Existentialism and the future of humanity

How philosophy might save the planet

Unfairly parodied as sombre and self-indulgent, existentialism can be a powerful force for change. Its diverse thinking can help reimagine our relationship to the earth and safeguard our future, writes Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei


That existentialism may inspire hope for our ecological future would not be immediately obvious even to a devoted reader. The philosophy after all focuses on subjective human consciousness rather than global and material concerns, and the experience of the existential subject is often negatively conceived. Sartre diagnoses the ontological split between the world (being) and consciousness (nothingness), while his novel Nausea responds to its realization. Camus’s novel The Stranger describes not only its protagonist Mersault at odds with his own society but the human mind aware of an indifferent universe. His essay The Myth of Sisyphus refigures for the modern imagination that offender of the gods condemned to push his boulder up the mountain, only to watch it roll down again, ad infinitum. The futility of such a predicament serves an analogy for modern life.

Kierkegaard, perhaps the first ‘philosopher of existence,’ also worried about the fate of the human individual in modernity. In a review essay published as The Present Age, he agonized over the prospects for an authentic life, alarmed at what he regarded as a culture of competitive materialism, mass consumption, envy and anonymity. Kierkegaard worried that with the relentless externalisation of the self to an anonymous public, the inner life was dying—this a century and a half before the invention of social media. Other philosophers who came to be associated with existentialism echoed this cultural scepticism, with Nietzsche and Heidegger condemning the fallenness of modern culture.

At face value this all sounds rather sombre and, in comparison to urgent practical problems facing humanity, self-indulgent. What matter the authenticity of the self when humanity is facing problems on a global scale? Why the urgency for individuals to ponder their existential situation, while, in the twenty-first century, the very existence of many is precarious? World hunger is on the rise, billions of our fellow humans live in abject poverty, and countless suffer the injuries of violent conflict. What had once appeared as the world’s most robust democracies have been exposed as fragile. Racist oppression has yet to be rooted out. The current pandemic has killed millions in a single year and has crushed many economies, trailing grief and destitution.  In this context, it may be easy to forget that humanity and indeed all living beings on the planet face an impending ecological crisis. The exquisite amplifications of self-awareness by existential thinking would only tune out these urgent matters that affect us all.

Existentialists turned philosophy away from the pursuit of a god’s-eye perspective and toward the actual experience of living human subjects.

But there are reasons to draw more deeply from the resources of existentialist thinking for just such a crisis. This may be especially so when we look beyond its popular reception and recognize the heterogeneity of existentialist thought, its motivations for turning philosophy’s gaze to concrete experience. Its focus on suffering need not be merely individualistic, no matter that this takes a first-person perspective when it is recognized that our own suffering is a key to our sympathy with others and with our common human vulnerability. This sympathy may also extend to the vulnerability of the living planet as a whole.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who coined the term ‘existentialism’ (a label not all philosophers we associate with existentialism accepted), wrote in the shadow of his more famous compatriots. Marcel appreciated existentialists’ elevation to philosophical status the concrete individual who is not only a subject of knowledge but subject to such experiences as fear, pain, illness, and misfortune. In Marcel’s view, the individual had been long ignored by idealist or rationalist philosopher chasing eternal truths, who cast the suffering of the individual to some ‘disreputable suburb’ of thought. Consider the eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who in The Problems of Philosophy suggested that in order to achieve intellectual union with reality, we must free ourselves from our local and emotional attachments. Philosophy’s achievement had long been to expel any personal element from thinking, so that ‘the free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears…in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge… as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man [sic] to attain.’ Yet questions of life’s meaning and how we ought to live it may be inseparable from the personal here and now. Marcel and other existentialists turned philosophy away from the pursuit of a god’s-eye perspective and toward the actual experience of living human subjects. They found that confronting in philosophical terms the difficult experiences of life led to insight about the human condition and its particular manifestation in the modern age, and may be a necessary component of its principle of human freedom, its cultivation of new prospects for its exercise.

At the same time, Marcel excoriated the negative rendering of existence by some existentialists, particularly Sartre. Marcel preferred to promote wonder rather than nausea in its contemplation. He recognized the beauty of existence and found the astonishing fact that we can reflect upon our being here as a cause for celebration and community. Camus, similarly, nourished a sense of awe at the thought of existence, his descriptions of the natural world toned with reverence. In this light, Camus challenged us to regard as happy even his Sisyphus, who might after all pause on his journey up or down the mountain to feel the sunlight on his skin and take in the view.

