Bringing Existentialism Home

Existentialism is a term that was explicitly adopted by Jean-Paul Sartre to refer to his philosophical work, but became identified with a larger cultural & philosophical movement that flourished in Europe in mid-20th century.  As an interesting sidebar, there are also some 19th philosophers who are referred to as existentialists, notably Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, despite the fact that the term did not come about until much later.  Additionally, most of the philosophers traditionally grouped under the heading ‘existentialism’ (whether 19th or 20th century thinkers) either never used, or actively disavowed the term itself. 

Very broadly speaking, existentialism is concerned with the investigation of human existence (or more specifically, the human condition) and authenticity.  While there is certainly a great amount of disparity in existentialist works & thinking, the emphasis of individual persons as free and responsible agents who determine their development (and sense of meaning) through acts of will is a common theme.  Dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, angst/anxiety, commitment, and nothingness are also frequently associated with the movement.

According to Rev. Anthony Makar — Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta — ‘Existentialism is many things…But above all, it is a meticulous exploration…of human existence.’

More precisely, existentialism is an exploration of human existence that aims to fully understand the human condition & claims that in order to do so, categories beyond the those typically utilized in ancient & modern thought must be considered.   In other words, in order to understand & explore the terrain of “being human,” we must invest in a new (or enhanced) set of lenses governed by the norm of authenticity (which, on an aside, is a concept that is notably slippery in and of itself and a bit nebulous) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a clarifying explanation.

Existentialism does not deny the validity of the basic categories of physics, biology, psychology, and the other sciences (categories such as matter, causality, force, function, organism, development, motivation, and so on). It claims only that human beings cannot be fully understood in terms of them. Nor can such an understanding be gained by supplementing our scientific picture with a moral one. Categories of moral theory such as intention, blame, responsibility, character, duty, virtue, and the like do capture important aspects of the human condition, but neither moral thinking (governed by the norms of the good and the right) nor scientific thinking (governed by the norm of truth) suffices.  “Existentialism”, therefore, may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence. – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

So what does existentialism have to offer us today?  A lot!  In this video, Rev. Anthony Makar, discusses some of the basic themes of existentialism in relation to finding meaning & living authentically in a post-modern world.  One of our favorite quotes in his sermon (outside of the RuPaul quotes – which were awesome!): “Being challenged in life is inevitable.  Being defeated in life is optional.”  We hope you enjoy…

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