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Existentialism is a philosophical and literary current which considers that the human being forms the essence of his life through his own actions, which are not predetermined by theological, philosophical or moral doctrines. Existentialism considers each individual as a unique being, master of his actions, his destiny and the values ​​he decides to adopt.

Although there are common tendencies between existentialist thinkers, differences remain: there is notably a gap between atheist existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Christian existential philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich or Gabriel Marcel, not to mention the Jewish philosophy of the existence of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas or even Muslim of Abdennour Bidar and Abdurrahmân Badawî who was considered as the “main master of Arab existentialism”.

Some authors such as Albert Camus or Martin Heidegger have even refused to be labeled as existentialists. Sartre delivered his own definition and conception of existentialism and gave a lecture on the subject: Existentialism is humanism.

Context and definitions

The beginnings

Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre(Clockwise from top left: Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche.)

The authors Schelling, Kierkegaard, Stirner, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Kafka from the 19th century, develop an “existential philosophy” that their successors will meditate within existentialism. The latter takes its explicit form of a philosophical current in the twentieth century in continental philosophy: first in the works of Miguel de Unamuno, Léon Chestov, Nicolas Berdiaev, Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Rachel Bespaloff, Benjamin Fondane in the 1930s in Germany, Russia and France, then in the works of Vladimir Jankélévitch, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Lévinas, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus in the 1940s and 1950s in France, and in Canada with Jacques Lavigne. Their work has focused among other things on themes such as Dasein, anguish, alienation, absurdity, boredom, commitment, being, freedom and nothingness as fundamental elements of human existence.

Some, like Camus and Heidegger, explicitly reject the name “existentialism” in the sense that Sartre gives it, but the fact remains that they construct an “existential philosophy” (Existenzphilosophie, the term is from Kierkegaard). In fact, Sartrean existentialism is not representative of existential philosophy in general, it is only a version of it.

In the twenty-first century, existentialism is adapted in a Muslim religious context by Abdennour Bidar, in Islam without submission.

German existentialism

Existentialism is inspired by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and the work of Martin Heidegger, who however distances himself from Sartre in the Letter on Humanism. This is shown by Hannah Arendt and Jean Wahl, who are among the first “historians” of phenomenology.

The word “existentialism” comes from existence; in German from the word Dasein, which is also a key term of Heidegger’s theory, which means “to be there”, which Sartre translated as “human-reality” thus making a misunderstanding.

Christian existentialism

Christian existentialism has received less media coverage than atheistic existentialism, but it remains important. This philosophical current, whose main French representative is Gabriel Marcel, but also, in North America, Jacques Lavigne, is marked by a deep opposition between the human, weak and anguished, and God who is absolute and transcendent. The purpose of life is thus to draw closer to God and to try to reach his perfection by becoming a genuine Christian.

Sartrian existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre, having simultaneously imported existentialism and German phenomenology, spread this philosophy which was very fashionable between the years 1945 and 1955; it had indeed become not only a way of life, but it was also defined by a precise place: Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. The text of one of his lectures, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, printed as a booklet, will popularize the idea.

Sartre borrows a lot from the phenomenological method. It was Raymond Aron who, through his knowledge of German philosophers, prompted Sartre to take an interest in phenomenology. It is first of all a method which comes from Husserl. A science of phenomena, it describes the way in which things are given to consciousness. The description of things makes it possible to discover their essence and what the consciousness which thinks them is. For that, one will vary imaginatively the various possible points of view on the thing to make appear the invariant. For example, whatever the point of view, a triangle always has three sides, which are therefore necessarily part of its essence.

We can say, by copying the words on the speech of Jean-Paul Sartre, that “we must not naively believe in what the world offers us”, because the world always goes beyond the simple awareness that we can have. and, moreover, because the “phenomenon” does not show itself straight away that a description is needed which flushes out things, a description which does not go behind the visible, but on the contrary immerses itself in it (the idea of ​​a backworld hidden behind the visible, not of interest to phenomenology). This is why the necessity for consciousness to exist as consciousness other than itself, is what Husserl calls “intentionality”.

Sartrian existentialism is summed up by the famous formula: “existence precedes essence”, that is to say that each individual emerges in the world initially without goal or predefined values, then, during his existence, he is defined by its acts for which it is fully responsible and which modify its essence; at his death, his essence freezes. To sum up, man is therefore born aimlessly and continues to change, through his actions, until his death, when his essence freezes. In this, the living being is distinguished from the manufactured object which, for its part, was designed for an end, and is therefore defined rather by its essence (which, in opposition to existence, would be an outcome and not a starting point). The label of “existentialist” had also been attributed to Albert Camus (see his novel La Peste, not to be confused with L’Étranger, which is linked to him with the Absurd), but the latter has always rejected this name.

Walter Kaufmann describes existentialism as “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any belief, and in particular of systems, and dissatisfaction with the traditional philosophy considered. as superficial, academic and remote from life”.

Misunderstandings and controversies

Existentialism is a humanism is a response to the reproaches then addressed to Sartre’s work. His philosophy was considered wait and see and passive. This reproach was above all that of the Communists: for them the message of L’Être et le Néant comes down to “There is nothing to do, we must resign ourselves and wait.” According to them, this is an essentially sad and pessimistic philosophy and these Communists think that for Sartre philosophy is only used to describe, it is contemplative and does not aim to transform the world. No action therefore seems possible. Pierre Naville is one of Sartre’s critical Marxists. His words are reported following the text of the conference Existentialism is humanism. Georg Lukács writes his book Existentialism or Marxism? to refute this philosophy as well, from the Marxist point of view.

Catholics interpret it as a cynical philosophy that mocks what is serious, what is in the service of a truly founded morality.

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