Existentialism is a fascinating philosophical theory that primarily emphasizes the individual’s existence, freedom, and choice. It’s a complex and profound perspective that offers insights into the human condition, our interactions with the world, and our place in the universe.
Arguably, one of the most intriguing aspects of existentialism is its focus on the individual. According to this philosophy, each person is a unique and independent being who is solely responsible for giving meaning to their life. The existentialist approach recognizes that we are not defined by any predefined norms or societal expectations, but instead, it is our actions and decisions that shape who we are.
In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the core principles of existentialist philosophy, exploring how they shape our understanding of human existence and contribute to various aspects of culture and society.
We will also discuss the influential philosophers whose works have significantly shaped the development of existentialist thought. So, let’s find out what are the 5 tenets of Existentialism.
Introduction to Existentialism
At the heart of existentialism lies a powerful assertion, as proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre: that existence precedes essence. This concept implies that we are born without any predetermined purpose or essence. Instead, we come into existence first, and it is up to us to define our essence through our actions and choices.
Unlike many other philosophical theories, existentialism rejects the idea that the universe or a higher power assigns us a specific role or destiny. Instead, it champions the belief that our life’s meaning isn’t given—it’s made.
Existentialism posits that freedom is intrinsically valuable and forms the foundation of all other values. It views freedom not merely as a political or societal right, but rather as an inherent aspect of human existence.
This perspective encourages individuals to exercise their freedom responsibly, making authentic choices that reflect their personal beliefs and values (Philosophy Break).
The Philosophers Behind Existentialist Principles
Many renowned philosophers have contributed significantly to the development of these existential principles. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, in particular, had a profound impact.
- Sartre was central in proposing the concept that existence precedes essence, implying that we are born without a purpose. And that it’s our responsibility to find and create meaning in life.
- Beauvoir, on the other hand, was instrumental in defining existentialism as an ethical theory that values human freedom above all else.
Other contributors include philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, who further developed and expanded upon these principles. Their collective works have established existentialism as a robust and influential philosophical movement that continues to inspire and challenge thinkers worldwide.
What Are the 5 Tenets of Existentialism?
Existentialism, as a philosophical school of thought, is built around five foundational principles. Each principle or tenet provides a unique and critical perspective on our understanding of human existence.
These principles, which we will explore in greater depth throughout this blog post, were developed and refined by some of the most celebrated minds in the field.
1. Principle One – Phenomenology
Phenomenology, a concept integral to existentialist philosophy, is a methodology that seeks to explore human existence and experience from the first-person perspective. Coined by philosopher Edmund Husserl, phenomenology advocates for a comprehensive and detailed account of human life as it is lived.
In essence, this approach refuses to dilute human experience into abstract theories or assumptions but instead insists on reflecting the richness and complexity of everyday life.
Existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger built upon this concept. It led to the development of existential phenomenology.
This perspective emphasizes not just the importance of personal experience but also the temporality of human existence. Existential phenomenologists argue that time is not a neutral or external container in which events occur. Instead, time is an integral part of our existence, shaping our experiences and the way we perceive ourselves and the world.
The practice of phenomenology involves what is known as ‘bracketing‘.
- This refers to setting aside any preconceived notions, biases, or theories we may have about a particular phenomenon.
- The aim is to engage with events, objects, or experiences directly, without the interference of pre-existing beliefs or expectations.
- This method enables us to see things as they are, rather than as we assume or want them to be.
- This rigorous approach to perception and understanding is central to the existentialist commitment to authenticity and individual freedom.
But, phenomenology is more than just a passive receptivity to experience. It also involves a process of active exploration and interrogation.
As Herbert Spiegelberg outlines, this includes intuiting the phenomenon, dwelling in it, and investigating its many aspects, both outward forms—objects, actions, others—and inward forms—thoughts, images, and feelings.
Phenomenology’s fundamental principle of intentionality highlights the interconnectedness of the subject (the observer) and the object (the observed) in all experiences.
Traditionally, philosophy has placed a higher value on the object pole, often dismissing the subject pole. Existential phenomenology advocates for a balanced view. It asserts that both the observer’s internal experience and the external phenomenon are crucial in forming our understanding of the world.
In essence, phenomenology invites us to step back from our assumptions and engage directly with the world around us, fostering a deeper and more authentic understanding of our existence. That’s why it is such a vital tool in existentialist philosophy, offering a framework for exploring the complexities of human life.
2. Principle Two – Freedom
The notion of freedom holds a significant place in existentialism, serving as the foundational value of this philosophical perspective. The existentialist view of freedom is not merely about the absence of constraints or barriers. But rather it is about the existence of choice and responsibility that comes with self-awareness.
Our ability to make choices, act according to our own will, and mold our lives through our decisions is what distinguishes us as human beings. This ability, coupled with an acute consciousness of our individual existence, signifies freedom in existentialist terms.
