DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

5. Everyday existence, anxiety and guilt

Though existentialists agree that people are free to choose their own fates, they also hold that most people are quite unaware of their freedom. This obliviousness results not from ignorance or oversight, but from the fact that we usually try to avoid facing up to our responsibility for our lives. For the most part we are ‘fleeing’ from ourselves, throwing ourselves into mundane concerns and drifting into standardized public ways of acting. Existentialists are generally quite critical of everyday social existence. As they see it, there is a strong temptation to let ourselves get swallowed up by the ‘public’, the ‘they’, the ‘herd’ or the ‘masses’. We try to do what ‘one does’ in familiar situations, and we assume that our lives are justified so long as we are following the norms and conventions laid out in our social context. In throwing ourselves into the kinds of busy-ness characteristic of contemporary society, we become more and more effective at finding means to achieving socially accepted ends, but at the same time we lose the ability to understand what is at stake in existing. Life then becomes a disjointed series of episodes with no real coherence or direction, and we end up dispersed and distracted, lacking any basis for meaningful action.

Existentialists give similar accounts of how social existence undermines our ability to realize ourselves as individuals. Kierkegaard describes the way that being a well adjusted member of ‘the public’ levels everything down to the lowest common denominator, with the result that nothing can really count or matter to people anymore. Similarly, Nietzsche describes the way that our being as ‘herd’ animals domesticates us and deadens our creativity, and Heidegger points out the ‘tranquilization’ and ‘alienation from ourselves’ that results from our absorption in the familiar social world. Sartre presents an especially harsh picture of social relations. Since, in his view, people can only see each other as objects and not as free beings, the Look of the Other always objectifies me and pressures me into thinking I am just a brute thing. As each individual struggles to affirm their being as a free ‘transcendence’ against the objectifying Look of others, the result is inevitable conflict: in the words of a character in one of Sartre’s plays, ‘Hell is the others’.

But many existentialists also see a positive side to social life. Though Heidegger criticizes the temptation to self-loss in our participation in the ‘they’, he also holds that all our possible ways of interpreting ourselves ultimately come from the social context in which we find ourselves. For this reason, becoming authentic is not a matter of escaping society, but of embracing our social existence in the right way. Marcel’s attitude toward social existence shows how different he is from Sartre. He criticizes the ‘technocratic attitude’ of mass society not because it leads to conformism, but because it breeds an ‘atomic individualism’ that robs us of our deep sense of connection and obligation to others. And Jaspers and Buber both emphasize the importance of ‘I–Thou’ relations in realizing a full and meaningful life.

Although existentialists differ in their assessment of social existence, they agree in thinking that our ordinary, day-to-day existence is shot through with concealment and self-deception. What can free us from this distorted sense of things is not rational reflection, but a profound affective experience. This emphasis on the role of emotions or moods in giving us access to the truth about ourselves is one of the most characteristic features of existentialist thought. Kierkegaard and Heidegger, for example, focus on the disclosive role of anxiety in leading us to confront the fact that we exist as finite beings who must decide the content of our own lives. Jaspers’ concept of ‘limit-situations’ refers to situations in which our ordinary ways of handling our lives ‘founder’ as we encounter certain inescapable ‘antinomies’ of life. For Sartre, the feeling of nausea shows us that it is up to us to impart a meaning to things, and anguish reveals our ‘terrible freedom’ to decide our own fates. Finally, Marcel refers to the experience of mystery in which we encounter that which defies our ability to gain intellectual mastery through our problem-solving skills.

Some existentialists also talk about an experience of the absurd that can come over us in our rationalistic age. Sartre claims that there are no ultimate grounds that validate our choices, so that any fundamental project we adopt must be absurd in the sense that it is ultimately unjustified. Camus’ conception of the absurd is perhaps the best known of all, though it is not really representative of existentialist thought. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942a), he describes the feeling of futility we can experience when we become aware of the repetitiveness and pointlessness of our everyday routines and rituals. For Camus, this feeling of the absurdity of existence, a feeling in which suicide begins to seem like a real possibility, is the most fundamental experience philosophy must confront.

Finally, many existentialists point to the experience of guilt as providing an insight into our own being. Existential guilt refers to something broader than the feeling we sometimes have when we have done something wrong. In its broadest significance, existential guilt refers to the fact that there is no pre-given legitimation or justification for our existence. Though we are creatures who feel the need for some ‘reason for existing’, we find ourselves thrown into a world where there is no higher court of appeals that could validate our lives. We are ultimately answerable only to ourselves. In a somewhat narrower sense, existential guilt can refer to the fact that, because we are always engaged in acting in concrete situations, we are implicated in whatever happens in the world, and so we always have ‘dirty hands’.

Citing this article:
Guignon, Charles B.. Everyday existence, anxiety and guilt. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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