Sunday, September 27, 2009

Basis of Existentialism

From what we have talked about in class it seems to me that existentialism is mostly a reaction to the rational, universal, democratic, scientific, and religious view of the world. Everyone we have studied seems to want to reject this view because it is unsatisfying.

Kierkegaard claimed that we can not understand Christianity in a universal, ethical way: God does not have to be rational and one’s religion is not one’s morality. Dostoevsky argued that humans do not make rational decisions, and in fact can delight in their irrationality. Nietzsche points out that when slavish morality claims everyone has a soul and gives everyone equal value, we ignore the genuine ubermensch. Heidegger claims that we are inauthentic when we do not create our own meaning but merely clothe ourselves in the accepted views of society.

But I was wondering why we find this original view unsatisfying. Why do we need to reach beyond what is rational? Why is it so important to us to make our own decisions and meaning?

Is it a part of our human nature in some way? It could be that we have a desperate need to recognize our individuality against others and against what is held to be universal.

I had a similar existential reaction while reading a book about feminist ethics. In the book, the female author states that she believes that no woman could have written Genesis from the Old Testament Bible. She believes this because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, which ignores the traditionally feminine value of caring for one’s child above rules and principles. Even though I know from empirical surveys that most women have an ethic of caring and in many ways my ethical views are based on caring, I hate to think that I’m in some way captured by this generalization. I want to think that I could choose to write or believe anything.

It is said that existentialism is more of an attitude than certain, defined beliefs or a logically formal argument. And it seems as if certain aspects of this attitude are shared by everyone. No one wants to live a life devoid of meaning. No one wants to be a “sheep” that just follows the herd. No one wants to “catch” beliefs from those around them like catching a cold. (At least, I think everyone in this class would agree that those things are awful.) Therefore, I think that existentialism is based on an innate part of human nature that craves meaning and recognition of one’s individuality.


  1. I agree that certain aspects of an existential attitude are shared by everyone, but also think that some people want to be in the herd. Being in a herd, even as a sheep, for some does not take meaning of life- there are many that find that this shared, unquestioned identity and purpose through a group provides comfort and meaning to life that adapting an existential attitude towards life may not. While it might be an innate part of human nature to crave meaning, I think that meaning is found in many places and not necessarily from recognizing one's individuality.

  2. I would also agree that humans have a natural instinct to find meaning in their lives in order to justify their existence. Each decision we make to “better” ourselves is subconsciously made to enhance our individual life experiences. For instance, some people choose to go to college, so that they receive a higher level education, that leads them to find certain careers that highlights their strengths- each step in the process is done so to give meaning to their existence. When an individual sets goals for himself, he believes that the challenge endured while achieving this goal will make in a better person; in other words, his life will seem more purposeful. If for some reason he fails, he feels as if his existence is degraded. If he succeeds, then that gives him a more valuable individuality.

  3. I finished reading your post feeling a sense of agreement, but there was one sentence with which I must disagree. "I want to think that I could choose to write or believe anything." I cannot agree with this statement at all because of the fact that certain experiences limit our potentiality. For example, because you are a woman, you cannot choose to write or believe what would have arisen had you been born a man. It is not because of the woman brain or your brain that you cannot choose to write or believe whatever you want; rather it is that, as a human, your potentiality cannot expand beyond your situation.

  4. Meaning cannot be "found" anywhere. It can only be created and projected and so is as insubstantial as thought or Truth, either of which can be revised on a moment's notice.

  5. To Sam: I agree with your comment, I think. I do believe that we are limited by our situations, but I think that it is natural to want to break free of these limitations.

    To Brenden: That's a really good point... I guess some people can find meaning living inside the herd.

    To dao4now: I think the question of whether meaning can be "found" or whether we create it is definately a major question in philosophy. The existentialist would say that we create meaning for things and determine the own purpose of our existence and so probably "found" was a bad term to use in this context. However, I don't think that it is immediately apparant that there is no objective truth and no meaning outside of what we decide meaning to be.


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