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Critical Essays On Existentialism

There’s a problem with existentialism, specifically Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of “existence precedes essence”. Today I’d like to talk about that concept, why it is flawed, and what implications all of this has for our wider society and political structure.

First “existence precedes essence” needs to be explained. Existence is consciousness, while essence is genetic and environmental makeup. In traditional (by which I mean non-existentialist) western philosophy, essence always precedes existence. We are defined by our genetic and environmental characteristics; they determine our behaviour. Generally shared genetic and environmental characteristics across the species are typically termed “human nature”. Existentialism rejects the existence of a common human nature by proposing that existence comes before essence, meaning that our consciousness has the opportunity to determine how we feel about the world around us independent of our basic genetic and environmental characteristics.

Of course, there are certain limitations to this that existentialists recognise–a person cannot by force of consciousness wish for different genetic characteristics or environmental background. One cannot simply will oneself into a bird or will an abusive childhood away. What the existentialists do propose, however, is that since one’s consciousness comes first, one can choose how to respond to or feel about one’s genetic background or environmental characteristics, both historically and in the present moment. Taken together, genetics and environment are typically referred to by existentialism as “facticity”, the objective facts about the external world that the consciousness can respond to in a variety of ways. Importantly, because under existentialism the consciousness has the opportunity to choose how to respond, there can be no determinism and consequently no prediction of human behaviour based on general principles. It also means that people have personal responsibility for everything that they do and are autonomous individuals, a very popular and comforting belief.

The key problem with this is that if the consciousness, the thing deciding how to respond to facticity, is not itself made up of facticity–of genetic and environmental background and structuring–what is it? Existentialism proposes that existence comes first, but how can a consciousness exist produced from no source with a fundamental facticity? Furthermore, we know scientifically that consciousness is produced by a physical implement–the brain. If you damage a person’s brain, the level of consciousness will decline. Imagine, for example, that a person is confronted with a given situation and asked how to respond to that situation–in other words, how that person’s consciousness will respond to the facticity. The answer the person would likely give would be very different if, prior to asking the question, I removed a portion of the person’s brain known to handle say, critical thinking. What this means is that existence cannot precede essence–in order to have consciousness, one must have a functional brain, and the facticity of that brain–its genetic characteristics and environmental influences, will give one a nature that will limit one’s scope of response to a given situation or stimulus. It is as if one attempts to evaluate the properties of a metal using a lens made of the very same metal–one cannot know what impact the lens is having on the analysis and on the data, but one thing is certain, and that is that, unless the metal is absolutely perfect for use in lenses, the data is going to be both inaccurate and useless.

This is not to say that a person cannot choose to view a situation differently in accordance with existentialist teaching, but it does mean that the extent to which a person can view a situation differently or take personal responsibility for behaviour is dependent upon that given person’s nature. In other words, ability to, from time to time transcend one’s nature must, inevitably, come from a nature that permits occasional self-transcendence. Existentialism is not metaphysical truth, but people can be of a nature such that they are inclined to ethically aspire to it.

This has grave implications. Because existentialism and ethic of personal responsibility appeal to some people due to their nature, those people embrace existentialism and personal responsibility and expect others to do so. Their existentialism by definition precludes them from recognising or acknowledging that non-existentialists are not of a nature such that they can embrace or practise existentialism. This leads to unrealistic expectations on the part of existentialists. Their own seeming transcendence of their nature is in fact an expression of their nature, but they nonetheless expect other people to be able to do the very same thing despite lacking natures favourable to self-transcendence. The typical existentialist response to the existence of these inherently non-existentialist individuals is one of condemnation–their unwillingness to take personal responsibility is deemed an intellectual or moral failing, when in fact it is a consequence of their nature, as immutable as the existentialist’s own ability to decide to see a situation or a fact in a different light. A person inclined to self-transcendence is every bit as locked into that behaviour as a person who is disinclined is locked into disinclination.

What is the result? The widespread belief by those with the inherent natural psychological ability to overcome difficult upbringings or unfavourable genetic backgrounds that those who don’t have failed to take responsibility and are themselves deficient. This leads to a lack of sympathy and a lack of compassion, and our political policies reflect the dominance of the existentialist ideology. Those who are poor are assumed to be lacking in virtue or initiative due to incompetence, immorality, or irresponsibility rather than a nature and upbringing that not only makes success difficult, but makes choosing to transcend said nature and upbringing difficult, if not biologically and psychologically impossible.

This existentialist belief that denies nature altogether either denies neuroscience and asserts that consciousness comes from something immaterial or requires that our brains act independently of their own structure. In either case, it is extremely unreasonable, and leads to equally unreasonable consequential beliefs that require the impossible from one’s fellow man. It is self-delusive and a philosophical dead end. It leads to a total misunderstanding of the nature of man and of man’s possibilities. It would be wise to put it aside and resume the age old discussion of what elements in man’s nature are most critical in understanding what man’s limits are and how man can best organise societies and projects in consequence of  and in accordance with those limits. It is no more sensible to reject man’s behavioural limits than it is to reject man’s inability to fly or subsist underwater. Better to recognise those limits and devise tools and structures that help us to surmount them than to jump off of cliffs and hope to will ourselves to survive the splat.

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Existentialism is a philosophy whose popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109). The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. However, much can be gleaned from the original words of existentialist thinkers that can apply to the state of an existentialist education.

