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What is the
meaning of
my life?
What is my
Your Assignment
• Please take time to carefully read the
information in this presentation.
• Take notes on your handout as you go, and
please jot down questions you may have.
• The information contained herein is complex and
will require thought on your part.
• Please take your time, read carefully, and think
thoughtfully about the information.
• The presentation is about 70 slides long, it
should take you about one to two hours to
carefully review it.
Vocabulary to Know
 Existentialism: A philosophy that began in the 19th
century and became fashionable in the 20th century,
post World War II years, as a way to reassert the
importance of human individuality and freedom.
 Philosophy: (1) The rational investigation of the truths
and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct;
(2) Any system of belief, values, morals, or tenets;
(3) A personal outlook or viewpoint.
 Belief: A state or habit of mind in which trust or
confidence is placed in some person or thing.
 Morals: Perception of what is right or wrong according
to religion, society, or the individual.
Understanding Existentialism
“No Excuses!”
• “The message of Existentialism […] is that
every one of us, as an individual, is
responsible — responsible for what we do,
responsible for who we are, responsible
for the way we face and deal with the
world, responsible, ultimately, for the way
the world is. It is, in a very short phrase,
the philosophy of 'No excuses!' We cannot
shift that burden onto God, or nature, or
the ways of the world.”
- Professor Robert Solomon
Fundamental Question:
What do you
know with
absolute certainty?
“I think, therefore, I am.”
Existentialism begins with the idea that
your existence is the only original
You might not know anything else, but you
at least know you exist (in some way)
because you are thinking.
Existentialism holds that your existence
is your pre-eminent truth and reality.
Existentialism Main Ideas
• The individual has the sole
responsibility for finding meaning in life
• Despite absurdity, alienation and
boredom, one must live life with
passion and sincerity.
• “Any life-view with a condition outside
it is despair."
For example…
• If a dancer loses her leg in an accident,
her despair is overwhelming unless she
realizes that her existence and reason for
being was never dependent on her identity
as a dancer. Once this crisis is resolved,
she can continue life without despairing.
• It is possible to “despair without
• Identification as a dancer was not true
• Existentialism is not nihilism.
"Nihilism" is the belief that nothing
matters. Existentialism is the
attempt to confront and deal with not
succumb to nihilism or despair: to
not give up or avoid responsibility.
• So Existentialism is the opposite of nihilism:
the nihilist says "There is no god, no heaven or
hell, so screw it: there can be no right or wrong.
Let's party!" The Existentialist says "There is no
god, no heaven or hell, so you and I alone must
figure out how to make life meaningful and good
-- we must, in fact, work without cosmic aid to
figure out what 'good' itself is.“
• Note: Not all existentialist are atheists. Many
existentialists do believe in God, but they look to
themselves, not God, to find their own meaning
and purpose.
• Many existentialists argue that only through a
return to faith can we battle nihilism.
• So/But, if there is any room in this harsh
human reality for any meaning at all, it
exists strictly and only at a human level,
rather that at a cosmic or metaphysical one.
• And it must be created. But the
existentialist realizes that even our greatest,
most beautiful, most heroic creations live
and die with us as individuals, as cultures.
• If my love for my spouse or child has any
meaning at all, it is because I make it so -- I
will such meaning into existence -- but that
meaning dies with us; if a moral or ethical
life or society has any meaning, that
meaning dies off with that life or society.
• Thus, any meaning in our lives, our
world will be:
• Created through our own free will
• Fleeting, transitory, individual, subjective
• Still ultimately meaningless in terms of some
ultimate "big picture,” because there is no
bigger picture.
• But does this matter? Does the fact that
you and your loved ones only exist for 100
years, tops, really negate the value of that
life, while it is lived?
• The Existentialist says "no, of course not; if
this is all the meaning there is, it logically
follows it is the only value there is -- thus it
is of the utmost value and importance.
• Life is rendered more valuable, not less."
• This is vital to note: Existentialists are
looking for a way out of man’s inhumanity to
man. Our suffering may not have any
“higher” or ultimate cosmological value, but
it is suffering none-the-less.
• The Existentialist says, even if there is no higher
meaning, even if existence is ultimately absurd,
we are still “forced” by existence (the fact that
we are alive) and chance to live out our days.
