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  • Debayan Bhattacharya

Understanding Existentialism

Updated: Feb 3

By Debayan Bhattacharya


The idea of ‘meaning in a meaningless world’ invisibly pervades our understanding of pop culture today. The idea that the universe is a cold and dark place where everyone must discover their own meaning is an idea that all of us are familiar with at some level, but very few of us know the source of these fairly nascent ideas: Existentialism. Existentialism was revolutionary when it came into being, as it fundamentally challenged thousands of years of philosophical tradition by making a simple proposition: Existence precedes essence, not the other way around.

Some brief historical context would further illuminate the point. For a long time, philosophical discourse was captured by the idea of an ‘essence’, either by the divine or by Platonic ideals. Plato’s Theory of Forms posited the idea that every single object has a ‘Form’, or an essence. (Silvermann, 2003) The important thing about this essence is that predates the existence of the object i.e. the essence of something exists independent of and before the object itself. Existentialism challenged this idea by stating that the existence of a thing preceded its meaning, or that meaning was conferred by individuals. (Sartre, 1946) The idea took the philosophical idea took the world by fire, and even though the complexities of existentialism have been diluted and have been lost from popular discourse, the basic idea remains. This article will briefly discuss the key ideas of the philosophy, and then critically examine the veracity of these ideas.


Key Pillars of Existentialism

At the outset, it has to be mentioned that existentialism is not a tightly-knit, monolithic school of philosophy. There is considerable controversy over whether existentialism should be considered a cultural movement, a philosophical movement, or a mix of both. (Crowell, 2012) There is also confusion over whether existentialism holds any relevance today, since it arose in a specific historical context and was also later rendered nugatory in that context.

Despite this, existentialism has some clearly identifiable core ideals. The most striking is existentialism’s focus on the freedom of the individual and the finality and importance of death. In his celebrated Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre (Called the Father of Existentialism) briefly introduces existentialism. He states from the premise that the existence of humans is prior to any meaning that can be attributed to them. (Sartre, 1946) Unfortunately, life is also difficult and testing. This means that humans need recourse and external support, which is why they believe in deterministic ideologies. However, humans live in a universe that is deprived of meaning. While the idea that the world does not care for you is daunting, the flip side is that it allows infinite space for the individual constructs their own meaning and identity. Thus, the freedom of the individual is extremely important, since they are autonomous actors, and exercising their freedom is the only way for an individual to find meaning. (Sartre, 1946)

There are three key constituents of human life. The first is Anguish. Existentialism, though it is focussed on the individual, is not a tool for people to shirk their responsibility. Properly applied, existentialists must face anguish over their decisions, for their decisions impact the whole world. Existentialists must act on ‘behalf’ of the entire world, and must not do something they would disapprove of in others. This burden leads to anguish, which is the first idea. (Sartre, 1946) The second constituent is Abandonment. Humans exist without any a priori source of meaning, and thus they have been abandoned any source that could ever give them comfort and support. In this sense, people are “condemned to be free”- They are born against their will, abandoned, but have the liberty to make what they will of their lives. (Sartre, 1946) The final facet is Despair. (Sartre, 1946) Humans feel despair since there is no human nature they can rely on, no fountain of morality from which to extract meaning, and must make meaning on their own. This is a terrifying prospect. However, existentialism allows people to focus on what matters to make morality: Reality, and the probability of events occurring. (Sartre, 1946)

This basic understanding of existentialism is deepened by the idea of the Absurd. The most prominent example of this is in Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. ‘Absurd’ essentially means that there is no meaning in the universe beyond the meaning humans confer upon it, an idea that humans are profoundly unwilling to accept. Camus explains the idea of the absurd through suicide. Why do people take their own life? One may state that it is because they are going through a traumatic experience or a difficult time in their life, but this is too simplistic. Many individuals who are suicidal fight their way through such emotions and live. Then it is some sundry and otherwise unimportant event that is the catalyst. In a nutshell, why people commit suicide is a question fraught with difficulty. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942) We do not know why suicide happens. However, we do know what suicide represents. Suicide amounts to confessing that you find life too bewildering, and have not been able to make meaning of it.

Life is absurd. Our daily life is controlled by our habits, life is painful, and overall hopeless. If this is the case, why is suicide not more prevalent? It is because of the idea of hope: The hope that suffering will end, the hope that things will get better, the hope that one day meaning will be found. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)

However, meaning can never be found in the universe and the Absurd can never be solved. The ‘meaning’ that we give the universe is our projection of meaning, and the internal contradictions within humankind make a satisfying, universal feeling impossible. There is a deep schism between reason and emotion, and different people apply these differently. Camus states that those relying on science and reason are bound to fail. Reason is unable to explain all phenomena, for instance the nature of consciousness and the mind-body problem, (Nagel, 1974) and that science can never answer deep philosophical questions of what values we should respect or our place in the world, since it is concerned with providing explanations. In the same manner, those that rely only on emotion are bound to fail. The limitations of human nature mean that we cannot find a true meaning, even if it exists, because the human mind cannot ever conceive of it. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)