Keywords: Absurd Life; Anxiety; Authentic; Existential Moment; Existentialism; Kierkegaard; Knowledge; Pre-existential Period; Process of Learning

Overview

Existence Precedes Essence

Existence precedes essence. We make ourselves, we create our essence; this expression encompasses the major theory behind the existentialist philosophy. Its popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Several existentialist philosophers have impacted the thinking that supports the tenets of this philosophy. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109).

There is some question as to whether existentialism can really be called a philosophy because it lacks the systematic school of thought that other philosophies such as Idealism, Realism, or Pragmatism possess. However, there are common traits that encompass what many great thinkers perceive to be a philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of human beings (Noddings, 1995). Its major principle is that existence precedes essence. Thus, one's existence comes first, and then one defines him or herself through the choices he or she makes and the actions that evolve out of these choices. One is born and THEN he or she develops into who he or she will become as a person (Noddings, 1995). To existentialists, the world is

… an indifferent phenomenon, which, while it may not be antagonistic to human purposes, is nonetheless devoid of personal meaning… in this world, each person is born, lives, chooses his or her course and creates the meaning of his or her own existence (Gutek, 2009, p. 101).

Connecting Elements of Existential Thought

Existentialism is best illustrated by the common elements of thought attributed to existentialist thinkers. One is the thought that we are free from all external elements. Although we have a past, this past does not factor into the present moment of our life. External elements are, or one's past life is, only important if one chooses to make them important (Noddings, 1995). Another connection is the concept of responsibility. While one is free to make one's own choices, each person is responsible for what choices he makes. As Noddings suggests, one cannot "give away [his or her] freedom" to outside agents such as "the state, to parents, to teachers, to weaknesses, to the past, and to environmental conditions" (p. 18).

Of importance to the existentialist is the common message that "every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity" (Noddings, 1995, p. 18). While we know that there is a world full of reality, to the existentialist, this reality only becomes such when one is a basic part of it. Noddings states that "reality lies in [everyone's] experience and perception of the event rather than the isolated event" (p. 18). Noddings relates the example of the perception of two people listening to a speech:

… two men may hear the same speech, the same words, the same voice. One man's reality may be that the speaker is a political demagogue, for the other man the reality is that the speaker is an awaited political savior (p. 18).

According to existentialists, one must rely upon oneself and a relationship to those around him or her. One must possess a self-realization that one must relate to others, as he or she "lives out [his or her] life span in an adamant universe" (Nodding, 1995, p. 19). One is "thrown into the universe in which there is no fixed course of action, nor final structure of meaning" (McLemee, 2003, p. 1). Even though one is part of an adamant universe, one becomes the subject of his or her own life, a unique and idiosyncratic being. Nodding (1995) explains a basic concept of existentialism, that "people are not thrown into the world with a nature…only by planning, reflecting, choosing and acting, people can make themselves" (p. 59). To Greene (1973), a person only passes through life once and therefore must begin creating his or her own identity. In other words, people are born with no true identity or sense of self; they construct themselves over time. One can do this by taking "responsible action for the sake of wholeness, to correct lacks in concrete situations and thus alter themselves in the light of some projected ideal" (p. 261).

Knowledge is said "to be the way a [person] comes in touch with [his or her] world, puts questions to it, transforms its component parts into signs and tools, and translates [his or her] findings in words." This person uses this knowledge to make choices and determine future actions. Knowledge is used "to clarify and to open up a life" (Greene, 1973, p. 137). Through knowledge, one builds a life day to day.

Rather than illustrating their messages through argumentation and persuasion, as other philosophies have done, existentialists use the venue of stories to propagate their message. They do this because they believe that "life is not the unfolding of a logical plan; one cannot argue from trustworthy premises what a life should be like or how it should be lived…meaning is created as we live our lives reflectively." Stories personify the reflective experience and provide accounts of "the human struggle for meaning" (Nodding, 1995, p. 62). Characters generally face a life of "angst, anxiety and alienation in an absurd universe" (Gutek, 2009, p. 100).

Existentialism

The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. The mission of existentialism "analyzes the basic character of human existence and calls the attention of [people] to their freedom" (Wingo, 1965, p. 419). However, much can be gleaned from the original words of thinkers that apply to the state of an existentialist education, as education has come to be seen as "a foundation of human progress" (Park, 1968, p. 299). Furthermore, a "careful" understanding of existentialism reveals "strong qualitative ties which provide a framework for understanding the roles individuals play, and how they struggle with those roles in educational institutions" (Duemer, 2012). A few modern philosophers, including Van Cleve Morris and George Kneller, have written extensively, applying existential thought to education.

In an existentialist school, individualism must be "the center of educational endeavor" (Knight, 1998, p. 77). Van Cleve Morris (1968) sees education as a way "to awaken awareness in the learner," with the task of education falling chiefly on secondary schools at a time when schools provide "occasions and circumstances for the awakening and intensification of awareness" (Park, 1968, p. 300). He says that prior to puberty (a time called the Pre-Existential Period), children are not really aware of the human condition or yet conscious of their personal identity and should learn the basics of education. After puberty, young adolescents experience their Existential Moment, when they become more aware of themselves in relation to the world (Gutek, 2009). To Morris, school should be concerned with developing "that integrity in [students] necessary to the task of making personal choices of action, and taking personal responsibility for these choices, whether the culture smiles or frowns" (1968, p. 313).

School policy that supports the existentialist philosophy focuses on the individual student, as teachers enter the "private world" of the student. The here and now life experiences are more important than the messages from...