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Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16

October 6, 2019


Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you
by Squarespace. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. What gives your life meaning?
God? Love? Money? Work? Fanfiction? Football? Shopping? Sherlock? You might have your own personal sense of
purpose in your life, or maybe you’re hoping this course will
help you find one. Or you might believe that you were created with a certain essence as a human being, with a purpose given to you by God. Whatever the case is, no one would fault you
for wanting your life to have meaning. A sense of meaning is something that we all
crave – maybe even need. And as we move out of our unit on the philosophy
of religion, we should spend some time talking about how
we understand our lives as being meaningful. Because when you think about it, a lot of us devote a ton of energy to the task of finding meaning in our lives. Maybe you find it through religion, or by
fighting for social justice, or educating others, or seeking beauty in artistic expression. No matter how you do it, there’s a group
of philosophers, the existentialists, who say that any, or all, of these things
can give your life meaning. But at the same time, they say: None of them
can. [Theme Music] As you know by now, philosophy is about the dialectic: Someone puts forth an idea, and then someone else responds to it. Sometimes, the response comes right away.
In other cases, it takes thousands of years. Way back in ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle
took it as given that everything has an essence – a certain set of core properties that are necessary,
or essential – for a thing to be what it is. If those properties were missing, then that
thing would be a different thing. For instance, a knife could have a wooden
handle or a metal handle – it really doesn’t matter. But if it didn’t have a blade, it wouldn’t
really be a knife anymore. The blade is the essential property of the knife, because it gives the knife its defining function. Now, Plato and Aristotle thought that everything
has an essence – including us. And they believed that our essences exist
in us before we’re even born. So by this thinking, part of what it means
to be a good human is to adhere to your essence. Now, you may or may not know what your essence
is, and you might be great at living up to your
essence, or you may be awful at it. But the important thing is that your essence
gives you a purpose. Because you were born to be a certain thing. This belief, known as essentialism, was the standard view of the universe all the way up until the late 19th century, and it’s still accepted by many people today. But in the late 1800s, some thinkers started to challenge the idea that we are imbued with any essence or purpose. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for
example, embraced nihilism, the belief in the ultimate
meaningless of life. But by the mid-20th century, the path had
been paved for French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre to return
to the question of essence and ask: What if we exist first? What if we’re born without any hard-wired purpose? And then it’s up to us to find our own essences? Well this became the framework for what we
now know as existentialism. And its mantra is the claim that “existence
precedes essence.” In other words, our existence – our birth
– happens first. Then, it’s up to each of us to determine
who we are. We have to write our own essence, through
the way we choose to live. But we have no actual, predetermined purpose
– there’s no set path that we’re supposed to follow. It’s hard to express how radical this idea
was at the time. Because, for thousands of years, you didn’t
have to choose a path, or find your purpose. God did it for you. But it’s important to note that existentialism
is not synonymous with atheism. Plenty of existentialists are atheists, but
some are theists, like Kierkegaard. What theistic existentialists deny is any
sort of teleology – that is, they refute the notion that God made the universe, or our world, or us, with any particular purpose in mind. So, God may exist – but instilling you,
or your life, or the cosmos, with meaning – that’s just not in his job description. As a result, we are each born into a universe
in which we, and our world, and our actions, lack any real,
inherent importance. This is a fundamental component of existentialism. And its adherents refer to it as “the absurd.” You and I think of absurdity as something
that’s just silly, or preposterous. But for existentialists, absurdity is a technical
term. It’s how they describe the search for answers
in an answerless world. We are creatures who need meaning, but we’re
abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness. So we cry into the wilderness, and get no
response. But we keep crying anyway. That, for an existentialist, is the definition
of absurd. Since there’s no teleology, the world wasn’t created for a reason, and it doesn’t exist for a reason. And if there’s no reason for any of this,
then there’s also no absolutes to abide by: There’s no cosmic justice, no fairness,
no order, no rules. Now, existentialism has its roots in late-19th-century
thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But it really came into its own during and
after World War II, as the horrors of the Holocaust led many people
to abandon any belief in an ordered world. And who could blame them? When Nazis became possible, meaning became
much harder to find. But Sartre faced meaninglessness head-on, and explored one of the most agonizing aspects of existentialism. Not the world’s lack of meaning.
