Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction

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When it comes to Sartre, the father of existentialist school, he himself was not an opponent of Marxism; perhaps, he supported the socialist ventures and sided with the socialist regimes during the cold war.

Rediscovering philosophical idealism

In Novack, G. E. (1966). Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting views on humanism. New York: Dell Pub. Co..



By Shahzada Rahim

Beginning with Nietzsche

It is time the mandarins of the left have to clear their position towards Marxism — the same goes for the idealists. Existentialism and Marxism have been the most widely held philosophies across the west and even they are the content of debate and discussion. However, the center of this controversy was France, from where existentialism got its roots and came into direct competition with Marxism. In this regard, the relations between the politically oriented Marxists and existentialists have always been complicated. Basically, it was famous French intellectual and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who discovered the existentialist ideas from the writings of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl (famous German Phenomenologist) and put a direct challenge to Marxism by presenting a philosophical alternative to dialectical materialism. The hardliner Marxists attacked the philosophy of existentialism by calling it neo-idealism and subjectivism by representing the decay of bourgeois thought that had reactionary political implications.

But, when it comes to Sartre, the father of existentialist school, he himself was not an opponent of Marxism; perhaps, he supported the socialist ventures and sided with the socialist regimes during the cold war.[1] However, it was only in the 1950s, in the wake of Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolt that brought a rift in his approach towards socialism. As an illustration, by keeping a low profile, finally Sartre in his famous philosophical work “the critique of dialectical reason” declared existentialism as the sub-ordinate branch of Marxism, whose aim is to renew and enrich Marxism.

On the contrary, it was only after 1953, during the de-Stalinization process in the Soviet bloc, various Marxists termed the Sartrean existentialism as an anti-dote to Stalinist dogmatism. [2] Just like Marxism, the history of existentialist ideas is rooted in the German idealism of Hegel, Kant, Fichte, and Descartes. Likewise, the ancestry of existentialism can be traced in the writings of Saint Augustine, the father of Christian theology, and Pascal, the biggest doubter of Faith in God, in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who lived in the last century. But Existentialism as a major philosophical school arrived very late in the philosophical world. Basically, Existentialism emerged as one of the dominant philosophies of the late twentieth century. Moreover, its foundations mainly came from the phenomenological school of Edmund Husserl, Karl Jasper, and Martin Heidegger, who were famous for the non-materialist approach.

Similarly, Existentialism also emerged on psychological grounds, as a sense of tragedy arising from a nonsenseless position in the world — an inherently senseless position in the world. On the other hand, at the quarter half of the twentieth century, the liberal progressives looked forward to a more peaceful, free, and stable world, and therefore attempted to expand the ideals of western civilization across the world. This began with the greatest achievements of science, technology, education, industry, and the spread of enlightenment and democracy. [3] According to critics, ‘this philosophy of existentialism, they say, is the expression of the world, which is ‘out of joint’ declared Maurice Marleau Ponty.

In a famous play by Gabriel Marcel, the heroine Christine exclaims:

Don’t you sometimes have an impression that we are living…if we call that living…in a broken world. Yes the broken as the watch has broken. The spring no longer functions…if you put this watch to your ear, you no longer hear anything. The world of men…it used to have a heart, but I would say that this heart has stopped beating.”

According to existentialists, the universe and human life, both are inexplicable in the very heart of their being. Because, we as being often encounters the nothingness of our existence, disclosed by nausea, anguish and other painful states — these are the real characteristics of human beings. Likewise, the stamps of existentialism — despair, lonesomeness, guilt, and boredom. These are the vanguard of Art across the west. What Samuel Beckets and Jean Genet says:

I feel that life is nightmarish, painful and unbearable. Look around you: wars, catastrophes, disasters, hatred, prosecution, confusion and death lying in a wait for all of us…we struggle in a world…that appears to be in a grip of some terrible fever…have we not impression, that the real world is unreal…that this world is not our true world.

Existentialists today are in solitary because they are cut off from nature and from rest of the humanity — his most intimate friends. This is what existentialists call the ‘tragic’ sense of living, which is deeply embedded in the existing social realities — if they are not inherent in human nature. According to Marxists; existentialists have historically created disorders and the characteristics of bourgeoisie civilization — sick into death. On the contrary, it is a deep-rooted fact that, when the outgoing social order clashes with the oncoming orders, the disturbance often occurs at the frontiers. Today, we are living between an old world that is breaking up and a new world that is being organized — referring to the Bolshevik revolution, Sartre said: “chips are down”.

The crisis of all kinds — social, moral, political, intellectual, and spiritual are again gathering around the human species. The class antagonism and national…missing.

