Existentialism

Living Authentically - Your Choices And Your Responsibility

Rising above your circumstances and framing your own meaning in events

Existentialist Plumbers Collective


What Is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a movement as much as it is a philosophy and is grounded in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the 19th century.

Existentialism:

  1. Views human existence as having no meaning other than that which you choose to give it, and 
  2. Is about living life authentically by making your own choices for which you alone accept total responsibility.

It gained traction and became fashionable in the mid-20th century. This was the post-war era of the rejection of absolutism, and a period of systemic challenges to the political and societal status quo. It was also the time of the emergence of the “swinging sixties”.

Existentialism provided a language for what was seen as the problem of life as a human being faced with a bewildering array of choices, in a world of absurdity devoid of any inherent meaning, and for which you hold total responsibility.

The leading lights of this modern movement were the French writers and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.


    “Existentialism is an attitude that recognizes the unresolvable confusion of the the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar…

    The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept."[Robert Solomon].









Existentialism - Key Point Summary





       Existentialism:


  • Is about living authentically by making your own choices for which you alone accept total responsibility
  • Is also about rising above your circumstances which is seen as transcendence - this gives authentic meaning and can act as agent of change to those circumstances
  • Views human existence as having no meaning other than that which you choose to give it
  • Rejects the idea of a divine [or any other] predetermined plan for your life - i.e. there is no plan except the one you make
  • Rejects systems that are absolute - i.e. there are no absolute all encompassing explanations for how things are and why
  • Sees existence as preceding essence i.e. the point and purpose of your life is the result of your choices and actions, there is no inherent design
  • Acknowledges that things are weirder than we think and thus see the intrinsic “absurdity of the world”
  • Recognises the “anguish of our freedom” - to make choices for which we are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to make and the angst and dread that accompanies that anguish.
  • Acknowledges that since there is no human essence found in conventional reality that is sufficiently robust to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition.
  • Advocates living in good “faith” to our freedom to choose and in so doing live authentically
  • Accepts the fluidity of existence
  • Sees the sense of self as defined by the by the "look" from  the "other" [person] as a cause of self-reflective consciousness [especially pertinent in the context of the post-millennial preoccupation with social media and a self defined by likes and other forms of social approval]








Existentialism - The Big Ideas


[1] Existence Precedes Essence  - i.e. We start life as a blank slate



Sartre argued that one of the foundational ideas of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. In simple terms this means that you start life "as a clean slate".

Therefore - existentialism postulates  - no external agency such as God, religion, state, society or family can have a predetermined view of who you really are and the shape and nature of your place in life, it is up to you to make your own conscious choices.

This perspective flies in 180 degree opposition to the classical philosophical view - traceable back to Aristotle - that essence precedes existence, that is to say that everything has a predetermined set of qualities that define what it is, and from the point of conception or inception that thing will develop into its predetermined - or encoded - shape, place and function.


Commentary:



    "...existentialism makes some interesting observations that contribute to your understanding of life, and how you navigate your journey through it; but it undermines these ideas by adopting a dramatic and petulant posture based on clever word play that has little substance when seen from wider angles."








[2] The Absurd i.e. Life is tough and apparently meaningless so we will call it absurd


In the face of the apparent randomness, injustice, unfairness and meaninglessness of life, existentialism views life as absurd.

The existentialist position on the absurd is echoed in the cry of the incalculable sufferings of countless people throughout the mists of time:

"Why me?"

"Why my child/partner/parent/lover...?"

"WHHYYYYY....!?"

Existentialism rejects the idea that this somehow must be the will of God/Joss/Fate and understands that because of the world's absurdity, anything can happen to anyone at any time and a tragic event could cause any of us to face this absurdity.

The existentialist therefore concludes that in the face of all this the only valid response is to see meaning where we choose to see it.


Commentary:

  • The chaos, despair and destructiveness of the world as we often experience it is undeniable and frequently inexplicable in its randomness. Therefore to conclude that it is absurd is understandable but frankly naive.
  • That we can not see a meaning, point or purpose does not mean there isn't one, it simply means that it is beyond our grasp i.e. we don't know and we don't know what we don't know, nor do we have the wherewithal to determine how we could know.
  • So, rather than adopting the petulant posture and stating "it's absurd" the more reflective perspective is one of humility that says "I don't know" and that has the grace to accept that "I don't know".
  • The existentialist conclusion, that the meaning of an event or situation is what we choose it to be, is a practical and empowering position to adopt, and one which I support.
  • However, the framing of that meaning needs to be exercised with discernment and care, and aligned with your values and sense of purpose in life.
  • To assign a meaning based on wish fulfillment or magical thinking, whilst gratifying in the short term may cause more  damage than you are seeking to mitigate -in the longer term.





[3] Facticity and Transcendence i.e."Rising above your circumstances"


Facticity refers to the quantitative aspects of your life such as your age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, life situation, where you live and what you do for a living; and transcendence refers to the qualitative aspects of your life which are your view of yourself in those facts.

