Existentialism and

The Modern World

Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that flourished primarily during the two decades after World War II, although it had been developing during the previous two decades, and continued to be influential in later years. Jean-Paul Sartre became its best known writer and spokesman. His philosophical writings, as well as his numerous plays and novels, did much to spread existentialist thinking, and to make Existentialism one of the schools of thought with which the reading public was more or less familiar. Other well-known writers associated with the movement were Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Miguel de Unamuno. Søren Kierkegaard, Fjodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche are usually added to the list as important 19th century forerunners. 

Although Existentialism is usually referred to as a distinct philosophy, it is almost impossible to give an exact definition of it as a unified and identifiable school of thought. There is, in fact, not a single doctrine on which all of the above thinkers would actually agree, and several of the writers included in the movement have rejected the “Existentialist” label. Some of the above thinkers, for example, are self-declared Christians, while others maintain that a staunch kind of atheism is at the very heart of a genuine Existentialist outlook. Several of the leading writers of the movement have also changed some of their basic pronouncements in the course of their lives, thus making it difficult to decide which part of their work should be considered most properly “Existentialist.” 

If it makes nevertheless sense to talk about an Existentialist movement or philosophy, it is because all the above writers are struggling with more or less the same fundamental problem: the idea of an “authentic” existence. In one way or another all Existentialists belabor the notion that most people do not live a real life, but some sort of pseudo-life that fails to get to the heart of a genuine human existence. Most people, as the point is also put, fail to be truly themselves–by thoughtlessly accepting the precepts and patterns of their native culture, by automatically conforming to what “one” is supposed to do, by excessively busying themselves with mundane matters and trivial concerns, or by seeking shelter from the threatening emptiness and nihilism of modern life in some established cult or religion. An authentic life, according to typical Existentialists, cannot be lived by following the run of any kind of “herd” and its collective beliefs and preoccupations, but only by resolutely living out of a profoundly personal self—out of the recognized and accepted loneliness of an individuality that finds itself in a dark and meaningless universe. 

Radical individualism is, of course, nothing new in the history of Western thought. Socrates’ principled defiance of the prevailing opinions of his countrymen, for example, or Kant’s insistence on unabridged moral autonomy, amount in some ways to a very similar stance as that advocated by various Existentialists. What distinguishes Existentialist individualism from that of its philosophical predecessors is the nature of the world in which the authentic individual is said to encounter and assert itself. While thinkers like Socrates and Kant still relied on seemingly objective and universally recognizable structures to find an orientation and meaning in the world, Existentialists denounce the apparent objectivity of any such structures as illusory. According to Existentialism there is no independently existing order or structure on which one could rely for ultimate purposes or guidance. Any honest reflection will reveal, according to most Existentialists, that the universe is a looming unknown, and the experience of nothingness an inescapable characteristic of human existence. Any authentic existence has to start with the recognition of this nothingness, and with the totally free choices that will define a person’s life.

All sorts of explanatory systems and guiding structures have been offered and accepted by people in the course of human history. Religion used to provide a conception of the world in which everything and everybody had a proper function and place, and science later on tried to reveal a similarly structured cosmos in which nature would determine the order and purposes of human individuals and their communities. Philosophers like Kant, furthermore, thought that pure reason could construct a system of moral principles and goals that would be compelling and meaningful for all rational beings, even if religious tradition or science might be incapable of furnishing any dependable guidelines for living. None of these systems will survive thorough scrutiny, however, as far as Existentialists are concerned. For every conceptual framework of this kind is based on assumptions that can be and have been critiqued and exposed with devastating effect. For Existentialists there is nothing outside one’s self on which one could rely for guidance or meaning. 

The majority of people may still adhere to any one of these constructions of reality and feel secure in their seemingly solid structures, but any inquisitive mind is bound to find out eventually just how arbitrary these constructions are, and how much they lack the sort of objective support that they would need to gain the absolute validity that they are supposed to have. In the end all an honest person can do is rely on himself or herself in determining what structure should serve as a basic framework, what value system should be adopted, and what ultimate purposes may be worth living for. While habit and social pressure may induce the majority of people to adhere to the remnants of older worldviews and moral systems, Existentialists insist that honestly inquiring individuals have nothing to rely on but themselves, that ultimately they are, in Sartre’s famous words, “condemned to be free.”

