Existentialism is a way of philosophizing that may lead those who adopt it to a different conviction about the world and man‘s life in it.
Existentialism is mainly a European philosophy that originated before the turn of the twentieth century, but became popular after World War II (1939 – 45).
The seeds of existentialism may be traced back to an earlier period of the history of philosophy. During the 18th century reason and nature were given more importance, objectivity was very much emphasized, leading to industrial and technological developments and science was given utmost importance. From the scientific viewpoint, man was also regarded as an object. Man became a slave to machines in developing industrial society. Against this situation existentialism emerged as a protest against the society and asserted the supremacy of individuality of man.
The existentialist philosophy is not a creation of any single philosopher. The existentialist writings scattered in the works of many philosophers, the important ones of which are : Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Abbagnamo, Bardyaev and Albert Camus etc.
In American education, such people as Maxine Greene, George Kneeler, and Van Cleve Morris, are well-known existentialists who stress individualism and personal self-fulfillment.
1. Existence precedes Essence : This philosophy begins from man, but from man as existent rather than man as a thinking subject, having a definite nature or essence. A man first exists, encounters himself, and defines himself afterwards. Existence comes before man is set with value or essence. It is because to begin with man is nothing, has no essence, he will be what he makes of himself. Man defines himself in his own subjectivity, and wanders between choice, freedom, and existential angst. Existentialism often is associated with anxiety, dread, awareness of death, and freedom.
2. Importance of Subjectivity : The Danish philosopher S Kierkegaard has said that truth is subjective, truth is subjectivity : objectivity and abstraction are hallucinations. Existentialism is the philosophy of subject rather than of the object. Each individual by probing into the depths of one‘s subjectivity can discover the truth of one‘s being and discover his authentic role in life. This is a creative process which gives rise to fresh insights.
3. Man‘s Freedom : The basic feature of human person is his freedom – unfettered and unrestrained. Society and social institutions are for the sake of man and not vice versa, as believed by idealists and others. There is no “general will” to which the “individual will” is subject.
4. Criticism of Idealism : Existentialism has emerged and developed as a reaction against idealism. Existentialist philosophers are highly critical of idealism and conceptualism. They criticize idealist‘s contention about universal element and man‘s good being subject to general good. They regard the search for essence a mistaken pursuit and according to them it is not the essence but existence which is real.
5. Criticism of Naturalism : The existentialist philosophers are also critical of the philosophy of Naturalism. According to naturalists, life is subject to physico – bio – chemical laws, which in turn, are subject to the universal law of causation. Human acts are mechanical as the actions of an animal. This, however, is anathema to the existentialists and they stoutly defend the freedom of man. As a matter of fact, man is so free, according to J. P. Sartre, that he is fearful of his freedom.
6. Criticism of Scientific Culture : With tremendous progress in science and technology, rapid industrialization and urbanization have taken place. This has given rise to crowded towns in which individual is lost. Everything is done or happens on a large – scale and all personal values, individual likes and dislikes are altogether lost sight of. Today, it is not the individual who chooses his end; rather all decisions are made by computer or statistical laws and data. Thus, science has made the value of man negligible. This is why the existentialists are opposed to scientific philosophy and culture.
7. Attention on Human Weakness and Security : In this scientific life of today, the individual is leading a life of tension, worries, frustrations, fear and sense of guilt. His individuality is getting continually blundered, therefore for security of individuality the individual should be given an environment free of worries, anxieties and tension.
Thus, existentialism is a philosophical movement that is generally considered a study that pursues meaning in existence and seeks value for the existing individual. It, unlike other fields of philosophy, does not treat the individual as a concept, and values individual subjectivity over objectivity. As a result, questions regarding the meaning of life and subjective experience are seen as being of paramount importance, above all other scientific and philosophical pursuits.
CHIEF EXPONENTS OF EXISTENTIALISM
Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and is the first European Philosopher who bears the existentialist label. In his view, subjectivity and intensity should be priced as the criteria of truth and genuineness. We touch reality in intense moments of existence especially moments of painful decision. These moments are characterized by deep anxiety, and life is known in such moments and cannot be reduced to just system of ideas.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) is regarded as a key figure in the rise of existentialism. According to him Christianity is to be overcome by putting in its place the doctrine of Superman, that is, man surpassing himself.
Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) in his book Being and Time, gave a very impressive analysis of human existence, the prominence of the important themes of existentialism like care, anxiety, guilt and above all death is brought out here.
Jean – Paul Sarte stressed that man‘s existence precedes his essence. "Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is."
SOME RECURRING THEMES IN EXISTENTIALISM :
Themes such as freedom, decision, and responsibility are prominent in all existentialist philosophers. These matters constitute the core of personal being. It is the exercise of freedom and the ability to shape the future that distinguishes man from all other beings that we know on earth. It is through free and responsible decisions that man becomes authentically himself.
Another group of recurring existentialist themes includes such topics as finitude, guilt, alienation, despair, moods, changing feelings, emotional life of man and death. Discussions of these have not been prominent in traditional philosophy, yet they are discussed at length in existentialism.
For the existentialist man is never just part of the cosmos but always stands to it in a relationship of tension with possibilities for tragic conflict.
