Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

Recently I had occasion to speculate that existentialism may be characterized as a thread of thought that advocates and honors the individual’s unrestrained freedom of choice in building meaning, defining personal responsibility and formulating personal authenticity in a discussion at the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.

Existentialism does not seem to provide a world view or school of philosophy since the thread of thought that it represents has been incorporated by various thinkers into philosophical systems of diverse and even conflicting character (from fascism to socialism to communism to objectivism; from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Heideger, Sarte, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Ayn Rand, and Simone de Beauvoir). So the way in which the honored values of “existentialism” are developed and expressed varies considerably from thinker to thinker. I conclude it is an element of philosophy and not a philosophy unto itself.

I note there are some existentialist threads in Buckminster Fuller’s thinking. Bucky’s title “No More Secondhand God” suggests that the individual should build their own personal God. The following quote speaks deeply about authenticity, personal meaning and cosmic responsibility:

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.

— R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

The discussion group felt, and I will also speculate, that some degree of honoring freedom of choice in building meaning and personal responsibility are evident in most thinkers today. Witness the expression “personal relationship with God” which would put an existentialist garb on Christianity. History suggests that before the modern era family, profession, religion, economic status, crown and country precluded an individual interpretation of life’s mysteries. So it may be that existentialist thinking is a new way of thinking characteristic of modernity. Now, it seems existentialist thinking has become omni-present. Is that because of or in spite of the fact that most of us have little evident bearing on the events that comprise most “news” stories?

Frankly, I do not know that much about existentialism, so I’m wondering what others can add to my characterization and speculations? How would we measure or demonstrate that existentialism has become pervasive in modern thinking? When did the trend start? Are there any who still think of the individual as just a cog in the wheels of bigger forces and not an active builder of their own reality? Or was existentialism prevalent in pre-modern thinking too and I just haven’t yet tuned into its historical threads (the Wikipedia article on existentialism suggests that the Buddha, Saint Augustine, and even Hamlet exhibited existentialist thinking, but pre-moderns may have had just a flicker of insight with no real consciousness of the modern sense of individualism)?

Please let me know your thoughts on these questions in the comments. Thanks.

Share |