Existentialism
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

What is it

Being and Nothingness, the for-itself and the in-itself, bad faith, and the existential predicament; these Existentialist concepts were central to the philosophical scene in Europe and America after World War II. Join the Philosophers as they examine the ideas of Existentialism with Lanier Anderson from Stanford University.

Listening Notes

Existentialism is the idea that existence precedes essence. Our guest, Lanier Anderson presents one way to look at this is by comparing a cutting knife with the human situation. The knife has its essence before it is ever manufactured-- it is for cutting. However, a human does not have any specific purpose or meaning before he comes into existence. Jean-Paul Sartre originally defined the word existentialism, and applied it to lots of people who never knew they were existentialists and who held a range of conflicting ideas on a variety of topics, the existence of god being one such debated topic.

Lanier states that the seventeen-year-old self in each of us is attracted to existentialism because there is a certain amount of freedom that we have in this philosophy. The essential idea is that we are whatever we make ourselves, that nothing about our essence is given to us. Certainly we have a facticity about us- essential aspects of our existence given to us in terms of our biological constraints- but nothing that really defines us. Lanier argues that this facticity as a whole will interact with your life projects, but you will have chosen those projects, which then gives the meaning to those things. From the point of view of the individual, existentialism takes nothing for granted and does not believe any mandates about human nature have been handed down to people. Individuals have to create meaning for and define themselves, Each person's own human nature will be dictated by the actions he pursues.  

Existentialism is a very influential philosophy that went through periods where it greatly affected politics and pop-culture, and is still very popular in certain circles. It is often a difficult philosophy to understand as well. John notes that there is so much terminology like the for-itself, the in-itself, and other existentialist ideas, that Sarte outlined all of these concepts in what amounts to eight hundred pages of translations.  

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:26): Polly Stryker addresses the intersection of psychotherapy and philosophy, specifically with father and son existentialist psychotherapists. They look at how existentialism can be useful in psychiatry, and how the issues people desire to address in psychotherapy are often of an existential nature, like life, death, and meaning.

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R. Lanier Anderson, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University

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