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Other Existentialists

What did the religious and humanist existentialists contribute?

The religious existentialists reconciled Sartrean ideas of freedom with the Judaic-Christian tradition. The humanist existentialists brought the more abstract aspects of existentialism into literature or developed them in different directions philosophically.

What were the ideas of the main religious existentialists?

Martin Buber (1878-1965) connected existentialism to Judaism by emphasizing that whereas Christians have direct individual relationships to God, the Jewish relationship to God is mediated by membership in a community. As a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, after he left Vienna in 1938, Buber tried to reconcile Jews and Arabs.

Buber criticized the subject-object form of knowledge as a mode in both human and religious relationships. In its place, he advocated an "I-Thou" relationship that recognized the subjectivity of the other. His main work is I and Thou (1923).

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) thought that philosophy should help human beings with their projects of self-discovery toward a goal of Existenz, or authentic selfhood, based on an understanding of one's own life. Although not a traditional theologian, Jaspers nevertheless addressed individual spiritual yearnings. His main works are Philosophy (1932), On the Origin and Goal of History (1949), and Way to Wisdom (1950).

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was both a philosopher and a playwright who addressed human existence in terms of community and personal relationships. He emphasized "we are," instead of "I am," drawing on both Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Buber. He also approached philosophy as a Bergsonian intuitionist by relying on his immediate insights for his views, rather than arriving at them through argument. His main works include Mystery of Being (1951) and Man against Mass Society (1955). His William James Lectures at Harvard University (1961, 1962) were published as The Existential Background of Human Dignity.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was born into a Jewish Parisian family but converted first to leftist syndicalism, which was a Marxist political movement with the goal of putting labor unions in control of both industry and government. Her subsequent religious thought was a combination of Neo-Platonism, Christianity, and Jewish mysticism. She was an activist on behalf of the democratically elected government during the Spanish Civil War, and for the French resistance during World War II. She criticized the way in which Marxism had become a religion to some and objected to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. Her solution was meaningful work as a fundamental human need. Her main writings, published posthumously, are Gravity and Grace (1947) and Oppression and Liberty (1955).

What were the ideas of some of the humanist existentialists?

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was influenced by phenomenology as well as existentialism, but some of his most original work has been directly relevant to environmental concerns and thought about the nature of life. In The Imperative of Responsibility (1979) he argues for ethical responsibility for the planet to fight the incursions of technology. In The Phenomenon of Life (1966) he argues against standard biological approaches that objectify living things and seek to explain their behavior via mere chemistry or mechanistic hereditary forces. Jonas' positive thesis is that all life forms, even single cells, have some form of awareness and they strive from their own physicality and perspective on the world. (Awareness on a cellular level does not imply the presence of the cogito—a mind—it is sufficient if the living entity "behaves" in a way that enhances its life, or attempts to do so.)

Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) was a French Jewish philosopher who was originally from Lithuania. Levinas criticized the philosophical tradition in which things other than an individual mind are represented to that mind in ideas or some other "mental content." He thought that the paradigm for understanding consciousness was the face-to-face interactions between human beings. Such interactions are both particular and indescribable, as well as of inestimable importance. Levinas' main works are Totality and Infinity (1964), Otherwise than Being or beyond Essence (1974), Difference and Transcendence (1999), and Between Us (1998).

Albert Camus (1913-1960), like Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), had a "burning question." In his case, it was, "Why should a human being not commit suicide?" The question arose for him from his apprehension of the human condition as absurd, together with the absence of God and a forever frustrated search for meaning. Camus

Albert Camus, the brilliant author of novels like The Rebel, struggled to understand the meaning of human life in a godless world (Art Archive).

Albert Camus, the brilliant author of novels like The Rebel, struggled to understand the meaning of human life in a godless world (Art Archive).

was a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), but they became alienated from each other as a result of Camus' critique of communist tyranny in his essay in favor of revolutionary struggle, The Rebel (1951). His novel The Plague (1947) dramatized the ever-presence of death in human life. In his nonfiction essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) Camus claims that meaning can be found by affirming the absurd and then rebelling against it, as in "imagine Sisyphus happy." Sisyphus' punishment by Zeus consists of eternally rolling a large boulder up a mountain, only to begin again after he has reached the top and the boulder has rolled down again. His crimes were first to put Death in chains and then escape death himself. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957; his own death in a car crash raised the question of his suicide.

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) wrote on a variety of subjects, including existentialism, phenomenology, ethics, psychology, and theory of language. All of his work was distinguished by a deep engagement with key figures in the history of philosophy. His Freedom and Nature (1950) was received as a rejection of Sartre's theory of freedom. Ricoeur argued that willing always has an involuntary component, which works as a kind of built-in resistance. What is voluntary consists of motive, decision, and consent, each of which has its own involuntary "moment." The involuntary moments include birth, death, character already developed, the body, and the unconscious. (First, it's not clear that Sartre equated freedom with acts of will, because freedom is present in all consciousness. Second, Sartre would have said that what we accept or recognize as involuntary requires a free choice of bestowing that particular meaning.)

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