Terms to Know and Use for Discussing
Author’s Purpose, Theme, and Characterization
Existentialism is a broad view, with different emphases by different people, but the following concepts (most directly expressed by Sartre) are common to most existentialists.
Choice and Commitment:
Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity’s primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. The choice is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads.
Existence precedes essence:
There is no cosmic designer; there is no design or essence of human nature. The human existence or differing from the being of objects in that human being is self-conscious. This self-consciousness also gives the human subject the opportunity to define itself. The individual creates his/her self by making self-directed choices. (Example: a chair is an object. Its essence precedes its existence. A human must construct her/his own essence. It is continually evolving through the choices he/she makes.)
As human existence is self-conscious without being pre-defined, we, as autonomous beings are “condemned to be free”– compelled to make future directed choices. These choices induce anxiety and uncertainty. If we, as individuals, simply follow custom or social expectations in order to escape angst, we have escaped the responsibility of making our own choices, of creating our own essence. We have acted in bad faith.
Existential angst is an important term. It is that severe anxiety that we experience when we first recognize the enormity of the responsibility that we have through our choices. Some never recover from the angst and, therefore, stay in a severe depressive state; one must act in spite of the feelings of depression/anxiety to create meaning in life.
To act authentically, we must take responsibility for our future. We cannot choose what gender, class, or country we were born into, but we can choose what we make of them. We are free to create our own interpretation of ourselves in relation to the world, to create a project of possibilities, of authentic actions, as the expression of freedom.