Existentialism’s Sawed Off Branch

I can understand why existentialism was popular at one point in time, and I can understand how it continues to have a grasp in culture today. It gives people the feeling of meaning in a meaningless universe, and it helps people act courageously and feel heroic and tough without having to actually make sense of the world.

I just can’t get into it though. Like I said yesterday, it—at least the atheistic brand peddled by Sartre and others (come to think of it, the theistic brand is pretty funky too)–presents a very conflicted view of the world. Sartre rejected essences. To him, existence precedes essence. There is no “what it means to be human” to Sartre, and there are no universals—just particulars. No “human nature,” just “men.”

He rails against “what-it-is-to-be-ness,” but then turns right back around and starts pontificating on…guess what…human nature. Humans are subjects, he thought, subjects with free wills. I know Sartre wouldn’t call that a universal, but it sounds to me like he held that subjectivity is a characteristic all humans possess. If that’s not nature-talk, I don’t know what is. This is beginning to sound like the vegetarian who ordered Inn and Out.

Existentialism fares no different in the area of morality. Sartre was a well known political activist and moral advocate: he acted as if humans actually have obligations to do certain good things in the world. His atheism, though, completely truncates all that. Not that he, as an atheist, couldn’t behave in ways we’d call moral…it’s that moral terms and things like obligation are meaningless in an atheistic universe.

Sartre readily admitted that the world lacked any universal meaning. He called man a “useless passion.” Yet, he acted *as if* his actions had incredible meaning, and acted and spoke *as if* his fellow humans should act in similar ways too. If the universe has no actual meaning to it, though, how does it acquire meaning just by us acting and speaking *as if*? Sure, such a way of living can help us emotionally get along, but it’s patently irrational. This shows existentialism to be an excercise in chair-stacking on the Titanic.

My point is that even Sartre could not live out the core base of existentialism. Actually living like the world was absurd and meaningless would lead to despair, so even Sartre, through his political activism, had to make an irrational leap of faith and act *as if* the world had meaning.

For me, all that’s for the birds. A worldview–like theism–that makes sense of things like morality and obligation without the irrational leap is much preferred.

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