Facticity describes and labels your situation, role and circumstances but it does not define you - unless you choose to see yourself that way.

Sartre gave the example of a waiter who epitomises the perfect waiter in all aspects. So whilst he is fulfilling the role of waiter he sees himself, and he defines himself, as a waiter. When he leaves work, if he still identifies himself and behaves as the perfect waiter he is self-identifed with the circumstances [facticity] of his life.

But, if he puts off that persona and becomes "himself", and thus acts and behaves in a different way, he has transcended the facts of his working life.

You are defined, or expressed, by your spirit, by how you see yourself, the view you take of the facts of your life.

The ability to take such a stance is what existential philosophers call “transcendence.”


Commentary:

  • For a non-academic lay person, such as myself, facticity is a hard word to understand, or to be more accurate most of the technical explanations of this concept seemed to me to confuse and make it unclear. Substituting the word quantitative [with the objective aspect of measurable facts] and the word qualitative [with the subjective element of self description] made more sense to me.
  • This is an empowering perspective.
  • It is in the transcendent dimension that you truly differentiate yourself.
  • It is in the transcendent dimension that you can potentially, over time, change the facts of your life.






[4] Authenticity  - i.e. the quality of being real and genuine



To existentialists the idea of living an authentic existence is important.

In simple terms this means making your own choices about how you will live and not allowing yourself to be dictated to, or your choices to be determined by, external third parties such as the church, society or your family.

Authenticity to the existentialist is all about "creating oneself" and living in accordance with this free choice.

In contrast, the inauthentic is the denial of living in accordance with one's freedom by, for example, convincing yourself that some form of determinism is true, or where you act as "you should". This would mean making choices based on what "someone like me" is expected to do.

Existentialism allows that there are circumstances where you make choices that conform to the societal norm e.g. taking care of an aged parent or sick relative

The important thing is the attitude you take towards your own freedom and responsibility and the extent to which you act in accordance with this freedom.

In other words making a conscious choice to conform to a societal norm because you choose to, because it is in alignment with a personal value system, rather than a blind adherence to societal expectations.


Commentary:

  • The key point is that you are making a conscious choice knowing that you could defy societal norm and expectation but choose not to do so.
  • Alternatively, you do choose to defy societal norms and expectations and make choices that are authentic expressions of who you are, and that are in alignment with your values.







[5] "The Other" and "The Look" - i.e. Seeing myself and my
self-worth defined by how many likes I got on my last selfie posting on Instagram



In this point and the following two points we really get into the zone of existential posturing and tautological fancy foot-work, with self conscious word-play, this is classic Sartre territory!

As I noted above with facticity, as a non-philosopher/lay person wading through the tortuous mangling of the English language by philosophers to try figuring out what on earth Sartre meant by the "the other" and "the look" I found both painful and time wasting!

To be charitable to Sartre, he lived in an age before the rise of social media. Fortunately for us we have this as the perfect illustration of what I believe Sartre meant.

In simple terms, we have a view of ourselves that we feel is a true expression of how we are, and then someone comes along and observes us doing something [anything] and we become aware of their "look" and by implication their implied judgement, approval or disapproval of us and this changes how we see ourselves.

This used to be called "worrying about what other people think of us"!

In the social media age, the bar of the facticity of other people's lives is set so high that it can make you feel inadequate.

To make yourself feel better, and reaffirm your attractiveness you post pictures about your life and yourself.

These social media postings are of course curations of discrete packets of events that frame you in the best possible, most sexy and desirable light.

Then you wait for the likes! The more likes the better the outcome. You feel affirmed...until the next time...!

To change gear and use "Sartre" language:

"Seeing the self defined by the view of the other gives rise to a self-reflective consciousness..."


Commentary:

  • What Sartre describes is valid but it is about the behaviour of deeply insecure people who are neither secure nor comfortable in themselves.
  • Most successful people do not generally overly concern themselves with this, if they did, they wouldn't do what they do and enjoy the success that they do.
  • Most good leaders have a similar outlook. They have to, to be a good leader.
  • The big take away on this point is to be more aware of the impact of your "look" in your interactions with other people and especially with those with whom you may be in some form of mentoring role or where you are in the role of a person of direct influence.
  • “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” [Mark Twain]






[6] "Angst" and "Dread" - i.e. stage fright at having to make a decision and live with the consequences...



"Existential angst" or existential dread, are terms commonly used by many existentialist thinkers.

The cause of this negative feeling is the fear of exercising your freedom of choice and a feeling of anxiety or, in worse cases, overwhelm at getting it wrong.

It is generally held to be a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility.

Existential angst/dread is an insecurity about facing the consequences of your actions.


Commentary:






[7] Despair i.e. conventional reality is so flaky the existentialist is unable to find security for his/her sense of identity and is thus in a state of perpetual despair...