Sartre was born in Paris in 1905. While circumstances caused him several times to live outside the French capital, he always came back to it, and eventually made this vibrant metropolis his permanent home. He was an outstanding student (of Philosophy mainly), and he graduated from the illustrious École Normale Supérieure . He made a living teaching Philosophy at high schools. In 1938 he published his first and most famous novel, Nausea. It describes the philosophical and intensively personal life of a man who could be called an “Existentialist.”

During World War II Sartre became a prisoner of war for a short time. After his release he lived in Paris. While the city was occupied by German troops, Sartre joined the underground resistance movement. He became a prolific writer at this time, producing novels and plays as well as philosophical work. In 1943 he published his most important philosophical treatise, the voluminous Being and Nothingness. It was significantly influenced by Heidegger’s writings, and it contains extensive analyses concerning the conditions of an authentic existence.

At the end of the war Sartre emerged as a world famous writer, and as the best known representative of what became then known as Existentialism. He became editor of Les Temps Modernes, an influential journal of ideas. Politically as well as philosophically he steadily moved to the left. He was active in the protest movements against the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, but refused to accept it. He died in 1980, eulogized as one of the most important minds of the 20th century.

In 1946 Sartre published the lecture essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” one of his most widely read works. It is a defense of Existentialism against various critics, and it popularizes key notions of his philosophy—possibly simplifying them unduly. He starts out his defense by giving a definition of Existentialism. The core of this definition is the famous formula “Existence precedes essence”: “What they [atheist Existentialists] have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence.” (1) 

In Sartre’s terminology the “essence” of something is most basically its inherent purpose–that for which it is made. The essence of a knife is to cut, the essence of a car to transport, the essence of a gun to kill or maim, and so forth. Most human-made things have a purpose, and that purpose is usually envisaged by someone before a particular object is made. Its purpose or essence, in this sense, comes before an object’s actual existence. 

With human beings, by contrast, it is decisively otherwise. Human beings are fundamentally different from objects in that they are first simply there, and only later define a purpose or identity for themselves. In Sartre’s words: 

We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world–and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. (2)

This understanding of human existence goes against most philosophical and theological traditions. According to prominent religious teachings, for example, God created human beings with a purpose in mind–to serve God’s will, for example, or to live a certain kind of life. Sartre again: 

God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding. (3)

But even non-religious philosophies usually think of people as beings who have something like a purpose built into their natural constitution. For Plato, for example, the highest and most proper calling for human beings is to think, and thus to gain knowledge. For Kant the proper aspiration for humanity is to become autonomous, i. e., to live as individuals and in society according to the dictates of their own reason. For Mill the ultimate purpose of human beings is to be happy. To fulfill such natural or given purposes amounts to (as Nietzsche put it) “becoming what one is.” And not to fulfill them is tantamount to betraying one’s true nature or calling.

In contrast to all such preconceptions of human beings, Existentialists maintain that there is no human nature of any kind, that there is no built-in goal that human beings are “supposed” to reach. Of course, many people can and do conceive of themselves in the way religions or philosophers teach, but that, according to Sartre, is people’s own choice, and not something predetermined by some divine being or by nature. People choose to conceive of themselves as certain kinds of beings, but they do so on their own account and responsibility. It is not something that is somehow laid down for them by some higher power, or that flows out of a pre-programmed constitution. If it makes sense at all to talk about human nature it would be by saying that human beings do not have one, that it is their nature to create their ultimate purposes and forms of existence. It is, according to Sartre, this fundamental freedom to determine the entirety of their existence that distinguishes humans from all other beings. 

To forestall an easy misunderstanding, it should be pointed out that Sartre does not deny that human beings are limited or constrained by all sorts of external or internal conditions. A paraplegic is not free to become a long distance runner, and an abused girl may not ever be able to overcome feelings of disgust when confronted with s…x. Freedom exists only within specific conditions. But within such given conditions, according to Sartre, people always have choices to make. They are not predetermined like objects or animals; they always live within a space, as it were, of possible alternatives. Even a man on death row, a person with hardly any choices left, still has decisions to make–even if it amounts to nothing more than the choice to die willingly or in some sort of inner rebellion. The point, according to Sartre, is that human beings exist in a fundamentally different way than animals or objects: they exist as beings who, within certain conditions, define themselves and their lives.