The individualism of existential thinking is tempered by its reach to communal concerns and has historically been linked to social justice movements. Sartre’s philosophy has been appreciated for the political implications of its centralisation of human freedom, and he himself became a vigorous advocate of progressive causes. Simone de Beauvoir’s exposure of the existential and social conditions surrounding the secondary status of women motivated the struggle for gender equality. Frantz Fanon’s critique of the effects of colonialist oppression on the subjugated individual was grounded in existentialist concepts and ground-breaking in turn. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged inspiration by existentialism for its diagnoses of human alienation. Many black American writers, such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, in their struggle against the injustices of segregation and racism not only drew from but contributed originally to the evolution of existentialist thought. In these ways concern for individual freedom extends to the condition of a human community.

Existentialism may also be extended to concern for human engagement of the earth which sustains us. That it has rarely been called upon to inspire progress in this context may be due not only to its popular reception as an individualist and despairing philosophy but to the unfortunate attitudes about non-human nature expressed by some existential philosophers. As its most famous adherent, Sartre found the natural world and other non-human forms of life mute, dull, and lacking in the freedom he attributes solely to human consciousness. A landscape of trees was for Sartre merely reiterative, a mountain-scape thrilling only as an object to be conquered. Heidegger argued that, unlike humans who in their actions and understanding ‘reveal’ being, animals are 'poor in world'.

But other thinkers turned to non-human nature for intellectual as well as spiritual sustenance. Nietzsche, who called out to the individual to ‘become who you are,’ was also the first major philosopher to criticize human arrogance in its dealings with the natural world. In his allegorical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra and other writings, Nietzsche exposed the hypocrisy of our treatment of other species and challenged our trashing of nature. Camus’s writings evoke spiritual contentment in nature, its lack of meaning for Camus is not a loss but a sign of plenitude. Both Nietzsche and Camus pointed out that non-human life—whether trees, insects, birds or other animals—require no reason to exist, no justification, as humans demand of their own lives. Despite his disregard for non-human animals, in his famous ‘Letter on Humanism’ Heidegger rejected the anthropocentrism of popular existentialism (rejecting on these grounds the label entirely), and criticized his own early focus on individual authenticity. For all his political failures, Heidegger came to develop a philosophy of dwelling that inspired the deep ecology movement, demanding that we live poetically on the earth and care for being as a whole.

Camus’s writings evoke spiritual contentment in nature, its lack of meaning for Camus is not a loss but a sign of plenitude.

Freedom, moreover, is essential to the prospect of hope even in an ecological sense. We are not only free in our actions and choices, Sartre thought, but also in our interpretation of the world—and that of course means that our understanding of non-human nature is negotiable. Marcel pointed out that the other side of despair is recognition of the world not yet determined, a world the meaning of which is not fixed, and thus that remains open to interpretation and creative intervention. In The Principle of Hope Ernst Bloch argued that the ‘positive correlate’ of hope is ‘the still unclosed determinateness of existence.’ Existentialists have cut the bonds that would tie up the world in any fixed, predetermined meanings. The human relation to the world is a matter not simply of being but of becoming.

From an existentialist perspective, humanity is a work in progress, open to change—not merely to the slow forces of evolutionary adaptation, but on our own initiative. Potential transformation of ourselves and our interpretation of the world may extend to our environmental engagements. Among other crises we face, though they be many, is the threat to our living planet and its intricate biodiversity by human-induced climate change, pollution and overconsumption. In order to change this, we need not only to reinvent our dealings with the planet but reimagine ourselves. 

There are resources in existentialist thinking for such reimagining. Nietzsche interpreted human evolution not as a blind force, but as a dynamic state of becoming to which we could ourselves contribute. While critical of the arrogance of the human species he considered us closer to nature than we have believed ourselves to be, and had his Zarathustra urge us to ‘be faithful to the earth’ in our self-overcoming. Camus’s writings promote an exquisite awareness of nature around us, as when he describes listening to the sounds attending sunrise:

…the figured bass of the birds, the sea’s faint, brief sighs at the foot of the rocks, the vibration of the trees, the blind singing of the columns, the rustling of the wormwood plants, the furtive lizards…. A magpie preluded briefly, and at once, from all directions, birds’ songs burst out with energy, jubilation, joyful discordance, and infinite rapture.

Reimagining our relation to the earth and adjusting our ways of life to its constraints may require not only hard-edged practicality but this kind of wonder at the world around us.

Hope, as Marcel describes it, is not an escapist optimism, a prescription for distracted dreaming. Rather, hope involves the sense, even in the face of damning statistics, that reality is not intrinsically pitted against us but may align with our flourishing, should we be willing to act in that belief.  Just as creativity will be required to invent and implement solutions to the ecological crisis, hope is an essential element in the ecological cause. Along with the shock of grim ecological predictions, it would seem important to understand that, however dire, our ecological future is not yet fully determined, and that within us, the human community, resides a freedom to do and think and be otherwise, to reinterpret ourselves and our place on this earth.

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