The tradition of Cartesian philosophy culminated in the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, giving rise to phenomenology. Husserl’s pupil Martin Heidegger noticed that the way we encounter the world in general is not at all through the relation between subject and object, as his tutor presupposed. On the contrary, he argued that thought and consciousness do not play a necessary role at all.
The central idea of the phenomenological way of seeing the world is that we exist as subjects in a world full of objects, trying to get to know them and the world around us. This persisted until Heidegger postulated an existential way of contemplating the world. Jean-Paul Sartre would continue to develop this existential way of thinking, which went on to popularize existentialism as a new philosophical movement. But what is it about existentialism that is so fresh, thought-provoking, and yet still comes close to the heart of the average reader? In this article, we will explore how phenomenology gave rise to existentialism, and analyze their main points and ideas.
1. The Philosophy of Phenomenology
Edmund Husserl was the founder of phenomenology. The shortest way to explain his approach is as follows. For all of us, there exists something that is certain without any doubt, and that’s our consciousness, our conscious thought activity. So, if we want to build knowledge on solid ground, this should be the starting point. Up to this point, Husserl agrees with René Descartes.
If we analyze our consciousness further, we can discover that it is always, and can only be, consciousness of something. Consciousness has to be consciousness of something, or simply put, to be conscious means to be conscious about something. Awareness has to be awareness of something. Consciousness cannot exist as an objectless state of the mind.
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Continuing this introspective inquiry, we discover that in reality, we cannot make a distinction between what represents a state of consciousness and that which represents an object of consciousness. We are able to distinguish them conceptually, but in our own experience, they blend and are impossible to differentiate. Up to this point, Husserl agrees with David Hume. But from here on out, he comes up with an original idea and conception.
Philosophers have argued for centuries about the existence of the world – about whether the world exists as a different entity than our perception and our representation of the world. Most of them did presuppose a reality that’s hidden from us, a reality that exists separately and by itself, and that no human being can ever know. However, when being faced with the question of whether the objects of our perception have a separate independent existence from our experience of them, Husserl says that without doubt, the objects of our consciousness exist as objects of our consciousness for us, regardless of their status of existence that they may or may not have. That way, we can investigate them without presupposing anything either positive or negative about their independent existence, says Husserl. This gives us a direct approach to their investigation, which actually is an investigation of the world itself. The debate of the objects’ independent existence is put aside, and the objects are being examined strictly as the content of consciousness. That is the core idea of phenomenology.
Husserl’s fundamental idea is that consciousness is always directed towards objects in order to recognize a certain aspect of theirs. All of the mental capacity of the mind is directed towards that end, and Husserl believes that this is a unique characteristic of the human mind. The mind and nothing else in the universe has a “directedness” towards something outside of it. Because we have such an ability, the ability has to be caused by some kind of mental apparatus inside the mind thanks to which we can direct our consciousness, and this is what Husserl names as “intentional content.” That is why Husserl puts the concept of intentionality (understood as the directedness of the mind and the directedness of the conscious thought activity) as one of the main philosophical subjects of investigation. We are a subject directed towards the object of our consciousness.
This brief examination enables us to map out the fundamental idea of phenomenology. Simply put, phenomenology investigates the objects of our consciousness only, the objects as phenomena (appearances), without going into the status of their existence independent from our experience of them. Nothing can be more evident than the way the world appears to us, says Husserl, and that’s why he uses this as a starting point in his philosophy and as a solid ground for building upon all other knowledge about the world.
2. Existentialism Postulated: The Philosophy of Martin Heidegger
With this basic background about phenomenology and its principles, we can investigate how existentialism is connected to it. Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s pupil, put to question whether the subject-object structure of understanding the world really serves as an adequate description of our relationship with the things in it.
Heidegger noticed that the way we encounter things around us does not reflect the subject-object that Husserl posited. To explain this, Heidegger gives his famous example of the hammer. The example goes something like this. When someone slams a nail with a hammer, and the hammer works perfectly fine, the hammer represents a totally transparent object for them. They are not a subject that directs his consciousness toward the object – the hammer. They don’t have to think about the hammer at all. They can think about the nails, for example, but if they are skilled at what they’re doing and if the nails work perfectly fine, that’s really not necessary at all. Instead, they can think about lunch, or have a conversation with someone else. In these instances, the slamming with the hammer goes into a state of transparent coping mode – a term coined by Hubert Dreyfus, a historian of philosophy. Heidegger says that the everyday habitual way of dealing with things, or “coping” as he likes to put it, is our primordial and most basic understanding of the world. On the other hand, the objects with which we are coping are “ready-to-hand objects,” he says.
