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Since 1996, The Existential Primer has provided a basic introduction to existentialism and the related Continental philosophies. As a primer, do not expect a great deal of depth — by definition, this is only a survey of the topics and individuals important to existentialism.

Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary. In this existence…

The Individual Defines Everything.

Existentialism is a philosophy that takes as its starting point the individual’s existence. Everything that it has to say, and everything that it believes can be said of significance — about the world we inhabit, our feelings, thoughts, knowledge, ethics — stems from this central, founding idea.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, p. 1

Hopefully, this site offers some useful information and encourages readers to learn more on their own about both existentialism and philosophy in general. A pre-introduction of sorts appears below the latest site news.


Sources and Reliability

The Existential Primer is more than a static academic paper. Ideally, it improves every time someone offers a suggestion or I read yet another work about or by one of the profiled thinkers.

The nature of the Web allows one to maintain a “living” research project with an infinite number of internal links. The Existential Primer should be explored as the hypertext collection it is. In a traditional academic paper, which The Existential Primer is not, it would be considered bad form to include citations without including background on the source and its context nearby within the paper. I do not omit such information, but I assume you will follow the many links provided. Online, more information is merely a click or a tap away. Of course, I cannot force you to meander link to link.

I offer background on the Sources Cited page, along with explanations of why I selected various scholars for inclusion. Because pages of the primer are often read in isolation, I would have had to introduce sources repeatedly — each page being an “article” of sorts. Admittedly, because pages of The Existential Primer are in various stages of completion, some entries resemble what professors call “quilt” papers. A quilt is a shallow work that merely glues together outside sources with minimal original transitions. In time, the quilted pages evolve into thoughtful reflections.

Much of The Existential Primer content has been reviewed by authors, journalists, and professors with expertise. However, neither I nor these experts can or should tell anyone what thinkers of the past “really meant” in particular works. Please learn more about The Existential Primer, but do not assume anything you read here is more than a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. If you have a suggestion or find an error, contact me.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Primer News and Updates

The Existential Primer will expand and improve as long as I am alive and able to type. Since I’m only (slightly) over 40, that should be another 40 years of editing, revision, and expansion.

2011 September 14
We are now on Facebook! Please “like” The Existential Primer as a fan.
2011 January 20
The following pages have been updated (with more coming): Home Page, Introduction, Definitions, Divisions, Historical Context, and Theology. I have started the revisions, but the improvements are substantial already.
2011 January 6
The entire Existential Primer is undergoing a major content update. I am working through the introductory pages, adding information from various texts one at a time. As a result, there will appear to be more reliance on some sources than others until I complete the process.

In response to visitor questions and requests, I do plan to add more biographies and criticisms — after I finish what I consider to be the primary pages. The placeholder pages created include: Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Paul Tillich and several others. Please be patient while I continue efforts to complete “first drafts” of other pages.


Western Philosophy

Since the 1950s, Western philosophy has been divided into analytic schools, focused on science, language, and communication, and the metaphysical, experiential approaches of Continental schools. While this is an artificial division, often based on the organization of university philosophy departments more than philosophical theories, it affects how we discuss philosophy. Granted, the reason we can discuss philosophy is that we are comfortable enough to sit in classes and cafés thinking grand thoughts and pondering existence.

The paradox… is that the scientific conception of the world does not close the gap between knowledge and wisdom, but makes us feel it all the more acutely… It is in advanced Western societies that the gap between knowledge and wisdom seems to widen into an abyss. In this sense, the speculative question of the meaning of life is a consequence of luxury and affluence. Perhaps it was ever thus — philosophy only arises once the basic exigencies of life have been provided.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Simon Critchley, p. 6

In the analytic tradition, philosophers attempt (often in vain) to understand the inherent reason and logic underlying existence. The Continental schools are considered more experiential; existence is random and even absurd. As a more detailed review of Western philosophy before existentialism demonstrates, the analytical and Continental can be traced through Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The conclusions philosophers reach often reflect how they respond to Kant.

Cultural Differences

While the history of Western philosophy runs through Kant, the differences between analytical and Continental philosophy are also cultural. The “Anglo-American” vs. “European” false dichotomy implied by labels like “Continental” do an injustice to the significant cultural differences within philosophy. These difference cannot be simplistically reduced to geopolitical maps. Instead, the differences might be considered as utilitarian-pragmatic philosophers arguing against idealistic-romantic philosophers.

In one camp, we have scientism. In the other, we have philosopher-artists. It is a classic case of the scientist-artist divide more than one of end goals or politics. The scientists want to reduce thought to equations (logical calculus) to prove their views, while the artists want to seek to persuade audiences with parables and poetry.

