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An introduction to our existential special issue by Anja Steinbauer.
Existentialism as a philosophical movement stretches from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. Its leading figures included such giants as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre. These thinkers had very different approaches and in some cases vehemently refused to be labelled as existentialists at all, but they shared certain broad concerns and assumptions. More than a dry theory about language or knowledge, existentialism was a philosophy of life.
Existentialism reflects the intellectual climate of a crisis. It is the expression of change. It displays an attitude towards that which must be left behind as well as towards that which is now to come and must be faced. Looking back, it shows us the ruins of our former security, of the laws and standards that made us feel safe and sheltered. In lulling us into this sense of security, however, they also caused ‘alienation’, rendering what is essential to humanity meaningless. Existentialism understands human beings to be ‘thrown’ into a world of insecurity, unsheltered from the misery of their own limitations and mortality. In order to deal with this situation, human beings must seek recourse in themselves. Doing that means reconsidering elementary questions about what it means to be human: Where do I come from? Where am I going to? Why? In returning to their own being and reconnecting with what is essentially human, people can achieve an understanding of their own condition and a true, ‘authentic’, consciousness of self in the context of the world.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the ‘father of existentialism’, seems to be still rooted in a certain security, since as a Christian he has an eternal God to fall back on. However, Kierkegaard is by no means an advocate of a dogmatic faith or of petty bourgeois standards. On the contrary, at the basis of his thought, and that of the existentialists who followed him, is a radical rejection of convention, an abandonment of traditional values, even a scepticism about any claim to objective truth or reason. The existential quest is about finding out what it really means to be human, revealing the human being in her genuine and ‘naked’ existence. For this purpose all outside decorum has to be peeled away: social and professional status, wealth and power, education, virtue, honour – all must be stripped away to leave just the human being. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) very clearly perceived the demonic and precarious behind the world of appearances. On this basis he set about reinterpreting classical Greek culture as well as unmasking the nature of his own time.
Art and literature developed alongside existentialist thought. In them too, the cry for genuineness makes itself heard. Death, fear and horror become prominent themes, but these negative ‘moments’ are emphasised as contributing to a positive determination of humanity. This positive determination, however, is nothing but existence itself. What does ‘existence’ mean? In contrast to ‘essence’, which is a thing’s fundamental nature, existence is the quality of factually ‘being there’. In Western philosophy, the term goes back to classical Roman thought: ‘ex-sistere’ means ‘to step out’, i.e. to enter into the world of facts. Traditionally, all things of the world were seen to be brought into existence by an outside force, namely God. God alone was true ‘ex-sistence’, emerging from himself and by himself, the only being whose essence was identical to his existence. In modern philosophy greater emphasis on human experience meant that human beings were no longer seen as tied to their Creator but as possessing selfdetermination; this becomes especially unequivocal in German Idealism. Existential philosophy rids this model of any metaphysical baggage. The human being now creates meaning for herself, and there is no pre-given human essence: “Existence precedes essence”, claims Jean-Paul Sartre (1905- 1980). As far as we can talk about anything like essence apart from existence, it comes after it, is its result. While traditional Western philosophy had tried to define humanity from an ‘outside’ point of view, i.e. ‘objectively’, existentialism thus demands that we define ourselves from the only point of view truly accessible to us, from the ‘inside’, i.e. ‘subjectively’. We can only understand what and who we are if we accept our human condition, our temporality and mortality. We must pay attention not to the eternal and unchanging but to each ‘moment’ which we existentially experience and live, and in which we can be ourselves. There can no longer be a determined human essence. Humanity potentially equals the sum of all human possibilities, and we are whatever we make of ourselves, whichever choices we actualise. There is no human essence above ‘freedom’, and according to Sartre we are ‘condemned’ to be free – free to chose between being or not being or becoming ourselves. This ‘self’ is… existence.