< Existentialism

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Existentialism is a philosophical movement primarily interested in examination of the human being from an emotional standpoint. In the aftermath of the first world war, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and others were distressed by the progressive dehumanization that they saw as a direct result of the rational and scientific thought which impelled the Industrial Revolution.


Existentialism does away with Rene Descartes' famous argument, summarized as I think, therefore I am. On the face of it, an existentialist would argue, Descartes' argument is erroneous: thoughts are distinct from us. We may have thoughts, but others may also have them, or they may exist independently of us. Thought is not a good argument for existence. You exist because of what you feel; it is your emotions that are undeniably you.

The existential philosophers make all of their arguments as emotional rather than logical imperatives. Existentialists are more concerned with the nature of happiness than with things.

Some of the better known existential arguments include:

  • Hell is other people
  • Pain is conciousness

Pain is conciousness

Existentialism divides the world into two categories. One category are called en-soi, things that can be analyzed rationally, like a rock. The second category are pour-soi, things that emote; beings. A thing cannot feel unhappy about being a thing, it has no emotions; a rock is perfectly satisfied being a rock. A being must always therefore compare itself with the thing, and be envious of its ability to just be.

Hell is other people

In order to fill that void, the emptiness of knowing that as beings we must do more than just exist, we fill our minds with other things.

One path is that of avarice, a being can collect things around himself to distract him from the pain of his conciousness. Things don't fit well into the gap though, as they continually remind us of the difference between being, and thing; a being who follows avarice must continually renew the set of things that distract him from the pain.

The second path is that of love, a being may find another pour-soi to distract her from her conciousness. The match between pour-soi and pour-soi is better; the being doesn't continually notice that the thing that she is concious of is not herself by its nature. But pour-soi resist being used in this way -- the person she loves is not willing to invest himself solely in filling her conciousness, he must assert himself, and his own emotions.

This paradox, that the only thing that can save you from the pain of conciousness is another being, but that being will rebel at being used solely in that way, is what the existentialists mean when they say 'Hell is other people.'


The above is of course an over simplification. The key to Sartre's theory is that the "existential I" is not a "transcendental I". The problem with the Cogito is not that it assumes or infers existence from thought, but that that it goes farther than it should by affirming the existance of an I, which is a "thinking thing." To put it in more clear english: A thought I experience proves it's own existence, but it does not prove my existence as the "one who has the thought." Though earlier philosophers postulated a "transcendental ego" as thing which thinks, Sartre argues that the transcendental ego is not necessary since thought needs no "pole" to hang on, since as Husserl says, consciousness is always consciousness-of something else -- and that something else can explain thought's existence without postulating an unperceived transcendental ego. However, it is right to point out that attraction and repulsion are understood by Sartre as objects of consciousness, and therefore are one poles on which consciousness hangs.

Now, on to the use of "emotional" -- certainly the existentialists were concerned that philosophy not lose touch with the basic passions of human existence. Human beings do not just think about the world around them, they become passionately involved in all kinds of relationships. Emotional is not the right word to use, passion is. But even then passion is not opposed to reason (usually) it is simply admitted that Blasé Pascal was correct to say "the heart has reasons know not of." And though this takes Pascal's statement out of context it is very illustrative of the existential position that the world cannot be understood by reason alone. Passionate involvement is necessary if you wish to "really" understand the world around you.