Every human being exemplifies a most interesting paradox: I am not what I am (I am not merely a ‘business associate’, an ‘Anglican priest’, or a ‘barman’), while I am what I am not yet (all those minor or major projects – such as buying on Saturdays a particular paper, saving the Earth, watching the next episode of ‘Lost’, or fostering close relationships with my partner and friends – which give me a sense of identity in terms of the kind of life I am leading). The existentialist approach implies that we are responsible for many more things than we usually like to think. Indeed, there is nothing of what we do, think, or, even, feel, that just ‘happens to us’.
The extent and importance of personal responsibility for the way we both ‘read’ and ‘respond’ (emotionally or practically) to a situation is one aspect that is often missed in popularised accounts of existentialist thinking. It is thus worth dispelling the view that existentialism is guilty by association to the three ‘I’-s: Irrationalism, Immoralism, Individualism.
In their writings, existentialist philosophers engage with our reason: they put forward arguments, worked through in meticulous detail, paying close attention to the phenomena under consideration, offering illuminating narratives of the actual experiences that form the topic of their discourse, while subjecting their own views, no less than that of others’ work, to rigorous critical examination. Part of their endeavour is to undermine certain philosophical conceptions of reason, and to question its employment in various theoretical, cultural, technological, religious and political contexts. Their stated aim, however is not to offer a new dogma that would replace ‘rationality’ with ‘irrationality’, or that would substitute for ‘reason’ some other fixed mental entity (such as ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’), but to rethink, delimit, and relocate our reasoning and discursive activities in the conceptual map of lived experience.
Existentialists have offered some of the most thorough studies in the field of moral psychology. They have analysed the way in which a situation elicits certain ways of attitudinal or behavioural response, how values inform our perception of the world, and how a correct understanding of being in the world may properly ground the possibility of leading a meaningful life. Part of their work in this area involves a criticism of theoretical misapprehensions of human action, of social practices that legitimise the objectification of human subjects, and of psychological discourses that sublimate patterns of self-denying behaviour. If immoralism is the view that a person ought to choose what she herself believes to be really bad precisely because she believes it to be bad, then none of the existentialist philosophers would count as immoralist. On the contrary, several existentialists were quite preoccupied with the ethical and political dimension of one’s actions, and with the moral values engendered by one’s stance towards others – if anything, some of the existentialist diagnoses of cultural malaise at the dawn of the last century might sound unhelpful precisely because they occasionally verged on the moralistic end of cultural criticism.
Regarding the issue of individualism, it might prove difficult to disentangle the conceptual from the imaginary. However, popularised images of the existentialist thinker as a tortured individual who gazes from his intellectual heights up above society, and into the depths of the human psyche, should not obscure our perception of what the existentialists actually claimed, i.e., that the notions of ‘the individual’, no less than that of ‘the world’ are abstractions from the concrete reality of ‘being in the world with others’.