Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. What the existentialist project is all about.
  2. The identities of prominent existentialists.
  3. How existentialism deals with the question of meaning.
  4. How existentialists approach ethics.


Existentialism causes strong reactions in people who learn about it.

There are many different thinkers and perspectives on existentialism.

  1. Some existentialists have been Christians, others have been nihilists, that is, they do not believe that there is any predetermined meaning to the universe.
  2. Existentialists philosophy emphasizes the individual, the individual’s ability to exercise free choices, and the problem of anxiety that people experience when they realize that they are radically responsible for their own actions in a seemingly absurd universe.
  3. One can observe existentialist themes in ancient texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, Psalm 39, and the biblical book called Ecclesiastes.
  4. Historians of ideas usually point to Søren Kierkegaard as the first existentialist philosopher.

Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and Christian theologian.

  1. He opposed the attempt of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel to develop a vast intellectual system that, according to Kierkegaard, put humans in the place of God, failed to understand human subjectivity, and was too confident in the idea that history always involved progress.
  2. Kierkegaard himself was so interested in subjectivity that he even wrote works with apparent contradictions, and often wrote under pseudonyms so he could explore various sides of an issue and later criticize his own writing.
  3. Kierkegaard was fascinated by heroic figures who pursued the impossible and the absurd.
    1. He called this sort of person a Knight of Faith, a concept discussed throughout his works, especially in the works entitled Fear and Trembling and Repetition.
    2. One such figure was the ancient patriarch Abraham.

Abraham, as described in the 22nd chapter of the biblical book called Genesis, is typically the exemplar of a Knight of Faith.

  1. Abraham had received a miraculously conceived son named Isaac, born to him and his wife when they were elderly. This came with a promise that Isaac would have many descendants, and that one of them would be the promised one to heal the world. Nonetheless, at some point, Abraham believed God is commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
  2. These revelations from God-that Isaac would be the father of many, and that Abraham should plunge a knife into his son-were clearly incompatible. Nonetheless, Abraham set off to perform the sacrifice, and would have done so, were it not for a substitute provided by God, in the form of a ram.
  3. All of this relates to existentialism in that an individual finds him or herself in a subjective situation in which reason cannot help.

One must act in radical freedom, staring into the darkness of unknowing. For later existentialists, this staring into darkness might involve having the courage to admit that there is no meaning in the universe.

Kierkegaard’s existentialism was a Christian form. According to Kierkegaard, there are three kinds of people, who respond in three different ways to the absurdities and existential anxieties of life:

  1. First there is the Non-Knight
    1. This is someone who doesn’t realize that something is impossible, but believes naively in their hope nonetheless
  2. Second, there is the Knight of Infinite Resignation
    1. This is someone who realizes that something is humanly impossible, but spiritualizes their beliefs and the nature of their hope.
  3. Third and finally, there is the Knight of Faith
    1. This is the person who recognizes that their belief is humanly impossible and absurd, but nonetheless moves forward in expectation that their hope will be fulfilled in reality.

A Christian existentialist tradition can be traced from Kierkegaard to the modern day. Most traditions are characterized by the importance of an interest in authentic faith and authentic choices. Most oppose unreflective, purely cultural forms of Christianity.

  1. Despite the robust Christian existentialist tradition, when many people think of existentialism, they associate it with nihilist and atheist perspectives.
  2. This type of existentialism is associated with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre.

  1. He coined the phrase “Existence precedes essence.”
  2. This statement is a helpful way of defining existentialism in general. It means that there is no predetermined essence to anything, including no predetermined essence to an individual. Instead, they simply exist, and must stare into the darkness of radically free decisions.
  3. As with Kierkegaard’s ideas, this might lead to an experience of anxiety. For Sartre, this anxiety is even more problematic, because unlike Kierkegaard, Sartre did not believe there was a God looking out for the whole universe.
  4. Neither Sartre, nor other atheist existentialists, necessarily celebrated their conclusion that the world lacked inherent meaning, or that there turned out to be no God. Instead, they recognized the anguish and sadness this caused in a person.
  5. Sartre wrote that the existentialist:
“finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.”

So does this mean there is no reason for an existentialist to be ethical? Not necessarily

  1. On the contrary, Sartre believes that existentialists have the greatest reason of all to be ethical.
  2. Even though he says we are radically free to be whatever we want, and that there is no divine rule-giver, this doesn’t let us off the ethical hook. Instead, it puts the burden of ethical responsibility squarely upon the individual.
  3. Each morning when we awake, we must each ask, “Am I an angel or a demon today?” And we must live with the fact that there is no predetermined answer until we act.
  4. We create our own identity in this way; and what is more, we create the essence of humanity.
  5. Sartre lived through the Nazi occupation of his homeland, and knew well that humans were capable of both incredible love and unspeakable evil.
  6. For Sartre, choice is the one thing we always do have.
  7. In all of this, we can’t blame God, genetics, or our parents for what we become. We are responsible, and that can be frightening.
    1. Sartre recognized that since we have to grow up and live with the humanity we collectively create.
    2. Sartre believed that realizing this responsibility would likely inspire a greater amount of heroism and ethical action.

FIDEISM=belief apart from evidence.

  1. Kierkegaard in particular offers an important criticism of cultural Christianity

The Atheist existentialists:

  1. Worth reading and wrestling with as part of the flow of intellectual history.
  2. Can lead to nihilism, the belief there is no inherent meaning in the world.
  3. This, while brave, is bleak.
  4. Nonetheless, existentialists offer the only courageous way forward if one adopts atheism
  5. Sartre wasn’t happy that God didn’t exist… he says it is an embarrassment and can cause anxiety. But it is the grown up option.
  6. Ultimately, I believe that as one re-examines true, historic, Christianity, one finds that the stark cold universe of many moderns—to which the atheistic existentialist were responding—is not so self-evident as once thought.
  7. Existentialism is as much a mood or spirit as it is a formal philosophy. Its crowning achievements might be better described as literature than as philosophy. But to the extent that it is about the good, true, and beautiful, existentialism is rightly studied as a philosophical perspective.

What led people to entertain this new spirit of philosophy?

  1. By the time of World War II, existentialism became attractive to many, as a call to face up to the ideas that we could no longer trust in progress or authorities.
  2. Europe had descended into the chaos of war, using the tools of science to destroy cities and almost eliminate whole races of people. It called people to develop a philosophy that could help ground a person’s life in this world.
  3. While existentialism has decreased in terms of the number of people who claim to be adherents to this philosophy today, famous existentialists remain interesting to thinkers within many disciplines today, especially those interested in great books and great ideas.

Famous existentialist literary figures include:

  1. Franz Kafka
  2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  3. And Albert Camus
  4. Each of these writers addressed the questions of existentialism in literary ways, and remain important contributors to the great intellectual conversation.

In this lecture, we’ve learned:

  1. First, that existentialism emphasizes the individual, the individual’s ability to exercise free choices, and the problem of anxiety that people experience when they realize that they are radically responsible for their own actions in a seemingly absurd universe.
  2. Second, that famous existentialists include Christians like Kierkegaard and atheists like Sartre. Famous existentialist literary figures include Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Camus.
  3. Third, that many existentialists believe that there is no predetermined essence to human nature, and instead believe that existence precedes essence.
  4. And fourth, that despite the atheist existentialist denial of a divine lawgiver, they believe that ethics is important, because we, as beings with free choices, are radically responsible for the world we create.

Further reading:

  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism
  3. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
  4. Albert Camus, The Plague
  5. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov