Written by Sébastien Leduc
What is existentialism?
Existentialism is a philosophy that focuses on the individual’s
existence and the freedom and choices that come out of it. In other words, “existentialism
is the title of the set of philosophical ideals that emphasizes the existence of
the human being, the lack of meaning and purpose in life, and the solitude of
human existence”(1). Traditionally,
Søren Kierkegaard has been considered the first existentialist thinker. His
philosophy is based on three premises:
The universe is
paradoxical, with the greatest paradox being the union of God and a man through
personal relationship bypasses all established moralities
social conventions is a personal choice made by individuals (2)
The three premises have set the bases for what we call Christian
existentialism. However, the third assumption has led philosophers such as
Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre to establish the ground
for atheistic existentialism, which is what we nowadays simply call
The premises of existentialism
To fully understand existentialism, is important to know the
philosophical meaning of the word essence. It is the attribute of an object,
substance or concept that makes what it fundamentally is.
Existence Precedes Essence
According to atheistic existentialism, as soon as an individual is born,
it exists and then defines itself through freedom of choice. Since a human being
is nothing at birth, the future is his to embrace. No god has conceived humanity
so no one is born with a predetermined essence. We can only define these
essences once we have elaborated the concepts through which we afterwards define
them. For example, the concepts of world,
mankind, fashion or religion have
been elaborated by human beings. Things exist before they have an essence. Thus,
existence comes before essence.
Existentialism emphasizes the fact that we define things through our mind
after encountering them. Humans mentally craft concepts that define what is true
or just. Therefore, there is nothing as an objective essence nor absolute morals
or truth. It would be pointless to hide behind an existence determined by a god
where one needs to behave in one’s actual life in a way to define one’s
afterlife. Sartre said that humans have been condemned to be free. Thus, the
only essence that can be pre-applied to humanity is freedom. A freedom of
attitude, behaviour and choice that is absolute.
Bad faith is the act of fleeing when facing freedom. If we consider that
conscience is a fact (if one can not acknowledge conscience, it disappears, such
as during sleep), it is another fact that can be recognized before its essence.
We are cursed with freedom, yet, most of the time we don’t realize it by
fitting into social roles and value systems that go against our freedom.
A famous example of bad faith presents a girl sitting with a man. She
knows that he is trying to seduce her and wants to have sexual intercourse with
her. As he takes her hand, the woman acts as if she did not notice. Thus, she
avoids the decision of accepting or rejecting him. She is simply avoiding making
a choice. In other words, through her passivity, she refuses their existence.
However, this raises a paradox because it shows that when people act in bad
faith, that person knows and does not know that they are free.
Today, existentialism has lost in popularity. It has been very
influential throughout the years and can not be considered as trivial. This is a
philosophy that is very passionate and involving. However, people have labelled
it as an unsystematic philosophical current that is not considerate enough of
logic and science.
In spite of that, the impact of existentialism can still be felt upon the
world. Movies where existence precedes essence have become a common theme in
Hollywood. Groundhog Day, Office
Space, Clerks and The Truman Show
are all modern films where the underlying theme is that title does not dictate
Existentialism, even though it is not an actual philosophical trend, will
keep on being studied due to its richness and psychological insight.
Tanweer Akram, Existentialism [http://web.archive.org/web/20040205085207/http://www.columbia.edu/~ta63/exist.htm]
Wikipedia, Christian existentialism,
J-P., 1992. Being and Nothingness. Tr. Hazel Barnes. New York:
Washington Square Press.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Existentialism, [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/]