According to Heidegger, questions such as “How do we, as “subjects” gain knowledge of the objects constituting the world?”, “Can this knowledge be certain and true?”, “What are the criteria of certainty and truthfulness?”, are all questions that arise as a result of thinking about the world through the subject-object structure. They have a value in our existence but on a secondary level.
Primarily, human beings are not subjects, observers totally detached from the external reality that’s waiting to be known. Instead, we are part of reality and the world. From our very own beginning, we are among the things in the world, existing in it together, and coping with this fact. We are not cognitive beings, like Heidegger’s predecessors believed. We are coping beings, says Heidegger. We are beings in a world full of beings, one particular existence in a world that exists as well. And this is the place where we should start, states Heidegger.
Through this approach, we can clearly see the existentialist way of thinking being announced and introduced to philosophy. Heidegger’s use of the word “coping” or “to cope,” a term that’s associated with a survival mode of being, describes his attitude very efficiently. The existentialist mindset was postulated in this way, and a different path of thinking about the world was created.
To prove his point better, once again, Heidegger gives another example that shows the way we exist in the world around us and the way we encounter things. He used to say to his students:
“When entering the classroom, you have to turn the doorknob, but while turning the door knob you do not have to look at it at all, you do not have to think if the door will open when turning the doorknob, without having any beliefs of the doorknob, without trying to turn it. All we can say is that you are already in the classroom, and there’s no way of entering the classroom without turning the door knob. We do not have any memory of the activity of turning the door knob, because the whole process is so transparent that it doesn’t have to go through your mind and consciousness at all.”
It’s important to mention that Heidegger does not reject the conscious contemplation of objects, and neither does he reject the conscious thought process. But that’s on a secondary level. Primarily, we are coping beings already involved in the world. But if something does not work right, we might need to engage in a mode of thinking that presupposes the subject-object relationship. Returning to the case of the hammer, we can imagine some sort of malfunction – for example, the hammer is too heavy, and that makes us notice that aspect of it: we become cognitive beings. Heidegger names this way in which objects present themselves as “unready-to-hand,” and he states that this is the place where phenomenology begins, one stadium later.
There is also a third way we encounter things that Heidegger calls “present-at-hand.” If the metal head on top of it falls off as we’re slamming with it, or if any of the nails are missing, we get to notice the object with more clarity are perception, and it’s where the mind can finally notice the object as present in itself.
Philosophers following Descartes were all focused on proving the existence of the external world. Immanuel Kant even says that it’s a scandal that nobody succeeded in proving its existence.
The way Heidegger deals with the issue of the existence of the external world, on the other hand, is quite innovative:
“The scandal is that philosophers are all trying to prove the existence of the external world as if we’re all trapped in some kind of internal world and cannot get out of it. They have to understand that in our everyday coping with the world, we do not need the mental apparatus at all and that we are always already being-in-the-world.”
(Being and Time)
We begin from the world, in the world, with the world. At the very end, it’s important to mention that Heidegger never called himself an existentialist or wanted to be associated with the movement, but he certainly laid the foundations for it. On the other hand, Jean-Paul Sartre explicitly called himself an existentialist.
3. Existentialism Established: The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre
How does famous existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre fit into the whole story of the rise of existentialism? How did he contribute to its further development and popularization, to the point where existentialism became associated with his name directly?
Sartre started off as a phenomenologist first, and as such, he wrote his book Nausea. Later, after reading Heidegger’s Being and Time, Jean-Paul Sartre recognized Heidegger’s existential inclinations, and so he converted himself to an existentialist of a Heideggerian type. He starts off analyzing the individual conscious subject but also writes on death, anxiety, inauthenticity, existence, being, and nothingness – everything that Heidegger wrote about. That’s how Sartre’s ground-breaking book Being and Nothingness came to be.
With Being and Nothingness, Sartre laid the foundations of modern existentialism, argued for his central ideas, and further developed them. In the very introduction of Being and Nothingness, Sartre explains why he rejects the notion of the dualism between phenomenon and noumenon (the way things appear to us and the way they are in themselves), just like Husserl did. He says that the representation of the phenomena is clear and absolute. The being, the thing-for-itself, or the noumenon, as Kant calls it, is not unrecognizable, but simply does not exist, says Sartre. The representations are the only reality that exists. That way, we can perceive the world as an infinite series of finite representations.