• We cannot blame God for tragedies and events
like the Holocaust; thus, we must blame
ourselves when horror (or "the horror, the
horror...") occurs, and we must look to ourselves
to ensure such horror happens rarely.
 Kierkegaard is considered to be the first
existential philosopher. However, unlike
other existentialists who do not believe in
God, Kierkegaard did. His work deals
with the issues of how one lives as a
"single individual," giving priority to
concrete human reality over abstract
thinking, highlighting the importance
of personal choice and commitment.
 The scientist can learn about the world
by observation, but Kierkegaard denied
that observation could reveal the inner
workings of the spiritual world.
 He wrote: “What I really need is to get
clear about what I must do, not what I
must know […]. What matters is to find
a purpose, to see what it really is that
God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing
is to find a truth which is truth for me,
to find the idea for which I am willing
to live and die."
Danish – Lutheran
Comes from Externals (Things Beyond Us)
Comes from Within Us
Kierkegaard’s writings are the beginning of
modern existentialism. For him, the individual’s
existence is where it all starts.
Kierkegaard believed people in the 19th Century
to be in despair over being human. People didn’t
want to exist outside of the crowd.
He argued that a person who ‘follows the crowd’
does not choose his or her own identity and
therefore can not live life passionately as an
individual. This amounted to not existing.
The problem for the individual is (in Kierkegaard’s
view) that God has physically hidden himself from us.
There is an “infinite abyss” between us and God.
Therefore, we must struggle to make decisions in
“absolute isolation” from God.
Objective reason is of no value: when God deals
with us as individuals, His commands are often
irrational and unique to the individual.
Kierkegaard refers to such episodes as the:
“Teleological Suspension of the Ethical”:
Instances where individuals are commanded by
God to act irrationally and/or in ways outside the
ethical norm – for a specific purpose.
“Teleological Suspension of the Ethical” Example:
God’s Command to Abraham to Sacrifice his son, Isaac.
If you remember the Abraham and Isaac
story: Abraham really loved his son Isaac,
and God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Kill
him for faith. And Abraham, despite loving
his son and otherwise being a perfect dutiful
father, swings the knife down on his son at
the altar.
Basically, Abraham has a rational duty to
his son. Killing him for God is completely
irrational and unethical. Yet, in his faith,
Abraham “suspends ethics and rationality”
and gives himself up completely to God. (At
that moment Abraham had no logic, no past,
no future, no telos) It is a “Leap Of Faith.”
(BTW, if you don't know how the story
ends, God sends an angel down to save
Isaac just in time from under the knife.)
Therefore, according to Kierkegaard,
since God’s commands are often
irrational and unique to the individual:
(not based on reason & logic).
While some would argue that God
only occasionally commands some to
act outside the norm, Kierkegaard holds
that this is the way all religious
experience operates.
“Then how am I supposed to
know what to do?”
If Kierkegaard is
right, we must make
decisions without
any means of
justifying our
This uncertainty then
creates ANGUISH
and ANXIETY in us.
“I must find the truth that is true for me….
the idea for which I can live or die.”
Since objective
reason is not a
guide in making
decisions, we
cannot know before
hand which choices
will be right –
therefore, we must
act by taking a
blind “leap of faith.”
Subjective Morality is Best
• Objective Morality – coming from outside
ourselves (religion, society, rules, etc.)
may help us to be “good” or “moral,” but
they also allow us to “make excuses” or
look to someone else for the answers.
• Subjective Morality – coming from inside
ourselves is preferred.
Existentialists Moral beliefs example:
Religion barrier (moral) vs. Own responsibility (moral)
Greater belief in God = Greater Corruption in Country
Less belief in God = Less Corruption in Country
1905 – 1980
French - Atheist
 Jean-Paul Sartre is one of a group of
existentialists who stress that the
natural state of the universe is chaos
and that order, created by man, is
artificial. According to these
existentialists, we must create our
own order out of this inherent
 The main idea of Sartre is that we are,
as humans, “condemned to be free.”
This theory relies upon his position that
there is no creator, therefore human
beings have no essence before their
existence. This forms the basis for his
assertion that since one cannot explain
his own actions and behavior by
referencing any specific human nature,
one is necessarily fully responsible for
those actions.
 “We are left alone, without excuse.”
How did we come to be?
To Sartre, the human condition
is a paradox.
