Existentialism is one of the more interesting expressions of modernist philosophy.
The logic of existentialism seems to go something like this. First, there's the assertion that God does not exist. This makes the world absurd, chaotic and meaningless. Therefore, the individual must transcend the world. He does so, first, by rising above the natural, instinctive, biological, "animal", determined processes of life. Second, he asserts his own freedom against the world and imposes his own order on it, through his own autonomous will. By doing so he creates a kind of subjective meaning to life, through the pursuit of an individual life project.
This is how Clifford Edwards summarises the existentialist view
On the testimony and evidence of existence, life is patently chaotic, incoherent, meaningless, and hence absurd; consequently, the only responsible and honest intellectual and emotional response is to turn to the imperatives of the human spirit, to assert the freedom and autonomy of the self in order to impose meaningful form on the chaotic flux of existence.
Existentialism follows the modernist mainstream in making a freedom to be radically autonomous the overriding aim. Man, abandoned by God, is to become the law maker who determines what is, even what he himself is. Jean Paul Sartre wrote:
There was nothing left in heaven ... nor anyone to give me orders ... I am doomed to have no other law but mine ... Man is the being whose project is to become God.
He wrote this too:
We remind man that there is no legislator but himself, that he himself thus abandoned, must decide for himself.
So there is only man himself to create meaning. What happens next? Here's how one critic
of existentialism puts it:
But, then the Atheistic Existentialist says, "Here's how we're going to respond to this. We're going to respond by saying that existence precedes essence." Existence precedes essence. In other words, we exist, and then we supply the meaning of life. WE exist, and then we supply the answer to the essence of life. In other words, mankind makes itself. We invent ourselves. We invent meaning. We come into a world which has no meaning, and the job of the Existentialist in this meaningless world is to do what? To create meaning. To create what we are as human beings.
The idea of the Existentialist is that people make themselves who they are. The Existentialist, over against the Nihilist who said people are robots, the Existentialist says, "No. This world is a big machine, but I am not a cog in this wheel. I have a free will. I determine myself. My decisions make who I am." The Existentialist says each person is totally free as regards to their nature and destiny ...
It's like a choice of the lesser of two evils. The existentialist wants to avoid thinking of himself as a merely biological, determined cog in an absurd materialistic universe. So he asserts his own capacity to create order, against the world, as an autonomous being.
This might sound like a superior option, but it's still radically limited. There is still only a "subjective meaning" to existence. Sartre wrote:
Man does not discover values, he creates them.
But just how meaningful are "values" that have no objective existence? And the "values" themselves seem only to exist in terms of a rebellion against a chaotic, meaningless universe. It might sound heroic but it's not greatly encouraging.
And, in the end, it often ends up as a trite or trivial conception of life. We are each to have a "life project" of our own. The content of the life project doesn't matter much and usually isn't identified. Its purpose has to do not with what it is or what it accomplishes, but in the fact that it's the focus of our attempt to impose our will on the world.
It's unsatisfying, though, to be told that what we do doesn't amount to much in itself - that it only matters as an expression of our will. And what is our life project? Presumably for most people it's their career - and yet for most people the world of everyday work doesn't, in itself, create meaning.
The Second Sex
Another way to see how existentialism goes wrong is to look at how it was applied to the lives of women by Simone de Beauvoir in her feminist work The Second Sex
For existentialists there is no meaning within a given, predetermined nature. There is, for instance, no essence to the lives of men and women which is meaningful. The point, instead, is to escape from a given nature and to assert our individual autonomy.
What does this mean for women? It means that motherhood, and female biology in general, becomes a negative impediment to the meaning of a woman's life. This is because women are tied more closely to the biological role of motherhood than men are to fatherhood and because men have the more active role sexually
The female is the victim of the species. During certain periods in the year, fixed in each species, her whole life is under the regulation of a sexual cycle ...
In the female mammal, rut is largely passive; she is ready and waiting to receive the male ... Her body becomes, therefore, a resistance to be broken through, whereas in penetrating it the male finds self-fulfilment in activity.
... But the fundamental difference between male and female mammals lies in this: the sperm, through which the life of the male is transcended in another, at the same instant becomes a stranger to him and separates from his body; so that the male recovers his individuality intact at the moment when he transcends it. The egg, on the contrary, begins to separate from the female body when, fully matured, it emerges from the follicle and falls into the oviduct; but if fertilised by a gamete from outside, it becomes attached again through implantation in the uterus. First violated, the female is then alienated – she becomes, in part, another than herself ... She regains some autonomy after the birth of her offspring – a certain distance is established between her and them ...
At times when she is free from maternal servitude she can now and then equal the male; the mare is as fleet as the stallion, the hunting bitch has as keen a nose as the dog, she-monkeys in tests show as much intelligence as males. It is only that this individuality is not laid claim to; the female renounces it for the benefit of the species, which demands this abdication.
The lot of the male is quite different. As we have just seen, even in his transcendence towards the next generation he keeps himself apart and maintains his individuality within himself. ... This vital superabundance, the activities directed towards mating, and the dominating affirmation of his power over the female in coitus itself – all this contributes to the assertion of the male individual as such at the moment of his living transcendence
In the species capable of high individual development, the urge of the male towards autonomy – which in lower animals is his ruin – is crowned with success. He is in general larger than the female, stronger, swifter, more adventurous; he leads a more independent life ...
Quite logically, de Beauvoir thinks of menopause in highly positive terms:
Woman is now delivered from the servitude imposed by her female nature, but she is not to be likened to a eunuch, for her vitality is unimpaired. And what is more, she is no longer the prey of overwhelming forces; she is herself, she and her body are one. It is sometimes said that women of a certain age constitute ‘a third sex’; and, in truth, while they are not males, they are no longer females. Often, indeed, this release from female physiology is expressed in a health, a balance, a vigour that they lacked before.
So what de Beauvoir is committed to by her existentialism is a liberation of women from motherhood, sexuality and biology. She thinks this is possible because, after all, existence precedes essence:
But man is defined as a being who is not fixed, who makes himself what he is. As Merleau-Ponty very justly puts it, man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea. Woman is not a completed reality, but rather a becoming, and it is in her becoming that she should be compared with man; that is to say, her possibilities should be defined. What gives rise to much of the debate is the tendency to reduce her to what she has been, to what she is today, in raising the question of her capabilities; for the fact is that capabilities are clearly manifested only when they have been realised – but the fact is also that when we have to do with a being whose nature is transcendent action, we can never close the books.
Nevertheless it will be said that if the body is not a thing, it is a situation, as viewed in the perspective I am adopting – that of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty: it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world, a limiting factor for our projects. Woman is weaker than man, she has less muscular strength, fewer red blood corpuscles, less lung capacity, she runs more slowly, can lift less heavy weights, can compete with man in hardly any sport; she cannot stand up to him in a fight. To all this weakness must be added the instability, the lack of control, and the fragility already discussed: these are facts. Her grasp on the world is thus more restricted; she has less firmness and less steadiness available for projects that in general she is less capable of carrying out. In other words, her individual life is less rich than man’s.
De Beauvoir is concerned that the female body continues to matter, even though we make ourselves who we are, because it is potentially a "limiting factor for our projects" - and these projects require us to "grasp" the world with a strength of will.
Women are to be vital, independent, project pursuers. They are to be considered equal in their human stature when they exert the same "grasp" over the world as men. The female body, femininity, female sexuality and motherhood are all hindrances to this aim, which de Beauvoir thinks can be overcome in their effects by social engineering.
So existentialism effectively undermines the worth of a distinctive womanhood. In effect, women have to transcend their own femaleness, including their own female biology. What we usually think of as one of the most important sources of meaning in a woman's life - motherhood - becomes an impediment to meaning for an existentialist.
The basic mistake is to think that we create meaning by the imposition of our autonomous will on the world.