Does this mean the only way out of such a meaningless world is to commit suicide? Camus believes not. Suicide is not to answer the question, but to actually escape the difficulty of the question. Philosophers like Kierkegaard and Chestov had committed what Camus calls ‘philosophical suicide’, where they surrender their intellectual capacity and fully abandon reason by believing in God. Camus discusses both physical and philosophical suicide and states that the unifying strand between both is escape. However, he says that such attempts at escape are cowardice. The only way to respond to the Absurd is to always struggle against it. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942) There lies the majesty and glory of human life. Humans are provided certain roles and responsibilities by society, and those must be abandoned to live a truly existentialist life. Further, the quantity of experiences and passion is important for such an existentialist.

The final aspect of existentialism is death. Existentialism rejects just about every limitation placed upon an individual, but treats death with near-divine reverence. For an existentialist, death is the only salient event. This is because the absurd only ceases when death occurs, because our conception of the universe is confined to our mind and only death can cease human ruminations. We have limited time in our life and should seek to achieve as much as possible. Thus, all moral codes must be rejected, and the inevitability of death should be taken as the foundation of life. (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)


Critical Analysis

The preceding section should have hopefully made clear that existentialism is more than the mantra of ‘Existence precedes Essence’ that it is nowadays reduced to. Existentialism extends this premise to state that the freedom of the individual is paramount. In practice, this translates to an individual that rejects societal conceptions of moral. An illustration of what this entails is aptly described in The Stranger, where the main character Meursault is averse to actively being emotional and repentant in order to escape punishment for his crime, which then leads to him being given the death sentence for a crime the judge was willing to reduce the sentence for. (Camus, The Stranger, 1942) While in prison, Meursault does not feel any sense of regret for his fiancé or for his actions, even though he killed another person. Thus, existentialist freedom is not only rejecting oppressive structures, but also rejecting social ideas of good and bad.

There are a number of issues with existentialism. This article will not discuss structuralism and how its ideas effectively rendered existentialism nugatory by striking it a fatal blow. Instead, the internal logic that existentialism uses will be critiqued.

The first and most major issue with existentialism is that it does not seem to accurately capture human experience. It is true that people sometimes feel on edge because of the meaningless of life, but it is a stretch to say that despair and fear characterise all human experience. Most people live their lives without strongly feeling such emotions on most days. This directly casts doubt about how relevant the philosophy truly is and how much importance it should be given.

The second issue with existentialism is its abandonment of human moral codes and the categorical rejection of both reason and emotion in a societal context. The issue with this is logical. It is unclear that science is fundamentally unable to answer all its questions, as massive progress on previously ‘unsolvable’ questions have happened. Further, some thinkers have successfully made a basic framework to use science as a method of morality. Even if all of this is discarded, it is unclear why reason and emotion are to be abandoned altogether. Present imperfection and even incapacity to ever be complete is not grounds enough to reject an entire logical framework. This is especially the case if these frameworks are usually sufficient to govern human action and is steadily evolving, which is the case of science-based reason. This is especially true because existentialism’s final result is the rejection of all societal structures, which is not something that most people want or have the urgency to achieve. As a result, the logical reason for rejecting something that has minor flows and adopting existentialism is unclear.

The final issue is the obsession with death. The finality and inevitability of death are a major theme in existentialist works. However, it is unclear why death is taken as the starting point of morality. Death may be a major event, but to people, major achievements like graduation, marriage, and winning a competition are also equally salient for most people. Indeed, the human mind’s conception of the world is prioritized, and it cannot be said that the human understanding of death is any less important than the human understanding of great glory. For instance, someone may consider winning an international moot to the crowning moment of their life and may direct their actions with this goal in mind. It is unclear why such experiences have to be discounted for the acceptance of death. This is more salient in light of the fact that existentialism bases itself on an exaggerated understanding of human life, and thus the balance must tip in favour of an ideology that is more concomitant with human experience.


Conclusion

Existentialism seems simple at first brush, but on closer examination, the life of a true existentialist is more removed from regular life than one may have imagined. (Camus, The Stranger, 1942) Nevertheless, despite all its faults, existentialism delivered to humans a moral code which they could abide by while free from the suffocating grip of religion and society. In this aspect, existentialism has been resoundingly successful, and though the nuances of the school have been lost with time, the central idea that people are responsible for and capable of deciding their own destiny in a world that does not care for them (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 1942) has been an inspiration, and will perhaps remain consequential for the years to come.


Debayan is a B.A.LL.B. student at the National Law University, Delhi (Batch of 2025).


References

  1. Camus, A. (1942) Myth of Sisyphus

  2. Camus, A. (1942) The Stranger

  3. Crowell, S. (2012) The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, 60-65

  4. Nagel, T. (1974) “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

  5. Sartre, J.P. (1946) Existentialism is a Humanism

  6. Silvermann, A. (2003). Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-metaphysics/