Historical Development of Continental Philosophy’s Existentialism and Phenomenology

To describe the historical development of Continental philosophy’s existentialism and phenomenology as a response to Hegelian idealism one must first define Hegelian idealism. Hegel thought that “…what is most real—the Absolute—is thought

thinking of itself.”(Moore-Bruder, 2005 P. 143) He also thought that it was not an independent group of ideas, but that all the ideas were interconnected. He would propose a thesis, then an antithesis, and together they would form the synthesis. Meaning the thesis and antithesis were the foundation for the synthesis, which would become a new thesis and antithesis forming a new synthesis until the synthesis reached the apex. Hegel thought the highest triad was the “synthesis of ‘Idea’ and ‘Nature’ in ‘Spirit’.”(Moore-Bruder, 2005 P. 145) Idea meaning self conscious thought, Nature meaning the external expression of Idea, and Spirit meaning thought recognizing itself as both thought and as object.

Søren Kierkegaard, the first major existential philosopher, disagreed with Hegel. He thought that individuals and their will and needs impacted their decision-making process. He thought despair was the result of an individual having to make ethical and religious choices alone, and that the only relief one could be granted was that from a belief and trust in a higher power or God even if it went against the universal norms.

Friedrich Nietzsche also disagreed with Hegel’s idealism and all similar rationales. He thought man, as a whole, was irrational and would do what they were told, without question, like a herd of animals. He thought the rare Superman was able to overcome the slave mentality and have thoughts of his own. The Superman was able to create his own values rather than looking toward God as their source of values.

The existential movement was not only embraced by philosophers but by artists and writers as well. Albert Camus believed that many people lived their entire life in a sort of haze. Our two basic needs, the need for clarity and the need for social warmth and contact, usually go unmet because we go about our lives fulfilling what we perceive as important needs instead of what actually are. Jean-Paul Sartre believed that there was no God, and that thought had four basic philosophical implications. He believed that you are what you make of yourself, that there is no reason for existing, that our choices are made of our own free will, and that we all establish our own values. He believed that by making choices about one’s life and future we give meaning to our lives and that how we act is a true vision into what kind of person you are.

Edmund Husserl’s work is the starting point for what is now known as phenomenology. Phenomenology states that one should look at the objects that are actually present and not concern oneself with the second world that metaphysics presents such as Plato’s forms.

Martin Heidegger thought that humans had forgotten about Being, the ultimate source, because of human made logic. He believed that “…it is both arrogant and destructive to assume that humans are the masters of nature or to follow Protagoras’s dictum that man is the measure of all things.”(Moore-Bruder, 2005 P. 175) He thought that speech was a useless flood of words without any true meaning.

Emmanuel Levinas believed that humans could not study Being and try to explain beings, he thought beings had to study themselves first in order to explain Being. He thought that one’s primary responsibility is for the Other and it is more important than their responsibility to themselves and to the world. He thought that true freedom is only attained by obedience to God and His commandments.

The historical development of Continental philosophy’s existentialism and phenomenology as a response to Hegelian idealism has basically been on of disagreement. Philosophers seem to disagree with most of Hegel’s ideas. There is also some disagreement among the existentialists and phenomenolists both within their own categories and between the two. Most of Continental philosophy’s ideas are based on ideas that were previously stated.

Moore-Bruder: Philosophy: The Power of Ideas (6th ed.). The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2005