Friday, 17 February 2017

Pilos Profiles "Back to School" Edition #1: The Existentialists

Previous Pilos profiles:
WVO Quine
Betrand Russell - Founding Giant of Analytic Philosophy
David K Lewis
William James: Father of Pragmatism


Welcome to another fantastic philosophical profile! Hat tip to Noah G for provoking me on this one and providing the new idea to characterize schools rather than just individual greats. The great school we will look at today is an intriguing European phenomenon which crossed the pond and then the entire world. That's right, I'm talking about existentialism. Many people find it esoteric or old fashioned, but in times like these we all come flooding back to this sort of philosophy in droves, so let's see how we might understand it, beginning with this profile!

The history is a complicated phenomenon. Around the turn of the century, many philosophers were reading Nietzsche and saying to themselves 'What is it all about?'. For a long time people found this a difficult problem, indeed ever since Nietzsche said the God is dead. But only later did it fully creep up how difficult, indeed, possible unsoluble, this question was. Cut to a new era. It is the 20's and 30;s, inflation is high and there are problems in the economy. A world war has ravaged the population. This time set the scene for one of the most interesting philosophies I have ever seen: existentialism.


Image result for jean nicod
Image result for jean nicod

(Existentialists at the turn of the century. An interesting bunch of guys - and let's face it, it was mostly guys.)



The brain child of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Karl Jaspers, existentialism was an exciting hybrid of modernism, a reaction to German idealism, and mystical ideas from earlier days. How do you make meaning in a world where there is no purpose or no God? You have to do it yourself, or no one will do it at all. There is a kind of special feeling you get when you think about the world in this way. Things aren't here for this or for that, they just are, and by God - or rather by ourselves! - we're going to learn to live with it, indeed love it! This is existentialism in a nutshell. It is an interesting misconception you hear over the years, that existentialism is all doom and gloom. But actually it has the power to be a very happy, liberating idea, if you can just have an open mind and embrace it carefully.

The movement was now in full swing. Thinkers everywhere were talking about how we just exist, and we can only make our own meanings (if at all). It was a very interesting moment in the history of thought but now we had to live with it. This could prove difficult, like when Jean-Paul Sartre made a visit to america in 1940. People flocked to see him and ask him questions and they wanted him to have a good time. He refused, smoking a cigarrette. We had so much to learn.

I think it's safe to say the "heyday" of existentialism was over soon after that. But as I said, the movement is showing signs of returning now that we have modern technology and a whole new raft of problems. Maybe this exotic, forbidding old European philosophy has a bit of life left in it yes!

Is Existenialism true? Is it here to stay? Let us know in the comments.

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