18. Existentialism

Ever since the inception of reflective thought, the problem of Being and Existence has loomed large in the minds of philosophers saints and seers. In ancient Upanishads we find direct reference to this question in the form of an inquiry into the element in man which survives death and destruction, that is, which is unaffected by becoming or change. The philosophers of East as well as West, of the ancient as well as modern times have all been seriously preoccupied by the problem of Existence. In short, no philosopher can avoid considering the ontological problems and thus all philosophies are at bottom existentialists. Then, how is the modern existentialist different and why do we not call other philosophies existentialism? The reason is that modern existentialism is concerned, unlike other philosophies, more with the problem of becoming than the problem of being; more with particulars than universals; more with existence than essence.
Attempts have been made to trace the beginning of existentialism in the Greek philosophy, in particular, the philosophy of Socrates. According to Dr. Radhakrishnan, “Existen-tialism is a new name for an ancient method”.
Main characteristics
It is clear from the above account that in existentialism, human person and his freedom are given great importance. In it the ancient personal value stressed by Stoics and Epicureans and exemplified in Socrates’ hemlock drinking have been reinterpreted. According to existentialism personal growth and development can take place through individual’s own efforts and none can help him in this regard. Thus the practical problems of living are attached great value and importance. Briefly, the main characteristics of existentialism are the following :
Criticism of idealism
Existentialism has emerged and developed as a reaction against idealism. Existentialist philosophers are highly critical of idealism and conceptualism.
According to idealism human person is essentially an expression of some underlying spiritual or psychic element which is of universal character: that is all men are fundamentally same and share with each other the universal character. It is this common character which truly defines the man. Therefore, the human freedom is subject to the good of humanity in general. There is no arbitrariness or individual will accounting for human freedom. But the existentialists criticize idealist’s contention bout universal element and man’s good being subject to general good. They regard the search for essence a mistaken pursuit and according to them it is not the essence but existence which is real.
Criticism of naturalism
The existentialist philosophers are also critical of the philosophy of Naturalism. According to naturalists, life is subject to physico-biochemical laws, which, in turn, are subject to the universal law of causation. According to the law of causation whatever happens is due to antecedent causes and there is no event which can appear suddenly without some or the other cause. Thus, if the law of causation is universally operative there can be no human freedom of action Human acts are as mechanical as the actions of an animal. This, however, is anathema to the existentialists and they stoutly defend the freedom of man. As a matter of fact, man is so free, that he is fearful of his freedom.
Criticism of the scientific philosophy
Besides being critical of idealism and naturalism, the existentialist philosophers are also critical of scientific conceptualism. Science abstracts from the immediate data and brings them under some universal law or general rule, whereas, according to existentialists, all abstraction is false, reality is in the immediate data only. Furthermore, with the tremendous progress in science and technology, rapid industrialization and urbanization have taken place. This has given rise to crowded towns in which an individual is lost. Everything is done or happens on a large-scale and all personal values, individual likes and dislikes are altogether lost sight of. Today it is not the individual who chooses his end, rather all decisions are made by computers or statistical laws and data. Thus, science has made the value of man negligible. This is why the existentialists are opposed to scientific philosophy and culture. Indeed, the appeal of existentialist philosophy for artists and literatures is due mainly to the stout opposition to science by existentialism. It is the basic belief of existentialism that any true philosophy must be grounded in axiology or theory of values and not in epistemology or theory of knowledge.
Born of despair
As has been indicated above, on account of an unparalleled progress of science and technology, huge, industrial complexes and townships have sprung. Everywhere man is losing touch of nature. In big towns the problems and inner conflicts of man have multiplied phenomenally. The two world wars have completely shaken man’s faith in world’s future and philosophy. With the growing application of technology and consequent increase in the mechanisation of life, there is a growing despair in the minds and hearts of men. The worth of human efforts is decreasing and the life is becoming like a raft on the open sea which is carried hither and thither without any definite direction. Under these circumstances a sensitive mind finds himself lost and forlorn. The existentialists try to analyze and describe these human predicaments and find a way out of these. The existentialist is attached on this count as indulging in gross exaggeration and raising false alarms. While it is very true that modern life is infested with hydra-headed problems and that intricacies of life overwhelm the spirit of man, giving up struggle in despair and cry in stiflement is no sensible solution of the current human predicament. Rather, any intensification of the feeling of despair and hopelessness would further complicate the matters. What is needed is an intelligent and sensible compromise with the hard and harsh facts of life. If man allows himself to be overwhelmed by misery, pain and apparent hopelessness of the situation, he would sink into apathy and cynicism. Thus he would not be able to improve his situation, on the contrary, every hope of any possible way out will recede. Psychologically, such an attitude is symptomatic of hypersensitiveness and hypochon-dria. Moreover, by advising man to feel fully unremittingly responsible for his life-situation, the sense of responsibility becomes abnormal and pathological. Such a man feels so intensely that he is led to commit suicide for small acts of omission and commission. As it is true elsewhere, it is true in this context that too much of anything is bad. The sense of responsibility and duty and the respect for human person are good things; but an exaggerated version of these can produce abnormal and pathological personality.
