Existentialism does not Exist

ExistentialismTo the right are just some of the philosophers who are often labeled as “Existentialists”. But many of them were labeled this after they died and they never called themselves an “Existentialist”.

So it is no surprise that when we try to discover what Existentialism is, we run into more exceptions and differences than we’d imagine. That is because “Existentialism” is not something to be discovered, but instead, it is just human-created category with lots of disagreement.

“Existentialism” is an abstraction like “Religion” and like the more deceptively concrete-like word “Mammal” — both of which have exceptions that reveal their blurred borders and arbitrary definitions.

One of my son’s favorite YouTube personalities has said, “Existentialism is dangerous — just get busy and work.” This self-made philosopher presumably meant “Thinking too much about the meaning of life can be crippling and unnecessarily painful, for which real work is the perfect cure.” — and we all know there is lots of truth there.

But is that what “Existentialism” really mean?

Well, again, definitions of “Existentialism” vary hugely (see this wiki article). In philosophical circles, something about “existence precedes essence” or “we make our own meaning, otherwise there is not eternal meaning” or some such thing, is common. So we can see that that YouTube philosopher and professional philosophers use the word differently. But when a word is used differently long-enough, it becomes an accepted meaning too. And again, we see that definition are created thing, not something eternal thing or essence waiting to be discovered — hmmm, that is sort of an existential view, isn’t it?

Stop reading now and get back to work!


Note: See my other posts of “The Limitations of Abstractions


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

2 responses to “Existentialism does not Exist

  1. Hi Sabio, you make a good point that definitions are not eternal and have no essence, and I agree that that is an existential insight. So it would seem that a category that does not exist can actually prove rather useful! I wonder if that is an existential paradox?
    Your article reminded me of one I read on Scientific American arguing that life does not really exist because we currently have no satisfactory all-inclusive definition of what distinguishes life from non-life. The author argues that “life” is really just a concept that we have invented.
    Personally, I think concepts and categories are generally quite useful – in fact they are pretty hard to do without – as long as we can just accept that categories have fuzzy rather than sharp boundaries.

  2. Questioning the meaning of life and of existence can indeed be “dangerous”. Your son’s video host has a point. Thinking critically is not easy for us humans.

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