After rejecting this dualism, Sartre introduces us to his distinction between the unconscious beings (being-in-itself) and the conscious beings (being-for-itself). The being-in-itself is fixated; it doesn’t have the ability to change and is not conscious of itself. On the other hand, the being-for-itself is conscious of its consciousness, but as such, it is incomplete and not actualized.
According to Sartre, this impossibility of being defined, and the undetermined nature of the being, is what makes the human being a human being. Since the being-for-itself lacks certainty and a predetermined essence, it is forced to create itself out of nothing, basically. That’s why Sartre concludes that the defining characteristic of the being-for-itself, of the human being, is actually the nothingness that he creates himself from.
To explain this better, let’s take a tree as an example. In Sartre’s distinction, the tree is a being-in-itself, and in its existence it’s completely defined what it is as an object, as well as its purpose, meaning, and goal. It lacks the ability to change or the ability to create its own being because it’s already defined and determined. The human being is the being-for-itself in Sartre’s distinction. It is completely missing the defining characteristic that makes him a human being. That’s why he has to create himself. Instead of simply existing, as the tree does, man has to actualize his own being.
Sartre states that human beings gain meaning and purpose for their own existence only through their constant search for meaning in the unknown future. In other words, man is not such as someone might describe him now, at a certain given moment. For example, if he’s a teacher, he’s not a teacher in the same way as the rock is a rock. Man is never an essence, regardless of how much he strives for self-determination. The way that he views his past, and pictures his future, is a series of choices.
That’s why Sartre says that man is always presented with choices in front of him, and it’s what causes him anxiety and makes his existence hard. He has to create himself by giving meaning to things or taking meaning from them. Striving to become one with the being-in-itself, being-for-itself attaches its subjectivity to the objectivity around him. Being-for-itself is actually consciousness, but in the very moment that consciousness questions its own being, the irreconcilable rift between being-in-itself and being-for-itself is confirmed and affirmed.
Further, Sartre writes that the human being recognizes that which he isn’t: he’s not a being-in-itself. So, it’s only through his own consciousness of what he isn’t that the human being becomes what it truly is: nothingness, completely free in the world, a blank canvas on which he paints his being. He concludes that the existence of the human being is the direct cause of the existence of nothingness and deficiency in the world. It’s through the existence of the human being that nothingness comes into existence, and as a consequence, the human being is deficient by itself. The deficiency is the absence of the unattainable synthesis of being-it-self and being-for-itself. Being-for-itself sees the world through that which is missing.
Another important idea of Sartre that we need to mention is how we become conscious of our own existence. Sartre says that we become conscious through the look of the other. It’s only through our awareness that we are being watched by others that we become conscious of our presence. The look of the other is an externalization and objectification of us. Sartre writes that we perceive ourselves as others perceive us, and that way, we objectify ourselves the same way as we’re being objectified. So, the look of the other steals our inherent freedom and makes us subtract from our very own being. Consequently, this makes us view the other person as superior. As a response to his look, we assert our own freedom and value and try to objectify the one that’s objectifying us. That’s why Sartre says: “Hell is other people.”
4. A Timeline of Existentialism Before and After Sartre
Through this brief presentation, we’ve shown what phenomenology is, and how it influenced the rise of existentialism. After that, we saw the starting point of existential thinking through the philosophy of Heidegger, as well as the basics of existentialism, its main points and ideas, and its main focus of investigation and approach through the philosophy of Sartre. Even though existential inclinations existed way before Sartre, e.g., in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, as well as the philosophy of Heidegger, it was through the philosophy of Sartre that existentialism got established, and separated as a study of its own in the field of philosophy.
Some believe that German philosopher Karl Jaspers was the first existential thinker. However, it’s the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that’s widely considered to be the first one who sparked the idea of the existentialist worldview. Rebelling against the philosophy of Hegel, Kierkegaard proposed taking the focus of contemplating the world and putting it back on the human being and its existence.
Heidegger, also rebelling against the philosophy of Husserl, saw the limitations of not only the philosophy of his tutor, but also of all of traditional philosophy, which led to his own discoveries, and contributions to the rise of existentialism. Finally, Sartre established existentialism as a new philosophical doctrine. Albert Camus would later on continue the existential approach that Sartre established, and would even differentiate himself by establishing his own approach to the philosophical issues that existentialism was battling with, naming it “Absurdism”. Another important figure is the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which also integrated the spirit of existentialism into his philosophy. Having so many followers, existentialism would become one of the most popular philosophical movements of the 20th century.