Basically, it was the great question of social and ethnic identity that has shaken up the meaning of human existence. We must be ready to fight for our personal independence along with the spheres of identity construction against the forces of chaos and destruction.

The resurgence of Existentialism

Basically, existentialism favors all the thoughts and actions within the subjective domain of individuals. Likewise, existentialism registers a mood, an atmosphere, and a special manner of responding to the emergencies of life rather than a single internally harmonic system of thought. Likewise, philosophies based on rational and scientific thought/method represent the universe is clear, consistent, and connected conceptual terms. In this regard, the primary proposition of existentialism — that existence, which is defined as the immediate living self, the immediate living experience of individuals takes priority over essence. The existentialists hold that it is far more important and imperative for a person to exert his own will, chose among the possible course of action. If the individuals began focusing upon the external objective reality, then the individual will be false to his authentic self.

In contrast, the existentialists reject the truth anchored in a collectivity or a world beyond individual always produces various variations. Their belief ranges from Atheism to faith in God, from dread before death and total finality to an anticipation of life as eternal.

Basically, existentialists have a common subjectivist approach to reality and are repelled from rationalism, determinism, materialism, and scientific objectivity. In contrast, existentialists reject the truth anchored in a collectivity or a world beyond the individual always produces various variations. Their belief ranges from Atheism to faith in God, from dread before death and total finality to anticipation of life as eternal. Soren Kierkegaard was an unorthodox Christian, the German Jasper was a theist, the French Marcel was a catholic convert, and Martin Buber was a Jew. These all philosophers besides their existing beliefs contemplated and anticipated the ideas of existentialism.

Similarly, famous German philologist and philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche proclaimed ‘God is dead” and likewise, equally irreligious Sartre and Albert Camus, built their humanism around the world without God. For Camus, man has an essential human nature that precedes his existence, while Sartre held the opposite of the context. Moreover, famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger kneeled before Nazis, while Sartre showed resistance and aligned himself with the left.

Existentialism and the classical French philosophy

Basically, French existentialism refers to the literary left-wing, which headquartered itself in Paris. Existentialism emerged as a vibrant philosophy in French Capital among the literary class after world war-II. Moreover, it has shaken up the foundations of classical traditions of the literary class by putting the concept ‘Existence’ at the center of philosophical discourse. It remained successful in attracting the working class, intelligentsia, and young students. Even the philosophy of existentialism entered the audience through Novels, dramas, and theatre — for instance, the famous theatre of the Absurd.

Similarly, through existentialism, philosophers attempted to extend their horizons to aesthetics and psychological interests. Basically, the French philosophy itself through the two currents of thought: whereas, one originating from Kierkegaard, Karl jasper and Martin Heidegger while the other from Edmund Husserl.

Basically, it was through this philosophy, the surrealists of that time such as Aragon, and Paret went beyond the individualistic Iconoclasm in art and morality to the social problems and revolutionary politics. But the birth of existentialism has soon overcome the foundations of surrealism. In this way, existentialism swiftly entered into the field of psychoanalysis, politics, and philosophy. Similarly, through existentialism, philosophers attempted to extend their horizons to aesthetics and psychological interests. Basically, the French philosophy itself through the two currents of thought: whereas, one originating from Kierkegaard, Karl jasper, and Martin Heidegger while the other from Edmund Husserl.

The former writings provided the existentialists, the main themes for its deliberation: the encounter with nothingness, and the sudden plunge into dread and anguish. Moreover, in order to encounter these mortal crises, the philosophers demanded absolute freedom from individuals. Likewise, the latter provided the phenomenological method to the philosophy of existentialism — basically, phenomenology rests upon the direct intuition of the state of mind and the immediate inspection of things.

On the contrary, the introspective thinkers deliberately rely upon and limit themselves, to the phenomena as they manifest themselves without linking to the appearance of things, with the condition and causes of their occurrence. In contrast, it was because of this philosophy Jean-Paul Sartre earned the status of the most influential public figure like Russell. In this way, he marked himself as the greatest mind of the twentieth century. He developed his brand of Existentialist philosophy in parallel competition with Marxian dialectical materialism. Basically, Sartre through his brand of existentialism attempted to rescue Marxism from dogmatism and determinism. His famous work includes the following:

1. In 1946, he published his landmark work ‘Being and Nothingness’ in which he declared himself as the descent follower of the German Phenomenologist for perfecting his techniques and to extend his research into the consciousness of individual experience.

2. In 1960, he came forward by declaring himself as an adherent of Marx with an aim of perfecting historical materialism through the addition of existentialist procedures and insights.

