What is my purpose? Why am I here?
These are common questions asked by people of all generations, geographies, and statuses. It is normal to question the meaning of one’s existence and wonder what will happen after this earthly life. While many turn to religion to answers to such queries, some seek satisfaction in another direction: existentialism. The existentialist philosophy is tricky because it is multi-faceted. Each existentialist philosopher put his or her own spin on the school of thought. While most existentialists are atheists, some believe in a god, making the concept even more challenging to unpack. Here is a quick overview of existentialist thought:
Existentialism is “a [mostly contemporary] philosophical movement that stresses the individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for making meaningful, authentic choices in a universe seen as purposeless or irrational . . . and is opposed to philosophical rationalism and empiricism” (“Existentialism”). Now, since this movement focuses on the human person as a self-determining agent, we can conclude that existentialists believe in free will. For a refresher on that concept, refer back to Fate, Determinism, and Free Will. In addition, since many (in not most) existentialists are atheists, a belief in fate is out of the question for them since fate demands the belief in some kind of higher power.
Now that we understand a little bit more about existentialism, let’s take a look at another video explanation of the philosophy:
Since existentialism is considered to be in opposition to rationalism and empiricism, let’s take a quick look at those philosophies so we can adequately differentiate between them.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, rationalism is “the belief or principle that actions and opinions should be based on reason rather than on emotion or religion.” This statement should be interesting to us in that we have studied the necessity to apply reason to religion. Rationalism separates the two distinctly. Here’s a video explainer of the rationalist philosophy:
“Empiricism [is] the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience” (Quinton). Let’s take a look at an explanation:
So, since existentialism is a philosophy that opposes two schools of thought which support reason and experience, we must wonder what philosophical approach existentialism actually supports. “Existentialism is a catch-all term for those philosophers who consider the nature of the human condition as a key philosophical problem and who share the view that this problem is best addressed through ontology [the nature of being]” (Burnham).
Existentialism deals with the free-acting human individual thinking, acting, feeling, and living in an irrational, absurd, insignificant universe. The insignificance of the universe is based in part on the futility of the short lives of its human occupants. Since life is short, and seen by existentialists as pointless, focus on uniqueness and passion takes precedence over anxieties.
Existentialists believe the mind cannot exist without the body, thus the futility of our short lives on earth: Once the body shuts down, the mind ceases to exist. Some feel anxiety of over the dread of death and its inevitability. Others struggle to be the best they can within these confines.
There are two reactions one can have to the existentialist philosophy, which became widely popular shortly after World War II. One option is to focus on the futility of life and be depressed about out it because there is no point to our existence since it is short and leads only to nonexistence. The other position one can take is that of optimism. Since we are only here for a short time, we might as well make the best of it. We should have fun and do good things, making a positive impact on the world during our short visit.
Burnham, Douglas and George Papandreopoulos. “Existentialism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu. N.D.
“Existentialism.” Dictionary.com. LLC. dictionary.com. 2022.
“Rationalism.” The Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. dictionary.cambridge.org. 2022.
Quinton, Anthony M. “Empiricism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. britannica.com. N.D.