Existentialism arose in Europe after WWII, after the time of optimistic humanism. While the philosophy was being developed by various men prior to this point in time, it didn’t really catch on until after the devastation of WWII.
The calamity of two world wars and the excessive death exacted by Hitler & Stalin’s concentration camps made many rethink how humanistic thought had served mankind. Adding to the turn against optimistic humanism was the trouble caused by the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
Given all these tragedies—which overtly demonstrated the failure of humanistic thought— and the growing prevalence of the naturalistic/materialistic worldview, people entered an “intellectual pothole.” The despairing attitudes of those in Europe & America were perfect breeding grounds for “a philosophy of despair.”
A few notable existential philosophers include: Jean Paul Sarte, Camus, Martin Heideger, Rudolph Bultmon
Existentialism, as already noted, is a pessimistic philosophy. It is sometimes called “the philosophy of despair” or “the philosophy of the absurd.” This can be seen by the following quotes:
Existentialism is an offshoot of naturalism, just like secular humanism. Because this is so, it holds many things in common with humanism. Unlike humanism though, existentialism focuses on the despair, angst, and absurdity of life. To put it another way, humanism takes the high road, believing that man is great and can become greater. Existentialism takes the low road: man is a meaningless lump of dirt that has no ultimate purpose.
“Man is absurd, but he must act as if he is not.” –Sarte
As noted above, man is nothing more than ooze. You are a “cosmic accident,” an “overgrown germ,” and “a clog in the wheel.” As such, you have no purpose and you live in a world that has no purpose. Thus you must deal with the angst that this produces.
Angst can be thought of as the anxiety or anguish that accompanies the realization that you and this universe have no purpose. It is the combination of fear and dread that expresses how sick you are with life.
Existentialism also stresses the freedom of man to choose as he wills. You are defined by these choices. You are the sum of your choices.
Against the facts, and despite the meaninglessness of life, you must choose to be (existentialism is the worldview of being!). If there is meaning, it is defined by what you make of it.
Truth is not something that is revealed or gained by rational investigation. Reason cannot be successful in finding the meaning to life because everything is ultimately meaningless. Instead, truth is primarily gained through experience.
For the Existentialist, experience is everything. Your main goal is to create meaning out of your personal experience. Sometimes you will hear it said that “being is more important than knowing.”
According to this worldview, it is not so much what you know as what you do and what you make of yourself. You may hear that “life is a journey.” That is, your life is a road trip where you must make yourself into what you are.
In the end, one must “follow his heart,” even if it is illogical and means committing to something against all evidence.
When it comes to ethics Existentialism admits that there is no absolute that guides what is right and wrong (after all, everything is meaningless). Instead it stresses one’s personal freedom and free choice.
The existential worldview emphasizes the need to make a choice, and that choice must be free from all outside influences. No one can tell you what to do and you must not let anything govern you or influence you. In sum, all forms of oppression are to be tossed off, for that is the only thing that is ultimately wrong.
Again, it is choice and freedom that are predominant. Jean Paul Sarte once said regarding the “old woman crossing the road” that “It doesn’t matter if you help her cross the road or run her down, what matters is that you choose.”
Ultimately, suicide may be considered good. “The greatest question man must face is not so much if he should commit suicide, but when.”--Albert Camus
Perhaps the best way to summarize existentialism’s view on ethics would be in saying: “Be true to yourself.”
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