Existentialism is a popular philosophical movement in the twentieth century that is centered on the attitude toward existence. The primary principle of this philosophy is focused on the unique human existence as an irrational phenomenon. The fundamental issue of the existentialism is considered to be controversial. The existence is defined as a unique state that cannot be typical for everyone. Despite the fact that the controversial nature of the philosophy can be criticized, the philosophical flow of existentialism can also be described as the cultural movement that tries to explain the spiritual and emotional state of a human being proving that everyone is different.
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It should be stated that existentialism is a philosophical movement that focused on the freedom of choices, existence, and essence. According to the theory of philosophy, a human should make reasonable and rational decisions in irrational reality. The theory suggests refusing God’s existence and trying to find meaning in life through existence. Being free the human being should be responsible for everything he does and the only way to achieve the new stage of development and be free of absurd means to follow freedom and make rational choices (Crowell 1).
According to Sartre, existence is preposterous. Human life is considered to be meaningful. The point of view of the philosopher is centered on the assumption that there is no God, and everything happens by a chance. The only way out of the absurd is freedom of choice that brings the individual on the new stage of development.
The philosophy is focused on the essence that, according to Sartre, people can solely create. Everyone is responsible for turning to the essence and changing existence. To support his vision, Sartre gives an example of how his theory can be proved in the real-life:
When you consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper cutter, this object was manufactured by an artisan who started from a concept; he referred to this concept of a paper cutter and also to the technique of producing it as a part of the concept — which is basically a recipe. Thus, the paper cutter is simultaneously an object which is produced in a certain manner and which has a definite purpose; one cannot suppose a man making a paper cutter without knowing what the object will be used for. That’s why we say that, for the paper cutter, essence precedes existence (Cahn 1322).
When one rejects the existence of God, it seems to be impossible to distinguish evil and good; although, it is up to everyone to decide, choose, and follow the consequences (“Jean-Paul Sartre from Existentialism is a Humanism” 2). Sartre is sure that there are three dimensions of how freedom can be explored. The first type of freedom is the man who is compared to the stone (Donohoe 163). This kind of person usually accepts reality, tries not to make any choices, and lives a happy passive life. The second type is believed to be the man who can be compared to plants; it should be stated that such people are not satisfied, but they do not want to take responsibility for the actions and only wait for something to happen. The last type is a man who cannot be compared to the first two types as he has freedom, makes choices (Donohoe 163).
The problem of freedom by Sartre was often discussed and argued. According to Merleau-Ponty, if a person is free anytime to make a decision, then a free action would be impossible to occur. Merleau-Ponty once stated that “if the slave displays freedom as much by living in fear as by breaking his chains, then it cannot be held that there is such a thing as a free action, freedom being anterior to all actions” (Stewart 202).
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In the well-known work Existentialism and Humanism Sartre describes his philosophy of existentialism, however, seldom gives arguments to support his ideas. He does not support his theory concerning the level of freedom that humans can get. I would like to stress that Sartre failed to accomplish his primary goal. Rejecting God’s existence Sartre states that the absence of God makes people believe that everything is allowed (Mirvish and Hoven 58). However, he contradicts his philosophy of humanism. When everything is permitted, and it is evil is good and good is evil, and then the question arises whether Sartre advocates moral anarchy.
According to Sartre “to choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better” (Hausman 140). By providing this statement, Sartre makes an accent that an individual will make choices that are the best for him. However, Sartre continues his idea that “nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all” (Hausman 140).
This argument seems to be controversial as previously Sartre rejects human nature. By saying that human choice is better for all he denies the fact that everyone has different experiences, backgrounds, and tastes. Later Sartre assumes that if every individual is willing to exist and all the actions he makes affect his character, beliefs, and ideas, then everyone contributes to the society and to the epoch they live in (Hausman 140). The responsibility of actions or decisions is affecting not only one individual but humanity in general as everything is highly connected, and the system of the interaction between people is much more complex (Hausman 140).
Starting with the individual and the choices one makes, Sartre moves on to mankind and the importance of every person for the epoch. However, the statement that everyone makes choices that are beneficial for others needs to be argued. Adolf Hitler, for example, believed in his philosophy and followed his beliefs; however, is it possible to say that Hitler made choices that are good for mankind? Could his actions be justified according to the philosophy of existentialism? Subjectivity is considered to be one of the major notions in the philosophy of existentialism according to Sartre. He explains this by stating that everything that human makes affects them.