… [T]he best way of understanding the misunderstanding between opposed philosophical traditions [is] in terms of the model of ‘the two cultures’. According to this model, analytic and Continental philosophy can be seen as expressions of opposed, indeed antagonistic, habits of thought – Benthamite empiricist-utilitarian and Coleridgean-hermeneutic-romantic — that make up the philosophical self-understanding of a specific culture.

Essentially, this is a dispute between the scientific conception of the world, advanced by Carnap and the Vienna Circle, and the existential or ‘hermeneutic’ experience of the world in Heidegger. This dispute is highly significant for subsequent developments in philosophy insofar as Carnap’s views on Heidegger provide the background to Ayer’s attempted logical positivist elimination of metaphysics in the British context, and Carnap had a vast influence on the professional development of analytic philosophy in the United States after the Second World War, not the least through his most celebrated student, W. V. O. Quine.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, pp. 90-1

Analytical Philosophy

Science has always been important to philosophers, with the first philosophers being scholars in many fields. The theological and metaphysical aspects of “truth” were also important to philosophers. Then came the industrial revolution and a shift towards analytical philosophy: searching for truth without considering the transcendent. Some texts suggest the analytic movement began with Ludwig Josef Johan Wittgenstein (1889–1951), an Austrian-born philosopher who lived and taught in Britain. Wittgenstein influenced logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and semiotics.

… [S]cientific pretension requires that it is possible and necessary for the conquest of real knowledge that the world be stripped of everything which human beings have ‘projected’ upon it — from colours to meanings, from smells to values. But this is to suppose that mind and world, subject and object, can be treated in logical isolation from one another and separately examined.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; David E. Cooper, p. 15

Not all analytical philosophers believe truth and reason are external to sentient existence. Most twentieth-century philosophical debates argued not about “truth” but rather how and why we create understandings of truth. There are numerous complications underlying these debates. Does language reflect truth? Or, does language create truth? Can any language or symbolic system accurately translate another language’s truth? This is a bit tangled, since philosophers must use language to communicate with each other.

Carnap’s argument against metaphysics is not that its statements are false, but rather that they are simply meaningless. For logical positivists like Carnap, meaning is rooted in the principle of verification, namely that a word or sentence is meaningful only if it is in principle verifiable. But what are the conditions for verification? They are two-fold: logical and empirical.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 100

I suggest reading the works of Alfred J. Ayer for an overview of logical positivism.

Logical positivism insists there is a truth, which can be communicated and shared. However, scholars specializing in the philosophy of science and the rhetoric of science have challenged the positivists by suggesting that insisting there is a truth is also a leap of faith. Such arguments are circular and unlikely to be settled within philosophy departments.

This positivist habit of mind insisted that the ‘objective’ was synonymous with the measurable and the ‘value­free’. Its aim was to extract the subject from the experiment in order to obtain a purely impersonal ‘view from nowhere’. This led to a number of significant discoveries, but it quickly became apparent that such an approach was inconsistent. The limiting of the knowable to the quantifiable was itself a value that was not quantifiable. That is, the choice of this procedure was itself a ‘leap’ of sorts, an act of faith in a certain set of values that were not themselves measurable.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Thomas R. Flynn, p. 4

University philosophy programs in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Canada, have a marked preferences for analytical philosophy. As a result, some call the philosophical schools within the analytic tradition “Anglo-American philosophy.” However, the dominance of analytic theories does not extend throughout the humanities departments, where the Continental traditions often hold sway.

Continental Philosophy

… Continental philosophy is an invention, or, more accurately, a projection of the Anglo-American academy onto a Continental Europe that would not recognize the legitimacy of such an appellation — a little like asking for a Continental breakfast in Paris.
— Critchley, p. 32

Continental philosophy might be viewed as a reaction to the analytical, scientific approach to philosophy. The more science explains about the universe, the less important human existence seems. Knowlege and understanding actually increase our alienation from the universe and its natural laws. Humanity is reduced to nothing more than yet another random lifeform, an absurd accident on a spec of a planet. However, rejecting science and knowledge completely can lead to various faiths and “–isms” that are utter nonsense.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics… The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 9

Existentialism grew out of the Continental traditions, especially phenomenology. This was not a complete rejection of science and reason, but a call to examine life as it is experienced — something considered beyond science.

Existentialism grew, in part, out of Husserl’s phenomenology, which in turn was a critical response to nineteenth-century materialism and positivism.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 13

Many European thinkers embraced Marxism, which claimed to be a “scientific” analysis of history and culture. Unfortunately, the best logic and reason are incapable of predicting social evolution. Still, Marx developed a valuable theory of history and economics.

