Theism, Atheism and Existentialism
How Existentialism Fulfills or Does Not Fulfill Its Promise to Place Human Existence at the Center of Philosophy
Existentialist authors perceive themselves as propagating a philosophy that was initially foreshadowed by Blaise Pascal’s denunciation of Cartesian rationalism, which attempted to define human existence in terms of the individual’s lucid capabilities. Pascal perceived human being as an essential paradox, a conflict between mind and body. Kierkegaard is recognized as the author of contemporary existentialism, and he shared Pascal’s reasoning concerning the intrinsic paradox that is manifest in human existence. For existentialist philosophers, the fundamental matter is to discover what is distinctive to the individual, instead of considering the individual as an expression of a general nature. Existentialists therefore incline towards anti-essentialisms in denying that exist essential elements that determine the existence of the individual. A number of existentialists go further to argue that the world is absurd and lacks essence, and therefore unqualified of being made sense of. Existentialists such as Camus and Sartre argue that human existence is made meaningless and irrational by the irrevocability of death. The existentialists’ focus on human existence, and a renunciation of any meaningful explanation of what entails an essential or absolute objective for human existence, they underscore human sovereignty and responsibility, and argue that the primary objective in relation to that sovereignty and responsibility is to exist authentically. The existentialists purse a resistance to empiricism, as well as rationalism, and therefore define their standpoint by their opposition to the central dispositions of contemporary philosophy (Dreyfus & Wrathall, 2006, pp. 3-5).
In discussing whether existentialism fulfills or does not fulfill its promise to place human existence at the center of philosophy, it is important to explore the concept of existentialism from the perspective of a number of its propagators. Barrett (1962, p.13.) expresses an important fragment of the existentialist discourse where he asserts that the central focus of the existential theorists is the distinct experience of the individual. The attention on the individual is highlighted by other existentialism authors such as Macquarrie (1972, p. 14) where he argues that he core theme in existentialism is the existent in the entire being of human existing. In this context, the subject of the individual becomes therefore a philosophy detached from the serial mass, though it does not become a new solipsism. Solipsism implies the concept of how the individual human being interacts with other humans or the way he interrelates in social life, and his struggle to shape an authentic existence. However, in Appignanesi and Zarate (2001, p. 14), in exploring existentialism from the perspective of Kierkegaard's response to the Hegelian ‘totalitarian’ and ‘absolutist’ system, Kierkegaard endeavors to do away with individual attributions. He argues that the individual requires fighting against conformity in his struggle towards establishing an authentic society whereby the contemporary European ought to remove himself from the defeating process of civilization and history to develop into a unique individual. According to Kierkegaard, the individual requires rising above the defeating and conformity of social existence in order to find his authentic measure.
In Guido de Ruggiero (2004, p. 13), Guido argues that the existentialist handling of the topic of the individual in attempting to place human existence at the center of philosophy is significantly discordant. The author explains that the existentialist viewpoint presents an irrational discourse concerning the individual, as well as a contingent constituent of existence through lifting the individual to a dominant position and transforming the individual into the determinant of all morals. In this context, the anguish of the individual, his anxiety, his suffering, his setback, his fall into nothing or into existence beyond, have been considered to be the absolute criterion of judgment, devoid of any thought being afforded to what the individual essentially achieves in his short-lived life. Guido’s criticism of the existentialist exploitation of the topic of the individual is derived from the Hegelian perspective of impersonal objectivity, emphasizing the profoundly anti-essentialism of existentialist philosophy.
Berdyaev (1960, p.54) attempts to explore the existentialist promise to place human existence at the center of philosophy through explore existentialism from the perspective of different existentialists. The author explains that the conception of human existence must be based on the idea of personality. In this context, Nietzsche's Ubermensch concept depicts his understanding of human personality, as well as the prospects of self-transcendence. Similarly, Kierkegaard's work, ‘The Sickness unto Death’ describes human personality in the perspective of the body to soul and the soul and body to God. While Tillich; a Christian existentialist, in exploring the various personality categories and their reactions to despair in his work, his primary concern was how the human being can be authentically man. These endeavors by Nietzsche, Tillich, and many other existentialists demonstrate the existentialism’s interest in the human being as an individual, the human being in his freedom, and his mission to assert himself devoid of adherence to any system of philosophy. This school of thought inclines towards the postulation that systems of philosophy put emphasis on the universal while disregarding the individual.
