The jock, the nerd...the Existentialist?

The collegiate existentialist is a stereotype as ingrained as the frat boy and the Chaucer expert cum fast food service major. For some parents, it’s disconcerting to have Junior or Sister disappear off to college, only to see them return after a semester or two wholly changed. Some parents may be repulsed that their children are suddenly… questioning everything and reading big dour French books that reek of clove cigarettes. And we all know questioning is the latchkey to the devil’s workshop.

But that’s beside the point. Existentialism is one of those philosophies particularly suited to a campus environment—where not everyone is going to be from the same place or have the same feelings, and where you’ll be learning more than you may have ever learned in high school. You never stop learning in your entire life, but college is likely the biggest confluence of thought you’ll encounter.

In a nutshell, Existentialism is one or both of the following: 1.) a belief one’s philosophy is derived from the individual and the individual’s experience and 2.) a philosophy that holds that existence cannot be understood solely through moral and/or scientific thinking. Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of important bits—facticity, the Other, the precedence of existence over essence—but I’m trying to keep it simple.

For some, existentialism is synonymous with nihilism—specifically, some latch onto existential nihilism, which holds that life and the universe have no inherent meaning. Bleak, right? Except existentialism moves beyond existential nihilism to say even if existence has no inherent meaning, it is necessary for the individual to make meaning in their lives.

A major point of existentialism is authenticity—being true to you instead of acting under the duress of others and/or other forces. And this is what resonates with college kids.

It brings up another useful stereotype: the guy/girl who backpacks around Europe for a few months or joins a monastery so they can “find themselves.” Because any foray into existentialism is usually preceded by a crisis of identity.

A few weeks ago I ran into a guy—a fellow UW student—and after some small talk, we ambled towards philosophy. He told me about how he grew up a strict Catholic, but drifted away from it as college went on. He started having doubts about the existence of God and other theological quandaries. This led him to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, who was basically the avatar of existentialism—a small dour Frenchman who wrote some big dour French books—who was also one of the most important minds of the 20th century.

But he also talked about Ralph Waldo Emerson; he showed me the copy of “Self-Reliance” he carried everywhere. Emerson was separated from Sartre by almost a century, as well as continentally, but this brings up another point of existentialism: Strains of existential thought and things that may be termed existential predate actual existentialism. Actually, that’s a decent example of existence preceding essence.

As a whole, existentialism draws from two 19th century philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the literary works of Dostoevsky. To a certain extent, Ecclesiastes 1 is an important existential cornerstone. Existentialism is nothing entirely new, like any philosophy. It was not invented in post World War II France or 19th century Dennmark. It is sort of a philosophical compilation of a number of ideas that stand apart from each other but move in the same general direction, like spokes on a wheel connecting at a hub.

Most importantly, having existential beliefs or experiencing an existential crisis is not contingent upon knowing what existentialism is. You don’t need to read “Being and Nothingness” until the spine is cracked and your whole mind is swimming in itself. But it is one of the most important self-centric philosophies around, and certainly one that can’t be avoided in the conflux of campus.

Have you been looking for someone to wax philosophical with? Ask Sean to be your partner in pondering at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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