Existentialism is a rare philosophical breed: a theory that prioritises not lofty abstraction but responsible action. Arguably the most influential philosophical movement of the past century, existentialism is currently re-gaining the attention of people who take seriously the complexity of human life in its personal, cultural, and political context.
What makes the existentialist mode of thinking so attractive is that it respects two important needs of human beings: first, the need to understand our own experience of the world; secondly, the need to act in a way that best reflects our genuine beliefs and desires. Both of these issues require careful analysis, which can proceed only by steering clear off the various stereotypes attached to existentialist thinkers. It might thus be helpful to state not only what existentialism is, but also – and, perhaps, most importantly – what existentialism is not.
At a very basic level of discussion, existentialism asserts that existence is irreducible to thought: the world is not the creation of a web of ideas, and depends for its existence on no design, human or divine. As such, all entities are ‘contingent,’ since they form part of a reality which exists without necessity or reason, and ‘gratuitous,’ as they lack justification, and serve no purpose: they simply are. Among the many naturally existing entities, there is one type of entity that has the distinctive capacity of not only being aware of the rest of the world, but of being aware of its own awareness.
A human being is characterised by the fact that he is conscious of his conscious engagement with reality. That self-conscious dimension creates a distance from his own self, that is necessary for setting and answering questions about the meaning of one’s engagement with the world. Sometimes, existentialists put this point by saying that a human being is a being for whom his very being (his existing, his thinking, his feeling, or his acting) is in question.
At other times, a similar point is made by claiming that, in contradistinction to other entities, what oneself is, is always an issue for oneself. All other natural things are what they are by realising a pre-determined, pre-existing, pre-conceived type of being – a pine chair is a pine chair because it came to be as a thing of a particular material, shape and form, that would function precisely as a sitting device. Ordinary things obey the law of identity: every thing is identical to itself. Not so for human beings.
According to existentialism, my awareness of myself – the fact that I am conscious of my (past) history, my (present) concrete situation, and my (future-directed) intentions – means that no attempt to fix my being along some one characteristic can ever succeed. I am always more than what a theoretical account attributes to me, not because there are no ‘facts’ about my self – of course there are various physiological, economic, social and other facts about me – but because how I relate to that fact about me is, in an important sense, up to me.
The situation in which I find myself, however hospitable or adverse might be, cannot impose a character on me; rather it is the way I stand towards the situation, the specific patterns of understanding, feeling and responding towards it that makes me the person I am.
Therefore, the question of ‘who I am’ is not answered by pointing to some fixed, a-historical, abstract ‘essence’, but by interpreting adequately the ways in which I experience and interact with the world.