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They are obsessed with how to live one's life and believe that philosophical and psychological inquiry can
They believe there are certain questions that everyone must deal with (if they are to take human life
seriously), and that these are special -- existential -- questions. Questions such as death, the meaning of
human existence, the place of God in human existence, the meaning of value, interpersonal relationship,
the place of self-reflective conscious knowledge of one's self in existing.
Note that the existentialists on this characterization don't pay much attention to "social" questions such as
the politics of life and what "social" responsibility the society or state has. They focus almost exclusively
on the individual.
By and large Existentialists believe that life is very difficult and that it doesn't have an "objective" or
universally known value, but that the individual must create value by affiriming it and living it, not by
talking about it.
Existential choices and values are primarily demonstrated in ACT not in words.
Given that one is focusing on individual existence and the "existential" struggles (that is, in making
decisions that are meaningful in everyday life), they often find that literary characterizations rather than
more abstract philosophical thinking, are the best ways to elucidate existential struggles.
They tend to take freedom of the will, the human power to do or not do, as absolutely obvious. Now and
again there are arguments for free will in Existentialist literature, but even in these arguments, one gets
the distinct sense that the arguments are not for themselves, but for "outsiders." Inside the movement, free
will is axiomatic, it is intuitively obvious, it is the backdrop of all else that goes on.
There are certainly exceptions to each of these things, but this is sort of a placing of the existentialist-like
One of the most important thinkers in this movement, Martin Heidegger, is very little concerned with
deciding and acting, but is concerned with knowing. It not what you DO that matters to Heidegger, but
how you KNOW it and that you KNOW it. Jean-Paul Sartre on the other hand is profoundly concerned
with acting.
However, in general the Existentialists recognize that human knowledge is limited and fallible. One can
be deeply committed to truth and investigation and simply fail to find adequate truth, or get it wrong.
Further, unlike science, which can keep searching for generations for an answer and afford to just say: We
don't know yet, in the everyday world, we often simply must do or not do. The moment of decision
comes. For the Existentialist one faces these moments of decision with a sense of fallibility and
seriousness of purpose, and then RISKS. Sartre is extremely harsh on this point. At one place he says:
When I choose I choose for the whole world. Now what can this mean. I think what Sartre is getting at is
that first of all when I choose and act, I change the world in some iota. This note gets written or it doesn't.
That has ramifications. It commits me to say what I'm saying. It may change someone who may be
affected by my remarks. Others can be too if they hear or read them. And so on. The ripples of actions are
like ripples on the sea, they go on and on and on.

By my acts I also begin to define and create the self I am, which is, to some extent a public self. Thus an
act is like opening Pandora's box, it lets out what's inside the act and there is no getting it back.
That's not a MORAL point to Sartre, it is an ontological fact, that is, a fact about the world. Not a should
or an ought, but a description of a reality about the world and human choice.
1. I am a person serious about my acts.
2. If they are as uncertain as Sartre describes
3. They are as potentially momentous as he describes
It's not surprising that acting, for the Existentialist, is a terrifying responsibility and living and acting is a
burden that causes great anxiety for the Existentialists. There is not absolute certainty (for some of the
reasons given above and for yet more we can talk about later), thus human acts are the full responsibility
of the individual.
Further, in another place in Sartre's major work, BEING AND NOTHINGNESS, he talks about creating
oneself in action. What he means by this is that I, the human, am free. I can make up my own mind about
my acts. What I will BE in some final sense is what I make of myself. Thus my acts are not trivial, but
definitive of my very self-hood. Again, acting in such a world of freedom, uncertainty and ontological
responsibility (as opposed to moral responsibility), is so weighty that the Existentialists nearly recoil from
living and acting under the terror of the weight of it all.
Put in the shortest form: Living without certainty and with personal responsibility is a nearly unbearable