The problem with responding to scientism is that philosophy can risk obscurantism, which deliberately ignores or even prevents the facts and details of something from becoming known.

… [T]here is a risk of obscurantism in some Continental philosophy, where social phenomena are explicated with reference to forces, entities, and categories so vast and vague as to explain everything and nothing at all.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 119

European philosophers began to focus on cultural concerns late in the nineteenth century, a trend that continues. They also embraced reason and logic in their own way, with many of the philosophers coming from scientific and mathematical fields. However, they understood that science could not find, or give, meaning to human existence. Science, for these philosophers, was a tool but not necessarily the best philosophical tool.

While the Existentialist is not, in any serious sense, an irrationalist, he is certainly not a ‘rationalist’ in the philosophical sense that contrasts with ‘empiricist’. He does not hold, that is, that the mind is innately equipped with, or predisposed towards, knowledge of certain truths about the world. This is not because he is an ‘empiricist’, holding that all knowledge is the product of experience. The issue between the two camps is one of several which, for the Existentialist, rest on the false premise that mind and world are logically independent of one another, like a spectator and the show before him. The ‘rationalist’ differs from the ‘empiricist’ only in holding that the spectator arrives with a rich intellectual apparatus through which the passing scene gets filtered.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 15

Phenomenology and, later, existentialism, moved from a focus on larger culture and communities to focus on the individual. This is not to claim that phenomenology and existentialism are not concerned with groups and social philosophy, but there is a clear belief that the individual can define the self. There is also a touch of utopianism, especially within the works of the thinkers associated with phenomenology. The belief of these Continental philosophers is that introspection can lead to a metaphysical transformation. Some even hold this to be true for entire communities.

… [T]he Continental tradition is concerned with giving a philosophical critique of the social practices of the modern world that aspires towards a notion of individual or societal emancipation. In other words, much Continental philosophy asks us to look at the world critically with the intention of identifying some sort of transformation, whether personal or collective.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 54

Phenomenology and related movements are sometimes referred to as experiential because they are concerned with the experiences of the individual. How one person experiences life is unique. Relating to others is possible, but only within the limits of shared experiences. And pondering our experiences can lead to revelations, of a sort.

Continental philosphy itself is divided by debates on how much experience should trump reason, or if the two are one and the same.

The question of the status of reason and rationality versus the irrationality of much of human existence is a conflict that is at the heart of disagreements in the Continental tradition to this day, for example in the modernism / postmodernism debate that defined much of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 20

The Continental Movements

Simon Critchley provides a chart of major Continental movements (p. 13). This not not a complete history, but rather a convenient way to consider various thinkers.

Critchley’s Guide to Continental Movements
Movement(s) Some Major Figures
1. German idealism; romanticism and its aftermath Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schlegel and Novalis, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer
2. The critique of metaphysics and the 'masters of suspicion' Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson
3. Germanophone phenomenology and existential philosophy Husserl, Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger
4. French phenomenology, Hegelianism, and anti-Hegelianism Kojeve, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Bataille, de Beauvoir
5. Hermeneutics Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur
6. Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School Lukacs, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas
7. French structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism and feminism Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Irigaray, Kristeva

What the Continental movements seem to share is an impulse to critique, to rebel against something. At times, it seems rebellion is its own purpose in Continental schools of thought, as if there cannot be a moment of contentment. If there isn’t something wrong with the human condition, what is the point of philosophy? And this doesn't mean some minor “room for improvement,” to the Continental thinkers. Life itself is a crisis.

For much of the Continental tradition, philosophy is a means to criticize the present, to promote a reflective awareness of the present as being in crisis, whether this is expressed as a crisis of faith in a bourgeois philistine world (in Kierkegaard), a crisis of the European sciences (in Husserl), of the human sciences (in Foucault), of nihilism (in Nietzsche), of the forgetfulness of Being (in Heidegger), of bourgeois-capitalist society (in Marx), of the hegemony of instrumental rationality and the domination of nature (in Adorno and Max Horkheimer), or whatever. […] Philosophy in the Continental tradition has an emancipatory intent. For a philosopher, the real crisis would be a situation where crisis was not recognized. In such a world, philosophy would have no purpose, other than as a historical curiosity, an intellectual distraction, or a technical means of sharpening one's common sense.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 73


Sources

Cooper, David E. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. [0631213228 (hc), 0631213236 (pbk)]

Critchley, Simon. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. [0192853597]

Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London; New York: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2006. [0826485294, 9780826485298 (hc); 0826485308, 9780826485304 (pbk)]

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [0192804286]

Complete Bibliography


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