Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that first was popularized in France soon after World War II by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the religious writings of Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century and those of Søren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. The common thread that unites existentialists is a focus on existence, particularly the concrete existence of individual human beings. Unlike rationalist thinkers such as René Descartes and G.W. F. Hegel, existentialists reject the premise that human beings are primarily rational creatures who live in an ordered, well-designed universe. They also do not believe that the answers to life's challenges can be solved through thoughtful consideration and reasoned deliberation. Instead, existentialists view human beings as creatures whose reason is subordinate to human passions and anxieties, and who exist in an irrational, absurd, and insignificant universe. In such a universe, existentialists argue, one struggles to become the best person one can be given one's religious, historical, cultural, economic, and personal circumstances.
Existentialists emphasize the human being's place in a complex set of circumstances in order to highlight the uniqueness and individuality within each of us. They stress the role of the human body in all of our acts and decisions, arguing that the mind cannot exist without the body (in contrast to the majority of rationalists, who assert that the mind is separate from the body). In addition, existentialists consider whether absolute individual freedom is possible; and if so, what the consequences of such freedom might be for our sense of responsibility to ourselves, to others, and to God. They also consider the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God, and what either possibility means for our sense of freedom and responsibility. More than anything, existentialists reflect on human beings' anxiety over and dread of death, and consider the consequences to our individual lives of coming to terms with the inevitability of death.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) is the public face of existentialism. His works, both fictional and philosophical, resoundingly affirm the existentialist priority of concrete, situated, and historical human existence. He stresses the value of choice, responsibility, and authenticity in human self-fashioning. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 – an honor he refused because he maintained that it conflicted with his professional, personal, and political commitments. This unit will introduce you to Sartre's contributions to existentialist philosophy while simultaneously highlighting Sartre's place in the movement's history. In particular, you will explore how Sartre expanded on existentialist themes dealt with by his predecessors – for example, the notions of authenticity, anxiety, and freedom.
Albert Camus (1913–1960) was an Algerian writer and intellectual who refused to be called a philosopher because he did not believe that human reason was capable of systematizing human experience in all of its nuances. He was a friend and, later, a critic of Sartre, and his works manifest concerns similar to those of Sartre. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. In this unit, you will explore Camus' existentialism through an examination of his book The Stranger and his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (both published in 1942), which highlight the absurdities of human existence and, interestingly enough, the absurdity of existentialism itself if the philosophy is taken to an extreme. You also will develop an appreciation of the manner in which Camus represents the synthesis of existentialist thinking since Pascal.
“Arts and Humanities, Philosophy.” The Saylor Foundation. August 28th, 2013. Accessed 6 May 2021.https://www.oercommons.org/courses/existentialism-2/view CC BY 3.0.