In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existence precedes essence.” Simply put, we exist first and then define our purpose or ‘essence’ later through our actions and choices.
This concept reveals the inherent freedom that underpins human existence. We are not born with a predetermined essence or purpose; we are born free, and we forge our essence through our life’s actions and choices.
Value of Freedom
The existentialists perceive freedom as intrinsically valuable – it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself. This perspective stands in contrast to many other philosophies and societal norms which often view freedom as a means to achieve some sort of desired outcome.
For instance, freedom might be seen as a way to achieve wealth, status, or happiness. But in existentialism, freedom is valued for its own sake. It is the foundation of all other values in our lives because it allows us to determine what is valuable to us.
Existential freedom extends beyond the realm of physical or societal constraints. Even in situations where an individual may be physically or socially limited, existentialists argue that one still retains a fundamental level of freedom – the freedom to choose how to respond to these circumstances, how to perceive them, and ultimately, who to become in light of them.
It’s important to note that the existentialist concept of freedom is intertwined with the ideas of responsibility and authenticity, key themes that we will explore further in upcoming sections.
- As existentialists assert, with great freedom comes immense responsibility.
- The freedom to carve our own paths in life also implies that we are entirely responsible for our actions and their consequences.
- In this light, freedom equates to a relentless obligation to live authentically and make choices that align with our true selves.
Overall, freedom, in existentialist thought, is not just about the capacity to choose, but also about the courage to accept the responsibility that comes with this capacity. It is about using our freedom to shape our identity, affirm our values, and engage fully in the project of living.
3. Principle Three – Individual Responsibility and Choice
One of the fundamental tenets of existentialism is the belief in individual responsibility and choice. This principle asserts that humans have the freedom to make choices, and with this freedom comes immense responsibility.
In fact, existentialists argue that we are solely accountable for the choices we make, as theese choices shape our essence or who we are fundamentally. This view counters traditional philosophical ideas that tend to see human lives as being governed by predestined paths or objectives.
Existentialism holds that there is no basic and given “human nature” common to all people. Instead, each person must define what humanity means to them and what values or purpose will dominate in their lives.
This perspective places a significant emphasis on personal autonomy and individual decision-making. As noted by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Each of us is given an astounding amount of choice in how we live our lives.”
Choice in Extreme Situations
The concept of choice in existentialism extends even to extreme situations. Even in dire circumstances, existentialists argue that the individual retains agency over their own existence.
For instance, Sartre writes about the option of suicide as a choice that is always available to individuals, regardless of their situation. He argues that one is always in the position that they have created for themselves. If one feels that they have lost control of their existence due to external forces, they still have the choice to commit suicide. This may seem like a grim perspective, but it reinforces the existentialist belief that the individual always has a choice in their actions.
Importance of Perspective
In addition to taking ownership of our choices, existentialism also emphasizes the responsibility of shaping our perceptions of the world. Perception is what drives one’s experience in the world.
Therefore, if one perceives the world negatively, then one is likely to lead a miserable existence. But with a change of perspective, one may find themselves leading a joyous life.
This transformation is a testament to the power of individual responsibility and choice in shaping our experiences and realities.
To sum up, existentialism’s third principle of individual responsibility and choice challenges the traditional notion of destiny or fate. It empowers individuals by putting them in the driver’s seat of their lives, encouraging them to make their own choices and bear the consequences. While this offers immense freedom, it also comes with a hefty responsibility – the responsibility to define one’s essence and give meaning to one’s existence. With every choice we make, we mold ourselves and our worlds, becoming the authors of our own stories.
4. Principle Four – The Absurd and Alienation
As we delve into the fourth principle of existentialist philosophy, we encounter themes that might initially seem disturbing: the absurd, alienation, and dread. These concepts are cornerstones in our understanding of existentialism. They have profound implications for how humans perceive their existence.
Existentialist Themes: The Absurd, Alienation, and Dread
The concept of the absurd arises from the existentialist view that life inherently lacks meaning. This notion suggests that any attempt to find or impose meaning on life is futile, leading to a sense of absurdity.
This idea is closely tied to the theme of alienation. According to existentialists, humans are fundamentally separate from the world, resulting in a perpetual state of alienation.
Dread, or anxiety, is another pivotal existentialist theme. It refers to the overwhelming feeling of confusion and fear arising from the recognition of one’s freedom and the subsequent responsibility to make choices.
It’s the dread of being in the world, completely free, and yet devoid of any predefined purpose or meaning.
The Absurd and Alienation in Literature
These themes of the absurd and alienation have been explored extensively in literature, as exemplified by Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger.”
The protagonist, Meursault, embodies existential alienation. He finds more connection with his physical surroundings than with other humans.
His emotional detachment and heightened awareness of life’s indifference underscore the tension between individual existence and the world’s apathy – the root of existential absurdity.
