Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (2)

In the first article of this series, we looked at two religious thinkers; Kierkegaard and Levinas, and explored their respective notions of anxiety and separation. In this article, we turn to Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre as we continue to investigate the idea that human existence is fundamentally and unavoidably characterised by what we would usually consider unpleasant or undesirable features, features we also typically believe we can overcome or otherwise eliminate.

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Bad Faith and Other Commonly Misunderstood ‘Sartrean’ Ideas

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The twentieth century French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was astonishingly popular in his day. He wrote novels, plays, dense philosophical treatises, was a part of the French underground resistance during the Nazi occupation, an influential political activist and even awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (which he turned down). If you still doubt Sartre’s popularity and influence, the fact that more than 50,000 people turned out for his funeral should seal the deal.

He is (arguably) the philosopher you must engage with if you want to learn about existentialism and it is his long and difficult magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, that is (arguably) the principal text of modern existentialism. B & N is a very thorough enquiry into existential philosophy that warrants, and rewards, a close reading. Unfortunately, it is this very 800-page thoroughness that surely winds up discouraging all but the most determined of students. And doubly unfortunately, in 1946, three years after publishing B & N, Sartre gave a talk to the general public on the subject, (now a book, Existentialism is a Humanism) in which he laid out some of the key consequences and insights of existentialism. I say this was unfortunate because, while it well and truly brought existentialism into the public eye, it also reduced it to a handful of trendy slogans and pithy quotes. Existentialism went from a serious, philosophical investigation into the human condition to a popular cultural movement characterised by black-clothed, non-conformist, anti-bourgeoisie, chain-smoking coffee drinkers loitering in and around cafes and declaring that life is meaningless and absurd. Continue reading