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21 November 2007

From Sartre to Dostoevsky

Anthony Hatzimoysis identitifes the leading lights of existentialist philosophy

By Anthony Hatzimoysis

We have seen some of the main features of the existentialist approach to human life. Our discussion has not been limited to any one particular philosopher, and has tried instead to identify some guiding thoughts of existentialist authors. But who exactly are those authors?

Which, among the several philosophers who reflected on the nature and meaning of human existence, count as existentialists? There are several, and sometimes conflicting, answers to that question. Historians may disagree over the attribution of the existentialist title to various figures. However, there is a core group of important philosophers who should be included on anyone’s books. So, here is my short list of existentialist writers.

To begin with, there are thinkers who made a strong claim on the paternity of the idea of grounding philosophical inquiry on the analysis of human existence (Karl Jaspers in Germany, and Gabriel Marcel in France). Then there are philosophers who came to endorse ‘existentialism’ as a title for their own theory, often using the term in order to describe, clarify, or qualify the nature of their approach to important philosophical topics (Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre).

Furthermore, there are a number of thinkers who engaged with existentialism in developing their distinctive approach to the experience of artworks, the meaning of life, the limits of political legitimacy, and the philosophical understanding of history (Rom Ingarten, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and Ortega y Gasset).

Then we have philosophers whose work betrays an ambivalent stance towards existentialism – an ambivalence that has been intellectually most fertile, since it offers both some of the most eloquent expressions of the existentialist thinking, as well as a critical statement against certain forms of existentialism for obscuring our view of the Other (as alleged by Emanuel Levinas against Cartesian Existentialists), or for silencing the voice of Being by reducing serious ontological inquiry about what there really is into some sort of philosophical curiosity about human beings (as it was argued by Martin Heidegger against Humanist Existentialists).

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There are, though, three authors of the 19th century whose writing – its focus, vocabulary, and narrative structure, perhaps more than what their texts actually argued for – made their work the main point of reference for a number of issues that would become the staple of existentialist discourse: Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

A quick glance through the above list should warn us that it would be unwise to characterise a view as ‘existentialist’ without clarifying which existentialist philosopher one has in mind. The list includes from devoted Christians (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Marcel) to ardent atheists (Nietzsche, and Sartre), from committed liberals (such as Jaspers), and radical political thinkers (such as Arendt), to notorious opponents of political progress (such as Heidegger), and from literary curators of immanence (Camus), to supporters of the transcendent dimension of human life (Levinas).

If there is one view that they all share, it is that the concrete reality of each individual being is richer in content and prior in importance to any theoretical construction about what a human being in the abstract supposedly is – in the terms of a famous motto: ‘existence precedes essence’.