Is Existentialism Obsolete?

In a world increasingly divided by religious faiths, existentialist philosophy, and its message of total human responsibility in a meaningless universe, appears like an obsolete remnant of twentieth-century history. By embracing reality in all its physical, emotional, social and political dimensions, existentialist man is compelled to act in relation to all the various factors which characterise his unique ‘situation’. Time and again, Sartre insists upon the inalienable freedom attached to every single one of our decisions and ultimate actions. At the end of the day, no one else can take my place and no one else can be held as sole responsible agent for my good or bad choices. As masterly illustrated in the play In Camera, there is no Final Judgement as everyone is judged on the spot by those approving or condemning our particular conduct. To shy away from one’s constant moral accountability to ourselves and to others, is nothing but a cowardly act of ‘bad faith’.

Despite his attempt at defining a new existentialist subjectivity, Heidegger’s efforts proved largely stillborn, in the light of the philosopher’s political engagements. He personally offered a blatant, textbook example of Sartrean ‘bad faith’ in his blunt and unrepentant refusal to admit his unequivocal support for Nazi ideology during his brief tenure as rector of the University of Freiburg. Sartre, on the other hand, theorised his existentialist theory during the German occupation of France when freedom became the primary and essential goal of a nation taken hostage by a puppet government in the grips of German sympathisers.

There is simply no cop out of one’s responsibilities, whatever the circumstances, as the most extreme situation can always, according to Sartre, be, in some way, sublimated through a personal, if not stoical, attitude to death. The way we ‘choose’ to die thus reflects our true character as one may decide to die a coward or a hero, the circumstances being, for Sartre, almost overshadowed by the unique response chosen by the agent. Such philosophical prescriptions are undoubtedly difficult to enact ‘freely’ in front of a firing squad or under torture. Nevertheless, Sartre intentionally pushes the limits of our willingness to be and remain ‘authentic’ to ourselves in order to confront our potential baseness or moral fecklessness.

Whatever the criticisms levelled at existentialism, it remains a valid and noble attempt at guiding us through difficult ideological times where moral complacency and sheepish conformity seem to have taken the place of subjective and collective responsibility towards building a better world.

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