“Who am I?” many of us have wondered at some point in our lives, “What am I? Where am I?”… maybe even—while gazing in bewilderment at the pale blue dot and listening to the Talking Heads—“How did I get here?”
That feeling of unsettling and profound confusion, when it seems like the hard floor of certainty has turned into a black abyss of endless oblivion…. Thanks to modern philosophy, it has a handy name: an existential crisis. It’s a name, says Alain de Botton in his School of Life video above, that “touches on one of the major traditions of European philosophy,” a tradition “associated with ideas of five philosophers in particular: Kierkegaard, Camus, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.”
What do these five have in common? The question is complicated, and we can’t really point to a “tradition.” As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, Existentialism is a “catch-all term” for a few continental philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries, some of whom had little or no association with each other. Also, “most of the philosophers conventionally grouped under this heading either never used, or actively disavowed the term ‘existentialist.’” Camus, according to Richard Raskin, thought of Existentialism as a “form of philosophical suicide” and a “destructive mode of thought.” Even Sartre, who can be most closely identified with it, once said “Existentialism? I don’t know what it is.”
But labels aside, we can identify many common characteristics of the five thinkers de Botton names that apply to our paralyzing experiences of supreme doubt. The video identifies five such broad commonalities of the “existential crisis”:
1. “It’s a period when a lot that had previously seemed like common sense or normal reveals its contingent, chance, uncanny, and relative nature…. We are freer than we thought.”
2. We recognize we’d been deluding ourselves about what had to be…. We come to a disturbing awareness that our ultimate responsibility is to ourselves, not the social world.”
3. “We develop a heightened awareness of death. Time is short and running out. We need to re-examine our lives, but the clock is ticking.”
4. “We have many choices, but are, by the nature of the human condition, denied the information we would need to choose with ultimate wisdom or certainty. We are forced to decide, but can never be assured that we’ve done so adequately. We are steering blind.”
5. This means that anxiety is a “basic feature” of all human existence.
All of this, de Botton admits, can “seem perilous and dispiriting,” and yet can also ennoble us when we consider that the private agonies we think belong to us alone are “fundamental features of the human condition.” We can dispense with the trivializing idea, propagated by advertisers and self-help gurus, that “intelligent choice might be possible and untragic… that perfection is within reach.” Yet de Botton himself presents Existentialist thought as a kind of self-help program, one that helps us with regret, since we realize that everyone bears the burdens of choice, mortality, and contingency, not just us.
However, in most so-called Existentialist philosophers, we also discover another pressing problem. Once we become untethered from pleasing fictions of pre-existing realities, “worlds-behind-the-scene,” as Nietzsche put it, or “being-behind-the-appearance,” in Sartre’s words, we no longer see a benevolent hand arranging things neatly, nor have absolute order, meaning, or purpose to appeal to.
We must confront that fact that we, and no one else, bear responsibility for our choices, even though we make them blindly. It’s not a comforting thought, hence the “crisis.” But many of us resolve these moments of shock with varying degrees of wisdom and experience. As we know from another great thinker, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was not an Existentialist philosopher, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being…. For the person who is unwilling to grow up… this is a frightening prospect.”