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1. Existentialism is a technical philos. position popularized in the thought of S. A. Kierkegaard.* It developed with the aid of insights derived from the skeptical epistemology* of Brit. empiricism* and influenced by the phenomenology* of E. Husserl.* Principal doctrines of existentialism concern the epistemological, axiological, and psychological aspects of human being or reality. Modern exponents include Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973; Fr. RC teacher and writer). J.-P. Sartre,* M. Heidegger,* and K. Jaspers.* Some theologians (e.g., R. K. Bultmann* and K. Barth*) have been influenced by one or more phases of it.

2. Though existentialists develop views in divergent ways and complex jargon, there are some common basic features in their views which may be regarded as necessary conditions of a developed existential philosophy. The following deals primarily with these features.

a. Existence and essence. Contrary to the deterministic Aristotelian view which holds that objects of thought have an essence, or defining constituents (genus and differentia), which can be known through rational processes of reflection or inquiry, existentialists gen. insist that in the case of man no such essence is prior in time to the actual existence of human consciousness. Though the blueprint or concept of an artifact may precede its manufacture, thus determining its essence prior to its actual existence, man's being is not so determined. Here existentialist views diverge, depending on the theistic or atheistic orientation of the writer. For Kierkegaard, man's essence is known by God. But since we cannot know by processes of reason that which God knows, we can discover only the essence we have made for ourselves after coming to exist. Atheistic existentialists agree with this conclusion, not on the grounds of skepticism regarding our knowledge of God, but on the ground that God does not exist. In this case man has no essence at all except that which he himself creates by means of his conscious choices after he has come to exist. Since each new choice alters his “essence,” it is always incomplete until he is dead. This incompleteness of human reality and its irrevocable termination is gen. assoc. with existentialist emphasis on the contingency and frailty of human life.

b. Freedom. The denial of any human essence ontologically prior to concrete human beings is the source of the emphasis on human freedom. If no such essence objectively exists or is known, man is free to make of himself what he chooses to be. Present choices merely limit the range of future possibilities but do not determine which of the remaining possibilities he will choose. No other person, no environment or passion can thus be claimed to be the causal determinant of one's being what he is. Hence man is his freedom and is responsible for his nature and all his choices.

c. Anxiety (Angst). Such freedom is the ground of the existentialists' preoccupation with anxiety or anguish. Facing an undetermined future, man becomes anxious because he is responsible but cannot know the consequences of his decisions. Man is thus a subject “condemned to be free” (Sartre). In such circumstances some men make a leap (Ger. “Sprung”) at a certain stage in life (Kierkegaard), committing themselves to Jesus Christ, whom they cannot intellectually grasp (and who is therefore called “absurd”) as their only hope. For most existentialists man tries to flee from freedom and responsibility in various ways, e.g., by sensual pursuits or belief in some form of psychological determinism. This is “bad faith” (Sartre) or “inauthenticity” (Heidegger); man then refuses to accept himself and his responsibility for what he has made of himself.

d. Subjective source of value. To be an authentic person requires that one realize and courageously accept the fact that human freedom necessarily gives rise to anxiety, which affects all one's knowledge and volition. Authentic man is therefore an unhappy consciousness (Sartre). Even for the Christian, sickness is a natural state (Kierkegaard). Once man accepts this fact, his conscious decisions are intensified and his choices made with passionate inwardness (Kierkegaard) that attends the freely chosen acts of the total personality. Such decision-processes, accompanied by the values of courage and fortitude, exhibit man as the source of value.

e. Human solidarity. If man acts as an authentic person, he also chooses to do what accords with his image of man as he ought to be; for men are together in the world and are intuitively aware of this fact of human existence, as the experience of shame shows. Since human existence implies communion (Marcel) or being with others, each man is responsible for all. This fact also explains why each man is regarded as a threat to the existence of others. The choices he makes invariably affect others. Choices desirable for the individual are therefore regarded as those that strengthen human solidarity (Marcel) or those that are appropriate in the situation (Sartre). In the latter view, others are injured in some way by one's choices, and so “hell is other people.” Kierkegaard's existentialism is not incompatible with this latter view. But Marcel more eloquently expresses the humanistic concern of existentialism by emphasis on the benefits of human coexistence, cooperation, and concern for others. CEH

Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, tr. D. F. Swenson and W. Lowrie (Princeton, 1941); M. Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York, 1962); J.-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, tr. E. Barnes (New York, 1956) and Existentialism, tr. B. Frechtmann (New York, 1947); E. Mounier, Existentialist Philosophies, tr. E. Blow (London, 1948); H. J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers (New York, 1952); R. G. Olson, An Introduction to Existentialism (New York, 1962); Christianity and the Existentialists, ed. C. Michaelson (New York, 1956).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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