3. Sartre remained one of the famous interpreters of German Phenomenology and was one of the renowned existentialist pioneers of Marxist philosophy.

Sartre’s Marxism can be understood in the following domain:

1. The Evolution of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Marxism

Basically, Sartre wrote ‘Being and nothingness’ to counter the Marxian dialectical materialism. In one of the famous passages, Sartre singles out Marxism as the specimen of the ‘serious attitude’. According to Sartre, in the Marxian context, man is not a free being; it is the expression of bad faith that hides from men the consciousness of freedom. What Sartre famously proclaimed; ‘Seriousness is the antithesis of sincerity. According to Sartre ‘the original dogma of the serious when he asserted the priority of the object over the object by saying that a man is serious, when takes himself for an object’. Likewise, Sartre set out the fact that man is wholly a free subject, who, by his very nature resists every attempt to transform him into anything objective. The ‘Being and nothingness’ can be explained in the following way:

The first part of ‘Being and nothingness’ provided the ontological underpinning for the conception of unlimited human freedom by putting forward the unprecedented conflict between the three fundamental aspects of reality;

1Being-for-itselfIt refers to the pure consciousness of the individual.

2. Being-in-itself: it refers to the rigid non-consciousness, materiality, and objectivity.

3. Beingfor-others: It refers to the self that has been converted to an eternal object.

In Sartre’s view, freedom is released from all conditions. What Sartre said: “Man freedom is not limited by his own nature rather by his passions and motives or by other things or people — man is at utter liberty to decide what he wishes to become”.

Likewise, in the second part of the book, Sartre uses these dimensions to construct the one-sided dimension of freedom in the history of philosophy. In Sartre’s view, freedom is released from all conditions. What Sartre said: “Man’s freedom is not limited by his own nature rather by his passions and motives or by other things or people — man is at utter liberty to decide what he wishes to become”.

For Sartre, freedom doesn’t mean attaining one’s aim or desire. Freedom is rather the exercise of autonomous choice as an arbitrary act of free will — which both Sartre and Heidegger called ‘Facticity’. Likewise, my place, my past, and my surroundings constitute the situation in which I find myself which I do not create and for which I am not liable. Moreover, these are not the ingredients of my existence. I do not have to accept them; I can reject and refuse to adopt them. In this regard, I establish and assert my authentic self in dissociating myself from all these objective circumstances. Likewise, other things and beings have their essence made for them — I alone have the power of creating the character and career, I prefer.

No preconditions, no precedents, and no authorities can determine the conduct of the person unless he permits them to do so — this resembles the denial of everything e.g traditional, culture, and law. Likewise, every individual can be unto law — we are responsible for the choices we make. Sartre even held every person then alive was co-responsible for the second world-war. It is because, anguish often arises from the recognition of the wrong choices we have made but we cannot avoid our choices at our peril in the dark, we must courageously face it. Moreover, People, who, the agony of their conscious decision and disown their responsible — Sartre calls them a ‘Bad Faith’. What Sartre once said; it is through this way people are attempting to flee their freedom’.

Similarly, Sartre closes his ‘Being and nothingness’ in a very tragic way, he defines man as ‘the being who desires to be God’. Perhaps, this is impossible because ‘Being-for-itself’ can never coalesce with being in itself. This means that man’s inspiration can never find adequate realization. What Sartre said; “Freedom is precisely is the being, which makes itself the lack of being”. Although, man is fated to be free his dearest projects /inspirations before doomed to fail — In a nutshell, Sartre was obsessed with ultra-individuality in search of the road for the enlargement of liberty, for mankind, even though no real and lasting freedom was attainable.


Notes

[1] In the 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre along with his wife Simon de Beauvoir visited Cuba to meet the Cuban revolutionaries and praised their revolutionary struggle against imperialism. He met with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and praised their policies of transforming Cuba into a socialist paradise. After his brief visit to the Socialist Republic of Cuba, he famously said; ‘Today, I came to know that happiness cannot be achieved with spilling blood”.

[2] The orthodox Marxists clearly rejected the foundation of existentialism by calling it the revival of idealism.

[3] At the middle of the century, various western philosophical thinkers deemed ‘Existentialism’ as ‘pessimism’, which is fragmented, indifferent, meaningless, and lies at the core of existentialism.


Author

Shahzada Rahim is an International Relations expert with a keen interest in history, philosophy, and geopolitics.


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The Radical Outlook

The Radical Outlook is an online news web Portal designed for in-depth news analysis from the Eurasian region and beyond. It is Founded by a geopolitical analyst Shahzada Rahim.
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