A Crash Course in Existentialism: A Short Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre & Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

Very broad­ly speak­ing, all phi­los­o­phy con­tains with­in it dialec­ti­cal ten­sions: some ideas seem ennobling and con­sol­ing, oth­ers unset­tling and alien­at­ing. Every school, move­ment, and indi­vid­ual thinker deals in some mea­sure of both. Some­times we feel unset­tled because of his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al dis­tance. When Socrates talks about slav­ery or cen­sor­ship in mat­ter-of-fact ways, for exam­ple, we might be star­tled, but his audi­ence didn’t see things the way we do. When it comes, how­ev­er, to the Exis­ten­tial­ists, the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal milieu of these thinkers may resem­ble our own close­ly enough that state­ments which shocked their read­ers still shock most peo­ple today.

Take one of the big­ger ques­tions like, oh, the mean­ing of life. “We under­stand our lives as being mean­ing­ful,” says Hank Green above—brother of John Green, the oth­er half of the Crash Course edu­ca­tion­al team. We might find pur­pose and ful­fill­ment in a num­ber of things, from reli­gion to art, sports, careers, and pol­i­tics.

Exis­ten­tial­ists, Green tells us, would say that “any or all of these things can give your life mean­ing.” Con­sol­ing, eh? “But at the same time,” and here comes the down­er, “they say none of them can.” These thinkers may be spread out over time and space—from the 19th cen­tu­ry Den­mark and Ger­many of Kierkegaard and Niet­zsche to the 1950s France of Sartre, De Beau­voir, and Camus. But Exis­ten­tial­ist thinkers share at least one com­mon trait: anti-essen­tial­ism.

As Green explains, clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy offered the com­fort­ing expla­na­tion that every­thing con­tained an essence: “a cer­tain set of core prin­ci­ples that are nec­es­sary or essen­tial for a thing to be what it is.” Not only do chairs and tables have essences but so do human beings, they thought, and “your essence gives you a pur­pose.” Still a very wide­spread and com­mon­place belief, we can prob­a­bly agree, and one peo­ple rarely think about crit­i­cal­ly unless they’re hav­ing… well, an exis­ten­tial cri­sis. So far so good when it comes to grasp­ing the essence (sor­ry) of Exis­ten­tial­ist think­ing.

Green goes astray how­ev­er, when he gets to Niet­zsche, whom he claims embraced Nihilism, “the belief in the ulti­mate mean­ing­less­ness of life.” Not only did Niet­zsche vehe­ment­ly oppose nihilism as self-defeat­ing, but he feared the con­se­quences of its spread, even if he some­times saw it as an inevitable prod­uct of moder­ni­ty. Anoth­er impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when study­ing so-called Exis­ten­tial­ist thinkers is that they them­selves were deeply trou­bled by their trou­bling insights. Kierkegaard turned to a rad­i­cal form of Chris­tian­i­ty, Camus to an intro­spec­tive indi­vid­u­al­ism… and per­haps the most famous Exis­ten­tial­ist, Jean Paul Sartre, came to embrace doc­tri­naire Marx­ism.

But first, he for­mu­lat­ed the most quotable max­im of Exis­ten­tial­ist thought: “Exis­tence pre­cedes Essence.” From this, he drew a con­clu­sion both trou­bling and con­sol­ing: “It’s up to each of us to deter­mine who we are. We have to write our own essence through the way we choose to live.” But this lib­er­at­ed con­di­tion is absurd: it means we are ulti­mate­ly respon­si­ble for every­thing we do, even when we have no idea what’s going to hap­pen when we do it, or any larg­er pur­pose for doing it at all. Whether ardent­ly reli­gious like Kierkegaard or ardent­ly athe­ist like Niet­zsche and Sartre, Exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­phers who stared into the void found there all of the bound­less free­dom and ter­ri­fy­ing ver­ti­go we came to asso­ciate with the neu­ro­sis of the mod­ern human con­di­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Crash Course Phi­los­o­phy: Hank Green’s Fast-Paced Intro­duc­tion to Phi­los­o­phy Gets Under­way on YouTube

What Is an “Exis­ten­tial Cri­sis”?: An Ani­mat­ed Video Explains What the Expres­sion Real­ly Means

Simone de Beau­voir Defends Exis­ten­tial­ism & Her Fem­i­nist Mas­ter­piece, The Sec­ond Sex, in Rare 1959 TV Inter­view

Exis­ten­tial­ism with Hubert Drey­fus: Four Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Marcus Moeller says:

    So isn’t the act of giv­ing some­thing a mean­ing the mean­ing of life itself?

  • Richard says:

    I don’t think so. I think the ques­tion is rhetor­i­cal . You nei­ther give mean­ing to life, nor do you take mean­ing from life.You like all oth­er things in our uni­verse are just part of it. To think your any­more spe­cial than any­thing else that grows or breathes or thinks or suf­fers is just hubris. Being just part of it and able to evoke these thoughts is won­der­ment in itself. Do we need more?

  • Jarod says:

    I like this video, but any­thing this short always miss­es the mark. As some­one who heav­i­ly iden­ti­fies with exis­ten­tial­ism, I found pro­found hope in the under­stand­ing that despite there being no empir­i­cal way to prove the things I felt or desired, I came to the real­iza­tion that I need­ed to believe any­ways. ” I needs believe” as Una­muno would say. I thought myself crazy until I dis­cov­ered the likes of Dos­to­evsky, Kierkegaard, and the afore­men­tioned Una­muno. Each of these peo­ple strug­gled to believe what they could not dis­re­gard. It was through them that I come to believe that there is right, wrong, and things like love in this uni­verse. But in order to accept them, one may have to take one big leap of faith, because real­ly, there many be no rea­son log­i­cal­ly to believe in them oth­er­wise.

  • James says:

    Thank you so much for this won­der­ful and time­ly expos­i­to­ry video on mean­ing of life. My chil­dren are tru­ly enjoy­ing it.

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