by Unglid Paul
Existentialism emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Before this idea, early philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle believed that everything that was created had an “essence”-- a core set of properties that are necessary, or essential, for a thing to be what it is. As humans, they believed that we all aim to adhere to our essence in order to have a good life. Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher who challenged this philosophy in his most notable work, Les Pensees (1970). In this piece, Pascal provided the foundational thought for the idea of existentialism. Focusing on religion, Pascal argues that man is not made aware of his own “nothingness”-- emphasizing that without the guidance of faith, man is lost and without purpose.
This early conception of existentialism was then expanded by Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1946, Sartre published Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946). He argues that “existence precedes essence,” which means that, as humans, we exist first, without any set purpose. Instead, our purpose is created by our choices as we are free agents with free will. (Sartre 2) He differs from Pascal in the belief that God did not create the universe and humans with any predetermined purpose. Instead, we are born in a world that lacks any true meaning, we are born in the absurd. The issue, as he argues, is that as humans, we need meaning for our lives, we need purpose. So we look for these ideas in those we give authority--such as religion, law, and the collaborative moral codes that shame us in the “right” path. To address these conflictions, he argues that we need to live life authentically, living it in our own moral accordance, in our own terms, by accepting the full weight of our freedom in light of the absurd.
Unlike Pascal, Sara Ahmed believes that existentialism is challenged by the social power forces, and finds this definition to be limited. Ahmed argues that society doesn’t allow everyone to be “free and responsible” participants in their own acts, because it shames and punishes those that go against the “right way.” Many people are not given the privilege to live life “authentically” because of the powerful authority that influences and condemns their lives. Sartre limits this authority, believing it is a choice whether we follow someone else’s terms or our own. And although Ahmned believes that the choice exists, she also believes that the choice is complicated, for it can come with emotional, mental, financial, and sometimes, fatal consequences.
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. Librairie Generale Francaise, 1972.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. L'Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme. Gallimard, 2019.
Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: a Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2007.
Simpson, David. “Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/. Accessed 25 March 2021.