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Theories of existence - Existentialism from Kierkegaard through Sartre

Theories of existence - Existentialism from Kierkegaard through Sartre

A Chapter by Lukas


Existentialism from Kierkegaard through Sartre
The existentialist philosopher is indeed a forlorn one, full of despair and regret at the development of his own existence. For, like the underground man, the true existentialist has reached the point of conscious inertia, whence life both ends and begins. It is a complex system of theories, however, that to many may lead to nowhere—and indeed, this perhaps may be the point of existentialism altogether.
As an idea that is relatively young, existentialism began as a reaction to the Hegelian philosophy of the eighteenth century. Hegel’s philosophy was abstract and rationalist, which insisted, “what is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational”. Hegel concluded that we lived in a world that gave us freedom of will and self-consciousness, that God is not distinct from the world, that religion and philosophy exhibited the same ‘content’—but display themselves in different forms, such as imagination and thought—, and that the spirit is eternal. In essence, all oppositions will be reunited in a Cartesian-like pre-existing harmony—imagine two lines veering into opposite ends of existence, only to transpire hitting each other once existence has been circumvented; this is the philosophy of Hegel. [1]
Existentialism, then, seems to be the inverse of all this supposedly abstract assumptions. To an existentialist, one can never reduce a series of subjective views to a single objective idea, such as the universal ideal Hegel proposes. Since we, as humans, can only think in subjective ways, then we are all ‘existing individuals’, an idea originally proposed by Soren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. In ethics, he would proclaim, how can there be objectivity when our individual existence leads us to create these subjective ideals in the first place? Indeed, Kierkegaard did not proclaim his new declarations on existence from the height of the Scandinavian mountains that surrounded him from birth, but they were instead whispered from man to man in bohemian café’s throughout Europe, slowly gaining strength from within the individual—the most powerful being on Earth.
Kierkegaard said, “It is impossible to exist without passion”—this is by far the maxim of existentialism, in terms of continuity throughout the various philosophers of who dedicated their life to this collection of absurdities. We cannot take the aspect of our existence as a ‘real subject’ for granted, and assume that because we exist we ‘ethically exist’. Being is not an objective goal, nor will it ever be, as we are all subjectively thinking individuals. Therefore, in order to become an ‘ethically existing subject’, we must develop it to our full potential as individuals. To become this ill-fated individual, knowledge of the world is certainly not the answer, as intelligence is never-ending, considering the ceaseless amount of subjective ideals possible. Instead, we must engage the will, which would give our lives an ethical structure. It is this will we must engage, that delivers to us the essence of our existence; however, it does not make us virtuous people. On the contrary, it may bring angst into our world, but our life, and our existence relies on the contingencies of success—without angst, success will never be revered.[2]
In Heidegger, we find the segue between Kierkegaard and Sartre, who sustained the idea that existence precedes essence. Since the essence of man was not developed in the mind of God,— as atheism is about as abundant in existentialism as is later insanity—then there must be at least one being who precedes essence; this being is man, or human reality. Sartre pounced on this idea like a voracious lion, full of aspiring ideals that all developed the theory that our existence is, in effect, pointless. There is no human nature, he believed—we are conceived by what we will ourselves to be after being thrust into existence like a newborn child into cold and icy water. There is no choice, only the spontaneous manifestation of the will—this does not mean that our world is determined, only that the conscious choices we make to not develop this world any further. In this sense, it is impossible for man to transcend his subjectivity, and here we find ourselves trapped between two perilous monoliths—for if we cannot surpass our own partisanship, then the choices we make are essentially made for all men. This is so because since our actions and thoughts effectively lead nowhere except further into the universe of chaos, then our every choice will have some sort of impact on human society—this creates anguish.[3]
Anguish is the first of three facets that rule our humanly existence—it is an anguish similar to that of generals in war, whose decisions will affect the lives of those under him. Furthermore, we find that this anguish is often for nigh, as there is no God to put forth our blame, and our hopes. Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov, in his work The Brothers Karamazov, said, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”[4] Although most often attribute this famous utterance to the author himself (one of his characters is the proper speaker of this phrase), the meaning is still the same: man has nothing to cling to in a Godless society, and a moral anarchy may ensue. Consider that man is freedom, in the truest sense—but on the other hand, we are also alone in our freedom and without real justification for any of our actions. Because of this, “man is the future of man”—an excellent quote by French author Francis Ponge—we are all condemned to reinvent ourselves, forever until the end of our existence.[5] Unfortunately—as per Sartre—we must therefore rely on our emotions to guide us; we require an action to justify our emotions, yet we also need a feeling in order to justify the action. This vicious cycle of incessant and superfluous justifications leads to a human forlornness, since we ourselves determine the outcome of this unremitting series of redundancies.
The desperate humanist would now cry, ‘What else is left of our pathetic lives, lest anguish and forlornness not be the only destitute components of our existence!” Indeed, Sartre believed that there was one more limit to the sine quo non of being, and that lies in the problem of choice and free will. We live in a constant realm of various possibilities, and we are always forced to make a choice in every action we perform—we must consciously engage every possibility into our decision before making our choice. Alas, we are only restricted to what we know and perceive, and we can only rely on those of whom we can relate, since there is no human nature for us to rely on others. The final aspect of our human existence is the despair, brought on by the desolation of having to make these choices.
Many will accuse existentialism of being a quietist philosophy—however, for an existentialist, the only way to survive is to act, based on the subjective choices of the will. There is nothing on this Earth except our reality, and there is indeed no possibility of anything more—if any of these possibilities were to occur, then they would become part of our reality. Our anguish, forlornness and despair will rule the human reality forever unto the twilight of eternity, for this is the way we have been, are, and always will be. Dostoevsky embellishes many traits of the modern existentialist, but for any inconsistencies remember that philosophy is a constantly changing battlefield, and Dostoevsky was only the starting point for this metaphysical doctrine to bloom.

[1] Honderich, T. (1995), pp. 343-345.
[2] p. 257-261.
[3] Sartre, J.P. (1957), pp. 9-52
[4] Cortesi, D.E. (2005).
[5] Ponge, F. (1942). Translated from French, “L’homme est l’avenir de l’homme.” 

© 2008 Lukas

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Added on June 29, 2008



Saint-Lazare-de-Vaudreuil, Québec, Canada, Canada

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