic Concepts

Existentialism is the systemization of neurosis. It is composed of a lexicon of pseudo-concepts or non-concepts (because they identify nothing, either abstract or concrete) and have no real meaning except that possible to the demented or otherwise mentally defective. These pseudo-concepts are all perversions of real ideas. The concepts sound like those a rational person would embrace, but the existentialists give 'meanings' to them which contradict all sound reason. The following are the most common of existentialist non-concepts. I attempted to give these 'absurd' ideas some kind of logical order, but it is impossible to organize that which defies all logic.

  • Responsibility
  • The Absurd
  • Freedom and Value
  • Facticity
  • Transcendence
  • Authenticity
  • The Other
  • The Look
  • Alienation
  • Nothingness
  • Anxiety (angst)
  • Angst
  • Despair
Responsibility This is not the concept that identifies the fact every individual is responsible for their own choices and must bear the consequences of their choices, suffering for their wrong ones and enjoying the rewards of their right ones.

The existentialist concept of responsibility, like the true one, is supposedly based on the fact that all human thought and action must be consciously chosen, but the consequences existentialism concerns itself with are those which have nothing to do with human responsibility. Existentialism is not concerned with the fact you will starve if you do not produce enough to feed yourself, existentialism is concerned with the fact, if you eat there is less food in the world as a consequence, and in some way never defined, since it was your choice to eat, you are responsible for a food shortage in any part of world that results from your choice.

This is not a straw-man I've made up, it is exactly the kind of so-called responsibility existentialists worry and write about. There may not be an exact example like this one, but there are many others even more ridiculous, because they regard an individual responsible for every possible affect on anything in the universe one's choices and actions might have. It foreshadows the even more absurd sophistry tried by some modern 'philosophers' called the butterfly effect.

No one is responsible for what they do not know. No one is responsible for anyone else's life but their own. No one is responsible for the facts of reality. So long as an individual never intentionally does something to directly harm another individual's person or property, no one has any other responsibility in this world, except to achieve and be all he possibly can by his own effort. Where does the supposed responsibility the existentialist thrust on everyone come from?

Of course that is a rational question. Existentialists deny the validity of such questions, partly because of their notion of the absurd.

The Absurd The existentialist meaning of the word "absurd" is not that everything they say and write is absurd, (which it is), but that life and existence are themselves devoid of meaning. According to the existentialists, the only meaning there is in the world is whatever meaning human individuals give to it.

There is an important truth in this view. If there were no conscious rational beings in the universe, there would be no meaning or purpose. Goals, objectives, purposes, ideals, and meaning are possible only to beings capable of using their ability reason to choose goals, set objectives, understand purposes, formulate ideals, and understand the relationships between things which is what meaning is.

The existentialists twist this truth into a kind of psychological conundrum. Not stated, but implied is the notion that existence itself ought to come with some kind of predetermined meaning and that life ought to have some grand purpose imposed on it from the outside. An existentialist would deny this, but it would never occur to the existentialist to ask, if there is no reason to expect some meaning for existence beyond the fact that it is and has a nature which can be discovered, and if there is no reason to expect the life of any individual to have any other purpose than those purposes an individual chooses for himself as his means of living and enjoying his life as rationally and fully as possible, where is the absurdity?

If the existentialists do not expect there to be some mystic reason or purpose to existence what do they mean when they write about the "unfairness" or "amorality" of the world, by which they mean that bad things happen to people and life isn't easy? They do not like such questions, they prefer to stamp their foot and complain about how unfair the world is to them, which, of course, really is absurd.

Facticity Facts are facts and things are what they are. It almost sounds like, "A is A," as though they were arguing the objectivity of reality. But nothing could be further from their intention.

Existentialists are concerned with 'facts' as they relate to an individual including all physical facts (one's age, height, color of hair), as well as psychological facts (one's beliefs, feelings, knowledge), and one's environment (history, learning, society), and one's social condition (wealth, employment, status).

"Identity," is another term used by existentialists. For existentialists, one's identity is the cause of endless problems, and is the major reason they are so concerned with what they call 'facts' or 'facticity.' One's identity obviously includes all the facts about oneself. The existentialists admit none of the facts determine who an individual is, but emphasize those facts limit an individual.

