Essay—Redefined Existentialism

SummaryA successful business executive is a forecaster first—purchasing, production, marketing, pricing and organizing all follow. —Peter Bernstein

QuotationI am sure that you are all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation if the facts were suddenly made public without adequate presentation and conditioning.

—2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Two French existential philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, first met in 1943 at the opening of Sartre’s play, The Flies. Camus’ novel, The Stranger, had been published a year earlier and was considered to be of literary brilliance. Both were well aware of the other’s work and they became fast friends. They shared common interests including freedom, responsibility and the absurd—which formed the basis of the burgeoning philosophical discipline of existentialism. As time went by Sartre became restless that his version of existentialism had failed to take flight—and so he tried to merge it with Marxism. Marxism is scientific communism based on social and economic analysis. It asserts that class relations and societal conflict are a means of attaining social transformation. By the end of his life Sartre had abandoned Marxism. Camus stayed with and built on their initial version of existentialism throughout his career. In 1951, Camus produced his book, The Rebel. Sartre’s publication reviewed the book and totally trashed it. Camus was outraged and ended their friendship. Camus wrote, “I am not interested in being a hero. What interests me is being a man.” True to his word, Camus was a man, while Sartre was a great man, he was firstly interested in being a hero.

Predefined Existentialism. Existentialism is a term applied to the work of 19th and 20th Century European philosophers who shared the belief that philosophy begins not just with the thinking person—but also with the acting, feeling, living, human being. Existentialism became popular following World War II and strongly influenced many other disciplines including theology, drama, art, literature and psychology. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) is considered to have been the first existentialist although some have argued that existentialism goes all the way back to Socrates (470-399 BC). Kierkegaard argued that each individual is passionately responsible for giving meaning to his life. The principal values of existentialists are freedom and responsibility in an authentically lived life. The existential attitude is the starting point in an existential life characterized by disorientation, confusion and dread in a seemingly meaningless, absurd world. Many existentialists have regarded traditional and academic philosophies as too abstract for material human existence.

Humanism. Sartre wrote an essay, Existentialism is a Humanism, in 1946. Humanism is a philosophical and moral stance that emphasizes human values and the support of human beings both individually and collectively. It refers to any system of thought where human dignity and values are paramount. Humanism affirms the human ability to improve their lives through the use of reason and ingenuity—as opposed to thoughtlessly submitting to authority and tradition. It is a progressive philosophy of life that affirms our ability and responsibility to live morally sound lives. Humanism helps us achieve personal fulfillment for the greater good of humanity. In today’s environment, humanism represents nontheistic life that is centred on the human being. The discipline looks toward science rather than the revelations of supernatural sources in order to understand human reality. Humanism benefits both the individual and all fellow humans. It encourages values to be conveyed in comprehending knowledge.

Decision Analysis. According to Wikipedia, “Decision analysis is the discipline comprising the philosophy, theory, methodology and professional practice necessary to address important decisions in a formal manner.” Decision analysis provides a holistic set of tools with which a decision-maker can formulate decision models for making decisions in the absence of complete information. Value-focused thinking means we have to understand what we value. In risk management, which is closely linked to decision analysis, we identify the acceptable value-at-risk for a given confidence level. Decision analysis fits perfectly with existentialism as we are the sum total of our decisions.

Cartesian Cogito. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) said, “There can be no other truth to take off from this—I think, therefore I exist—ie. the Cartesian cogito. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself. Every theory which takes man out of the moment in which he becomes aware of himself is, at its very beginning, a theory which confounds the truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability which is not bound to a truth dissolves into thin air. In order to describe the probable, you must have a firm hold on the true. Therefore, before there can be any truth whatsoever, there must be an absolute truth; and this one is easily arrived at; it is on everyone’s doorstep; it is a matter of grasping it directly.” The Cartesian cogito proves the existence of the self and is the starting point of existential philosophy.

Existential Psychology. In 1957, Sartre introduced his brief book, Existentialism and Human Emotions, in which Sartre wrote, “The principle of existential psychology is that man is a totality and not a collection.” Existential psychology is about helping people reclaim their lives. Sartre claimed it is about the original choice while empirical or Freudian psychology claims it is about the original complex. My original choice is to change the World. My original complex is that I have the need to explain myself. This was difficult while growing up but now helps me greatly with my writing. My grandparents gave me the 1963 book, Mathematics from the Life Science Library, which inspired me to study math in university.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT is a leading evidence-based therapy derived from cognitive therapy and behaviourism. Research on CBT conclusively demonstrates a wide range of psychological conditions including anxiety and depression. It is widely-used for treating mental illness. CBT focuses on the development of personal coping strategies that target problem solving and changing unhelpful patterns of cognitions including thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, behaviors, and emotions. Notably, CBT is founded on stoicism.

Stoicism. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in the 3rd Century BC by Zeno. It thrived in both the Roman and Greek worlds and lasted until the 3rd Century AD. Stoicism is the path to happiness found in accepting the life given to us. There is support for the viability of stoicism as a psychological therapy. It argues that virtue is sufficient for realizing happiness. Stoicism aims to be a path to happiness. It is essentially a philosophy of personal morality driven by its logic and its natural views of the world. Stoicism helps people accept the truth found in their encountered lives. It encourages individuals not to be seduced by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

Philosophy and Psychology. Philosophy literally means the love of wisdom. Psychology is the science of behavior and mind embracing all aspects of consciousness and unconsciousness. Western philosophy is the philosophical discipline of the Western world dating back to the Sixth Century BC of Ancient Greece. Thales and Pythagoras both practiced philosophy and were both also mathematicians. Mathematics is the queen of all sciences. Philosophy is the scientific study of essential problems concerning subjects that include—existence, essence, knowledge, values, reasoning and languages. Psychology seeks both conscious and unconscious understanding of the human mind. The history of psychology reveals an academic study of mind and behavior that dates back to the Ancient Greeks. Psychology was derived from philosophy. Psychology was a branch of philosophy until 1875 when it developed as an independent scientific discipline in Europe and North America. The University of Edinburgh currently offers advanced degrees that combine philosophy and psychology. Philosophy and psychology are just different paths to the same objective—which is to know the human condition.

Consciousness. EF Schumacher defined the four ontological levels of being as—matter, life, consciousness and self-awareness. According to Microsoft Encarta, “No simple, agreed-upon definition of consciousness exists. Attempts to define consciousness have tended to be merely tautological or descriptive—such as awareness, sensations, thoughts or feelings. In spite of this, the subject of consciousness has had a remarkable history and at one time was the primary subject matter of psychology, although it has since suffered an almost complete and total downfall.” I suggest we revive the study of consciousness so that we are positioned to achieve self-awareness.

Redefining Existentialism. The Cartesian cogito proves the existence of the self and is a cornerstone of existentialism. Sartre’s claim that “existence precedes essence for man” means that man is free to create his own essence and is also a cornerstone. The existential belief that each of us has total freedom and total responsibility for the whole world is also a cornerstone. Further to these three cornerstones—I am presenting a smorgasbord of ideas here so the reader may pick and choose in constructing a brand-new existentialism.

Conclusion. The Greek, Plato (428-348 BC) constructed his philosophy by taking the best of what other philosophical disciplines had to offer. I would argue that we should take the best of the philosophical disciplines presented here and create a new, refined existentialism. I would ask the reader to take the ball and run with it in redefining existentialism.