Existentialism: Was Existentialism the Expression of a Generally Held Sense of Displacement due to the Chaotic Conditions of Twentieth-Century European Life?
Existentialism was one of the main philosophical schools of the twentieth century. Encompassing literature, drama, politics, and social thought in addition to philosophy, existentialists argued that human life and experience acquire meaning and definition only through one’s own free choice of actions and moral imperatives. “Existence,” their quintessential dictum held, “precedes essence.” Drawing from the works of the philosophers Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and several other important nineteenth-century cultural figures, twentieth-century existentialists emphasized the perceived meaningless of life and the sole power of one’s consciousness to overcome that meaninglessness. Belief in absolute truth, objective conceptions of beauty, guiding principles in the universe, and the presence of a Supreme Being had no place in their worldview.
Some students of the existentialist movement have argued that it arose from the chaotic conditions of twentieth-century European life. Earlier thought had been influential, but the tremendous disasters and losses of the two world wars and related traumas appeared to prove the existentialist point. Mass violence, destruction on an industrial scale, the randomness of millions of individual fates, and other ugly faces of modernity added authority to the tenets of the philosophy. Detractors of the philosophy have argued, however, that this authority was fleeting. Existentialist writers and philosophers were, on closer inspection, malcontented individuals who were dissatisfied with the structures and values of their societies, especially as they entered a period of major change. To proponents of this argument, existentialists seem more isolated from the world around them, caught in a futile attempt to rationalize their own shortcomings by denying the meaning of anything other than their own self-absorption.
Viewpoint: Yes. The sense of meaninglessness and alienation that influenced mid-twentieth-century philosophers derived from a common reaction to the horrors and disappointments of total war, hypocrisy, and social divisions
France at the end of World War II suffered less from physical desolation than moral ruin. Its armies had been defeated in a few weeks, and its leaders collaborated with the enemy. Nearly everyone else had made personal, private terms with the German occupation in order to stay at work, feed his family, and avoid the growing fear of the knock on the door that heralded one’s disappearance into the concentration-camp world of “night and fog.” An exception to this pattern of fear and compliance was the underground, a loose network of Resistance fighters and their supporters that grew to sizable strength as the occupation ground on. Among the leading symbols for those men and women was Jean-Paul Sartre, the founder of French existentialism.
Existentialism was born in the nineteenth century in the philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. The former found God; the latter envisaged man as God. Twentieth-century existentialism, best represented in Germany by Martin Heidegger, who paused in his philosophical career to make the choice to become a Nazi, found its focus in France. Critics dismissed it as a set of attitudes that legitimated the alienation natural to young adults. Existentialism as a philosophy, presented by its two most influential spokesmen, Sartre and Albert Camus, centered around the proposition that there was no essential human nature. Instead, our nature develops over the history of our existence.
This postulate developed along several related lines. Atheistic existentialism, as presented by Sartre, was the most logical and the most coherent. It stated that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, who exists before he can be defined by any concept. This being is man, who defines himself by the process of action. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward essence.
It is difficult for people today to place themselves in the minds of Europeans in the years immediately after 1945. Germany was physically destroyed and divided between East and West. The country was defeated militarily and politically and suffered humiliation, shame, and guilt. Within months rebuilding began—at least in the Western zones. Yet, as the Germans climbed over the piles of bricks that had once been the cities of their pride, they had little time for philosophical musings. In Britain, deprivations continued as well, with rationing and other wartime regulations remaining well into the 1950s.
The French for their part embarked on a wave of denunciations and recriminations over who collaborated with the Germans. In attempting to purge their collective soul, they found there was no exit for their angst. Into this fertile ground stepped Sartre, a prolific writer of plays and novels, a spokesman for a philosophy that offered not an explanation for the horrors and ambiguities of the occupation years, but rather a view of the world that could place a perspective on events.
Sartre found himself the literary and intellectual lion of his age. He dominated literature and theater for at least twenty years, in a country that prizes literary and intellectual prowess and sets correspondingly demanding standards. He became a leading member of the ultimate establishment club—the French Academy. He became rich while the rest of the country was struggling in poverty. Not only was he the idol of the literati, but as a self-proclaimed communist, he also became a hero of labor.
