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Why Existentialism?


As someone who was educated in the United States (and this may apply elsewhere), my introduction to Existentialism came mostly in the form of a few novels and short essays by Viktor Frankl, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus …sprinkled with some Nietzsche quotes and stereotyped as a 60’s beatnik fad or goth kid fascination. I believe that my introductory experience is common for those who have had an introduction to Existentialism at all. While those pieces of literature and thought touched and inspired me, awed and irked me, it took a lot of effort to move beyond them. And admittedly, because of the stereotypes, I also felt a bit of embarrassment pursuing Existentialism further and discussing what I had been learning.

Today, I have long since become accustomed to the casual smirks and eye-rolls that some others respond with when I broach the topic of Existentialism. To some extent, I owe it to The Partially Examined Life podcast for taking the philosophical works of existentialism seriously and lowering some of these social barriers I feel. There have also been other recent events that have resurrected a public interest in Existentialism. One of those events has been the growth of nationalism in many countries and the election of Donald Trump; to which quite a few public intellectuals have turned to Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, or Jean-Paul Sartre’s work on racism and antisemitism. The public is turning back to the mid-20th Century’s Left-leaning intellectuals for answers and the Existentialists have provided many. Another event of late was New York’s month-long celebration of Albert Camus.
Still, Existentialism as a substantial philosophy likely isn’t a whole lot more familiar to Americans as it had been a decade ago. I can make guesses as to why that is, but I’d rather save such a discussion for another text. My goal here is to acknowledge your potential apprehensions, relate to them, and attempt to convince you that there is something personally valuable that you can get from a more thorough engagement with Existentialism. Towards that end, I will now proceed…
If you haven’t heard the news, God is Dead. If you do not know what I mean by saying that, then that is your first good reason to read Nietzsche. If you’re already way ahead of me, pause for a moment and return to this matter at hand. God is Dead. Our governments (save a few) are no longer ruled through the Divine Right of Kings. Our societies are formally secularized, regardless of how religiously devout many of its citizens are. And even for those who are religious, the fact of living in a multi-cultural society motivates us to doubt God …at least some versions of God. No one simply follows God today; and where that leaves us is where Existentialism begins.

The consequences of God’s death can not be underestimated. With God we had answers to those most fundamental questions of our own existence, such as:

Why does anything exist instead of nothing?
What is the value of life?
What is Good and Evil?
Who has the right to rule others?
Where does consciousness come from?
Why is there suffering in the world?
What is the meaning of death?
Are human beings determined or are we free?

Not surprisingly, these are the questions that also underlie our different cultural values, political ideologies, and lifestyle choices. There is no sense of ethics without a sense of what someone is free to choose and take responsibility for. There is no authority without an agreement among people as to how it ought to be established and its institutions maintained. There is no reason to live without estimating the value of one’s own life. There is no reason to prevent murder without estimating the value of others’ lives.

For as deep and as influential as these questions and answers are though, the pervasive attitude among many Americans is that they are questions for the immature. Those with time to waste attempting to answer them. Those who are taking the time and energy they clearly have and wasting it on unproductive pursuits. Questions that ought to be left to experts who are paid to provide the answers. Questions that the average person isn’t equipped to deal with. We are left to assume that for us, these existential questions are questions that shouldn’t exist, should be kept private in ones own thoughts, or kept within the tax-free walls of religious establishments.

However, it is exactly these questions that we need to each individually face if we want to pursue our goals coherently. The answers to these questions are what fill us and what give our everyday choices wider meaning. And so it is towards that end that I have sought answers to such questions; through the elaborate and evermore intriguing philosophy of Existentialism.