Subjectivity is viewed as human decency. The responsibility for all the actions is on a human being as there are no external forces that can influence the outcome, the decision-making process, or the choice. There are no wrong choices according to Sartre’s theory. However, sometimes people make selfish choices or the ones that are beneficial only for them, not for society in general; the question is how such choices may be seen as good ones?
It should be pointed out that existentialism raises the question that was argued for centuries concerning the issue of what appeared to be first, existence or essence. According to the fundamentals of this philosophy, existence is believed to precede the essence. This statement is controversial and was criticized by different scholars. Western philosophy advocates that essence precedes existence. Being a matter of consciousness existence is considered to be followed by essence, the genetic surrounding. The individual’s character usually depends on genetics and surrounding that affects the decision-making process and behavior.
These differences in behavior are referred to as human nature. Existentialism, however, denies the significance of human nature, as the followers of the philosophy are sure that essence is followed by existence. Furthermore, according to the fundamental teaching of existentialism the way people percept the world is determined by consciousness rather than genetic or environmental conditions.
Although the followers of this philosophical movement try to establish their point of view by providing arguments proving their theory, it should be noted that some unanswered questions argue the major concepts of existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, and writer pointed out that the statement that existence precedes the essence means that first of all, the individual exists, and consequently, tries to identify himself. In case that the human being cannot define himself, then the followers of the philosophy consider such individual as nothing. There can be no human nature as God does not exist. The human being is simply is, and every person is the result of the actions and decisions made in the past (Dreyfus and Wrathall 212).
I am strongly convinced that there are some constraints to applying such a theory in real life. It is impossible for an individual to change the surrounding or genetic peculiarities using the power of consciousness. The problem is that the human being cannot turn into the elephant or withdraw the negative background simply by willing to do so. Genetics and surrounding are often seen as the facticity in existentialist philosophy. According to Sartre, there is a diversity of ways how consciousness can respond to different circumstances. Having a possibility to choose among the various ways consciousness cannot be systematic; consequently, it cannot be controlled or predicted (Webber 38).
However, the key issue seems to be controversial. According to recent researches, consciousness is possible due to brain functioning. When one damage the brain, the quality of consciousness will decrease. In other words, for consciousness to exist the brain (the genetic characteristic) should function appropriately. So, the essence cannot be followed by existence. It is about the significance of human nature (that is denied by followers of existentialism) and how it impacts the behavior and decision-making process.
One of the first philosophers to follow existentialism is believed to be Kierkegaard (Leitch 132). According to the idea described by this scholar, every individual is culpable for everything that happens in life as everyone creates a sense of his life and lives following this guide. So, everyone is solely responsible for all the actions, difficulties, successes, and faults. However, taking a closer look at psychology it will be no doubt that the therapist helps the patient in interpreting his feelings, fears, and emotions. Although, according to the existentialism theory there is no way for the individual to cope with the stress unless self-destructing (Leitch 138).
The philosophy advocates that every decision made occurs due to subjectiveness, rather than rationality. I would like to point out that such a theory does not work in real life. Let me give an example. It is a well-known fact that smoking is bad for the health, however, subjectively people intend to smoke, but due to the mental abilities of willpower people give up.
In conclusion, I would like to make an accent that the philosophical movement existentialism appears to be very controversial and polyhedral. The primary fundamentals can be argued and criticized; however, one should admit that this philosophy views the issue concerning the existence and essence from a new angle that helps to reveal the truth and to become closer to the understanding of the contentious human nature.
Sartre’s philosophy can sometimes be viewed as rather pessimistic, although it should be pointed out that by stating that every choice depends on an individual, and the freedom is universal, the philosopher tries to stress that everything is possible, and the future of mankind depends only on us. One of the fundamental notions in existentialism is freedom, and according to Sartre, everyone is convicted to be free. It should be stated that freedom is not a choice; it is seen as reality. Everything is highly connected and the choices we make affect the whole society in a very significant way.
Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Western Philosophy. 8th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012. Print.
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Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford University. Stanford University. 2015. Web.
Donohoe, Benedict. Severally Seeking Sartre. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. Print.
Dreyfus, Hubert, and Mark Wrathall. A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism. Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.
Hausman, Daniel. Valuing Health: Well-being, Freedom, and Suffering. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.
Jean-Paul Sartre from Existentialism is a Humanism. n.d. Web.
Leitch, Vincent. American Literary Criticism since the 1930s. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Mirvish, Adrian, and Adrian Hoven. New Perspectives on Sartre. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.
Stewart, Jon. Idealism and Existentialism: Hegel and Nineteenth and Twentieth Century European Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.
Webber, Jonathan. The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.