EXISTENTIALISM: The Philosophy of Self

The new approach of thinking stripped the nature naked of its symbolic and subjective meanings
Representational Picture
Representational PictureFile/ GK


Life is the fundamental fact which must be starting point of any philosophy. However, modern man has been compelled to sever all ties with his existence and lose his individuality in the world of industrialized mass standardisation.

He has no time to reflect, and face his own existence as he is, day and night, striving to achieve economic efficiency to satisfy his never-ending wants, both real and imaginary, to keep himself afloat with the tides of consumerism.

In this illusionary hunt man is relegated to the dark corners of the world dominated by apparitions of scientific, political, and philosophical grand narratives, preconceptions and abstract ideas.

Moreover, the meaning of religion is no more reorganised in relation to the individual’s real experience rather it is dominated by acquiring knowledge and engaging in “intellectually” irrelevant debates bereft of any significance to his daily realities and experiences.

Though man began to lose its central place as subject of philosophy immediately after Socratic period with the glorification of reason by Plato and Aristotle, but Renaissance and Enlightenment intensified its severity and put last nail in the coffin.

Eighteenth century European Civilisation rode on the horse of scientific temperament and logical positivism, trampling the remaining ruins of Christian values, ethics, morals and subjective human experience, thus declared that now reason and science alone can solve all human problems both material and spiritual.

The new approach of thinking stripped nature naked of its symbolic and subjective meanings given by Dante, and made them things of amusement for the children of enlightenment baptized in the waters of scientific temperament.

Though, Kant had warned about the limits and dangers of reason but no heed was paid to his warning until the monster haunted and gripped Europe under its claws. Nietzsche had predicted that new thinking is pregnant with devastation that will one-day submerge whole Europe and will lead to “absurdity”.

Destruction of the religious fortress, though already fragile, and roaming of the monster of scientific temperament hurled Europe’s man in the vortex and chaos of preconceptions, abstractions and grand-narratives of Nationalism, Capitalism and Socialism.

Man became just a piece of grand-puzzle devoid of any existence and meaning outside the grand-puzzle and no longer remained God’s best creation and end to itself.

As Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, proclaims “if God is dead then everything is permitted”. In Europe everything became permitted if that was justifiable on the basis of logical positivism; even devastated wars of Europe and rise of Fascism and Nazism were justified by cold rationality as destiny and salvation of Europe that ultimately left European masses in cataclysm. Thus, European man was in terrible inevitability to save its sinking ship of humanity in the colossal sea of new scientific thinking.

If objectivity can’t solve moral and ethical problems, and religion has become obsolete, then what next? Kierkegaard and Nietzsche put themselves on the trial to address this gravest question Christian civilization was haunted by.

Though, they were addressing the same question of human individuality but they constructed their inquiry on opposite hypotheses: Kierkegaard being devote Christian was determining whether Christianity can still be lived or it must confess its bankruptcy; while Nietzsche begin with confession of Christian bankruptcy and declared “God is dead.”

However, both the forerunners of existentialist philosophy reached same conclusion and proclaimed that every man must face life in its real sense and examine phenomenon without filtering it through past narratives and ideas to get his own truth.

Kierkegaard said, “the problem of death, understand in objective manner, historical sense has only vague meaning for me, but the problem of my own death concerns me greatly and cannot be dismissed.” Nietzsche echoed the same message and said, “the secret of greatest enjoyment of existence is to live dangerously; live at war with your peers and yourself.”

Thus existentialism thrust upon understanding the individual and his life bereft of all systems and preconceptions. It is man’s refusal to be fed on the phantasms of the past notions and grand-narratives, and it emboldens man to face and experience the life and death as real phenomenon to find his own truth; and not to be satisfied with the truth of others anymore.

Heidegger emphasised that man can attain genuineness only after breaking from “they”, and Nietzsche said that it is “herd” that is dragging down man thus he must break from “herd” in order to become “Superman”.

Thus, existentialism encourages a man to transgress his beliefs to remain true to his existence, and in situations of ethical and moral chaos not to wait for outside guidance rather take choice, an existential leaf. Like any other new thought and way of looking existentialism met with resistance and was labeled as heretic by conventional philosophers trained is logical positivism.

They called it offspring of “European despair” that represents everything and nothing. American philosophers termed it as “café pastime” of French hopeless youth. Existentialism was, and still is, considered as equivalent to inaction, despair and absurdity; it is accused of forcing man to renounce life and hide behind the solitary confinement of solitude. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote is his essay Existentialism is a Humanism, “they blame us encouraging people to remain in state of quietism and despair..., and others condemned us for emphasising what is despicable about humanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious or base, while ignoring beauty and brighter side of human nature.”

However, scientific temperament and logical Positivism being relics of the eighteen century enlightenment have not yet come to terms with shadow side of human life and have oversimplified man as just a logical being that can be understood and controlled through objective laws of nature.

Existential philosophy as a revolt against such oversimplification attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. It is itself “the critique of abstraction”, the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience, wrote Whitehead.

So it is way of life where man is pushed to take responsibilities of his choices and actions without using filters. Emerson in his essay, Self-Reliance has forbidden man to live on others image as he wrote “there is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, or worse, as his portion.”.

Thus it would unreasonableness to call existentialism as philosophy of inaction and quietism, on contrary, it is philosophy of actions and responsibilities.

Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad Thaku teaches at Department of Commerce, University of Kashmir

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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