Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16

Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16


Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you
by Squarespace. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. What gives your life meaning?
God? Love? Money? Work? Fanfiction? 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 that 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, or 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. [Theme Music] 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 given that everything 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 believed 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
meaningless 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 find 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. Then, it’s 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, 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. This episode is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace helps to create websites, blogs
or online stores for you and your ideas. Websites look professionally designed regardless
of skill level, no coding required. Try Squarespace at squarespace.com/crashcourse
for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. 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 SpaceTime 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 Cafe.

100 thoughts on “Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16”

  • Well someone has to be the psychic.i believe Existentialism is Extrasencory perception with no manual!

  • The only real problem (for me) with the existentialist thought is that so many died at a very young age (ex. 8 yrs old) having already conscious thought but not having much experience to give his life purpose. It’s sad to think that his life is has so little meaning, if I were to think like an existentialist. Also with the concept of human rights, if existentialism was to prevail then human rights should’ve been abolished long ago. The assumption of human rights is that all of our lives have inherent meaning, thus we have to respect and nourish it. (Imagine if we don’t have human rights embedded in our laws today). What I like though about existentialism is the idea of not just contemplating our own existence and its essence but to act and make our own meaning in life.

  • The essence of human beings is evil. People are born bad. That's why Christians baptize their infants..to cleanse them of sin. That's why parents are important. Religion gives us meaning.

  • We constantly search for meaning because with technology, agriculture, and domestication we basically eliminated our fundamental purpose. And what is our fundamental purpose? It is the same as any other animal, plant or object in the universe we simply have to be. Because we no longer are hunter- gatherers surviving or being isn’t out purpose anymore therefore we fall into this existential dilemma

    Let me know what you guys think about this

  • Is there any source on that Albert Camus quote? I can't find it anywhere and it seems like the sort of thing that might spread simply through poignancy. Perhaps it is apocryphal?

  • I feel that love may be the most important aspect of being human;

    In the belief that loneliness may be the reason for existentialism, love may be the reason for existence.

    To feel so strongly connected with something(s)/someone(s), as to believe the that one would die for them, is truly an intense feeling.

    In parallel; that one may evoke such powerful feelings towards something(s)/someone(s), that they desire to live, in order to honour them; is extraordinary.

    It seems to me that love proposes itself as an antithesis towards the feelings of loneliness and apathy.

    As such; love is unequivocally quintessential to the human condition, in my humble opinion.

  • The meaning of life is finding others who see life in a similar way that you do. And multiplying your efforts.
    Otherwise, you are an outcast. We are a social species, even though many of us our pathologically individualistic.
    Myself, well included.

  • Boy I needed this episode. I graduated last year top 3% of my class dripping with honors and can't get a job in my field of finance to save my life. A year and a half has gone by and nobody will hire me nor will anybody explain why they won't hire me either.

    I've come to realize (especially for a Type A person like myself) that a lot of many people's lives find meaning through their profession. It's usually the very first thing we ask about when we meet someone, and to not have one for so long, to not be told why, and to see no way of improving can be disheartening to say the least.

    To horror fans, I recommend Wisecrack's video on the philosophy of Saw. It dives deep into all this.

    I'm also reminded of that quote from Welcome to Night Vale: "The complete freedom, the lack of consequence. It terrifies you".

  • The protests at the 45 second mark … WTF? "Restore Sanity and/or Fear" "Deport Bears." This is the example of social justice? 😀

  • 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr said, "A man came to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, wanting to do jihad. The Prophet asked, 'Are your parents alive?' 'Yes,' he replied. he said, 'Then exert yourself on their behalf.'"

  • This is all literal madness. "Essence precedes existence" ? An assertion or an argument is completely worthless unless the 'listeners' Agree on MEANING !
    The 'argument' could also be made that aside perhaps of procreating, life is Entirely meaningless. Your 'meaning'
    is artificial, it's NOT Real.