Thanks to Descartes, we know
we exist: “I think, therefore, I am,”
but for Sartre, there is no
explanation of how or why.
“Existence Precedes Essence”
Since we do not know how we came to exist, there is no
way of knowing a purpose for our existence.
Therefore, according to Sartre, we have an existence,
but no essence (a purpose for which we were designed).
We exist in “freedom” because our existence is
surrounded by “nothingness.”
Sartre is not happy about our freedom.
He actually says we are “condemned to be free.”
(trapped in an existence for which we have no way of
making any sense of our purpose)
“NAUSEA” occurs when we struggle to find purpose or
reason in our existence in NOTHINGNESS.
Man’s Attempt to Become God
“Nausea” leads us to an attempt to create
a purpose for our existence.
Sartre says to attempt to create the
purpose for one’s existence is to attempt
to be God.
He didn’t mean that we strive to be the
master of the universe, rather that we
seek to create a purpose for our life.
Man’s Attempt to Become God
However, in this attempt, we can only fail,
because there are no logical answers to
the questions:
“How did we come to be?”
“What are we to be?”
“Hell is other people”
Another way we try to create a purpose
for our existence is through relations
with other people.
However, this also doesn’t work and
creates further frustration leading to
Sartre’s axiom:
“Hell is other people.”
“Man is a futile passion.”
How should we then live?
One might conclude that Sartre’s POV places little
significance on the actions of humans. On the
contrary, with our total freedom comes total
responsibility (even in situations involving duress
and oppression).
“There are no innocent victims in war.”
We must act in “Good Faith” rather than “Bad Faith.”
We act in “good faith” when we act in a way that
acknowledges our freedom.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most
famous, controversial philosophers of the
modern era, notoriously declared that “God
is dead.” By this he means that religion
can no longer offer people a sufficient
moral code – morality is no longer selfevident; we have to figure right from wrong
for ourselves.
 In Nietzsche's view, recent developments
in modern science and the increasing
secularization of European society had
effectively 'killed' the Abrahamic God, who
had served as the basis for meaning and
value in the West for more than a thousand
 Nietzsche also considered the role of
making free choices, particularly regarding
fundamental values and beliefs, and how
such choices change the nature and
identity of the chooser. Nietzsche claimed
the death of God would eventually lead to
the loss of any universal perspective on
things, and along with it any coherent
sense of objective truth.
German - Atheist
Throughout history, Western thought was centered around
philosophy and religion, from whose tenants meaning, morality and
purpose for life was given.
Nietzsche predicted that gradually, belief in religion and
philosophy would diminish, moving civilization towards a day where
people would have no “belief” in anything. Nietzsche called this
“belief in nothing” NIHILISM
Nietzsche predicted that the emergence of science would in large
part drive humanity’s march toward nihilism.
NOTE: The Scientific Revolution had already began about one
hundred years prior to Nietzsche.
It was also about at this time that DARWIN
and his THEORY OF EVOLUTION emerged.
“God is Dead”
Nietzsche proclaimed the dawning
of this era of nihilism and atheism
with his famous statement,
“God is Dead.”
He believed that without God,
man is free, and this will unleash
the individual’s WILL TO POWER,
thereby driving the ascent of
This would also free the strongwilled to lord over the weakminded.
“God is Dead.”
In this environment, there would be those with a
In the nihilism that would dominate the thought
of the next century (the 1900s), he prophesized
grand scale war, totalitarianism, genocide,
The rise of the SUPERMAN, the free and
emboldened leader who acts “beyond (without
regard to the concept of) good and evil.”
In other words, a champion of untruth, injustice, and
having all things his way.
 Popular existential writer. More
optimistic than Sartre.
 Developed the concept of “the absurd”
much of our life is built on the hope
for tomorrow yet tomorrow brings us
closer to death and is the ultimate
people live as if they didn't know
about the certainty of death; once
stripped of its common romanticisms,
the world is a foreign, strange and
inhuman place;
true knowledge is impossible and
rationality and science cannot explain
the world: their stories ultimately end
in meaningless abstractions, in
metaphors. "From the moment
absurdity is recognized, it becomes a
passion, the most harrowing of all.”
French - Atheist
Persisting Through the Absurd
Camus believed that when we confront the
absurdity of existence and realise the world
is completely random and meaningless we
experience a deep ‘nihilism.’ However, far
from contemplating suicide in the face of
such absurdity we must conquer our fate.
