Philosophy Phocus: Existentialism

Issue #10 — 4.8 minute read

This issue is going to be a little different. Going forward, I’d like to spend every 5th issue diving into a particular philosophical movement or philosopher in order to better understand the various frameworks that have been used to process our world. This first “Philosophy Phocus” explores Existentialism.

👋 Hey phi-lazy-phers

Up until the mid-to-late 19th century, there was a general consensus that our lives had concrete meaning—an essential purpose—which was given to us when we were created by the god of whichever religion we belonged to. Around this time, though, certain philosophers, like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, began to question this belief, laying the foundation for Existentialism.

Fast forward a bit to the mid 20th century. French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir popularized the existentialist movement through the idea that “existence precedes essence.”

Basically: We’re born into a world with no predetermined purpose, no path that we’re supposed to follow. It’s up to us to give our lives meaning.

Existentialism may sound closely tied to Atheism (because it is) but there have been quite a few philosophers who viewed life through this existential lens while also believing in [a] God. Kierkegaard (mentioned above) laid the groundwork for this movement, yet he was quite vocal about his faith. He implied we choose our own way without the aid of universal, objective standards.

Existentialism was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one. Writers and artists linked to this view include Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett, and Pollock, among many others.

These beliefs gained traction after WWII when people questioned how a world that allowed the atrocities committed by the Nazis could have any real justice or order.

That’s a [super] brief introduction to Existentialism. Now let’s see what a few existentialists have said about this philosophical framework.

Jean-Paul Sartre

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. 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.


Richard Dawkins

There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.


Simone de Beauvoir

And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive.


Viktor Frankl

No instinct tells [man] what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism).


Søren Kierkegaard

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.


Albert Camus

I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.


Umberto Eco

I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

It can seem dark to view our existence as devoid of purpose. And while it sounds like a lot of pressure to give your life meaning all on your own, one might argue it removes the pressure entirely. The existentialists believe you could finally stop searching for answers in an answerless world. You get to discover what makes you feel most alive.

Existentialism is, obviously, only one way to view life so we’ll continue to explore others in future issues. In the meantime, what do you like or dislike about this framework? If you feel so inclined, let me know by commenting on the post or replying to the email.


✌️Until next week, happy philosophizing.

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