Who are the existentialists?

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Who are the existentialists?

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1zenomax
Jul 26, 2008, 12:04pm

So, I read a little about existentialism at university, and it felt close to my views on the world.

I have also scanned through the several dormant threads in this group and have learned some more interesting stuff.

But my view of existentialism, for those who know of the various 16 type personality theories (Myers Briggs, Keirsey etc), is that essentially it is a movement both by and for NT types. As NT's are the smallest in number of the 4 'temperaments' it is really only ever going to be a minority view in a world which prefers its truths to be simple and homespun....

2Jargoneer
Jul 26, 2008, 1:18pm

>1 zenomax: - that would be fine if there was any validity about the various 16 type personality theories but since they are scientifically dubious at best we can ignore them.

3Naren559
Oct 23, 2008, 9:12pm

IDENTIFYING THE EXISTENTIALISTS
There are two famous trios of existentialists; other existentialists are grouped with these trios of “leaders” as appropriate. The first trio of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger is grouped together intellectually. These men are the fathers of existentialism and dedicated themselves to the study of the human condition. While they expressed political views, especially Heidegger, their primary interest was metaphysical.
The second trio of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir is viewed as a political trio. They were a social trio until Sartre and Camus proved that petty squabbles and pride cannot be overcome by basic philosophy. While other individuals moved in and out of these two groups, literally and figuratively, these six individuals define existentialism.
Professor St. Elmo Nauman, writing in The New Dictionary of Existentialism, of-fers the following groupings of existential thinkers:
Existentialism has exerted a profound unifying influence on the usually diverse disciplines of philosophy, theology, literature, and psychology.
The immediate foundations of existentialism were laid by Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and to some extent by the phe-nomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). The major formulations of existen-tialism are by Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sar-tre. In addition to these thinkers, the most commonly acknowledged existential-ists are Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Migeul de Unamuno y Jugo (1864–1936), and Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948).
The literary existentialists, in addition to many of the above, are Fyodor Mikhailo-vich Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), Frank Kafka (1883–1924), Albert Camus (1913–1960), André Gide (1869–1951) and André Malraux.
The most noted men in the field of existential psychology, in addition to Kierke-gaard, Jaspers, and Sartre, are Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Ludwig Binswanger, and Roland Kuhn.
The theological existentialists, in addition to Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Marcel, are Martin Buber, Karl , Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.
- The New Dictionary of Existentialism (Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1971, 1972)
Metaphysicians
The intellectual powers behind existentialism concentrated their writings and lectures upon the metaphysical. These men wondered if there was a Creator. If so, what is mankind’s relation to that creator? Are the laws of nature set, with mankind forced to adhere to those laws? These men were so dedicated to thought that they were generally asocial, while caring a great deal about mankind.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are the primary intellectual and meta-physical existentialists. Reference works indicate that Nietzsche (1844-1900) was not a reader of Kierkegaard’s essays (1813-1855), but they both pursued the same general question: What, short of a fear of a Creator, limits the actions of an individual? Kierkegaard approached the problem from the possibility that Christianity, and faith in general, is irrational. Kierkegaard argued that proving the existence of a single, supreme entity was not a useful pursuit. Instead, Kierkegaard believed, the important test of a man was his commitment to faith despite the absurdity of that faith.
Nietzsche, often characterized as an atheist, was more precisely a critic of orga-nized religion and the doctrines of his time. He believed that organized religion, especially the powerful Catholic church, was opposed to anyone gaining power or self-reliance without consent. Nietzsche used the phrase herd to describe the populous, which followed the churches willingly. Nietzsche argued that proving the existence of a Creator was neither possible nor important. However, while Kierkegaard considered devotion in the absence of proof courageous, Nietzsche considered the pursuit of personal excellence a sign of courage. Nietzsche’s philosophy can be compared to Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lucifer said, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Some twentieth-century theologians have debated these differing views of man's relationship with the Creator. The writers addressing this issue include Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. This group is referred to as the religious or theological existentialists. Tillich was one of the most influential members of this group. Because he emigrated to the United States after opposing the National Socialists in Germany, Tillich was embraced by the American intellectual community.