We need to become the ‘absurd hero’
like Sisyphus. In the myth of Sysiphus, he
is condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock up
a hill, only to have it roll down to the
bottom. However, Sisyphus conquers his
absurd situation and lives life with a love
and passion for which the god’s
condemned him.
He determines his meaning and gives
life value in a world without either.
The Inevitability of Death
Camus believed that life is absurd but can still
have meaning.
The fact that it cannot be made rational is what
makes it wonderful.
Camus begins with the issue of facing the
inevitability of death.
We must accept that we will one day die – and
then chase meaning in life.
The champion of a just but lost cause is Camus’
hero. (Like Sisyphus)
Existentialism “Big Ideas”
We search for the meaning of our existence and
the meaning of our death and suffering.
Reality is a lived experience.
We need to confront alienation and anxiety and
the absurdity of life with courage.
We should live a moral life because even though
I determine my own essence, I share a common
human condition.
Nothing defines you but you.
Seven Common
Existence Precedes Essence
Human life is understandable only in terms of an
individual man’s existence, his particular experience of
life. A man lives rather than is, and every man’s
experience is unique, radically different from everyone
else’s and can be understood truly only in terms of his
involvement in life or commitment to it.
There is no Platonic ideal of man—there is no
universal of human nature of which each man is only
one example. Don’t ask “What is mankind?”
Ask: “Who am I?”
The existentialist insists that each person is unique.
He is an entire universe—the center of infinity.
Anxiety and Angst
Despair, Anxiety and
Angst (fear and dread)
can enhance our
understanding of
Happiness alone will not
lead to a deep
understanding of
Anxiety and Angst
• Grasping all of the above normally leads to “existential
despair” or “angst”, or “anxiety”. Our lives appear both
meaningless and we are entirely responsible for our
lives. Understanding this can big a big ol' bummer, and
it often scares the sh!t out of people to realize they alone
are responsible for the course of human events. It is
relatively easy to say "Well, God has a plan, so those
20,000,000 people the Nazis killed or those 3,500 who
died on 9/11 must have died for a reason." But it is
terrifying to say "All those deaths truly occurred simply
because we let them. Thus, we are to blame, and only
we can stop this from occurring."
• And the more we realize that humans are selfish idiots,
the more anxiety we are likely to experience.
Anxiety & Angst
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so
long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no
longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question:
When will I be blown up?” –William Faulkner at his Nobel Prize
Causes of Fear, Trembling, and Anxiety
 Lost optimism from the Age of Enlightenment that problems can
be solved through reason, science. Nature can be “conquered.”
 WW I
 Great Depression
 WW II and Holocaust
 Nuclear threat
 Environmental crises
 Terrorism
 9/11
Too many moral choices! We cannot resolve ethical questions
by subjecting our moral consciousness to an impersonal
deliberative perspective. Ethical questions are essentially firstperson.
 Why am I here and is there
purpose to life?
 Am I simply a small speck in the
universe in a world that has no
 Where am I?
 What is this thing called the
 Who is it who has lured me into
the thing and now leaves me
 Who am I?
 How did I come into the world?
 Why was I not consulted?
Absurdity: life is absurd and reason is
impotent to deal with the depths of human life
 Human reason is relatively weak and
imperfect and there are dark places in
human life which are “non-reason” and to
which reason scarcely penetrates.
Absurdity: life is absurd and reason is
impotent to deal with the depths of human life
 Myth of Phaedrus—Plato describes the
psyche in the myth of the chariot which is
drawn by the white steeds of the emotions
and the black unruly steeds of the appetites.
The driver of the chariot is Reason who holds
the reins which control the horses and the
whip to subdue the surging black steeds of
passion. Only the driver, the rational nature,
is given human form; the rest of the psyche,
the non-rational part, is given a lower, animal
form. This separation and exaltation of
reason is carried further in the allegory of the
cave in the Republic.
Absurdity: life is absurd and reason is
impotent to deal with the depths of human life
 Existentialism insists upon reuniting the
lower or irrational parts of the psyche with
the higher. It insists that man must be
taken in his wholeness and not in some
divided state, that whole man contains not
only intellect but also anxiety, guilt, and
the will to power—which modify and
sometimes overwhelm the reason. A man
seen in this light is fundamentally
ambiguous, if not mysterious, full of
contradictions and tensions which cannot
be dissolved simply by taking thought.