Well of course. If you're only four feet eleven inches tall, you'll probably not become a professional basketball player, which is probably more fortunate for you than you think. Perhaps, however, if you must pursue a life of sports you can excel at something else—like ping pong. And that brings us to transcendence.

Transcendence The meaning of transcendence to existentialist is what the diminutive sports enthusiast does when he chooses to become a ping pong player rather than a basketball player. He overcomes what is a limitation due to his stature to become something else. It also determines his identity as "ping pong player," rather than "basketball player."

Like all the other pseudo-concepts existentialism is riddled with, this one is usually presented in the most obtuse academic language possible to make it sound esoteric. For example, "depending on how I determine my behavior in relation to it [some facticity], so too my own factic properties—such as irrascibility, laziness, or bourgeois workaholism—take on meaning (become functioning reasons) on the basis of how I endorse or disavow them in the present action." Bourgeois workaholism is a facticity? Sure!

Authenticity At first blush this seems almost obvious. Anyone who is not what they rationally choose to be is a kind of fake or charlatan. But this is not what the existentialist means. I readily admit it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to know what an existentialist means, because it includes one's 'responsibility' (as described above) and 'freedom' (which means the ability to choose). OK. Be yourself, even if you have been totally confused by the existentialist meaning of identity. As if you could be anyone else. (Or perhaps your identity was stolen, a recently developed real crime.)

The Other I do not mean to be flippant about the ideas that existentialists take seriously, but quite frankly, some of them are ridiculous, and a little difficult to put in terms a rational individual can understand. The, "other," is one of those concepts. The 'other' means other people, obviously, but it means them in some mystic way I frankly cannot fathom. They are mysteriously important to an individual, both because an individual can observe them, and they can observe the individual. To an existentialist this is very profound; to a sane individualist, the fact that one can observe others is only important to be sure one does not harm them, or be harmed by them, and perhaps find one to befriend, or even to fall in love with.

As for others observing us, no healthy individual is concerned with what others observe, or think about them, but existentialism is the philosophy of paranoia, and is very concerned with what others observe and think. It's not exactly the 'evil eye,' but what others see in them when they are looked at certainly seems to bear some mystic force to existentialists. To normal people, the existentialist concern with others is either vanity, or 'thin skin.'

The Look If you don't believe existentialists really think in these neurotic ways, consider this description of what "the look" means:

"Sartre's own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: at first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom. The Look is then co-constitutive of one's facticity. ... It is only one's perception of the way another might perceive him.

What sane philosophy is concerned with the possible problems of a Peeping Tom?

Alienation Human beings suffer "alienation" because they do not feel "at home" in the world, the existentialists claim. Now, I have some sympathy with this idea of feeling like an alien in the world. I sometimes feel I cannot truly be a member of the insane, ignorant, and decadent race of beings that occupies this planet, but it is not that kind of alienation the existentialists mean.

It is from the world itself, reality itself, existentialists 'feel' alienated from, because it is the, 'other," which they cannot be, yet what they are is also determined by that 'other.' Does that make sense? Well if it doesn't it is the best I can make of the mind-bending gibberish. I frankly confess I cannot make it any clearer. Perhaps Dr. Seuss could.

How could one not feel alienated in a world in which it's objective nature is denied, the fact it is the source of all human potential and achievement, a world that only a rational mind can understand and identify, and can be. Perhaps nothing more clearly demonstrates the insane nature of existentialism than this pseudo-concept of alienation.

Nothingness This, perhaps, is the lowest rung in the existentialist hell, a non-concept that is not possible to describe rationally. Existential "nothingness" might apply to the meaningless world one feels alienated in, or one's own meaningless existence with no real identity. I'm tempted to say, it really means nothing, but that is a little too obvious.

The non-concept "nothingness" does not identify anything, no existent, no event, no relationship, and no attribute of any kind, concrete or abstract. Nothing is a zero, it identifies only what isn't. Red identifies a color. Redness is the quality of that which has the color red. If nothingness had a meaning, it would be the quality of that which has the attribute nothing, but nothing is that which has no qualities because it is that which does not exist, it is, "no thing."

Angst Angst is one of the most popular words amongst the disciples of the existential neurosis. They love to clasp their breasts and express angst, with life, with the world, with everything, even about nothing. It is sometimes called "dread," or "anxiety," or "anguish," but whatever it is called, virtually everything causes it.

Can a philosophy more evil be imagined than that which describes human nature as a state of perpetual terror, anxious and afraid of everything, from one's own thoughts to one's own existence.