The most fundamental existential mistake that people can make is to deny or betray their basic freedom and responsibility. Whenever someone grows into an established culture without ever questioning the tenets of its morality, laws, religion, aesthetics, or reigning common sense, a person has betrayed his or her human freedom by behaving like an object—by cultivating “bad faith,” as Sartre calls it. And whenever someone excuses actions by invoking upbringing, background, or uncontrollable feelings, a similar escape from freedom and responsibility is attempted. For Existentialists people are what they do and what they make of themselves, and they are understood as beings that can be held accountable for who they are. What they are called to account for is, of course, not the usually expected compliance with reigning rules or generally accepted standards of conduct, but the authenticity or in-authenticity of their actions and existence. Whether an action or form of life is freely and consciously chosen is the criterion that is relevant from an Existentialist point of view. My life is authentic if it is chosen by me, and not handed down to me or superimposed by some collective, some tradition, or some culture.

Sartre and the Modern World

Sartre always speaks as a philosopher, not as a historian or critic of culture. His topic is human nature as such and in general, not the specific conditions of particular cultures or epochs. Nevertheless, his description of the human condition is particularly plausible if read as an analysis of the modern world. What Sartre postulates as the radical freedom of the individual in a senseless universe is essentially identical with what writers of modernity have said about the modern individual’s loss of traditions, roots, and orientations under conditions of 20th century civilization.

From its very beginning the modern world has been marked by progressive globalization; modernity has been the epoch in which the West conquered much of the globe and gradually subjected most of the world to its scientific-technological civilization. As the high productivity of capitalism, secular science, and revolutionary technology–usually supported by the ruthless use of modern arms–forced ever more regions and populations into an expanding world market, people could not help but become ever more aware of the great variety of human cultures and ways of life that existed and exist on the planet. From a certain point on no educated person anywhere could seriously afford to simply assume that his or her own religion, morality, or way of organizing communities was the only “true’ or valid one. Belief in the exclusive truth of one’s own faith, or the conviction of the superiority of one’s own way of doing things, became synonymous with naiveté, provincialism, narrow-mindedness, or benighted arrogance. 

Not that belief in one’s own superiority did not continue to exist in many quarters–particularly in the West. Since globalization was primarily the subjection and control of the globe by Western powers, belief in the superiority of Western civilization was built into much of the whole process. But thoughtless presumptions of cultural superiority could not maintain any real credibility or intellectual respectability among people of knowledge. The demands of scientific objectivity in particular subverted much of the feeling of superiority that the West harbored during the earlier phases of the global conquest. Acceptance of the existence and value of a multiplicity of divergent cultures, together with a willingness to take a critical look at one’s own preconceptions, eventually became the intellectual corollary of global commerce and interdependence, and tolerance of multiple forms of life became as established a feature of modern existence as, for example, the collection of art works from a wide variety of regions and epochs. Cultural and ethical relativism became a typical and wide-spread mood or conviction among intellectuals of the modern age.

The progressive awareness of the multicultural constitution of the human race was not necessarily experienced as enrichment, however, or as liberation from the oppressive confines of a single culture. Many people thought that the only relative validity of their own culture was a serious detriment to their spiritual well being, and an acute threat to their self-confidence and personal identity. To the extent that they understood and experienced the persuasive power of other visions and ways of life, they felt uprooted from their own cultural origins, and helplessly adrift on a vast ocean of cultural possibilities. Where could they find convincing goals and binding norms for themselves if all that existed was a multiplicity of cultures with rival claims and assumptions, but no independent standards by which questions of ultimate value could be objectively decided? The formerly assumed absoluteness of the old traditions and values was gone, hopelessly undermined by the leveling tendencies of the modern age. What used to be authoritative civilizations with acknowledged valuations and challenging demands had crumbled into ideological ruins and shattered idols. T. S. Eliot, for example, described the modern world as a “wasteland,” as a culturally and spiritually depleted landscape in which we find the remnants of many civilizations, but no absolutely valid structures that could inspire people to strive for more than a comfortable, banal, and ultimately empty existence. As Eliot put it in his 1922 elegy Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images.

