As a cultural movement, existentialism belongs to the past. As aphilosophical inquiry that introduced a new norm, authenticity, forunderstanding what it means to be human—a norm tied to adistinctive, post-Cartesian concept of the self as practical, embodied,being-in-the-world—existentialism has continued to play animportant role in contemporary thought in both the continental andanalytic traditions. The Society for Phenomenology and ExistentialPhilosophy, as well as societies devoted to Heidegger, Sartre,Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Beauvoir, and other existential philosophers,provide a forum for ongoing work—both of a historical,scholarly nature and of more systematic focus—that derives fromclassical existentialism, often bringing it into confrontation withmore recent movements such as structuralism, deconstruction,hermeneutics, and feminism. In the area of gender studies Judith Butler(1990) draws importantly on existential sources, as does Lewis Gordon(1995) in the area of race theory (see also Bernasconi 2003). Matthew Ratcliffe (2008) develops an existential approach to psychopathology.
It is sometimes suggested, therefore, that existentialism just is thisbygone cultural movement rather than an identifiable philosophicalposition; or, alternatively, that the term should be restricted toSartre's philosophy alone. But while a philosophical definition ofexistentialism may not entirely ignore the cultural fate of the term,and while Sartre's thought must loom large in any account ofexistentialism, the concept does pick out a distinctive cluster ofphilosophical problems and helpfully identifies a relatively distinctcurrent of twentieth- and now twenty-first-century philosophicalinquiry, one that has had significant impact on fields such astheology (through Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, andothers) and psychology (from Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss to OttoRank, R. D. Laing, and Viktor Frankl). What makes this current ofinquiry distinct is not its concern with “existence” ingeneral, but rather its claim that thinking about humanexistence requires new categories not found in the conceptualrepertoire of ancient or modern thought; human beings can beunderstood neither as substances with fixed properties, nor assubjects interacting with a world of objects.
Jean-Paul Sartre | The Nihilist Void
For instance, I do not grasp the exigency of the alarm clock (itscharacter as a demand) in a kind of disinterested perception but onlyin the very act of responding to it, of getting up. If I fail to get upthe alarm has, to that very extent, lost its exigency. Whymust I get up? At this point I may attempt to justify itsdemand by appeal to other elements of the situation with which thealarm is bound up: I must get up because I must go to work. From thispoint of view the alarm's demandappears—and is—justified, and such justificationwill often suffice to get me going again. But the question of thefoundation of value has simply been displaced: now it is my job that,in my active engagement, takes on the unquestioned exigency of ademand or value. But it too derives its being as a value from itsexigency—that is, from my unreflective engagement in the overallpractice of going to work.Ought I go to work? Why not be “irresponsible”?If a man's got to eat, why not rather take up a life of crime? Ifthese questions have answers that are themselves exigent it can onlybe because, at a still deeper level, I am engaged as having chosenmyself as a person of a certain sort: respectable,responsible. From within that choice there is an answer ofwhat I ought to do, but outside that choice there is none—whyshould I be respectable, law-abiding?—for it is onlybecause some choice has been made that anything at all canappear as compelling, as making a claim on me. Only if I amat some level engaged do values (and so justification interms of them) appear at all. The more I pull out of engagement towardreflection on and questioning of my situation, the more I amthreatened by ethical anguish—“which is the recognition ofthe ideality of values” (Sartre 1992: 76). And, as with allanguish, I do not escape this situation by discovering the true orderof values but by plunging back into action. If the idea that valuesare without foundation in being can be understood as a form ofnihilism, the existential response to this condition of the modernworld is to point out that meaning, value, is not first of all amatter of contemplative theory but a consequence of engagement andcommitment.
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Even without God, if we refer to
“human nature”, we have a universal concept of humanity of which each man is a particular example, and essence
precedes existence in this case as well.
Existentialism, by contrast, asserts that there is no definition of man either in the mind of God or written in nature.
Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Therefore I believe that whether
God exists or not, the existentialist standpoint is the best starting point for an honest, unbiased look at the moral
The primary claim that Sartre makes in this article is that for man, existence precedes essence.
The Emergence of Existence as a Philosophical Problem
One only confers value upon an action by choosing it.
Sartre then turns to another existential emotion—forlornness, which results from the fact that God does not exist
and we must face the consequences.