Politicians
It might be a bit unfair to call the French Existentialists politicians, but they were politically active and often politically motivated. France was the center of political existentialism, as noted in the included history. German philosophers, until World War II, were isolated from daily political struggles. Even during the two world wars, the German philosophers could only imagine the horrors of concentration camps. The French Resistance, meanwhile, was the refuge of some of France’s leading thinkers.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, recognized as the two most influential 20th-century existential writers, were both active in the French Resistance. Camus had been politically active in his native Algeria. Camus had been born into poverty. As a result, he was drawn into socialist groups while attending college. Sartre, in comparison, was more political after World War II. His family’s prominent social standing had isolated him from most political matters. The war galvanized these two men into activists. Sartre became a leading defender of the Soviet Union, while Camus promoted what he called “humanistic socialism” or socialism with compassion.
European texts as well as the writings of Marx and Lenin help clarify communism and socialism as understood by the political existentialists. The writings of Camus, Sartre, and other existentialists who claimed to be either Communist Party supporters or socialists add to this understanding.
Marx and Existentialism
The American public has been taught that the “real” definition of Marism is com-munal living. This is not the case in most writings contemporary to Karl Marx himself. In 1847, Marx explained to the Communist League of London that a strong central power was needed to manage the production and distribution of goods for the benefit of all. Marx abandoned Engels’ idea that utopia was all working for each other, with no central structure.
Marx stated that a dictatorship was a step toward the “classless” society, stating in 1852 that “class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proleta-riat.” Remember that Marx’s famous quote, from about 1880, is “I am not a Marx-ist,” referring to the misinterpretation of his writings.
Marx would have, in fact, considered the Soviet Union a Marxist nation, in that he defined Marxism in his letters as a belief that a few men can and should decide issues for the masses, freeing them from the problems of capitalism. In other words, Marx thought it honorable that some men would sacrifice their freedom to worry about the business of production, leaving the masses equal and free to pursue their interests. Marx was asked what these men would do if everyone wanted to go fishing when the society needed wheat. His answer was to state that Marxism was not freedom to do anything, but freedom from things, such as worries about money, food, and shelter.
In other words, sacrifice your freedom to do things in favor of a freedom from things. That is, in its simplest form, the promise that Marx, not necessarily En-gels, saw in a single-party, dictatorial government. His biggest concerns were the basics of life. This makes sense, as he saw that European culture was very exclusive, with the poor always worrying about basic needs. Communism has come to mean Marxism, which his own writings indicate was not a utopian society in which men were free to do as they wanted. Only his early writings were so idealistic as to dream of worker-owners. By the 1850s, Marx was an authoritarian. Lenin and Stalin took these later writings to justify killing “enemies of the state.”
Camus and Sartre, both originally supporters of Marxist ideas, used their fame as writers of fiction to promote their ideals. The metaphysicians would have avoided most direct political engagement. Camus accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, considering it a tool to argue for human rights. Curiously, Sartre, who loved to be the center of attention, refused to accept the award in 1964. His public refusal probably attracted more attention for him.
Public perception of existentialism was furthered (and tainted) by the political existentialists. For many Americans, the existentialists are Sartre and Camus, with Nietzsche symbolizing an even darker image.

4absurdeist
Edited: Oct 23, 2008, 11:07pm

That's easily the most thorough, informative, and helpful post I've read on this subject. Thank you Naren! Might I add a relatively recent existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, who's also ventured into literature/philosophy to the mix? I think those here who haven't encountered him might enjoy his fictional works, When Nietzsche Wept -- decent film btw too -- and The Schopenhauer Cure. His work, while heavily psychological, also has a strong existential foundation supporting his views on the world. Very readable, enjoyable stuff.

