September 27, 2008

Existentialism and Human Emotions

Filed under: Book Reviews, Philosophy — Robert John Ed @ 8:52 pm

For those who don’t know, I gets down with metaphysical philosophy.  During the scant few minutes I have in my free time, I usually read or write, often about the lives we live and the meanings thereof, both miniscule and massive.  My long term goals are to be able to study and write on philosophy and human life.  Well.

I am just now finalizing the book Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean Paul Sartre.  It’s the first time I’ve read anything that was explicitly targeted at explaining just what existentialism is and why it’s important to us.

The first part of the book is centered on refuting the attacks on existentialism; you can hear the anger in Sartre’s prose, turning on his critics with an obvious disdain.  Existentialism can be explained simply in that it views us humans as without meaning until we create it ourselves.  It states that nothing was predestined and part of some master plan.  It takes out quite a bit of guess work for us in that way.  The reason so many would refute this idea is that it conflicts with the concept of any deity giving us unconditional purpose.  Practically speaking, it means that you aren’t where you are because some all knowing God wanted it to be so, or because divinity had laid claim to you being an insurance rep for the entirety of your working hours. Sartre uses the phrase “existence precedes essence” to denote these basic tenets of theory.

There is also a distinction worth note that existentialists are not by definition atheists.  There are both theistic and atheistic versions of this.  In retrospect, this makes sense, seeing as the concept of existence preceding essence is not contingent on a higher power.  It certainly makes some inferential suppositions toward that being, should it exist.  In light, there would not be interventions from this God, nor would there be a plan for your life.  It would seem you are given a palette, a brush, some paint and told “Do as you will.”

This idea resonates greatly with me.  Us humans have a tendency to rely on the old position that everything happens for a reason, that everything is predetermined and we have no control at all.  That supposition usually has two effects on people.  Many feel sad, after all what’s the point of living if there is no greater good or preferable outcomes for our actions?  This is called nihilism.  (By the way, these are extremely shallow ways of defining extremely broad concepts, so if you are interested in them, dig deeper.)  Other people are set free.  Some personalities feel that a lack of reason or existential meaning is a great weight lifted from their shoulders.

I can’t subscribe to nihilism.  I do feel there are reasons for us being here, flying through the spatial plane on a rock that happened to hit the one in a trillion lottery.  That our brains have evolved in such a way that allows us to use emotions and build on ideas so pious as love and truth.  It’s remarkable in every way that we are here and it’s too much for me to think that there is nothing behind it.  

Yet the idea of predetermined living is also out of the question in my eyes.  We are given too much choice to truly think that all things were meant as they are.  It’s too much.  The basic idea that you build what and who you are is very valuable to me.  It takes out any question about our responsibility in that everything we do is directly accountable to your person.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t agree and will curse the gods or there karma when something doesn’t go their way.  Further investigation is certainly warranted, but as of now my perspectives align with existentialism.  We are what we do and the choices we make.  You have the choice to create meaning and value out of your life, but it is not simply handed over as birth right.  Existence precedes essence.


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