Mr. White is many things: a teacher, a husband, a father, a college graduate, and a medical patient, to name a few. Some of his features may be counted as accomplishments, others failures, and yet others unlucky accidents thrust upon him by the world. But is this all there is to Mr. White? According to the philosophical tradition of Existentialism, something is missing in this characterization. For the existentialist, we are not merely a collection of facts; we are also self-conscious, living, caring beings. While trees, seagulls, and fish are all similarly alive, they do not live the same sorts of lives that we do. Existentialism is the philosophical science of our peculiar sorts of lives.1
Our lives are ongoing activities. Mr. White’s existence, just like the existence of every similarly self-conscious, caring being, is more than a series of events or a set of facts. In providing such an understanding, Existentialism breathes new life into old ideas about the nature of value, freedom, and even more broadly into questions about the nature of reality and knowledge. In this essay, we will restrict our focus to what existentialists have to say about human nature and living a meaningful life.2
Existence Precedes Essence
Many philosophers, both historical and contemporary, believe that the way something is is determined by its essence. That is, essences are fixed determinants of the way things are. Those who follow this line of thought may take essences to be the non-physical and eternal standards to which things conform.3 Thus, the essence of a table is what determines table-like behavior. Likewise, the essence of a human being is what determines what a human being is like. These fixed determinants can range from principles given by God to those we attribute to society. Martin Heidegger helpfully points out that we often speak of the way “one” does things, referring to no one in particular. We say things like “this is the way one does x,” because doing x correctly means doing it in accordance with some pre-established standard.4 But Heidegger believes that this way of thinking should not extend to our ways of living. That is, we should not understand ourselves as living correctly only when we live “as one lives.” Existentialism reverses this picture by suggesting that it is our living which determines our essence, and not the other way around.
Let’s go back to Mr. White. In order to understand what sort of being he is, we must understand that who he is is not a fact he was born with, nor is it a fact that was established merely after some important events in his life unfolded. He is who he is because of what he chooses, and one can never stop choosing. For even by trying to decide that I will no longer make choices, I am making the choice not to choose. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous of the historical existentialists, expresses the idea that we are who we make ourselves, and not who we are pre-determined to be, with a concise slogan: “existence precedes essence.”5
Freedom & Authenticity
If Sartre is right and our lives are essentially up to us, then existentialists must also be committed to a robust kind of freedom, since we are not determined by what happens to us. But if Mr. White’s essence is up to him, and he’s free to craft his essence as he pleases, then on what standards does he draw to guide himself in his crafting? It would seem that existentialists cannot simply draw from a set of independently existing standards. If this were so, then who we are is again simply a matter of conforming to some pre-established standards.
If the standards are up to us, then why should we choose any one set of standards over any other? That is, how can we make sense of the idea that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live if there is no external standard for judging whether we have made the right choice?6 This is a difficult issue in Existentialism, one that is grappled with by all the major figures in the tradition. The answer we will entertain here is that it is possible to find a standard within our own activities that determines whether they are being performed well or poorly. This is what existentialists refer to as authenticity.7
Mr. White, knowing that he has terminal lung cancer, can arrange the final years of his life in a variety of ways; it is up to him how he will structure his remaining time. But there are two ways in which he can choose: (i) he can see his choices as simply thrust upon him by the world—i.e., he can believe that he really doesn’t have a choice at all, or (ii) he can see his choices as his own while taking full responsibility for them. Only by acting in this way is Mr. White acting authentically, since it is only under these conditions that he is true to himself. Acting inauthentically, then, involves excusing oneself from responsibility by ignoring one’s freedom. The existentialist hopes to have shown that despite the lack of external guidance, we are perfectly capable of telling from within our own activities whether we are acting authentically or inauthentically.8
Existentialism gives us some tools for understanding (i) our essence, and (ii) how it is possible to live a meaningful life. The ideas defended by existentialists have been thought to have both positive and negative implications for us. On the one hand, our lives are not determined by God, society, or contingent circumstances; on the other hand, absolute freedom can be a burden. As Sartre puts it, “man is condemned to be free.”9 That is, it was never up to us to be free, and we cannot cease to be free. Since we must be free, and because freedom entails responsibility, we can never opt out of being responsible. Thus we are simultaneously unencumbered and encumbered by our freedom to choose who we will be.
1 This is not to denigrate the lives of things radically different from us, but merely to point out that paradigm human creatures live peculiar sorts of lives. The demarcating line here between lives like ours and lives unlike ours needn’t be drawn along purely biological lines. There are potentially things—certain non-human animals, futuristic artificially intelligent systems—that have lives like ours, and whose lives are properly studied by Existentialism. Similarly, there are some biological humans—the very young, the severely mentally handicapped—whose lives are not like ours, and hence, whose lives are not properly studied by Existentialism.
2 Existential themes can be traced as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions. Most philosophers today agree, however, that 19th-Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and 19th-Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did much to provide the framework for what Existentialism would become in its more definitive era. The major figures of Existentialism include not only Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also (perhaps more importantly) Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, in the 20th century.
3 What Plato calls “forms.”
4 This is an expression of what Heidegger calls the They-self, Being and Time Section 129
5 Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism (20)
6 There is some debate about whether Existentialism is actually a moral theory. One reason for the doubt is precisely this one – that there is nothing action-guiding about Existentialism.
7 Steven Crowell makes this point in his SEP article when discussing Nietzsche’s idea of a ‘ruling instinct.’
8 There is a serious worry here that must be addressed by the existentialist, and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader. While it seems better to act authentically than to act inauthentically, don’t we need to meet even more standards in order to count as living a truly good life? In other words, we might worry about whether authenticity is the only guiding principle that we really need. Perhaps it is possible to be an authentic genocidal dictator. If so, then perhaps Existentialism does not, on its own, suffice as a moral theory.
9 Sartre, op. cit. (29)
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About the Author
Addison is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a B.A. in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently interested in philosophy of mind (especially problems of intentionality), epistemology (especially the role of philosophical intuitions in philosophical practice), Kant, and post-Kantian philosophy. Apart from philosophy, he is interested in playing good music, hanging out with his dog, Chessie, and watching/thinking about movies.