Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice. It emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the nihilistic tendencies of modernity, which had stripped away traditional values and beliefs. The term “existentialism” itself was coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the 1940s, but it was Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger who popularized it.
At its core, existentialism is concerned with the meaning of life and how we can find purpose in a world that seems to have none. To this end, existentialists have identified four key pillars that form the foundation of their philosophy:
1. Existence precedes essence
This is perhaps the most famous pillar of existentialism and is often associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. The idea behind it is that humans are not born with an inherent nature or purpose; rather, we create our own through our choices and actions. In other words, we exist first and then define ourselves through our experiences.
This has profound implications for how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It means that we are responsible for who we are and what we do, rather than being predetermined by our biology or social conditioning.
2. Freedom and responsibility
Building on the first pillar, existentialists emphasize the importance of freedom and responsibility in human life. We are free to make choices, but those choices have consequences that we must be willing to accept.
This can be a daunting prospect for many people who prefer to avoid taking risks or making difficult decisions. However, according to existentialists, it is only by embracing this freedom and responsibility that we can truly live authentically.
Authenticity is another key concept in existentialism. Essentially, it means being true to ourselves and living in a way that is consistent with our values and beliefs. This requires self-awareness and a willingness to confront our own limitations and shortcomings.
In contrast, inauthenticity involves conforming to societal expectations or living according to someone else’s standards. This can lead to a sense of emptiness or alienation, as we feel disconnected from our own sense of purpose.
4. The absurd
The final pillar of existentialism is the concept of the absurd. This refers to the inherent tension between our desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe.
Existentialists argue that this tension cannot be resolved through reason or logic. Instead, we must learn to embrace the absurdity of existence and find our own way forward in spite of it.
Taken together, these four pillars form the basis of existentialist thought. They emphasize individual freedom, responsibility, authenticity, and the acceptance of life’s inherent absurdity.
While existentialism has been criticized for its pessimistic outlook and lack of practical guidance, its emphasis on personal choice and responsibility has resonated with many people seeking to find their own path in life. By understanding these pillars, we can gain insight into what makes existentialism such a compelling philosophy.