Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. The human condition
Existentialists start out from the assumption that it is no longer possible to believe that there is some transcendent justification or underlying ground for our existence. If God is dead, then we find ourselves ‘abandoned’, ‘forlorn’, ‘thrown’ into a world, with no pregiven direction or legitimation. Though we seek some overarching meaning and purpose for our lives, we have to face the fact that there is no ‘proper function of humans’ or ‘plan in God’s mind’ that tells us the right way to be human.
This picture of our predicament leads to a particular view of human existence that is accepted by many existentialists. In contrast to traditional theories, which think of a human as a thing or object of some sort (whether a mind or a body or some combination of the two), existentialists characterize human existence as involving a deep tension or conflict between two different aspects of our being. On the one hand, we are organisms among other living beings, creatures with specific needs and drives, who operate at the level of sensation and desire in dealing with the present. At this level, we are not much different from other animals. On the other hand, there is a crucial respect in which we differ from other organisms. One way to describe this difference is to say that, because we are capable of self-awareness, we are able to reflect on our own desires and evaluate ourselves in terms of some larger vision of what our lives are adding up to. In this sense we transcend our own being as mere things. What is characteristic of our being as humans is that we care about the kinds of beings we are, and we therefore take a stand on our basic desires. According to the existentialists, humans are unique among entities in that they form second-order desires about their first-order desires, and they therefore have aspirations that go beyond the immediacy of their sensual lives.
Heidegger and Sartre try to capture this reflexive dimension of human existence by saying that what is unique about humans is that their own being is ‘in question’ or ‘at issue’ for them. What kind of person I am matters to me, and because I am concerned about what I am and will be, I take some concrete stand on my life by assuming roles and developing a specific character through my actions. But this means that my existence is characterized by a fundamental tension or clash between my immediate sensations and desires on the one hand, and my long-range aims and projects on the other. As Sartre puts it, a ‘rift’ or a ‘gap’ – a ‘nothingness’ – is introduced into the fullness of being in the universe by human existence. Because consciousness makes us more than what we are as creatures with immediate sensations and desires, Sartre says that human reality ‘is not what it is and is what it is not’.
The conception of human existence as a tension also appears in Kierkegaard’s description of the self. For Kierkegaard, humans are both finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, contingent and free. What defines our identity as selves is the concrete way we relate ourselves to this tension. In a similar way, Nietzsche holds that we are both creatures and creators, and we have to embrace both these dimensions of ourselves in order to be fully human. Heidegger and Sartre refer to the two aspects of the self as ‘facticity’ (our mere givenness) and ‘transcendence’ (our ability to surpass our givenness through our interpretations and aspirations). In their view, life is a continuous tension between these elements, a tension resolved only in death. Finally, Jaspers seems to have a similar conception of humans in mind when he points out the polarity between our being as an empirical consciousness-as-such and our desire to grasp the general and realize our freedom as Existenz.
If we regard the self as a tension or struggle, it is natural to think of human existence not as a thing or object of some sort, but as an unfolding event or happening – the story of how the tension is dealt with. What defines my existence, according to this view, is not some set of properties that remain the same through time, but the ‘event of becoming’ through which I carry out the struggle to resolve the tension that defines my condition in the world. As an ongoing happening, I am what I make of myself throughout the course of my life as a whole. In Ortega’s words, a human ‘does not have a nature, but rather a history’ (see Ortega Y Gasset, J.). What defines my existence as an individual is the ongoing story of what I accomplish throughout my life.
To think of a human as an unfolding story suggests that human existence has a specific sort of temporal structure. We are not like rocks and cauliflowers which continue to exist through an endless sequence of ‘nows’. Instead, human temporality has a kind of cumulativeness and future-directedness that is different from the enduring presence of physical things. First, our existence is directed toward the future to the extent that we are striving to realize something for our lives. Heidegger calls this element of ‘futurity’ our ‘being-towards-death,’ understood as a movement toward realizing our own being by achieving certain things throughout our active lives. Second, the past shows up for us as something retained and carried forward for the purposes of our future. Depending on our projects at any given time, our past actions show up for us as assets or as liabilities in relation to what we are doing. Finally, our present appears as a point of intersection between our future projects and our past accomplishments. Because we are time-binding beings whose lives always reach out into the future and hold on to the past, we can never achieve the kind of direct presence of self to self that Descartes thought he had found in the Cogito (‘I think’).
To say that human temporality is cumulative is to say that everything we do is contributing to creating our ‘being’ as a totality. In this sense, we are what we do in living out our lives: we define our own identity through the choices we make in dealing with the world. Because there is no fixed essential nature which we have in advance, our ‘essence’ as individuals is defined and realized through our concrete existence in the world. Whatever capacities and traits I am born with, it is up to me to take them over and make something of them in what I do. Thus, whether aware of it or not, I am creating my own identity in my actions.
Guignon, Charles B.. The human condition. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1/sections/the-human-condition.
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