“Existence precedes essence.”
There is no agreed definition of existentialism; more, those termed as ‘existentialists’ share key philosophical beliefs. Initially, that thought begins with the living subject; subsequently, that thought is therefore intrinsically connected to the acting, feeling and living human individual. Hence it might be useful to describe existentialism as a form of pragmatic liberalism. This theoretical grounding thus gives way to a distinct ‘existentialist attitude’ – i.e. a sense of disorientation and perplexity when faced with what is apparently, on the basis of individualism, a meaningless world. Existentialist philosophers argue that traditional philosophical theory is too abstract from individual experience to explain this attitude. This article discusses the rationale behind this philosophy, as well as two linked concepts; those of absurdity and angst.
The emphasis on the defining power of the individual leads existentialism to discern two key truths: one, that people are defined only in so far as they act; and two, that people are responsible for their actions. Hence, by these two truths, which can be fused as a form of consciousness, human beings create meaning for their lives and determine their own values and judgments. It is this ‘existence’, on an individual level, therefore, that defines the ‘essence’ of an individual. Other philosophical theory attempts to define ‘essence’ by some preconceived notion, but existentialism critiques this by holding the crisis of self-awareness as an individual of higher importance than into which category the individual fits. That is not to say that, over time, the human being will not broaden his essence to something greater than himself; but that the origin of essence is derived from existence, and not vice-versa.
The fundamental problem faced by existentialists concerns the awareness of meaninglessness; i.e. the realisation that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it, and therefore nothing bigger than oneself, such as ideas like good and evil. Faced with this absurdity, the existentialist thus reaches a crisis of faith, in realising that faith in fact means nothing. Meaning is therefore placed in greater bodies, such as institutions or relationships, to fill the gap between existence and meaning – as it is given that humans find it difficult to believe in themselves as existing, without reference to something else. This is termed as ‘bad faith’ by Jean-Paul Sartre. Therefore, a concept known as ‘the Look’ is born, in which humans experience the existence of ‘Others’, in order to convert the world in which they exist into a tangible notion.
Absurdity is explored in works such as Endgame and Molloy, both by Samuel Beckett, in which characters begin to lose connection with the reality of absurdity and veer off at various angles. The eponymous character of the 1951 novel Molloy, for instance, warps his perception of existence to the extent of multiple existences, and a multi-dimensional essence. He also fails to contemplate the fundamentals of the social world around him, thus isolating himself and perpetuating his existential crisis.
The awareness of meaninglessness thus places significant emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of the individual. The negative feelings that arise from such pressure is know as ‘angst’, and differs from anxiety, in the sense that angst refers to a problem with the concept of existence and not of essence. In effect, it is the feeling that arises upon the experience of one’s own freedom. For example, the realisation that there is in fact nothing to stop one throwing oneself off a cliff; not a higher power or belief in Sartre’s ‘bad faith’, only one’s own power.
Suicide is an interesting phenomenon to consider in the context of existential angst. Albert Camus argues that suicide is in fact the only philosophical problem that humans can contemplate, as it places in conflict the core tenets of existence, i.e. pure self-determination and responsibility. Therefore, ‘the possibility of suicide makes us all existentialists’, as there is nothing to prevent from committing suicide, neither physically nor metaphorically.
Existentialism attempts to underline the raison d’etre of social structures, highlighting that it is the realisation of individuality and the fear of responsibility that forces humans together, granting meaning to otherwise meaningless concepts. Mersault, the lead character in Camus’ L’Etranger, or The Outsider, is perhaps the greatest literary example of a mind in conflict on the subject of meaning and personal freedom. His actions throughout the novel depict disillusionment with meaning placed in concepts other than himself, and with the boundaries of reason in freedom. Simply by reading about existentialism, one is forced to create structures of thought to deter from the, perhaps, fact that the world around the individual is absurd.