Sartre earned his laurels, including a Nobel Prize in literature in 1964, which he refused as being too bourgeois, by developing existentialism as a way to isolate the individual from the world, and at the same time asserting a concept of self-responsibility that separates the individual from social responsibility. Since the individual man does not have commonality with the rest of humanity, the best one could do was seek freedom from the corrosive influences of society and concentrate on the creation of one’s own nature. Neither God nor reason existed as guides to behavior. Instead, the freedom existentialism offered, and the necessity for choice it imposed, would combine first to carry man beyond the despair of meaninglessness, and then to nurture an engagement that would bring about the radical transformation of bourgeois society. It was this political dimension that distinguished French existentialism from its German counterpart—and which made it attractive in Europe, and in the West, seeking to escape the apparent dead end of collectivism.
In that sense Sartre’s communism was an anomaly, and in fact he broke with the Party relatively early, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. That he continued to identify with communist ideas and causes reflected his abiding hatred for the values and policies represented by a United States he regarded as the final, overripe embodiment of capitalism, militarism, and every other obstacle to the realization of the future. It was not an intellectual process, but its appeal was strong to a generation of European youth who perceived themselves facing the rubble of two millennia of history, with only their hands to clean it up and only their minds to make sense of the catastrophe.
Eventually, existentialism would be undone by its own abstract nature. In the early postwar years Camus warned what one chose was as important as that one chose. This apparent indirect acceptance of values external to the individual was initially uncongenial to the Page 77 | Top of Articlemajority of those who identified with existentialism. What happened in consequence, however, was a growing indifference to the facts of any real-world issue. What was important was the position one was expected to take: a position of protest, a position outside the bourgeois frameworks that structured inauthenticity. The eventual result was existentialism’s devolution to a movement that was more about style than substance—and a search for choices in new contexts that included pure aestheticism, Third World Romanticism, and a fresh paradigm known as poststructuralism.
–JOHN WHEATLEY, BROOKLYN CENTER, MINNESOTA
Viewpoint: No. Existentialist philosophy was produced by intellectual malcontents who were self-absorbed, were alienated from their societies, and could find no rational purpose in their own lives
The familiar aphorism of the 1970s, “the personal is political,” had its roots in an existentialist movement whose influence reflected the emergence before World War II of a generation of intellectual malcontents who sought to universalize the meaninglessness of lives rendered empty by inaction in the face of the century’s greatest challenge: totalitarianism. Existentialism thrived on dismissing the world as absurd, and on presenting consciousness as adrift in chaos. It was popularly identified with the experience of the French Resistance: in a time when whirl was king and established ideals proved hollow, true humanity depended upon making personal choices and living—or dying—by them, preferably with a certain je ne sais quoi flair. In that context resisting the Nazis was not a matter of affirming France; it was not even a matter of affirming right and justice. Resistance, according to this aspect of the existentialist myth, was an affirmation of self, from which in turn it became possible to restructure the universe.
The Cartesian roots of the Resistance imagery were reinforced by extensive borrowings from Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular his insistence on the importance of ego-based action even after one perceived the artificial nature of external values and the absolute indifference of the universe. Existentialism’s German roots went even deeper. In the years after World War I a young Lutheran intellectual, Karl Barth, drew on the work of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in developing a theology that denied divine support for secular progress. In the late 1920s Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers each built on Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and its description of consciousness becoming self-aware in the context of imposing intellectual order on what is otherwise a formless mass, to assert the centrality of the integrated human spirit in an identity otherwise characterized by anxiety. To understand this centrality, moreover, was to act on it. Heidegger in particular emphasized the difference between “unauthentic,” that is, unaware and uncritical participation, and the “authentic” existence based on constant self-analysis. At the least, however, passivity represented denial of existence. Johann Faust’s cri de coeur, “am Anfang war die Tat” (in the beginning was the deed), was also the beginning of awareness.
Early German existentialism was basically an elitist response to the politics and culture of a mass age, and as such tended to isolate the self-defined and self-realized individual. Also, particularly in Heidegger’s version, best presented in Being and Time (1927), the fact of action was privileged over the nature of action. Thus, Heidegger, confronted with the rise of National Socialism, wound up as a registered party member, rector of the University of Freiburg, and a spokesman for Hitler’s New Order. Jaspers, after briefly considering the prospects of using National Socialism as an instrument of academic reform, sought to establish the university as a self-governing center of elite thought, free of second-rate minds and exempt by virtue of its institutional self-awareness from the Gleichschaltung (coordination) imposed on the Reich’s other subaltern institutions.
