What is nihilism and existentialism

What is existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophy or a worldview or way of life that is about what it means to "exist" as a human being in the sense that you actively shape your life and its meaning in contrast to mere things or objects that are more or less only passively "present".

The origin and beginning of existentialism is the exclamation of Nietzsche in "The happy science" (1887):

"God is dead"

It is difficult to understand at first. Regardless of whether one believes in God or not, something like God cannot be conceptually "dead" (at most it does not exist). Then what does Nietzsche mean by that?

He does not mean victory in a philosophical debate against religion. Rather, he names a (in his opinion) sociological fact, namely that the traditional belief systems (especially religion) (especially in Western Europe) have lost their absolute power with which they have held an entire continent spiritually hostage for centuries and are no longer the center of people's thinking. (What Nietzsche could not yet see is the current global rise of a fundamentalist Islam as a religion of the third world [and some of the oil-richest countries in the world] as well as of "spirituality" which is basically an eclectic universal religion, although it does not understand itself as such .)

The old systems largely took away people's thinking and responsibility. The life of the individual received its meaning and its Orientation in relation to an "absolute", for example the doctrines of Christianity represented by the clergy of the churches. The absolute systems could explain anything and thereby provide security, but they have dehumanized the world by removing the human element. But now, according to Nietzsche, when “God is dead”, man finds himself in a world without (absolute) meaning, and that means, as an optional subject, he must find meaning and values ​​that he no longer has finds on your own responsibility put.

It might now be obvious to replace the spiritual rule of religion with that Rule of reason, or science. Existentialism does not deny the advances and benefits of science (while harshly criticizing its destructive applications), but it denies that the way in which science comes to its results, i.e. the (objective) method of hypothesis and experiment, arises the existential questions of human life can be applied. Empirical science has no answers, not even a method for gaining answers to e.g. the question of what gives meaning to the individual life, according to which values ​​one aligns one's life, and what one wants to live one's life for. Human “existence” cannot be viewed from a distant third-person perspective. Man is always and inevitably in its existence, in its center and never outside of it. The existentialists therefore emphasize that “existential” questions (such as the meaning and values ​​of life) cannot be answered with the means of natural science.

Instead, existentialists put a lot of emphasis on Emotions and moods, because they believe that it is precisely these that show people their subjective opinion on life. (This is why the existentialists also liked to express themselves literarily, e.g. through novels, poems, parables and plays.) Rationality shows us no way to shape our own existence. Things like tables and chairs have no feelings, no subjectivity, they don't “shape”. Feelings and moods are the connection between person and world. Hence, life is always associated with moods. Moods are always present as a background for the experience and interpretation of every situation.

Existentialism sees man first after the end of the absolute systems thrown into a voidbecause he has lost the absolute orientation, but he does not stop there, but sees the experience of the loss of meaning as a task of the individual, which consists in actively filling his life with meaning by taking his own life Meaning thereand look at self-chosen values oriented.

Existentialism is not nihilistic (although it may appear that way at first). Nihilism is a philosophical position based on it and stick with itthat there is no meaning, no values ​​and nothing to orientate yourself by. According to Sartre, this was the spiritual basis of the Nazi ideology, in which nothing speaks against the total annihilation of one's own people. Existentialists try to face the loss of the absolute Values ​​and orientations unite Way out of the loss of meaning to find. They mean that life is from the Create of meaning, importance and values. This means that people begin with “nothing”, but then they create their own existence, that is, their consciously lived life with values ​​and meaning.

Man always finds himself not only in a factual world, but also in one World of meanings. Also one's own identity is such a meaning, in which the person initially feels as "thrown". He is white, intellectual, unemployed, mother / father, partner, student or police officer. Usually we experience ourselves within such identities as a matter of course and do not think about them. Particularly in psychological crises or in deep psychotherapy, however, we can come into contact with the fact that all these self-evident things, the networks of meaning, even our own identity by no means self-evident, but at any time through your own free choice changeable is.

Of course we are not completely free, we cannot decide to jump to the moon in one leap, achieve world peace with the snap of a finger, or become 20 years younger. Still, we have a big one in every situation Variety of choiceswhich, as soon as they are taken, open up new options. In this way we inevitably shape our existence and are in this sense and in this framework for what we have designed and its consequences responsible.

It is one of the deepest experiences in existential psychotherapy that we do not have to stay the way we are, even if we have always been like that, but that we take a different orientation here and now, yes can become a completely different person. At this point, according to the existentialists, we experience existential fear. It is the fear of one's own freedom in the absence of an external orientation that could show us what is “right” or “authentic”. We are radically free to shape our lives, to set meanings, and even to define or redefine our identity. How are "Thrown into freedom"as Sartre said. Especially in deep psychological crises we experience that something fundamental is called into question and has to change. We ourselves are called into question, asked to change. Our usual identity is destabilized, we cannot stay as we are, and that creates (existential) fear.

With existential fear is meant something completely different from a pathological phobia (e.g. a spider phobia). Existential fear is an inevitable aspect of being human: existential fear and existential freedom are two sides of the same coin. Existentialists believe that we should not flee from this fear into self-evident and belief systems, because existential fear shows us ours freedom. A wide range of options opens up, and with it, the Horror of responsibility for the consequences of your own decisions.

In the face of certain own death, i.e. the finiteness of life without a comforting (or terrifying) orientation towards continuing to live afterwards, all everyday certainties and habits lose their meaning. The world has no necessary meaning and structure. Man experiences himself as radically and individually freeto give meaning to one's own existence. This freedom creates fear, in fear we experience ourselves as free. From existential fear, according to existentialists, there is no escape. We can only face it, and precisely and only then do we experience ourselves in our freedom as a subject. We experience existential fear in the face of the lack of any absolute orientation, and it is precisely at this moment that we experience ourselves as free. The alternative is to log into seemingly taken for granted to flee into it, so to let other people think for themselves and determine their own life.

Usually, however, we shy away from this responsibility and take refuge in Fears and compulsionsin which we deny our freedom, so Sartre called them "Self-deception: "I can't ...", "I have to ...", "I can't help it ...", "I need ...", "I can't without ...". We choose our world as a prison in which we feel safe.

If us how in the movie "Matrix" Morpheus makes the choice between a red pill (which leads out of the matrix) and a blue pill (which sticks in the matrix), in everyday life we ​​mostly choose the blue pill of the familiar systems of meaning in which we feel safe. The red pill, out of the matrix, would show us our self-chosen bias in self-generated, but not self-evident structures of meaning. It's scary ... and free.

Kierkegaard speaks of that "Sweet fear"that seems threatening and seductive at the same time, magically attractive and nerve-wracking, exactly at the moment when we realize that we can really drive the car where we want ... but if we drive it into a tree, we are for it responsible. The existentialists say, however, we shouldn't give up the steering wheel ...

Precursors of existentialism:

  • Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Main founders and representatives of existentialism:
  • Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Other well-known existentialists:

  • Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
  • Albert Camus (1913-1960)
  • Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)
  • Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
Existentialist oriented authors and artists:
  • Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
  • Fyodor Michailowitsch Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
  • Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
  • Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
  • Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)

Werner Eberwein