EDUCATIIONAL PHILOSOPHY OF EXISTENTIALISM
The object of education is to give man the unity of truth…
In the field of education the contribution of existentialism is as follows :
The aim of Education :Existentialists believe that the most important kind of knowledge is about the human condition and the choices that each person has to make, and that education is a process of developing consciousness about the freedom to choose and the meaning of responsibility for one‘s choices. Hence, the notion of group norms, authority, and established order – social, political, philosophical, religious, and so on – are rejected. The existentialists recognize few standards, customs to traditions, or eternal truths; in this respect, existentialism is at odds with the ideas of idealism and realism.
Total Development : The existentialists have aimed at total development of personality through education. Education should aim at the whole man. It should aim at character formation and self – realization. In the existentialist classroom, subject matter takes second place to helping the students understand and appreciate themselves as unique individuals who accept complete responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Since feeling is not divorced from reason in decision making, the existentialist demands the education of the whole person, not just the mind.
Subjective Knowledge : The present age of science has made too much of objective knowledge, so much so, that the term has come to mean unreal, non-sense, ignorant and irrelevant. The existentialists rightly, point out that subjective knowledge is even more important than objective knowledge. They rightly hold that truth is subjectivity. It is a human value and values are not facts. Reduction of values to facts has led to widespread loss of faith in values. Therefore, along with the teaching of science and mathematics, the humanities, art, literature should be also be given suitable place in curriculum at every stage of education. Most of the ills of the modern man are due to over – objective attitude. This requires a subjectivist correction in the light of existentialist ideas.
Importance of Environment : The present industrial, economic, political and social environment is valueless. Therefore, it helps confusion and corruption, tensions and conflicts. The existentialists seek to provide an environment proper to self – development and self – consciousness. This environment in the school requires contribution from humanities, arts and literature. These will help in the development of individuality in the educand so that he may cease to become a cog in the social wheel. Rather he should develop to a self – conscious and sensitive individual.
Child – Centred Education : Existentialist education is child – centred. It gives full freedom to the child. The teacher should help the child to know himself and recognize his being. Freedom is required for natural development. Education should convert imperfection into perfection. Education should be according to the individual‘s needs and abilities of the child. The relation of the child to himself should be strengthened by education.
Curriculum :Existentialists prefer to free learners to choose what to study and also determine what is true and by what criteria to determine these truths. The curriculum would avoid systematic knowledge or structured disciplines, and the students would be free to select from many available learning situations. The learners would choose the knowledge they wish to possess. The humanities are commonly given tremendous emphasis. They are explored as a means of providing students with vicarious experiences that will help unleash their own creativity and self – expression. For example, rather than emphasizing historical events, existentialists focus upon the actions of historical individuals, each of whom provides possible models for the students‘ own behaviour.
Existentialist‘s approach to education is almost an inversion of the realist approach. In the field of curriculum while the realists exclusively emphasize science, the existentialists find out that science and objective education severs our relation with ourselves. Science cannot help in inner realization and achievement of peace. This, however, does not mean that science education should be ignored. It only means besides science the curriculum must include humanities, ethics and religion. In keeping with this viewpoint contemporary engineering colleges have included some philosophy, ethics and social studies, in their curriculum. Without this synthetic approach to curriculum the aim of character formation and personality development will be defeated.
Learning Experiences :An existentialist curriculum would consist of experiences and subjects that lend themselves to philosophical dialogue and acts of choice making. Because the choice is personal and subjective, subjects that are emotional, aesthetic and philosophical are appropriate. Literature, drama, film – making, art, and so on, are important, because, they portray the human condition and choice – making conditions. The curriculum would stress self – expressive activities, experimentation, and media that illustrate emotions, feelings and insights.
The classroom would be rich in materials that lend themselves to self – expression, and the school would be a place in which the teacher and students could pursue dialogue and discussion about their lives and choices.
The Teacher :According to the existentialists the teacher creates an educational situation in which the student may establish contact with himself, become conscious of it and achieve self – realization. This requires existential approach in the teacher himself. He should also have an experience of self – realization so that he may be capable of guiding the students in this process. The teacher‘s role is to help students define their own essence by exposing them to various paths they may take in life and creating an environment in which they may freely choose their own preferred way.
Existentialist methods focus on the individual. Learning is self- paced, self directed, and includes a great deal of individual contact with the teacher, who relates to each student openly and honestly.
The student :The student should feel completely free for realizing his 'self‘. Under the guidance of the teacher, the student should try to realize his 'self‘ through introversion. The student accepts the discipline prescribed by the teacher and does not become irresponsible. The purpose of freedom given to him should be to enable him to effect the full development of his individuality.
Religious and Moral Education :The existentialists particularly lay emphasis upon religion and moral education. Religion allows a person to develop himself. Religious education gives him an understanding of his existence in the cosmos. It shows the religious path of self – realization. It also makes him capable of utilizing faith in self – development. Moral education is closely related to religious education. Both develop the inner self and help in the realization of the infinite within the finite.
Some critics (mainly traditionalists or Conservatives) claim that existentialism as philosophy for the schools has limited application because education in our society, and in most other modern societies, involves institutionalized learning and socialization, which require group instruction, restriction on individual behaviour and bureaucratic organization. Schooling is a process that limits students‘ freedom and that is based on adult authority and on the norms and beliefs of the mass or common culture. The individual existentialist, exerting his or her will and choice will encounter difficulty in school – and in other large, formal organizations.