 We all experience a
feeling of being
separate, lost, confused,
out of place, etc.
 Modernity has only
added to this problem.
We are alienated by our
own creations; science,
capitalism, politics,
religion, technology, etc.
 We need to confront
alienation with dignity.
Alienation or Estrangement
 Because of the dissociation of reason from the rest
of the psyche, we have SCIENCE, a hallmark of
Western civilization. Since the Renaissance we
have progressively separated man from concrete
earthy existence, and forced him to live at a high
level of abstraction. We have collectivized
individual man out of existence, driven God from the
heavens or from the hearts of men. Man lives in
alienation from God, from nature, from other men,
from his own true self. Man’s estrangement from
nature has been a major theme in literature since
Rousseau and the Romantic Movement, and is not
really exclusive property of the existentialists.
Alienation or Estrangement
 The existentialists worry about the walls of
industry and technology which shut us off
from nature and from one another.
Crowding of people into cities
Subdivision of labor
Burgeoning of centralized government
Growth of advertising, propaganda and the mass
media of entertainment and communication
 These things drive us asunder by
destroying individuality and making us live
on the surface of life, content to deal with
things rather than people.
The Encounter with Nothingness
 If man is alienated from nature,
God, neighbors, and self, what is
 People who seemingly have
“everything” feel empty, uneasy,
 Nothingness appears in
existentialism, as the placeholder
of the possibility.
 Existentialists write about the loss of freedom or the threat to it,
or the enlargement of the range of human freedoms.
 Freedom means human autonomy. Sartre said that we are
condemned to freedom. Because there is no God, we must
accept individual responsibility for our own becoming. Nothing
explicitly implies that in becoming a free individual one becomes
a virtuous person.
 The religious existentialists include God as a factor. They stress
the man of faith rather than the man of will. Man’s essential
nature is God-like – and we should not alienate ourselves from it.
We should heal the chasm between the two, that is, to find
 Freedom is the acceptance of responsibility for choice and a
commitment to one’s choice.
Death is a facet of
life and we must
comprehend it to
really understand
Living life as if
death does not exist
is irresponsibility.
Existentialism in Movies
A primary existential
principal is that “moral
values are “created”
rather than “discovered.”
Fight Club is a movie
that conflicts with
societal norms and rules
to create a world of new
“morals” and “rules” and
Sartre attests that to choose
between this or that, one
course of action over
another, is to affirm the
value of that which is
The characters of Fight Club
are constantly dealing with
the inevitability of their own
deaths, Tyler accepting it,
Marla wanting it, and the
narrator struggling to
confront it. Each character’s
approach to death reflects
his or her own constructed
moral values.
Groundhog Day is a classic comedy.
But it is mush more than that. This
movie is an experiment in
existentialism, where the main
character is “trapped” in a never
ending cycle, repeating the same day
over and over.
The movie illustrates to us that if we
find our lives are governed by rhythm,
rote and routine, or that we go through
life shallowly, mechanically, like a
sleepwalker rather than an explorer,
that we can choose to improve
ourselves, find meaning in art and
science, glory in little
accomplishments, and find solace and
joy in the company of friends and
loved ones.
The existentialism in this film shows
that we give purpose to our own lives.
Existential Music
• The Doors
• Pink Floyd
• Nine Inch Nails
Existentialist novels
Grendel, John Gardner
Fight Club, Palahniuk
Journey to the End of the Night, Celine
Man’s Fate, Malraux
Steppenwolf, Hesse
The Woman in the Dunes, Abe
Nausea, Sartre
The Trial, Kafka
Invisible Man, Ellison
Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky
The Stranger, Camus
– “I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating.”
“I must find the truth that is true for me….
the idea for which I can live or die.”
• As we read Grendel, pay attention to how he
struggles with “the truth that is true for him.”
What discoveries does he make? What ideas
does he embrace? What ideas does he
dismiss? In the end, what is Grendel’s life
• Also, begin to think of how you would answer the
question: “what is truth that is true for you – the
ideas for which you can live or die?” What is
your personal life philosophy? You do not need
to answer this now – but please start thinking
about it, as you will write a paper on it later. 