But its terrifying abundance of freedom. To most of us, freedom sounds pretty great. But Sartre thought that we are painfully, shockingly free. After all, if there are no guidelines for
our actions, then each of us is forced to design our own
moral code, to invent a morality to live by. Sartre took this to mean that we are “condemned
to be free,” a fate that he found to be quite awful. You might think that there’s some authority
you could look to for answers, Sartre said, but all of the authorities you can think of
are fake. You can do what your parents say, or your
church, or your government, but Sartre said those authorities are really
just people like you, people who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live. So the best thing you can really do, he determined,
is to live authentically. Sartre used this to mean that you have to accept the full weight of your freedom in light of the absurd. You have to recognize that any meaning your
life has, is given to it by you. And if you decide to just phone it in, and
follow a path that someone else has set – whether it’s your teachers, your government,
or your religion – then you have what he called bad faith, a
refusal to accept the absurd. If you live by bad faith, you’re burying
your head in the sand and pretending that something out there has
meaning – meaning that you didn’t give it. Which brings us to this week’s Flash Philosophy.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Sartre explained these ideas through an anecdote about one of his students, who faced a difficult decision. This young man was at a crossroads in his
life. He could join the military during wartime, and go off to fight for a cause that he believed in. And he wanted to do this.
He thought it was right. But he also had an elderly mother who was
all alone, except for him. If he went to war, he’d leave her behind.
And that seemed wrong. So he could stay with her, and let others
fight for justice. Or he could go off to war, and leave his mother to herself, and likely
never see her again. The young man felt a sense of duty to both his cause and to his mother, but he could only serve one. Moreover, if he went to war, he’d be just
a very small part of a really big cause. His contribution probably wouldn’t be great, but he would be contributing to something
that would affect millions of people. But if he stayed behind, he’d make an enormous
difference in just one person’s life. Thanks Thought Bubble. So, what’s the answer? Sartre said that the whole point of this young man’s decision was that no one could give him an answer. In fact, there was no answer, until the man
chose one for himself. No moral theory could help him decide, because no one else’s advice could lead
him to a decision that was truly authentic. So his choice – no matter what it was – was the only true choice, provided that he made it authentically, because it was determined by the values he
chose to accept. A lot of people think existentialism paints
a pretty bleak picture of the world. In fact, the French philosopher and novelist
Albert Camus went so far as to say that the literal meaning of life is whatever you’re
doing that prevents you from killing yourself. But most existentialists would remind you
that the world, and your life, can have meaning, but only if you choose to assign it. If the world is inherently devoid of purpose, you can choose to imbue it with whatever purpose you want. So, no one can tell you if your life isn’t
worth anything if you, say, don’t have children, or don’t follow a lucrative career path, or achieve whatever standards your parents hold you to. And this works not just on an individual scale,
but on a global one too. If the world is going to have any of the things
most of us value – like justice and order –
we’re going to have to put it there ourselves. Because, otherwise, those things wouldn’t
exist. So, a worldview that looks bleak to some,
may to others seem almost exhilarating. Today I hope you enjoyed as much as I did learning about essentialism and its response: existentialism. We talked about Jean-Paul Sartre and his ideas about how to find meaning in a meaningless world. This episode is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace helps to create websites, blogs
or online stores for you and your ideas. Websites look professionally designed regardless
of skill level, no coding required. Try Squarespace at squarespace.com/crashcourse
for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check
out amazing shows like The Chatterbox, PBS SpaceTime and PBS Idea
Channel This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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