Tuesday, February 19, 2013

existentialism

When I used to hear the word "existentialism", I used to think of some ultra progressive, lofty and leftist philosophical concept. I had heard it defined ultra simplistically, in that was the idea that basically life is meaningless and we therefore should do whatever it is that makes us happy. After truly studying it, I realize my previous conception of existentialism was wildly different from it's actually principles and characteristics. Now I see existentialism as a rigid philosophy, one that holds humans entirely responsible for their actions, and that shows little sympathy toward the human condition. Existentialism feels hyper-rational: you are your choices, that is that. You always have a choice. I happen to disagree. I think that where, when and whatever situation you are born into influences who you are. I think of slaves in the antebellum south, jews in fascist europe, and incredibly poor people in third world countries today. Do they have true freedom to be the person they want to be? Not everyone has the power to choose.

4 comments:

Tyler Dean said...

I agree, for I too was misled in my original understanding of existentialism. I really didnt even know what to think about it; all i knew was that it was very confusing and I really did not like it that much. After learning more clearly, I sort of understand where Sartre and Camus are coming from in their ideas. I agree that everyone is faces with a lot of choices in life, but i also feel like some things really cannot be controlled by the individual. Sartre would say that, for example, ending up in prison because of the faulty judicial system would somehow be a result of a choice you made in life. I would say, however, that you were simply unlucky in your situation and that it was the court, not you, that made the mistake to put you in jail.

Laura N said...

Perhaps even if a Jew born in Nazi Germany, or a black person born into slavery, or an impoverished person is still presented with choices that determine their essence and who they are. Certainly their choices are limited because society or their situation constrains their full potential, but they might be faced with choices, such as what attitude to have regarding their situation, which can determine their essence and who they are as a person. Perhaps according to existentialists, no matter what situation a person is in, they choose how to face it, what attitude to face it with and what they should do to help the others around them that share their struggle.

wkuehne said...

I agree that many people, including myself, have misunderstood existentialism. However, I do agree with existentialists that everyone always has a choice. The choices presented to people who are born into unfortunate circumstances are far less desirable than the choices presented to someone like myself, but a choice is still there. I was reading a book called Sergio de Mello who helped repatriate Cambodians into their homes after the Khmer Rouge had massacred many of their fellow countrymen. Sergio believed that the Cambodians deserved a choice-a tough choice, but a choice. The Cambodians weren't poor, that would be an understatement- they had absolutely nothing, yet they still had a choice to go back to land controlled by the Khmer Rouge, and some did, or to go back to land controlled by the UN which would mean citizens would get less land, and less material, but more stability. Another example would be if someone held a gun to my head and asked me if I believed in God. I would have many choices-physical ones, like whether to run, fight, or stay still and more mental choices-whether to admit to believing in god or not. The situation is not perfect, but I still have a choice. Perhaps all of the choices would lead to the same result, but I would still have a choice.

Ben Bonner said...

I think there's something liberating in existentialist philosophy, and I think that if you look at some of the world's greatest success stories, it doesn't sound that far fetched. I think it's inspiring to see people like Dhirubhai Ambani who were born into impoverished families and were able to completely transcend their situation. While existentialism does hold that life is absurd and ultimately pointless, there seems to be a certain optimism in existentialism in that it affirms that we are whoever we choose to be and that we have the ability to choose anything.