When discussing Existentialism, it is worth saying that it is not a homogeneous school, as each of its representatives has his own voice. SØren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are among the most famous philosophers who are considered to be related to the camp of existentialists. This group of philosophers is united by the common idea of being in opposition to abstract rationalist philosophy taught be Hegel. In a broader context, it is a protest against the whole ideology of Enlightenment and the whole classic German philosophy. However, this protest is rather depressive than aggressive, which goes in alignment with the whole concept of existentialism. An individual of the philosophy is tired and alienated, lost but has some kind of dignity in realizing that freedom is inevitable. "Broadly speaking, we can say that the common interest which unites Existentialist philosophers is the interest in human freedom. They are all of them interested in the world considered as the environment of man, who is treated as a unique object of attention, because of his power to choose his own courses of action." (Warnock 1).There is a difference in how this concept is treated in Existentialism and in other philosophies. Not only it considers freedom as an idea but encourages living up to it and making it a daily practice. Another aspect of Existentialism is a purpose of philosophic writings. They are not created only for the sake of interest but in order to persuade the readers and make them change their lives. The philosophers want to prove that the previous life which a person used to live is full of illusion, so disillusionment is one of the main goals of Existentialism. This disillusionment can be painful because it means accepting certain things that can be hard to bear: that God is dead, that nobody cares for humans, that life is meaningless. However, as a paradox, these bitter discoveries bring freedom, when a person realizes that one can only count on oneself and take responsibility for any actions. Existentialists "want the facts about human freedom, as they conceive them, to be not merely accepted, but absorbed by each person for himself, so that when he has absorbed them, his whole view of his life will be different." (Warnock 2). This fact explains why the main philosophers of Existentialism were also writers. They chose the form, which would be most understandable to the audience.
SØren Kierkegaard does not exactly belong to the school of existentialism but he is often believed to be its founder, or a father. He was the first to introduce the concept of existence as a key one in his philosophy. So, attention is shifted from the world to an individual, and from thinking to living through. In his philosophy he focuses on the concept of illusion, which can be misleading for people. In the course of living people experience some events that are seen by them as revelations. Indeed, they can even think for some time that they have reached enlightenment but then they face the fact that this is just an illusion. According to Kierkegaard, it is important for a person realize the presence of illusions at each stage of development and not to be much involved with them. Instead, he suggests making a step each time illusion of old values is discovered, and start a new stage, with new values. This step is hard to take but one has to because a person’s free will is the only tool of progress. To fear is normal but it is also vital to face one’s fear and act regardless of it. In this case, rejection of illusions means a transfer to a new stage.
Another aspect considered by Kierkegaard is the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity. In contrast to previously popular classical philosophies, which claim that reality is objective, he does not agree with this statement. By objectivity he means a certain set of rules that shape reality and can shape human life too externally. Kierkegaard used to be a devoted Christian, which meant accepting values proposed to him. In contrast, subjective existence presupposes freedom from external ideas and taking decisions independently, based on each and every individual moment of life. He believes that a person is dead and is a slave when he or she leans only on external rules. Life has to be spontaneous but it takes courage and freedom to make it one.
Kierkegaard speaks about subjective knowledge, which has several characteristics: “First, it cannot be passed on from one person to the next, nor added to by different researchers…Second, what is known subjectively always has the nature of a paradox. Therefore subjective knowledge is identical with faith…Third, subjective knowledge is concrete, not abstract”. (Warnock 9). In this way Existentialism is different from other philosophers. In fact, it is not necessary to be a formal philosopher to be Existentialist, it is not necessary to read books or attend lectures on the topic. The main thing is to live and receive a certain experience, the more intense it is, the more conscious a person becomes.
The philosopher also unveils the truth about the concept of freedom. First of all, it always takes a private experience to learn any aspect of life, no matter how many times it has been described in the books. Bookish knowledge leads to objectivity, which is a negative term in the light of Existentialism. When absorbing someone else’s truth as an instruction, a person cannot be either happy or content, because he or she has adopted the truth artificially, so they cannot merge together and lead to a quality change.
Jean Paul Sartre is clearly an important figure in Existentialism, and he generally follows its core ideas. However, he also has his own focus and his own contribution to the movement. Thus, he introduced several concepts and ideas which were accepted by other philosophers. Nothingness and freedom are the two points of his special philosophical interest, which he explored in his works. His book Being and Nothingness is manifesto of not only him but also the whole movement. The idea of nothingness is special to Existentialism, and it was introduced earlier by Heidegger. There are two meanings or two contexts, in which the notion can be used. First of all, it deals with the breach that exists between a person and the world, or between a person’s consciousness and things which he wants to know about or has certain vision. Nothingness then goes in alignment with an idea that the world cannot be known in an objective way. Besides, this gap make a person alienated from others, because it illustrates that nothing and no one is as it seems to be. This means that no one can hope for understanding, because people live in illusion about each other. "The second sense of 'Nothingness' was that almost of 'futility', of the vanishing and evaporating of objects in the world. Without an awareness of nothingness in this sense, a man could not begin to move from inauthentic to authentic existence." (Warnock 93). So, there are two meanings of nothingness, and Sartre is the one who uses the first one primarily.
According to Sartre’s philosophy, everything is divided for ‘being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” The first one refers to inanimate objects, while the second describes a human whose characteristic is having consciousness. Nothingness is essential because it determines freedom. Being-for -itself is separated from other objects by nothingness, which makes it independent. Being-in-itself has an empty space inside, which is not negative. This is rather a positive emptiness because it makes a person free from external rules. One can fill this emptiness by different content every moment, and this is a matter of personal will each time. Sartre is very interested in how communication between a person and the world is carried out. In fact, his ideas about that are quite ambiguous because he is not sure himself whether a person is just an observer who perceives reality or the one who learns from it. Of course, existentialists prefer the second type of a person because it reflects their notion of being alive. Existential knowledge obtaining is closely related to personal experience, while being an observer is often a result of blind following the rules. Anguish, absurdity and nausea are the basic reactions of a human in the course of interaction between a person and the world. As it is easy to notice, the range of emotions is not broad and includes those which are either neutral or negative.
Speaking about freedom, Sartre points out that a person is condemned to be free, which shows the ambiguity of human role in relation to the rest of the world. Freedom is not freedom of spirit but freedom of will, so this is why it is active. It helps a person become a creator of his own self by making choices. A human is in fact a project of his own, and at this point being-in-itself and being-for-itself become one.
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