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Continental Philosophy: Existentialism and Phenomenology

Absolute idealism was championed by G. W. F. Hegel. To him, being is an all inclusive whole. He stood for the idea that, for the human reason to be in a position to know the world, there must be an identity between thought and being. He believed in rationality in the world. In addition, Hegel believed that, philosophy should be concerned more with ideal “truth” with facts entrenched in the metaphysical systems (Bryant, 2008). Hegel’s ideas solicited sharp reactions from many philosophers especially from the European continent. Their response to Hegelian idealism was called “continental philosophy”, which had two schools of thoughts, the existentialism and phenomenology (Moore & Druder, 1995). This paper will therefore, describe and analyze the historical developments of continental philosophy’s existentialism and phenomenology as a response to Hegelian idealism, paying special attention to the key contributors and the principle issues of the time.

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Existentialists are of the belief that, the predicament individuals go through cannot all be solved. They are also of the opinion that, there maybe a deterioration of life if the many problems encountered by individuals are not confronted. What they meant is that, life will lack meaning if there is no struggling. The early proponents of existentialism are; Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer (Moore & Druder, 1995).

Kierkegaard (1813-1855), sharply opposed Hegel’s system on several grounds: First, he disputed Hegel’s belief in rationality where all occurrences including individuals needed facts and proof. Kierkegaard emphasized that, the world is irrational. To him, the world is a place for suffering, fear and dread. Second, he refuted Hegel’s idea to pin philosophy with ideal truth and abstract metaphysical principles. To Kierkegaard, philosophy should be more concerned with an individual with anguish, living in an irrational world and faced with important decision making in order to cope with the demands of the world (Moore & Druder, 1995). Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), wrote extensively about the world being spearheaded by cosmic will rather than reason as presented by Hegel. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), was inspired by the works of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche however believed that, the world was not just driven by the will but the will to power. The principle issue at his time was that, the people in the western society became decadent and therefore lived a life with no joy and happiness. To him, people had become slaves and did not do what they were told. His views on western civilization were that, it was fearful, cowardly, reactionary and vengeful. He further says that, only the rare, isolated that embrace the will to power and throw away slavery will live a full happy life and creates his own values (Moore & Druder, 1995). He strongly differed with Hegel in the sense that, he believed that people had no access to the truth because to him facts do not exist what is available is interpretations. Metaphysics on the other hand is basically facts. The above three put more emphasis on the individual. They all refuted the idea of abstract, remote, systems of thought and a rational world.

The other two major contributors to existentialism are Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. This two thought of passing on the information they had for many people. To achieve this, they wrote drama, novels, political tracks and philosophical works. Existentialism philosophy when considered as a movement is meant to counter some perceived social ills in the society (Moore & Druder, 1995). The principle issues of this time were that, there was World War II and Germany fascism. Therefore, Albert Camus (1913-1960) saw human suffering both before and after the war. He said people lived in an absurd world where needs are not met. Camus was deeply concerned about a world torn with war. He was cynical about civilization. His major contribution however was that, it is only through struggle with the absurd world, that an individual achieve solidarity with others, fulfillment and love for the earth. In addition he encourages people to resist violence and injustice (Moore & Druder, 1995). His contrast with Hegel is because of the rationality of the world as portrayed by Hegel. To Camus the world is absurd and irrational. Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), on the other hand, held the belief that, there was no God. Therefore, according to Sartre, man is what he makes himself, man is conscious and crests his own future, man cannot excuse his actions because he is not forced by circumstance, and that, man must invent his own values. His major concerns were that man had a major responsibility to shoulder not just for him but even for the whole mankind because man is his actions. The two, besides their belief of the world being absurd, argue that in order to have a responsible society action was needed just as much as the socio political forces (Moore & Druder, 1995).

Phenomenology, On the other hand, focuses on the structures that exist within the stream of conscious experience. They view the manifestation of structures without presumptions or assumptions. The proponents of this school of thought are Edmond Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Edmond Husserl founded this thought (1859-1938)

. He developed a transcendental phenomenology which excluded the use of assumptions and presumptions when examining structures. The principle issue at the time was that Europe exhibited a waning faith in certainty (Moore & Druder, 1995). His concept differed with Hegel’s significantly because he wanted people to explore only the conscious experience. Hegel’s system on the other hand championed for assumptions. Martin Heidegger (1889-1979), agreed with Husserl on the issue of looking at things with fresh eyes but he was not concerned with just any phenomena but the being it self. He believed that the absolute power man has given to himself is the cause of cultural destitution and social dissolution portrayed in the 20nth century. He says the assumption that human is superior to other things in the world is metaphysical and a cause of loneliness and unfulfillment (Moore & Druder, 1995). He views western civilization as a tool of metaphysics. Differs significantly with Hegel since Hegel stood for the as a drive in being. To Heidegger, thought cannot impose itself on being but rather it is the being that makes thought.

Both existentialism and phenomenology disputed strongly Hegel’s idealism on the ground that, his ideas emphasized on facts which were entrenched in metaphysics, his ideas on the rationality of the world were unfounded and that his ideas ignored the human predicament in totality.

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Bryant, W. (2008). Hegel’s Educational Ideas. Carolina : BiblioBazaar, LLC.

Moore, B. N. & Bruder, K. (2005). Philosophy: The power of ideas (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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