To understand Existentialism, it is helpful to keep in mind three important observations. First, Existentialism is largely a product of its time, beginning with the latter half of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century. During this period, the achievements of science greatly changed the popular worldview and promoted extreme optimism with regard to man’s nature and future. However, a world war destroyed much of this optimism, and later, as the limits of science began to be recognized, skepticism and nihilism prevailed. Secondly, Existentialism represents a broad movement in Western thought and culture which cannot be described in terms of any one philosopher or school of thought. Many of the characteristics of Existentialism can also be found in the literature of writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hemingway, as well as in modern expressionistic art. Thirdly, as one studies the works of various Existentialist philosophers it is very soon discovered that they often differ radically in their views. In fact many of them refused to be called Existentialists. To understand and do justice to them they must be studied separately.
This makes attempts to generally describe Existentialism cumbersome and impossible if we mean for our description to consistently apply to even the most prominent existentialists. We will therefore attempt to limit this discussion to the characteristics of the movement as a whole.
In the first place, Existentialism represents the reaction to what was perceived to be the end result of all attempts to build intellectually a philosophical system capable of truly explaining and guiding human life. Specifically, it was a reaction against scientific reductionism (Scientism) on the one hand and Idealism on the other. Scientism, as used here, is the attempt to reduce all of knowledge to that which can be obtained by the scientific method. Idealism, as used here is the attempt to reduce all of reality to a cosmic idea, and should be understood as monistic Idealism of the Hegelian variety.
One result of Scientism has been to increasingly view man solely as an object: an object explainable and purely biological, physical, and chemical terms. A result of Idealism was to view man’s essence as consisting in his participation in the unfolding of the cosmic consciousness. The reaction of Existentialism is to insist that man is not primarily an object but a subject (a self-conscious being), and that man’s acts of existence as an individual and finite being precedes his essence.
In both Scientism and Idealism then, man is to a great extent depersonalized and determined. He loses his individual identity and freedom. It is this loss that existentialists have decried. When they speak of living “authentically”, they do so in light of these two themes. Scientism portrays man as depersonalized and determined by reducing his individuality to chance chemical reactions and environmental conditioning. Idealism accomplishes the same thing by reducing man to so many drops in a sea of cosmic consciousness.
The reason Existentialism has been regarded as anti-intellectual and even irrational can now be explained. Scientism, seen as the epitome of attempts to explain everything using empirical methodology, and idealism, the epitome of attempts to explain everything using rational methodology have both failed to do justice to man’s individuality or his freedom. Virtually every method for obtaining knowledge may be classified as empirical, rational or some combination of the two. This is why existentialists reject the intellect as a legitimate tool for doing philosophy. It is useful only for abstraction, as a practical tool for the successful manipulation of nature. The imposition of the static categories of abstraction upon life can be illustrated by thinking of life as a flowing stream and abstraction as a sheet of ice covering it. The knowledge of man as subject (self-conscious) and free (self-determining) are exactly the terms commonly used to define personhood. It is easy to see why the existentialist would insist that this knowledge is intuitive, since it apparently has escaped the intellectual systems of both science and philosophy.
In describing Existentialism as a reaction, we have alluded to its main theme, which is man defined as an individual free human subject whose existence precedes his essence. Whereas other existing things may be described as having essences which determine their existence it is not so with man. We are free to determine our own essence or identity. In this sense we are beings capable of transcending our environment. This brings our discussion to the existentialist concept of human responsibility, a tremendous burden and very dramatic theme in Existentialism. Man’s existence is undetermined and free, but it is also finite. We are to make responsible choices in light of our temporary existence or ignore our responsibility and finitude, by losing our personal identity by letting society and others determine our lives, and by avoiding the unpleasant issue of our own death.
Existentialists have taken upon themselves the task of waking us up to those facts about our existence that we often choose to avoid, because they are unpleasant. In doing so, they go to great lengths to arouse the emotions. But this perhaps is only a means to another end. As we ponder the nature of our existence as ending in death, we are led to ask whether our existence has any meaning or purpose. If we are conscious of our freedom to choose, we may ask whether there is any ultimate end to make sense of our temporal choices. These are perennial questions that often have not been raised, and in modern times it seems that a philosophy such as Existentialism has been useful in clearing the way for asking these important questions. Existentialists have correctly recognized that individual human existence cannot be abstracted from essence. Perhaps we should recognize that they over-reacted in exiling the intellect from philosophy, while remembering with the existentialist that philosophy is only relevant when it deals with the crucial questions of life which we by nature so often avoid.
In a way, Existentialism is by itself a survey of “modern” philosophy since it carries with it the seeds of nihilism and foreshadows the practical implications of the limitations of linguistic philosophy and postmodernism.