Background of Existentialism

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Modern existential psychology has roots hi the writings of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish philosopher and theologian. Kierkegaard was concerned with the increasing trend in postindustrial societies toward the dehumanization of people. He opposed any attempt to see people merely as objects, but at the same time, he opposed the view that subjective perceptions are one's only reality. Instead, Kierkegaard was concerned with both the experiencing person and the person's experience. He wished to understand people as they exist in the world as thinking, active, and willing beings. As May (1967) put it, "Kierkegaard sought to overcome the dichotomy of reason and emotion by tinning [people's] attentions to the reality of the immediate experience which underlies both subjectivity and objectivity" (p. 67).

Kierkegaard, like later existentialists, emphasized a balance between freedom and responsibility. People acquire freedom of action through expanding their self-awareness and then by assuming responsibility for then actions. The acquisition of freedom and responsibility, however, is achieved only at the expense of anxiety. As people realize that, ultimately, they are in charge of then own desthiy, they experience the burden of freedom and the pain of responsibility.

Kierkegaard's views had little effect on philosophical thought during his comparatively short lifetime (he died at age 42); but the work of two German philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1899-1976), helped popularize existential philosophy during the 20th century. Heidegger exerted considerable influence on two Swiss psychiatrists, Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss. Binswanger and Boss, along with Karl Jaspers, Victor Frankl, and others, adapted the philosophy of existentialism to the practice of psychotherapy.

Existentialism also permeated 20th century literature through the work of the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre and the French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus; religion through the writings of Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and others; and the world of art through the work of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, whose paintings break through the boundaries of realism and demonstrate a freedom of being rather than the freedom of dohig (May, 1981).

After World War II, European existentialism hi its various forms spread to the United States and became even more diversified as it was taken up by an assorted collection of writers, artists, dissidents, college professors and students, playwrights, clergy, and others.

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