The Human Struggle to Find Meaning
The concepts of the absurd and alienation aren’t just abstract philosophical ideas. They echo the human struggle to find meaning and purpose in life.
As humans, we strive to make sense of our existence and seek comfort in rationality, religion, and social conventions. But, existentialism challenges these pursuits, arguing that they merely reflect our attempts to escape the discomforting truth of life’s inherent meaninglessness and our own alienation.
In this light, existentialism invites us to confront life’s absurdity and our alienation head-on, rather than evading them. In doing so, it encourages us to create our own meaning and live authentically, regardless of the seeming apathy of the world around us.
5. Principle Five – Commitment and Authenticity
Existentialists hold the belief that commitment to personal decisions and actions is of utmost importance.
With this in mind, the fifth core principle of existentialist philosophy is centered around authenticity and living according to one’s self-determined values and beliefs.
The Existentialist Belief in Commitment
Many existentialists agree that accepting one’s existence requires a defining commitment that gives one’s life focus and direction.
As stated in an article in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “owning up to one’s own existence requires a defining commitment that gives one’s life a focus and sense of direction”. This commitment serves as a guide to navigating through life, providing a sense of purpose and meaning.
Different existentialist philosophers have their unique perspectives on this concept.
- For instance, Kierkegaard, a religious thinker, posits that self-fulfillment is possible only for the ‘knight of faith’, the person who has a world-defining relation to a particular being of infinite importance.
- On the other hand, Heidegger argues that authenticity requires ‘resoluteness’, a commitment to some specific range of possibilities opened up by one’s historical heritage.
The Importance of Authenticity
Authenticity goes beyond just being true to oneself. It involves fully acknowledging and owning one’s freedom to shape life through personal decisions.
According to Jean-Paul Sartre, authenticity involves the awareness that we are free to transform our lives through our decisions. If we maintain a particular identity through time, it is because we are choosing that identity at each moment.
This principle correlates with the existentialist view that existence precedes essence.
In other words, it is through our actions and decisions that we define who we are. This approach challenges traditional norms and invites us to take charge of our lives, rather than passively accepting predetermined paths or objectives.
The concept of authenticity is not new in philosophy. As mentioned in the New World Encyclopedia, Socrates’s dictums, such as “Unexamined life is not worth living,” or “Know yourself,” can be seen as his attempts to lead others to the discovery of the authentic self and way of life. These profound insights from ancient philosophy echo the existentialist emphasis on authenticity and commitment.
In sum, the existentialist principle of commitment and authenticity encourages individuals to engage deeply with their lives, make conscious choices, and embrace their unique identity. It underscores the human potential for self-definition and the fulfillment that comes from living a life true to oneself.
What are the five tenants of Existentialism?
Phenomenology, freedom, individual responsibility and choice, the absurd and alienation, and last commitment and authenticity are the five tenants of Existentialism.
Who are some notable philosophers associated with Existentialism?
Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus are some notable philosophers associated with Existentialism.
How does Existentialism differ from other philosophical schools of thought?
Existentialism differs from other philosophical schools of thought primarily in its focus on individual existence, freedom, and choice. Unlike other philosophies, existentialism asserts that existence precedes essence.
What are some key concepts and themes explored in Existentialist literature?
Existentialist themes such as the absurdity of life, the alienation of existence, and the despair that comes with waiting for meaning or salvation that never arrives are explored in Existentialist literature.
Can Existentialism be applied to everyday life and decision-making?
Yes, Existentialism can be applied to everyday life and decision-making.
Is Existentialism compatible with religious beliefs?
Existentialism’s compatibility with religious beliefs depends largely on one’s interpretation of both existentialism and religion.
Conclusion – The Impact of Existentialist Philosophy
So, what are the 5 tenets of Existentialism? In our exploration of existentialist philosophy, we’ve delved into the five core principles and examined their implications for our understanding of human existence and freedom.
Our journey took us through phenomenology, freedom, individual responsibility and choice, the absurd and alienation, and finally commitment and authenticity. Each of these principles provides a unique lens through which to view the human condition, challenging traditional notions of predestined paths or objectives in life.
Existentialism has had a profound and lasting impact on contemporary discussions about human existence, freedom, and responsibility. Its influence extends beyond the realms of philosophy, pervading various aspects of modern society.
As noted by Saybrook University, existential themes permeate our society, supporting the notion that there is no running from what it means to be human.
The impact of existentialist philosophy can be seen in its enduring relevance and influence. Whether in psychology, literature, art, or our everyday conversations, its principles continue to challenge and enrich our understanding of what it means to be human.
If you’re intrigued by these concepts and want to delve deeper into existentialist philosophy, there are many resources available.
In conclusion, existentialism offers a powerful framework for understanding our place in the world and our capacity for freedom and choice. By reflecting on its principles, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our potential as human beings.