  • If I may ask a question that sounds, and sorry for misusing the term, absurd — is the assumption that we make our own meaning completely incompatible with religious belief? For example, can I hold to Christian tenets while still accepting the responsibility to create my own meaning by my actions?

  • Wait !!!….. all of us “know” but don’t actually “see” the absurdity of death ahead….. and therefore we are forced, against our will, to choose our pathway to death.

    This is, indeed, totally absurd!

    So….. take your life now…. or wait for the absurdity of circumstances beyond your control to take your life. Either way you die.

    And what is your life’s impact on EVERYONE else who must also face this same absurdity? Well, you have no impact at all.

    This is the fundamental tenant of Existentialism.

  • the perfection of wisdom teaches us that all things are empty. so how can there be a crisis of value and worth, meaning and lamentation when they are all empty too?

  • Wasn't Nietzsche a CRITIC of nihilism? I always understood him to be the forefather of existentialism–on the same track, but not exactly a peer of the other existentialists.

  • The one true meaning of life is that there is no "one" meaning. Every day your life is different from yesterday, and so is your meaning to it.

  • An intelligent existential philosopher is a fallacy in it that which if one were smart enough to realize ones ideals are worthless he would have better things do than to profess

  • No one can really argue for the meaninglessness of life because it would be a self-defeating argument. Their task is prove that it is meaningful to assert that there is no meaning. They have to assume meaning before you deny it!

  • If life is pointless then giving life meaning is pointless. The only point that matters is the one you put in your mouth as you pull the trigger! 😂

  • "The literal meaning of life is whatever your doing that prevents you from killing yourself"

    Lol never thought of it like that

  • There is no meaning to life. There is only wishful thinking and the lie. Life is irrelevant. People are irrelevant. If you don’t believe me, then ask the millions of humans that have lived and died over the past few thousand years. Ask the billions of animals that have existed. Where are they now. Exactly. Ask all those that have been aborted.
    Life matters, yet we have no problem taking it when it interferes with our plans.

  • I had an existential crisis a few months ago. I don't even think I realized that's what I was or why it happened. I just know I was debating if I should even be alive of I didn't have a purpose. I sorta have mini existential crisis but I learn to just ignore them. Dying and Death kinda scares me but I also still don't really see a point in living. Idk.

  • meaning of life is to give life meaning does not mean satisfaction. There is something bigger we are suppossed to do, i can feel it, i think about it a lot , probably die ? or death might have answers but is there anything for the life. family, love, anime, sex, money, religion do not seem purpose. is it to just go through life? is it attaining nirvana? at end it all comes down to dying.

  • During a trip i had when i was younger, I talked to what i believed to be "god" it introduced itself as the creator and we had a lonnggggg conversation one of the things i asked was what is the meaning of life….. and it still rings in my head to this day "the meaning of life is to find meaning" it can be taken a number of ways but the way you take it is your meaning 🙂

  • Thank you for taking the time to encapsulate complex ideas and philosophical movements into a well-articulated and entertaining 9 minutes. You're very good at what you do. 🙂

  • Opposed to popular belief, I find existentialism very optimistic. I think it's because it allows me to be what I choose to be. It's rooted in free will.

  • I'm a 59 y/o, somewhat uneducated woman who inadvertently landed on both agnosticism and existentialism at the time time in 1987; I had a serious illness followed by a devastating surgery that changed my life dramatically. I would never have had the intellectual capacity to glean much from books on these topics back then, but did find sufficient material to define for myself, closely enough, what I was feeling philosophically.

    This video had me blurting out "YES!…..YES!… Omg, YES!" throughout, much to the dismay of the 5 cats in the same room as I. So much of what he said solidly hit home. Yet so much of it still confuses me. Like I was emphatically identifying with seemingly contradictory philosophies. Is that even possible? I need to pick up more books, I guess.

  • Alright, I gave this video a thumbs down. The fact that you say that Nietzsche embraced nihilisme is so insanely wrong that I know you never even read a single letter from his books.

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