Jaspers never fell under Nazism’s spell; Heidegger’s overt enthusiasm lasted a matter of months. It did not matter. Rather than being incorporated into the system, they and their followers were rapidly shifted out by a regime despising abstract intellectual activity in any form and specifically scorning the lofty detachment of the existentialists as parasitic. After the war both Jaspers and Heidegger developed substantial national and international reputations. Underlying—and to a degree undermining—them, however, was the question of whether the existentialists’ critique of objectivity and their privileging of choice had fostered the Germans’ acceptance of the vitalist ideology of National Socialism.
Arguably more to the point, critics argued, the German existentialists’ definition of action as a thing in itself, not requiring any particular this-world behavior, had merely cloaked their use of relatively influential and privileged positions as backdrops for personally defined virtue. The
decisions they made proved in the event irrelevant even for the immediate participants—and set no public example of virtue in its original sense, in a time when such example was badly needed. Heidegger’s response was his postwar “Letter on Humanism,” with its sweeping denunciation of that concept as no more than a euphemism for the materialistic exploitation of nature. Reaffirming the existentialist’s role as a “shepherd of Being,” it guided German existentialism ever deeper into what the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine called the airy empire of dreams.
The ideas of Jaspers and Heidegger were, however, by no means confined to Germany. Well before the war Jean-Paul Sartre had begun developing his own version of a philosophy of action, where deeds and not words or ideas determined character. The German occupation chafed a temperament that was already anarchic and impatient of external restriction. Yet, in a direct inversion of what might be expected, Sartre’s Resistance was a thing of mind, spirit, and rhetoric alone. The risks and rewards of the warrior in darkness were not for him, nor were the risks of writing to defend Jews summoned for deportation, or to remind waverers that there would be an eventual reckoning. Sartre’s own career flourished—not least because better men were otherwise occupied. He nevertheless became a French household word, as opposed to a Parisian aphorism, after the liberation, when a wartime generation of intellectuals sought to catch up on developments since June 1940. His major philosophical text, Being and Nothingness (1943), was popularized by a successful play, No Exit. First presented in May 1944, it invited parsing in terms of a German occupation, addressed with the insouciant cleverness in the face of doom that the French wished they were offering in real life.
Collective wish became collective myth in a postwar France, where attitude took the place of faith on both Left and Right. Even for active Resistance members, the occasions for facing ultimate questions and abiding by single decisions had in fact been few and far between. For Voltaire’s “moderately sensual men”—and women—the war and the occupation had been a study in shades of gray. However, not until Marcel Ophuls released his scathing motion picture The Sorrow and the Pity in 1969 would France have to confront its banality. Meantime, it was flattering to remember in terms of knife—edge choices made with panache, and Sartre rode the process to the top. Existentialism became international shorthand for a view of life as without any meaning except that created by action undertaken in a climate of desperation. Only when standing alone, stripped of excuses and supports, could a human being recognize that he had no nature, no identity except the one he created by the deed. Heidegger’s denunciation of humanism and its implied extension of man’s power over nature only encouraged an inward focus that amounted to solipsism.
Whether authenticity was its own reward or whether, as Jaspers argued, certain existential situations could offer an intimation of transcendence, the central principle was choice. Existentialism, however, continued to eschew assisting its disciples in the matter of what to choose. That fact was highlighted in the ongoing debate between Sartre, whose espousal of communism arguably reflected sheer contrariness, and Albert Camus. Unlike Sartre, Camus had actual experience in the Resistance, and a corresponding conviction that what one did mattered as much as the doing itself. Camus’s key contribution to existentialist doctrine—at times it seems appropriate to use religious rather than philosophical terminology—was his insistence that choice and commitment must be limited by respect for others. Yet, in an imperfect world, particularly the world produced by World War II, it seemed the best that could be done in that respect was to apply the principle of double effect: will and work to minimize the harm that seemed inevitably done by real-world choices.
For the existentialist, that was thin gruel indeed. As a consequence, existentialism in the 1960s increasingly evolved toward a set of individualized attitudes that left a corresponding philosophical vacuum to be filled by poststructuralists who found surprisingly little intellectual resistance to their ideas.
–DENNIS SHOWALTER, COLORADO COLLEGE
William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958).
Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
Robert C. Solomon, From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth-Century Backgrounds (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities, 1978).
Robert Wicks, Modern French Philosophy: From Existentialism and Postmodernism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003).
Richard Wolin, The Politics of Being: The Political Thought of Martin Heidegger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).