In existentialism, despair is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity. For example an opera singer suffers from throat cancer and can longer sing may despair that she has lost her identity because she can no longer be what previously had defined her sense of being.

Of course existentialism take this one stage further and back into the realms of dramatic posturing and as Sartre suggests, since there is no human essence found in conventional reality that is sufficiently robust to constitute the individual's sense of identity, despair is a universal human condition.


Commentary:






How Does Existentialism Align With The Themes Of This Site?


The purpose of this site is to show you how to cope in tough times, and to provide you with the tools to do this successfully:

With this in mind, we have no interest in "shooting the breeze" and "chewing the fat" over philosophical ideas and psychological models and theories. This is not an undergraduate discussion forum.

Our focus is intensely practical. Is there something here of practical value that we include in our tool kit and apply in daily life?




[1] Key Themes Of Existentialism That Align With The Objectives Of This Site



  • Rising above your circumstances. You are not defined by the facts of your life. It is your human spirit that empowers you and brings a transcendent dimension to your life, and it is here that you truly differentiate yourself, and that over time change the facts of your life.

  • The power of framing. How you mentally characterize a situation has a profound impact on how you respond to it emotionally. Your decision to consciously ascribe the meaning of an event or situation, or of life in general, is an empowering position to adopt.

  • Living life authentically. Making your own conscious choices rather than doing what some external third party entity or belief system expects you to do is empowering. This does not mean that you will automatically reject others' expectations, it means that whatever decisions you make are your conscious choice.




[2] The Weaknesses Of Existentialism



# Rejecting "Total Truth" and ignoring "Partial Truth"


# Ignoring thinking skills and cognitive distortions

  • Knowing how to think is more important than knowing what to think.
  • Attempting to address the big and confusing questions in life without adequate and sufficient proficiency in thinking skills is like trying to grasp a bar of soap in a warm bath in the dark.
  • The human capacity for self-deception and miss-perception should never be underestimated. A working knowledge of the main cognitive biases is a prerequisite to applying thinking skills.


# Ignoring the limitations of language and beliefs

  • There are profound limitations to language and for all that we gain by being able to articulate a philosophical perspective with dexterous use of tautological fancy footwork we lose an equal if not greater amount of the full potential meaning of that perspective by the very process of articulating it.
  • An educated obsession with words ensures that the reader/listener confuses being informed about with having experience of.
  • There is always a context, and framing and agenda in the choice and use of words. For example, what I mean to say to you in this article and what you hear may not be the same thing!
  • A more resourceful perspective is to view belief systems as a guidance rather than, as presented, as an immutable certainty.
  • Beliefs, are there to serve a purpose and to be adapted, adjusted or released when that purpose is served.

# Rationality vs Gnosis - ignoring right brain and the heart

  • Rationality is only one [important] aspect of how we find meaning  and truth. The traditional scientific and metaphysical approach to this is thought based and uses intellect, rationality and logic etc.
  • There is a growing scientific acceptance of the noetic approach to research and discovery.
  • What if truth can't be fully known or understood using the faculties involved in scientific method?
  • What if we can can only know truth by experiencing it?
  • What if the heart is as good, or better, an indicator of truth as rationality?
  • What if the existentialists were looking in the wrong place with the wrong tools?


# Not recognising the limits of free choice

  • Free choice is a wonderful idea and the words roll of the tongue easily.
  • But whilst we may have a free choice in principle, in practice there are considerable limitations and restrictions on our free choice that are not fully recognised by existentialism.
  • The list includes but is not limited to the following: genetics, unconscious conditioning and resistance, personality types and thinking styles and the impact of the neurology of the brain


# No place for balance, wisdom, discernment and insight

  • Existentialism is good at making the big dramatic soundbite statements about existential angst, dread and despair but I have yet to discover what it has to offer in terms of tools and resources to help those suffering from angst, dread and despair...
  • The qualities and skills of a balanced perspective, wisdom and insight and especially discernment are hard earned and much needed.
  • It is these qualities that should be the foundation for authentic living and the exercising of free choice together with the robustness to be able accept and live with the responsibilities that come with those choices.


# Ownership & comprehension are precursors to rejection

  • Any fool can sound off and reject a belief system or a differing perspective, but the minimum prerequisite for an authentic rejection is a basic comprehension of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of that which is being rejected.
  • Unless you have held [owned] a belief and have developed a considerable comprehension of it you are not in a position of sufficient knowledge of the belief system to reject it. 
  • I fully accept that I may be guilty of this is my treatment of existentialism and if that is the case I will stand the challenge.




    Existentialism offers empowering perspectives which it undermines with intellectual arrogance and spiritual ignorance.





Resources:

The academic view of existentialism:

Stanford University Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

Easy to read view of existentialism:

Notre Dame University - College of Arts & Letters






Further reading:

Jean Paul Sartre

Simone De Beauvoir

Albert Camus

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