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What are the Main Principles of Existentialism?

By Bruce Barbour - April 2024 (Version 1.1)

Instead of doing the research myself I thought I would ask ChatGPT - as below.

What is the essence of Existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in continental European philosophy. It is characterized by a focus on individual existence, freedom, and choice. The essence of existentialism can be understood through several key themes:
  1. Existence precedes essence: Existentialists reject the idea that individuals have a predetermined essence or purpose. Instead, they argue that existence comes first, and individuals define their essence through their actions and choices.
  2. Freedom and choice: Existentialism emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. Humans are seen as radically free beings who must take responsibility for their actions and decisions, creating their own meaning in life.
  3. Authenticity: Existentialists encourage individuals to live authentically by being true to themselves and making choices that align with their values and beliefs. Authenticity involves facing the inherent uncertainties and anxieties of life with courage and sincerity.
  4. Anxiety and absurdity: Existentialists recognize the inherent anxiety and absurdity of human existence. The awareness of one's freedom and the lack of inherent meaning in life can lead to existential angst. Embracing this anxiety is considered an essential part of the human experience.
  5. Individuality and isolation: Existentialism acknowledges the individual as a unique being, but it also recognizes the inherent isolation and loneliness that can result from individual freedom. Despite this, existentialists encourage individuals to engage with others and form meaningful connections.
  6. The importance of experience: Existentialism values personal experience and subjective reality over abstract theories or systems. The lived experience of individuals is considered more significant than conforming to societal expectations or predefined roles.
Prominent existentialist philosophers include Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. While there are variations within existentialist thought, these key themes provide a foundation for understanding the essence of existentialism.

ChatGPT lists six "themes" as the essence of existentialism. However I think one of the six is the most important, the main tenet of existentalism. That is theme two "Freedom and Choice". The others are certainly themes that appear in the writings of various existential authors but may not be included in all authors conclusions. The emphasis on freedom and choice would be part of all existential authors writings. Other themes are derivative from the main theme, the main tenet, of Freedom and Choice.

"Existence precedes essence" is one of Sartre's contributions to existentialism. However it can be challenged on various grounds. People are born with various genetically inherited traits. These could include physical and mental abilities. And maybe even character traits. People are not a complete blank slate when born as Sartre seems to suggest. However the point that we can choose how we use those traits and how we build upon them or even develop into new areas is correct. This is how we can use our freedom and choice.

Similarly for a lot of the other "themes". A lot of them come down to either the consequences of or how people exercise their freedom and choice.

For further substantiation I consulted Wikipedia and found the following:

“Existentialist philosophy encompasses a range of perspectives, but it shares certain underlying concepts. Among these, a central tenet of existentialism is that personal freedom, individual responsibility, and deliberate choice are essential to the pursuit of self-discovery and the determination of life's meaning.”

This is attributed to  "Paul Kleinman - Philosophy 101: from Plato and Socrates to ethics and metaphysics, an essential primer on the history of thought. (2013)".

* * *
However all these tenets and themes are underlain by a more fundamental observation about the human condition and human existence. Existentialism is underlain by the observation that the Universe does not reveal to humanity whether the Universe and/or humanity itself has any objective meaning or purpose.

There are two consequences of this observation:
  • The first consequence is the recognition that it is possible that there is no objective meaning or purpose. This gives rise to the potential for nihilism. The various forms of existentialism are a response to that possibility. And there are quite a few different and sometimes contradictory responses.
  • The second consequence is the realisation that each individual has freedom and choice in all matters, including morality and, importantly, to decide for themselves whether there is meaning in the Universe or if they have a purpose.
Most Existentialists use their freedom and choice to decide that there is no objective meaning or purpose. Some existentialists may decide to adopt a subjective meaning or meanings. Some existentialist decide to believe in a meaning or purpose which they consider (believe) is objective even though there is no conclusive proof of its objectivity.

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