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What is existentialism?
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'Existence precedes essence' captures the existentialist's approach to human existence

Existentialism as a philosophy generally deals with the nature of human existence and identity. The fundamental idea is that sentient beings are in total control of their lives and have total freedom to act in order to ascribe whatever meaning they choose to their life and reality.

The Argument

The claim that ‘existence precedes essence’ is the pinnacle of Existentialist thought and through it we come to understand the foundation on which the movement, and ultimately all existentialist work, is built. This phrase is attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre, a prominent existentialist thinker during the 1940's. [1] ’Existence’ can be understood as being part of the world whereas ’essence’ refers to the meaning or purpose that is thought to constitute some part of life and our identities. So, the proposition encompasses the way in which conscious beings are first a part of the world in order to then prescribe purpose to their life and reality. Put differently, conscious beings are wholly free agents who can decide the meaning of their existence once they exist. There is no predetermined purpose or reason for human existence. We cannot give a general account of the human experience or human identity, as that is to be decided on an individual basis and not by external factors such as culture of religion. [2] That said, the defining power that an individual has over their own existence entails that there is no meaning beyond that which the individual in question prescribes. Consequently, the theme of meaninglessness, among many others, is one with which existentialist works grapple. Given this, Existentialism is a philosophical thesis that, in loose terms, can be described as favouring free will and choice in life over innate or predetermined beliefs, traits, and events.

Counter arguments

While it may be that existentialism can be understood as a philosophical movement, it is worth noting that the movement itself did not have a great impact. It is rather the philosophers within the movement, and their works, who were of importance. What’s more, most prominent philosophers such as Sartre did not identify with the movement or label themselves as Existentialists. That said, viewing existentialism as movement conflates the distinct ideas proposed by key thinkers who wrote on, what we can call, existentialist themes. [3]



Rejecting the premises


This page was last edited on Tuesday, 13 Oct 2020 at 13:08 UTC

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