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Now that we’ve left behind the philosophy of religion, it’s time to start exploring what other ways might exist to find meaning in the world. Today we explore essentialism and its response: existentialism. We’ll also learn about Jean-Paul Sartre and his ideas about how to find meaning in a meaningless world.


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What gives your life meaning? God? Love? Money? Work? Fan Fiction? Football? Shopping? Sherlock? You might have your own personal sense of purpose in your life or maybe you're hoping this course will help you find one, or you might believe you were created with a certain essence as a human being with a purpose given to you by God.

Whatever the case is, no one would fault you for wanting your life to have meaning. A sense of meaning is something that we all crave, maybe even need, and as we move out of our unit on the philosophy of religion, we should spend some time talking about how we understand our lives as being meaningful. Because when you think about it, a lot of us devote a ton of energy to the task of finding meaning in our lives.

Maybe you find it through religion or by fighting for social justice, educating others or seeking beauty in artistic expression. No matter how you do it, there's a group of philosophers, the existentialists, who say that any or all of these things can give your life meaning. But at the same time, they say none of them can.


As you know by now, philosophy is about the dialectic. Someone puts forth an idea and then someone else responds to it. Sometimes the response comes right away. In other cases, it takes thousands of years. Way back in Ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle took it as a given that every thing has an essence: a certain set of core properties that are necessary or essential for a thing to be what it is. If those properties were missing, then that thing would be a different thing.

For instance, a knife could have a wooden handle or a metal handle: it really doesn't matter but if it didn't have a blade, it wouldn't really be a knife anymore. The blade is the essential property of the knife because it gives the knife its defining function.

Now, Plato and Aristotle thought that everything has an essence including us and they believe that our essences exist in us before we're  even born. So by this thinking, part of what it means to be a good human is to adhere to your essence.

Now you may or may not know what your essence is and you might be great at living up to your essence or you may be awful at it but the important thing is that your essence gives you a purpose because you were born to be a certain thing. This belief known as essentialism was the standard view of the universe all the way up until the late 19th century and it's still accepted by many people today.

But in the late 1800s, some thinkers started to challenge the idea that we are imbued with any essence or purpose. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, embraced nihilism, the belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

But by the mid-20th century, the path had been paved for French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre to return to the question of essence and ask, "What if we exist first? What if we're born without any hard-wired purpose, and then it's up to us to figure out our own essences?" Well this became the framework for what we now know as existentialism, and its mantra is the claim that existence precedes essence.

In other words, our existence (our birth) happens first, and then its 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 we have no actual predetermined purpose; there's no set path that we're supposed to follow.

It's hard to express how radical this idea was at the time. Because for thousands of years before this, you didn't have to choose a path or find your purpose; God did it for you. But it's important to note that existentialism is not synonymous with atheism. Plenty of existentialists are atheists, but some are theists like Kierkegaard. What theistic existentialists deny is any sort of teleology, that is, they refute the notion that God made the universe, or our world, or us, with any particular purpose in mind.

So God may exist, but instilling you or your life or the cosmos with meaning? That's just not in his job description. As a result, we are each born into a universe in which we and our world and our actions lack any real inherent importance. This is a fundamental component of existentialism, and its adherents refer to it as the absurd.

You and I think of absurdity as something that’s just silly, or preposterous. But for existentialists, absurdity is a technical term. It’s how they describe the search for answers in an answerless world. We are creatures who need meaning, but we’re abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness, so we cry into the wilderness, and get no response, but we keep crying anyway. That, for an existentialist, is the definition of absurd.

Since there’s no teleology, the world wasn’t created for a reason, and it doesn’t exist for a reason. And if there’s no reason for any of this, then there’s also no absolutes to abide by: There’s no cosmic justice, no fairness, no order, no rules.

Now, existentialism has its roots in late-19th-century thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But it really came into its own during and after World War II, as the horrors of the Holocaust led many people to abandon any belief in an ordered world. And who could blame them? When Nazis became possible, meaning became much harder to find.

But Sartre faced meaninglessness head-on, and explored one of the most agonizing aspects of existentialism. Not the world’s lack of meaning. But its terrifying abundance of freedom. To most of us, freedom sounds pretty great. But Sartre thought that we are painfully, shockingly free. After all, if there are no guidelines for our actions, then each of us is forced to design our own moral code, to invent a morality to live by.

Sartre took this to mean that we are “condemned to be free,” a fate that he found to be quite awful. You might think that there’s some authority you could look to for answers, Sartre said, but all of the authorities you can think of are fake. You can do what your parents say, or your church, or your government, but Sartre said those authorities are really just people like you, people who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live. So the best thing you can really do, he determined, is to live authentically.

Sartre used this to mean that you have to accept the full weight of your freedom in light of the absurd. You have to recognize that any meaning your life has, is given to it by you. And if you decide to just phone it in, and follow a path that someone else has set – whether it’s your teachers, your government, or your religion – then you have what he called bad faith, a refusal to accept the absurd. If you live by bad faith, you’re burying your head in the sand and pretending that something out there has meaning – meaning that you didn’t give it. Which brings us to this week’s Flash Philosophy. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.

Sartre explained these ideas through an anecdote about one of his students, who faced a difficult decision. This young man was at a crossroads in his life. He could join the military during wartime, and go off to fight for a cause that he believed in. And he wanted to do this. He thought it was right. But he also had an elderly mother who was all alone, except for him. If he went to war, he’d leave her behind, and that seemed wrong. So he could stay with her, and let others fight for justice, or he could go off to war, and leave his mother to herself, and likely never see her again.

The young man felt a sense of duty to both his cause and to his mother, but he could only serve one. Moreover, if he went to war, he’d be just a very small part of a really big cause. His contribution probably wouldn’t be great, but he would be contributing to something that would affect millions of people. But if he stayed behind, he’d make an enormous difference in just one person’s life. Thanks Thought Bubble.

So, what’s the answer? Sartre said that the whole point of this young man’s decision was that no one could give him an answer. In fact, there was no answer, until the man chose one for himself. No moral theory could help him decide, because no one else’s advice could lead him to a decision that was truly authentic. So his choice – no matter what it was – was the only true choice, provided that he made it authentically, because it was determined by the values he chose to accept.

A lot of people think existentialism paints a pretty bleak picture of the world. In fact, the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus went so far as to say that the literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself. But most existentialists would remind you that the world, and your life, can have meaning, but only if you choose to assign it. If the world is inherently devoid of purpose, you can choose to imbue it with whatever purpose you want.

So, no one can tell you if your life isn’t worth anything if you, say, don’t have children, or don’t follow a lucrative career path, or achieve whatever standards your parents hold you to. And this works not just on an individual scale, but on a global one too. If the world is going to have any of the things most of us value – like justice and order – we’re going to have to put it there ourselves. Because, otherwise, those things wouldn’t exist. So, a worldview that looks bleak to some, may to others seem almost exhilarating.

Today I hope you enjoyed as much as I did learning about essentialism and its response, existentialism. We talked about Jean-Paul Sartre and his ideas about how to find meaning in a meaningless world.

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Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out amazing shows like The Chatterbox, PBS Space Time and PBS Idea Channel This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Café.