Of the many works of modern literature that describe this wasteland experience of cultural loss and disorientation, Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities is one of the most important. The novel, published in parts between 1931 and 1943, tells the story of Ulrich, a decidedly modern individual who is keenly aware of the only relative validity of his own culture, and who tries to come to terms with the modern world by defining his identity in a thoroughly multi-cultural and relativistic situation. He does so symbolically on one occasion by trying to choose the architectural style of the house that he plans to inhabit. While the tone of Eliot’s reflections tends to be somber, Musil’s observations are playful and bemused. Still, Musil like Eliot describes modern civilization as a situation of loss–as an emptiness in which individuals look in vain for guidance and orientation among the ruins of once flourishing cultures: 

When he built his house and had occupancy, as the Bible puts it, Ulrich had an experience for which, in a way, he had been waiting. He found himself in the enviable position of having to remodel his residence from scratch–in absolutely any way he saw fit. From a stylistically faithful restoration to total recklessness, all possibilities of architecture were at his disposal, and his mind was free to choose among every known style, from that of the ancient Assyrians to Cubism. So, what was he to choose? … Well, the Man Without Qualities, who had already taken the first step of returning to the country of his origin, also took the second step to insure that it would be external forces that shaped his life: he left the decoration of his residence to the inspiration of the appropriate decorator shops, convinced that they would take care of preserving all proper traditions, prejudices, and limitations… (4)

As far as his cultural convictions are concerned, Ulrich, the Man Without Qualities, lives beyond all styles: a modern individual cannot honestly identify with any particular form of self-presentation. Even modernistic architecture (“Cubism”) is just one style among others, and there is no truly compelling reason why anyone should choose it as more appropriate or authentic than any other style. To be truly modern, in Ulrich’s eyes, is not to be modernistic, but to be nothing at all—to embrace the total cultural void of the modern wasteland. Cultural and moral indefiniteness and radical inner detachment from all cultural pasts is the basic truth of his existence. Thus he can leave the style of his residence to the “appropriate decorator shops” as a matter of indifference. His house will have to sport some sort of style, but there is no reason to think that one would be better than any other.

There have been more than a few 20th century intellectuals who meant to escape the leveling relativistic tendencies of modernity by defiantly tying themselves to their inherited religion, ethnicity, or some other established tradition. They hoped to overcome the dreaded void and “transcendental homelessness” (to use an expression of Georg Lukacs) of the modern world by becoming part of something greater and better established than their own undefined, precarious, and isolated individualities.
Such backward-looking attempts at defining one’s identity, however, have been criticized as futile and reactionary in a literal sense: They are seen as desperate reactions to a situation that calls for more creative responses than the donning, as it were, of historical costumes. Two kinds of consideration in particular are marshaled against the traditionalism promoted by such reactionary intellectuals.

One kind concerns certain inescapable facts of the modern world. At a time of unprecedented population growth, uncontrollable migrations and urbanization, global climate changes, nuclear arsenals, and other far-reaching threats, the insistence on and cultivation of racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural differences has become irrelevant at best. Such differences may, indeed, be highly divisive and inflammatory in the crisis situations that will surely emerge on a planet with dwindling resources and growing demands. Unless people recognize and cultivate their common humanity, instead of narcissistically nursing exclusionary identities and cultures, the increasingly stressed planet is likely to face a grim future.

The other kind of consideration grows out of a generally critical view of the past and its hallowed traditions. Enlightenment thinkers have always been skeptical when people invoked their past to claim glory and enhance their own standing. History, when studied in detail, reveals far too much violence and foolishness to be a source of much pride and good feeling. The past is replete with gratuitous aggression, imbecile fanaticism, thoughtless brutality, and countless lapses of sound judgment. Which major religion did not inspire massacres in the name of its faith, which sizable nation did not wreak havoc on others for most dubious reasons, and which culture did not breed intolerance and vanity as much as it taught useful knowledge? The past, according to Enlightenment thinking, is not much to be proud of, but rather something to live down and improve. Tradition, in this thinking, is not the basis of solid identities, but at best the raw material from which something humane and useful can be created.

If authentic existence requires individuals to be free of the dictates of the past, the modern world provides optimal conditions. After demolishing most traditional cultures through modern technology, science, commerce, and arms, and by subverting their validity and authority through comparative anthropology and other kinds of critical analysis, modern conditions have left today’s individuals largely unencumbered by the ideological demands of the past, and they have brought about a cultural void that can be described as a tabula rasa—a blank slate–on which today’s humanity can inscribe its freely chosen projects. Modern individuals are ”abandoned” and “forlorn,” according to Sartre—they cannot rely on the past and its hallowed traditions to make their necessary decisions for them.(5) Modern individuals are “abandoned” and “forlorn”–but not helpless. Existentialism is meant to inspire people to embrace self-reliance and living in the present in a new and most radical way.