concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


In normal use, 'existentialism' is the term given to the twentieth century continental philosophy typified by that of Jean-Paul Sartre, and more controversially extended to Martin Heidegger and others. In Sartre's definition, an existentialist is someone who believes that human existence precedes its essence - that is, that human beings are entirely free to create the meaning and value of their own lives.

In Middle Way philosophy, the term 'existentialism' refers to one of two types of nihilism: (1) scientism and (2) existentialism. This terminology has been chosen because Sartre's existentialism typifies the features of this type of nihilism, though not all the thinkers who exhibit this type of nihilism would describe themselves as 'existentialist'.

Nihilists generally are definable as those who deny the existence of moral objectivity, normally using negative metaphysics to support this denial. However, there are two common philosophical patterns according to which moral objectivity is denied. The scientistic approach takes facts to be objective but values to be irredeemably subjective. The existentialist approach, however, takes both facts and values to be irredeemably subjective.

Sartre's version of this position takes facts and values to be chosen, but invests human choice itself with the significance that eternalists would give to a metaphysical justification for objectivity. By choosing, we are effectively said to create an ultimate justification for ourselves. However, Sartre does not give us any grounds for preferring any one choice over another beyond the freedom with which the choice is made. He cannot give us any grounds for moral choice, because he denies any basis of objectivity beyond that choice.

The more recent type of existentialist nihilist is the postmodernist, typified for example by Jean-Francois Lyotard. For Lyotard, as for Sartre, there are no reasons for holding one belief, or taking one action, over another, beyond the constructed stories we tell ourselves about the significance of our choices. However, there is no longer any pretence at universal justification even through choice. This is the ultimate form of relativism in which all 'truths' of any kind are equally justifiable or unjustifiable.

Existentialist nihilism is just as metaphysical, and just as unjustifiable, as belief in God or belief in Platonic ideas. Our lack of certainty about the justification either moral or scientific theories does not imply a certainty in denial of the kind assumed by existentialist nihilists - only agnosticism about the claimed foundations of moral or scientific knowledge. Since this agnosticism is itself the starting-point for objectivity, the relentlessly negative assumptions made about it by existentialists and postmodernists amount to metaphysical dogmas. We do not have to fetishise human choice, regardless of its grounds, nor do we have to abandon the concept of objectivity, just because all judgements are subject to human imperfection.

Links to related discussion

The features of nihilism

'The existentialists' from thesis (includes more detailed discussion of Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Lyotard)



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