What Is Existentialism

Although philosophers and psychologists interpret existentialism in a variety of ways, some common elements are found among most existential thinkers. First, existence takes precedence over essence. Existence means to emerge or to become; essence hnplies a static immutable substance. Existence suggests process; essence refers to a product. Existence is associated with growth and change; essence signifies stagnation and finality. Western civilization, and particularly Western science, has traditionally valued essence over existence. It has sought to understand the essential composition of things, including humans. By contrast, existentialists affirm that people s essence is then power to continually redefine themselves through the choices they make.

Second existentialism opposes the split between subject and object. According to Kierkegaard people are more than mere cogs in the machinery of an industrialized society, but they are also more than subjective thinking bemgs living passively through armchair speculation. Instead people are both subjective and objective and must search for truth by living active and authentic lives.

Third people search for some meaning to then lives. They ask (though not always consciously) the important questions concerning their bemg: Who am I? Is life worth living? Does it have a meaning? How can I realize my humanity?

Fourth, existentialists hold that ultimately each of us is responsible for who we are and what we become. We cannot blame parents, teachers, employers, God or circumstances. As Sartre (1957) said "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism" (p. 15). Although we may associate with others in productive and healthy relationships, in the end we are each alone. We can choose to become what we can be or we can choose to avoid commitment and choice, but ultimately, it is our choice.

Fifth, existentialists are basically antitheoretical. To them, theories further dehumanize people and render them as objects. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, theories are constructed hi part to explahi phenomena. Existentialists are generally opposed to this approach. Authentic experience takes precedence over artificial explanations. When experiences are molded hito some preexisting theoretical model, they lose their authenticity and become divorced from the individual who experienced them.

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