Existentialism Explained

Written by Ash
Psychology isn’t my only avenue of interest, as I’m sure anybody that’s read anything I’ve written can tell, and in this post I’ll be explaining an existential viewpoint held by a man called Kirkegaard. I’ll further be adding in a swing from an absurdist, Camus, as a refutation of suicide and then discolouring the world by adding a proto-existential point from the infamous Nietzsche. Hopefully the article won’t be too depressing, though, so stick with it and we’ll see if we can get something out of it.
Source: http://goodreads.com

So, Kirkegaard was a 19th century philosopher and religious scholar that covered issues dealing with living as a single individual, highlighting a person’s personal choice and free will. He was renowned for his defining of science as a method to “teach objectivity”, while religion teaches the way to “be subjective… to become a subject”. Regarding existentialism, however, Kirke’ was noted for defining it in three stages: the aesthetic, religious and enlightened.

The first of these stages, the aesthetic, is characterised by extremes, such as excessive partying or very disciplined study. These bring about feelings of intense despair as no amount of these activities really creates the feeling of a ‘happy existence’ or unveils the ‘meaning of life’. As a resolve, one feels an excessive duty to something bigger than oneself and devotes their time towards it. This is the religious stage, though it’s not particularly limited to a religious institution: the commitment could be aimed at things like working careers, families or military service; anything that a person can invest a lot of time in, really.

However, “just as one cannot stop the wind from blowing or refuse the falling rain”, failure is inevitable. Guilt develops in the individual, even though they might be doing the best in their field: a soldier might be the best at his job, but his friend may still be hit by a stray bullet. A woman may be the best wife, but their spouse may still commit adultery. A worker could be the best in his company, but it may still go bankrupt, all because of uncontrollable factors.

The individual is thus back to square one, caught up by the realisation that no matter how hard he or she may try, the universe can still screw over everything that they attempt to achieve. But, this realisation itself causes a self-discovery: a human is free to do whatever; to choose to try and achieve or to choose not to. It is with this realisation that a person discovers their self-made reason for being, and this, Kirke’ argues, is true freedom, even if the decision ends in suicide. This is the enlightened stage.

Albert Camus, a French philosopher of the nineteenth century, created a method of refuting suicide as a viable outcome, as well as religion, through looking glass of an absurdist. Camus argues that, instead of the one outcome put forward by Kirke’ in the form of the enlightened stage, there are three possible conclusions of the existential condition. There is the choice to commit suicide, though ending one’s life, he argues, only increases the absurdity of existence, the choice to commit philosophical suicide by joining a religion and living by a predefined morality or there is the choice to accept the absurd.

It is through accepting the absurd, but continuing to live in spite of it, true, absolute freedom can be attained. Recognising no religious or moral constraints other than those one develops for oneself, and simultaneously accepting the absurdity of existence as an unstoppable force, one gains a state of contentedness through personal, constructed meaning. “And so”, Camus puts it, “this universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of [Sisyphus’] stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world… He too concludes that all is well”.

With all this said, however, there is one view left to look upon, and one in which I will only cover very briefly as the sharpness of it is notable from the offset. It is a view held by Nietzsche: nausea, apathy or the absurd – whichever one prefers to use – does not exist, according to this man. Indeed, many people are not remotely existential. Instead, these many people are just mere skeletons, shrouded in a skin of opinions and beliefs that other people have held and without thought or feeling of their own. With that said, this article is finished.

About the author


Ash is a PhD student in psychology at Northumbria University whose research focuses towards the general cognitive mechanisms of memory and attention. Most of the time he can be found writing about rubbish, or being rubbish at writing. Personal interests include philosophy, statistics and better understanding how we can convey our knowledge of science to others.

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