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Are We Born Existentialists?  

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

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Who am I? Why am I? Why was I sent (thrown) to this world? Where will I go after my death?

These are some questions many of us must have gone through asking ourselves at least once in our lifetime at any stage of our lives.

So are we born Existentialists?  

Some more questions we may ask include:

The world is nothing just a stage. If the life after death is eternal and complete then what is this life, I am living in? who did create this universe/world? What was before the creation of this universe? What is the use of humans and what is the use of the world around me? What makes me what I am? Am I existing because I can think? Can I exist without the power of thinking?

So are we born Existentialists?  

Since social norms vary from society to society so does Truth also vary? If yes, then what is True (Truth) or what is not true (false)?

So are we born Existentialists?

There are also certain questions relating to religion that many of us ask ourselves at least once in our lifetime.

So are we born Existentialists?  

We can answer this question when we have knowledge and understanding of what Existentialism is?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Existential philosophy typically finds itself going in circles, trying to prove axioms (saying) with theorems (proposition–premises), converting premises into methodological rules, using repetition and restatement in place of argument and illustration in place of proof. (using two or more propositions for extracting syllogism and then using syllogism as a new proposition).

I, as a student of philosophy, believe that the question “Who am I”? is too critical to resolve.  For me, the question of existence is not a philosophical question rather a Psychological question. However, philosophers like Heidegger say it is a philosophical question. I share here one of the statements of Martin Heidegger (born September 26, 1889–Died May 26, 1976) who is best known for his contributions to phenomenology and existentialism. He says:

“Who am I?” is not an accidental feature of our psychology but an essential feature of our being: I am such that “in [my] very being that being is an issue for [me]” is a philosophical inquiry into existence. In simple words, Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the experience of thinking, feeling, and acting (act).

Sometimes “Existentialism” is understood, as a form of radical subjectivism but it is something more than Subjectivism because the ideas (that are based on Existentialism) of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Beauvoir focus on that existence provides a compelling perspective on contemporary issues in moral psychology and philosophy of mind, language, and history.

The term existentialism was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s although the school of Avant-garde came into being during the last three decades of 1800.  Marcel called Jean-Paul Sartre an Existentialist at a colloquium in 1945. Sartre rejected that he was (is) Existentialist but subsequently changed his mind and, on October 29, 1945, publicly adopted the existentialist label in a lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris, published as L’existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism Is a Humanism).

By using the qualities provided Marcel for an existentialist philosopher, we can say Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 – Died November 11, 1855) was the first Existentialist philosopher or Father of so-called Existentialism.

I believe that this term (Existentialism or Existentialist) should be used only to refer to the cultural/philosophical movement in Europe that came after the 1940s and was associated with the works of the philosophers Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus or are influenced by their work. However, writers in the fields of philosophy, literature, performing, and art extend the term to Kierkegaard and even as far back as Socrates. However, it is often identified with the philosophical views of Sartre.

Existentialism is based on “Existential Crisis”, also known as existential dread. These are moments when individuals question whether their lives have meaning, purpose, or value, and are negatively impacted by the contemplation.

Existential Crisis can lead an individual to depression or inevitably negative speculations on purpose in life such as the futility of all effort (e.g., “if one day I will be forgotten, what is the point of all of my work?”). This issue of the meaning and purpose of human existence is a major focus of the philosophical tradition of existentialism.

Before going into a philosophical debate, I wish to cite here that Sartre’s notion that “We (human beings) are thrown (into the world) and then condemned” — is driving thought behind contemporary Existentialism. His statement is like a complaint— thrown— condemned. His statement shows that our existence and presence was (is) not for some purpose and have no meaningfulness.

In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point has been called “the existential angst”, a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Existentialist thinkers, writers, playwrights frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Renato Poggioli is his book “The Theory of Avant-Garde”, claims that Existentialism has agonistic and nihilistic tendencies. He says Existentialism believes that it is difficult to coexist or survive within the collectivism of modem life.

We remember that Avant-garde thought was triggered by several politico-socio changes and scientific discoveries because the last three decades of the 1800s were full of social changes in Europe and discoveries in biological sciences.  This is the time when the human was virtually going through social and psychological shocks. Darwin taunted humans by claiming that he is not a descendant of something special rather he is a refined form of a monkey. Sigmund Freud told that the world around a man is not the only one world because man also lives in the world of dreams. Therefore, several philosophical and literary movements emerged on the surface challenging the status quo during the end of the 1800s and the first two decades of the 1900s. While Sartre’s Existentialism was the result of World War II that brought the thought that norms are subjective (Nuclear attack on Japan was portrayed as Savior of humankind because it was detonated to save humanity from further wars). This thought challenged the ethics and norms of the era. Reactionary thoughts against the havoc of WWII adopted the old theories of philosophers like:

We are living in a “broken world” (Marcel), an “ambiguous world” (de Beauvoir), a “dislocated world” (Merleau-Ponty), a world into which we are “thrown” and “condemned” yet “abandoned” and “free” (Heidegger and Sartre), a world which appears to be indifferent or even “absurd” (Camus).

The first three decades after the end of WWII put unresolvable confusion of the human world at center stage. Terms such as reason, religion, nation, authority, history, work, usefulness, and tradition were again under attack as they were after World War I or also many times before in human history from the time of Greek philosophers.

At the conclusion, can say that the existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a

confused world that he/she cannot accept. This disorientation and confusion are one of the by-products of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the growth of science, the decline of religious authority, the French Revolution,

the growth of mass militarism and technocracy, two world wars, the “triumph” of capitalism, and the sudden onslaught of globalization its consequences.

In the modern era, from the times Friedrich Nietzsche, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel— Human being is tru=ying to find what is true— “I think therefore I am” or

“I am what I think”. Even “I” is under question.

I believe that “Existentialism” is not simply a philosophy or a philosophical revolt rather Existentialist philosophy is the explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude—

Central Desk
Central Desk
Central News Desk.

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