You may read any of the existentialist scribblings on this subject, but if you keep your intellectual eyes open it will be obvious angst is nothing but irrational fear produced by a disintegrated mind that grasps nothing and understanding nothing. Worst of all, like all these paranoid concepts, it raises an irrational emotion to the level of a metaphysical fact.

Despair If you have read this far, and have the impression you'll never understand existentialism, do not despair. Existentialism is not meant to be understood, it's meant to create a certain attitude and mood that takes nothing seriously except not taking anything seriously, because nothing really matters. I don't mean nothing matters in fact, only that if you are an existentialist that is how you ultimately 'feel' about things, even though you do not understand anything.

Despair for the existentialist is a normal human condition. Even if everything in your life is going exactly as you've planned and worked for, even if there is no kind of disappointment in you near or distant future, you are still in despair because you can never know when something you've planned, your career, your marriage, your health, even your thoughts, will suddenly take a turn for the worse spoiling all you live for. The existentialists go to a great deal of trouble to explain why despair is the state of every human being. I'll make it easy; we're all going to die. That will certainly spoil any plans one has for any time after that event occurs. If you can make more sense of what an existentialist means by despair, you might want to check your premises.

Values There is nothing new about the existentialist view of values except the degree of circumlocution employed to say anything about it. It is simply a recasting of the Humean assault on objective values that denies there is any means to distinguish 'true' values from 'false' values, and this is done without ever explaining what the difference between true and false mean in the first place. It is the same "is-ought" argument repeated by every philosopher after Hume, "there is no way to prove an 'ought' based on what 'is.'" Well, if you want to live, and there is poison in the glass you are holding and trying to decide if you should drink from it or not, since there is poison in the glass, you ought not drink it.

The existentialists assume values must have some mystic reality of their own, disconnected from reality. Values pertain only to goals, purposes, and ends, and only have meaning to beings capable of having goals, purposes and ends, beings capable choosing their actions, which is why they need values.

If the existentialists were honest about there being no objective values, if any action were as good or bad as any other, if there were no objective way of determining the best way for a human being to live, then everything else they say would be pointless, except perhaps their view that life is absurd, which without values it certainly would be. But why would anyone need to transcend their facticity, since, if there are no values, not transcending would be just as good. Why would anyone need to be authentic since being a fake would be just as good? Why care about about how what any one does affects anyone else since one thing is just as good or bad as anything else? If there are no objective values than not one thing the existentialists say matters a pickle, because anything else would be just as good.

All of existentialism can, in one way, may be reduced to this basic contradiction: "It is good to understand that there is no objective way to determine what is good."

Your Own Research

If you really want to do more research on existentialism you might read any of the writers I listed above, even though most of them never claimed to be existentialist. You might also consult either the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for overviews, which do not totally agree—no such overviews ever will.

If you intend to do research about existentialism, you need to be forearmed. See the short article, "Clear Thinking," and as you encounter each of the absurd pseudo-concepts, compare them to the six principles of clear thinking. Is the concept true; does the writer ever define what he means by truth? Does the concept contradict any known truth? Are there internal contradictions? Are the words used to describe the concepts clear and precise or do they identify indefinite things that are vague and ambiguous? Do the concepts appeal to reason and facts or to feelings and desires? How does the writer know the things he claims to know? Are the concepts based on objective knowledge, or on conjecture and imagination?

Magic Pills

I have not much enjoyed writing this article, because it has been necessary for me to mentally wallow in the muck of the irrational and try to make sense of what is essentially senseless. Existentialism does, of course, have some kind of essence, but it is not an appeal to reason, it is an appeal to feelings and emotions and to that almost universal desire for an ultimate excuse for remaining irrational. Being rational is demanding and difficult and requires both mental work and self-descipline, which most people loath. What they seek is something that will give them answers without work, a sense of meaning and purpose without the effort of clear rational thought, perhaps even virtue acquired by simply swallowing the appropriate magic pill. There are many such magic pills; there are religions and endless mystic ideologies one simply accepts and follows. Not everyone can swallow the religious pills, however, because even their shallow minds find them too unbelievable, and too demanding. It is to such minds the vacuous pseudo-philosophies—post-modernism, multi-culturalism, and existentialism—appeal because the pills are both sweet and small, easy to swallow, and demand very little.