Value of human personality
From the observations made above about existentialism, it is obvious that existentialism recognizes the paramountcy of the human personality. As a matter of fact, for an existentialist ‘man’ is the centre of the universe, etc., are subsidiary to “man”. The basic feature of human person is his freedom—unfettered and unres-trained. Society and social institutions are for the sake of man and not vice versa, as is believed by idealists and others. There is no ‘general will’ to which the ‘individual will’ is subject. If any social law or principle is restrictive of human freedom it is invalued and unjust. Anything which obstructs the growth and development of the individual must be discarded. With this aim in view, existentialist writers, artists and thinkers have expressed their views uncompromisingly and waged great battles for securing these freedoms for man.
Importance of subjectivity
The Danish philosopher S. Kierkegaard has said that truth is subjective, truth is subjectivity: objectivity and abstraction are hallucinations. While scientists lay so exclusive a stress on the objectivity and consider any intrusions by subjective elements as wholly unwarranted and vicious, the existentialists are extremists who believe that only the immediate feeling or apprehension reveals the truth and that abstraction in any form or manners vitiates the truth and reality. The immediate experience or feeling about which existentialists talk is the direct experience by individuals of things like conflict, divisiveness, pain, anguish, anxiety, suffocation, etc. It is these conflicts and pains that tell a person the quality of his life and the business of philosophy is to analyze and describe these conflicts and trace their causes. Usually these conflicts are moral in nature and are indicative of inauthentic existence. The various existentialists have tried to describe in minute details the experiences like spiritual crisis, sexual crisis, marital crisis, etc. The existentialist thinking is beyond thinking and reasoning and is rooted in direct experiences and their descriptions. A biographical account, if honest, sincere and frank usually helps in appreciating and understanding the truth of one’s own situation. For example, a marital discord may be due to lack of respect for the other spouse and too much expectation of him or her. An honest account of such an experience may help relieve tensions in many perusers of this account by providing them insight into their own problems. Everyone by probing into the depths of one’s subjectivity can discover the truth of one’s being and discover his authentic role in life. This is a creative process which gives rise to fresh insights. The man, when he encounters his existence first hand, stands alone. It is only when one is alone that one comes to grips wit his true self. This ability to be alone, to stand by oneself, is the true freedom and this again is the basis of all morality. According to existentialists the origin of values is not in the social situation but in the personal insight.
No construction of philosophical system
From the ancient times philosophers have cogitated and pondered over problems of God, Soul, Space, Time, physical world, its origin and evolution, etc. They have tried to present philosophies which embraced all these problems and developed a theoretical system. However the existentialists distrust system making and theorization. According to them, the true aim of philosophy is action and not theory. Therefore they do not cogitate over traditional problems.
Emphasis on the problem of the relation of individual and world
Lastly, a problem which is thought to be crucial by the existentialists is the relation between individual and world. The traditional explanations to this problem are not satisfactory according to existentialists. If we, after Hegel, believe in the one universal element called Absolute whose manifestation everything is, the individual has no value per se and is not free. According to Hegel the acceptance of necessity is the true freedom. This robs individual of all freedom and his unique quality. Such a view is repugnant to the existentialists; they, therefore, are consistently and consensually anti-Hegelian. According to existentialists man cannot be considered subject to any law, rule or principle, be it a universal natural, social or political law. They are uncompromising free-willists and are extremely wary of any external encroachment upon human freedom. The rule does not verify the rule. The validity of art is in the artistic impulse and expression and not in any universal element. The existentialist’s account of man is neither mystical nor philosophical. Man and world both are unbound and free.
Emphasis on the problem of inner conflict
The central problem of the modern highly complex world is not ideological but practical. It is neither relevant nor important today to win followers for a particular ideology or theory but to inspire in man a sense of responsibility and freedom. If there is this sense, the process of communication is facilitated. The world peace cannot be accomplished by raising slogans. We require for this purpose individuals who are free, who communicate freely and, above all, who respect theirs as well as other’s personalities. The peace is possible if any only if there is peace in each heart; if each man is free from inner conflicts, if each can be free from the desire to subject others to his will. That is why existentialists attach so great importance to the problem of inner conflict. The traditional philosophies do not consider these problems philosophically worthwhile; but for existentialists these are extremely crucial and fundamental. The source of modern philosophical issues is the feeling of alienation from world, society as well as self. If we regard the existence and thought desperate, the problems arising out of this severance between reason and existence cannot be rationally solved. These can be resolved in practice only.
A true harmony is not a harmony of ideas or thoughts but a harmony of desires. A true philosophy is not a philosophy of substance but rather a philosophy of existents, a philosophy of immediate experiences. The true nature of this philosophy is not thinking about the being but participating in its movement, that is, commitment. The existentialist philosophy does not have any definite aim because, life being movement and flow which is not mere mechanical change but a creative advance, it is not possible to tie down life to any particular aim. Life cannot be aimless or having an aim but only inauthentic and authentic. An authentic existence is the only aim that life has but this is not some future state but a present quality of life. An authentic life can be personal only. The existentialism condemns both historicism and the scientific philosophy. With the exception of Karl Jaspers no other existentialist philosopher attaches much importance to history or science.

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