I am a professor of psychology — not philosophy. But I value the wisdom philosophers have provided. I am therefore concerned about the way the popular culture has appropriated the traditional philosophical term “existential.” The new, fashionable usage clouds philosophers’ contributions.
The new use of the term appears in important discussions. Global warming is said to be an existential threat to the planet. The coronavirus is said to be an existential threat to the airline industry and entire nations. In such statements, the term sounds an alarm; it indicates that an entity’s very existence is at risk.
The word’s meaning in philosophy is different.
Existential philosophy is varied, but generally speaking it has departed from philosophy’s typical focus on logic and abstract concepts. Instead, it has tried to answer the big questions that trouble people in their ongoing lives. As a psychologist working with patients and as a social activist, I have found existential thought to be especially helpful because it addresses despair. It tries to answer the question: Why should we keep going when defeat is inevitable?
On the large scale, the coronavirus pandemic and global warming aren’t reasons for despair. If we act decisively, practical solutions are still possible.
On the individual level, however, those who fight these threats do sometimes go through periods of despair. Medical staff who try to resuscitate patients often feel that they are battling the inevitable. Activists who fight global warming sometimes see so little progress that they wonder why they should continue their efforts.
My friends and I sometimes discuss feelings of futility with respect to our animal rights activism. It is difficult to avoid the fact that despite our efforts, animals continue to be killed in huge numbers.
Despair can appear in subtle guises. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I have found that people rather frequently give up their cherished goals as “unrealistic.” Their worlds then become bleaker.
The mid-20th-century existentialist writer Albert Camus addressed the topic of despair in an essay titled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on the character from ancient Greek myth who is condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down every time. Camus argued that while the situation is hopeless, it need not dictate Sisyphus’ attitude toward it. He can scorn his fate. Camus even imagined that Sisyphus could be happy because he finds value in the act of striving.
Camus also dealt with the topic of despair in his novel “The Plague.” The story is about a fictitious epidemic that, unlike the coronavirus, cannot be defeated. The novel’s hero is a doctor who acknowledges the futility of his task but works as hard as he can for his patients anyway. He says he works out of “common decency” toward them.
The message I have taken from Camus is that no matter how hopeless the situation, there is meaning in the struggle itself. In our battles we express our basic beliefs, and there is dignity in continuing to fight for them.
Existentialist writers, who include authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard, have differing viewpoints. Many readers find that one or two particular authors speak best to their personal concerns. If people haven’t already explored the existentialists, I encourage them to do so. I hope they won’t be distracted by the currently fashionable use of the term.
William Crain is a professor of psychology at the City College of New York and a part-time Montauk resident.