All existentialists converge at the point where they attempt to place human existence at the center of philosophy. This takes various inclinations such the focus on human dilemma, alienation, detachment from his deeper and innermost self, from his contemporaries, as well as from nature and the world. In this viewpoint, existentialists aspire to contemplate and address the issue relating to what it entails in being a human. They are pitted against the conventional thinking that speculates, and seek to counter the systems that have disregarded specific fundamental problems concerning human existence. According to Appignanesi and Zarate (2001, p. 5), existentialists such as Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers and Marcel differ with science and oppose mass movements, and in the recent past they have deplored logical positivism, as well linguistic analysis. On the other hand, existentialist thinkers can to be acknowledged for bringing into center of philosophy a number of contemporary concerns regarding human existence and also for being sensitive to the incongruity between action and thought. The existentialists have differed with various philosophical that have been presented by philosophers such as Engels, Hegel and Marx, alleging that their solutions should be considered as futile towards meeting the demands of the present-day man.
Existentialism posits that man has developed into an impersonal, as well as detached being as a result of his feelings of disenfranchisement since the last century. It follows that, while the Industrial Revolution is acknowledged for creating great cities, the mass movements, as well as the specialization of knowledge owing to the development of technology and science, it should be noted that these underlying forces are responsible for the human predicament. However, this renunciation of objectivity by the existentialists that rejects and suppresses unique human traits is not recognized by all. The existentialists have repudiated the significance, and at times have brought about irrational disapproval of nature, science, the physical world, as well as several valid insights and matters of other forms of philosophy. In this context, critics of existentialism ask; if rationality cannot resolve the issue of human existence, then would there be any warranty that passion on its own will provide answers to human existence. Therefore, in attempting to place human existence at the center of philosophy, the existentialists must acknowledge that reason must not be discredited or demeaned.
In Barrett (ch.4 p. 83), the author asserts that reason, as the godly element in man, and detached, is of a different nature, from the animal in him. The human being must turn to the objective standards of truth and morality to settle disagreements of opinion, as well as key differences concerning different elements of the world. It is incongruous to accord importance to a certain disposition or a set of moods as the indication or hint to understanding existence and the world. Such is the fundamental existentialist view, and it should be considered as absolutely intolerable and significantly treacherous. Indeed, such a prominence on feelings of anxiety and trepidation will only generate a sense of meaninglessness and emptiness. However, existentialism may be appreciated for pointing man’s contemplation towards serious frustrations, paradoxes, and discrepancies of contemporary human existence. In this background, existentialism has to an extent fulfilled, as well as failed to fulfill its promise to place human existence at the center of philosophy.
How Does Sartre’s Claim That “Existence Precedes Essence” Support This Proposition in Both Theistic and Atheistic Thinkers?
Barrett (ch.5 p. 102), Sartre contemporary existentialism has propagated the proposition that existence precedes essence. The implication of this thesis may not be difficult to understand if considered in the perspective that man exists and transforms himself into what he becomes. In this context the individual essence of man, or his nature, develops from of his existence, and therefore it is appropriate to claim that existence precedes essence. It follows that, man does not hold a static essence that is given to him ready-made; on the contrary, he develops his individual nature from his freedom, as well as the historical circumstances wherein he is positioned. Ortega, a contemporary existentialism philosopher asserts that man does not have a nature, but has a history. This theory is one of the principal attributes in which the human being differs from objects, which have static essences or natures, which are irreversibly what they are. This implies that unlike man, objects to not develop into anything else in their nature outside what they initially are. However differently the different existentialists may position this theory, they concur that it is a fundamental argument in their analysis of the human being. Sartre asserts his point as relating only to the human being; thus implying that it is only with the human that it appears to him to bear any importance. Regardless of whether existence precedes essence or not in objects or whether the opposite is true is a problem that would barely seem to be of much importance, since an object at any instant is always exactly what it is, and it does not make logic to raise the issue when existence and essence precisely overlap.
Kaufmann (1956, p. 295) asserts the theist existentialist position that, if existence precedes essence, it implies that man would never be capable of explaining his actions by reference to an explicit human nature. This means determinism does not have a role in the existence of man since he is free. Kaufmann’s assertion is supported by Jaspers, a theist existentialist, where he describes the essence of existentialism as free choice. He argues that man’s choice of what he aspires to become is not linked to mind; consequently, it must not be linked to reasons or proof. Yet, every man is responsible for their choices. In this perspective, existence is described as an achievement or ascension, and therefore man is supposed to transcend himself in this manner. Therefore, man can only exist in an evolving process, which is molded through choice, into a superior being. Hence man chooses his essence through choosing what he aspires to turn out to be. This is in reality the basis why existence precedes essence, given that, in order to choose, man must exist first.
In atheist existentialism God does not exist, but on the contrary, there is a being through whom existence precedes essence. This implies that such a being exists prior to being defined through any philosophy, and this being is human reality. In this perspective man first exists, experiences himself and afterwards materializes in the world, in order that he may be defined. In this context, atheist existentialism posits that human nature is nonexistent, considering that God does not exist to conceive that human existence. In this perspective, man conceives himself, and afterwards thrusts himself into existence. Man does not develop into anything outside what is essentially prearranged, nor into what he aspires to become (Macquarrie, 1972, p. 85).
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