Existentialism is defined as the philosophical theory, which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence. What makes this philosophical argument distinct is not its concern with existence overall, but rather its claim that thinking of human existence requires new categories that are not found within conceptual thought during ancient and modern periods of time. Human beings cannot be understood as entities with fixed characteristics or as subjects interacting with a world of objects.
Existentialism as a whole cannot be given a finite definition. However, the branches that stem from the foundations of the philosophical entity can be interpreted and applied to answer the object of human existence. An existentialist takes on the analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the overbearing task of assuming ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong. Through this analysis, it is clear that the existence of humanity is subjective to the individual who, through his or her own consciousness, creates individual morals and fabricates a purpose to live in a meaningless and absurd world.
The most distinctive part of existentialism is the idea that no general account of a human’s existence can be made since that meaning is decided through the action of existing itself. Essentially, contrasting other entities that are defined by who they are, human beings are decided by what they become. To “exist” constitutes one’s identity whereas the nature and culture’s effect on identity is less pronounced.
This leads to the argument of existence preceding essence. What does essence mean? What does it mean to exist? The most important thought for the individual is the fact that they are an individual; an independent and conscious being (existence) rather than the labels or stereotypes that society has categorized the individual in (essence). Jean-Paul Sartre explains:
…If God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or as Heidegger says, human reality (Sartre, 345).
If man is indefinable, it is because he starts out as nothing. Only after he has made what he will be will he be something conceivable. But this means that there is no human nature since there is no God to perceive it. Not only is man subjectively conceivable, but he is also the master of his own will after his first steps toward existence.
In philosophy, “the Absurd” is defined as the conflict between the human impulse to seek intrinsic value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Albert Camus’ works were extremely influential to the development of the philosophical theory. He defines the human condition as absurd by posing the confrontation between man’s desire to be important and the universe’s response (or lack thereof). He believes that when one comes to realize this absurdity, there are only a few options as to what to do next: suicide, a leap of faith, or recognition. Jean-Paul Sartre comments on dealing with the human condition:
I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant (Sartre, 558).
This selection of options is the connection between absurdism and existentialism. Since a leap of faith is basically the belief that there is more than aesthetic and ethical life, it breaks off from the essence of rationality and inevitably leads to a path of philosophical suicide as coined by Camus. The next option is suicide, which Camus portrays as an affirmation that life is not worth living and that it is a choice that implies life is inherently overwhelming.
The most feasible option is recognition, which is to accept the absurdity of the nature of man. One’s freedom and opportunity to give life purpose lies in the recognition of absurdity according to Camus. Freedom is truly acquired through the realization that the universe is unprovided with any absolutes. The choice to recognize the absurdity of the human condition will ultimately come to terms with the importance of the human’s natural ability and opportunity to create their own meaning. Camus expresses in The Myth of Sisyphus:
Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide (Camus, 64).
Referring back to the subject of existence preceding essence, the recognition of the absurd provides man to realize that the individual is the most important part of existence. That recognition will allow one to continue his search, but can be happy by developing purpose from the search alone.
Existentialism also brings up the concept of facticity. This explains how a person is created within certain laws that provide both freedom and limitation to his or her existence. One is limited by his or her facticity by not being able to choose a birthplace, a subjectively ideal genetic makeup and other things one could not have chosen. This very limitation proves to be a condition of freedom through the individual’s values depending on one’s facticity. Facticity limits the individual by being eternally unchangeable; it does not determine a person’s future.
This is because an individual still has the freedom to determine the value of his or her own facticity. However, this means that a person’s values are of their own volition, which brings forth the concept of bearing ultimate responsibility. One cannot reference the common values of the community because he or she has the ability to choose to be different at any point in time. Existentialism focuses on the limits of the responsibility one bears as a result of one’s freedom. Freedom and responsibility are interdependent and by explaining one’s freedom, one will also learn that for which he or she is responsible.
Existential existence encourages living what is considered an authentic life. This involves the idea that one has to “create oneself” and then live in accordance with this self. Authentic existence is the notion of acting as oneself, and not in conformity with the majority. For example, if one were to keep their promise to another person it would normally be accepted as moral because it was done for the sake of duty. Existentially, keeping a promise is analyzed a step further by analyzing whether or not the promise was kept because it is considered moral to society or because that person genuinely felt that it was the right thing to do. If it was done only because society encourages the action, the action is considered unauthentic.
Jean-Paul Sartre explains in his book Being and Nothingness that there are two categories of consciousness: the for-itself, and the in-itself: ”The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself, it is like a hole in being at the heart of Being” (Sartre, 786). The for-itself is an empty negation of the in-itself, which is a non-conscious being. Sartre uses the consciousness of human beings as an example; the consciousness of an individual is the for-itself and the non-conscious being represents the in-itself. This proves that the two parts are permanently linked. Human beings are necessarily free, although one’s freedom is impossible to be rid of.
In order to understand the existential concept of freedom and the role it plays, one must analyze Sartre’s description of consciousness, which is that consciousness is always referred to as the consciousness of something. This means that consciousness is nothing by itself. Sartre begins to reject the traditional ontological argument by hypothesizing consciousness as being nothingness, and that consciousness is conscious of having been.
He goes on to explain that consciousness is self-aware of itself as consciousness. By claiming that there is an implied sort of self-reflective consciousness that is prior to the explicit self-consciousness of the mind’s thoughts, he makes a point of differentiating the act of existing and being conscious of objects immediately. This implies that there is a consciousness, which is conscious of said objects.
There are two things in relation to the nothingness of the for-itself: time and freedom. Sartre begins by saying that consciousness is separated by its past and its future by the nothingness of its being. Although this claim appears to have no precedent, Sartre’s explanation of his concept of freedom helps provide sufficient backing for the theory. The for-itself, by being completely empty, has the ability to define itself at any moment. This is its freedom, which allows the for-itself to redefine itself in every instant; it gives it the power to break from the past and to redefine the future.
Freedom is the essential being of consciousness in the way that to be conscious is to have freedom. It becomes clear that consciousness is separated by the nothingness from its past and future, which is equivalent to saying that consciousness is separated by freedom from its past and future. Sartre is then able to make the case that consciousness, which is nothing, is aware of itself. This core notion provides the foundation for Sartre’s famous statement “existence precedes essence”.
After a thorough analysis of the existential approach to human existence, it is clear that the major theme of this school of philosophical thought is to recognize the absurdity of the human condition and to take individual responsibility for one’s actions. Since there is no foreign power deciding what man feels, lives, or is, the actions lie solely under the humans’ free will. The concept of existential existence creates a poetic and harmonious, yet dark cycle. With humanity starting as an indefinable entity, the journey to define oneself becomes the core purpose of human existence.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1955. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Print.