5Naren559
Oct 24, 2008, 8:46pm

Thank-you, Brent #4); It was a cut and paste job, from sources, I plagerized,and failed to properly attribute. Nietzsche, derived much of his out-look from Ralph Waldo Emerson, according to George Stack (see Nietzsche and Emerson: An Elective Affinity). Emerson is considered the progenitor of American transcendentalism (Unitarian-Universalism), which I, personally, maintain has "morphed" into mordern existentialism, via Jean-Paul Sartre.

6zenomax
Oct 25, 2008, 11:02am

The Nietzsche - Emerson link is interesting. They seem quite different at this far removed - and their influence seems to have been felt by quite different groups.

7VanishedOne
Oct 25, 2008, 8:22pm

In the absence of a solid canon - the term 'existentialism' was applied to Sartre and de Beauvoir's work and spread from there, without any existentialist school as such - it's a matter of judgment about what the relevantly similar aspects of people's ideas are. Naren559's post gives what's basically a reliable consensus view, but note that e.g. David Cooper's Existentialism: A Reconstruction explicitly excludes Camus.

8Naren559
Oct 27, 2008, 3:24pm

Thank-you, Robert#7 ("as the mind behind the scribblings"); I have just ordered Existentialism: A Reconstruction.

Also, thank-you, Brent, I have also ordered the DVD, When Nietzsche Wept, and the book, The Schopenhauer Cure.

9absurdeist
Oct 27, 2008, 9:37pm

Hey you're quite welcome, Naren. It's always cool to throw a recommendation out there and someone actually shows an interest! I'm really probably pushing it though with this next recommendation (staying with Irvin Yalom); if you have any interest in psychotherapy whatsoever, Yalom has written what's considered a classic in the field: Existential Psychotherapy.

10VanishedOne
Oct 28, 2008, 5:45pm

I tracked down the bit where Cooper excludes Camus (pp. 8-9 in the Second Edition): what he says (besides noting places where Camus seems to have different concerns from e.g. Sartre) is that 'Existentialism, as treated in this book, is not a mood or a vocabulary, but a relatively systematic philosophy... I shall have little to say about those, like Camus, who make a virtue out of being neither a philosopher nor systematic.' So possibly he's circumscribing Exitentialism qua philosophical enquiry, as distinct from from some broader sense.

I hope you enjoy the book, anyway.

11Naren559
Oct 30, 2008, 2:50pm

In that brain research as established that the left brain is linear (time line?) oriented vis a vis the right brain and interesting possibility arises: "Being" (ala Heidegger) is right-brained, whereas "Time" is left-brained. Thus the initial nothingness of "self-consciousness", according to Sartre, is left-brained andevolves, over time, from "mirroring" others' definition of us; and then Sartre's "bein" parallel's Heidegger's "being".

Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke one day...and paid attention to what was happening every step of the way, including sensations and insights that could only be described as mystical. Her powerfully moving story ("My Stroke of Insight") raises important questions about the relationship between the mind, the brain, and the nature of spiritual experience.

12Naren559
Dec 9, 2008, 9:38am

Apropos to #4 above: While well into Irvin D. Yalom's Existential Psychiatry (I had just finished "Part I, Death"), I bought a copy of his Mamma and the Meaning of Life (more autobiographical, citing case studies Yalom is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford) and have, just now, finished reading that, which has aided me tremendously in understanding his Existential Psychiatry.

13donbuch1
Jun 28, 2012, 12:10am


Existentialism is essentially a personal study of one's own psychology. Thus, existential psychiatry is a worthy tool to guide one across the human abyss. Although I have yet to fully consider Yalom's approach, I think generally that if we are seekers of truth, and like Sartre would assert, that there is truly nothing out there, and that we're quite alone on this pale blue dot, then were certainly need people such as Yalom to lead to grasp a life preserve.