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whiteliondreams's avatar

Does the will to live constitute existentialism?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1693 points ) June 8th, 2012

Existentialism – a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will (dictionary).

Please note that I asked “the will to live” not whether an individual determines their lives through the acts of their will. More specifically, I am asking is being responsible the reason a person develops the will to live? Do you live for your children? Do you live for you? Do you live to learn? The nouns are the existential variables which may embrace the will to live.

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6 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

Do not take the will to live for granted. It may be built into us, but there are limits. There is only so much pain any of us can stand before we break and decide that death is better than living with this kind of pain forever.

If you have not felt that kind of pain, then you can not imagine it. It is far worse than the worst physical pain you have ever felt. That’s probably impossible to imagine. I know I could never have imagined it.

The desire to give in to the pain is so powerful that just thinking about it brings it back. I remember the despair. I wonder why I bothered?

Then again, the good thing about despair is that it saps you of the ability to actually do anything about it. To kill yourself takes a lot of work. It’s not that easy. You have to plan and carry out that plan. Even if it is only a trigger to pull, you still have to pull the trigger. A finger can be surprisingly inert at such times.

The will to live is a powerful thing, and it overcomes some incredibly powerful adversaries. It is a choice. A moment to moment choice. It is often a conscious choice, too, although I don’t think the choice has to be so purely conscious in order to be considered a choices as far as the philosophy of existentialism is concerned.

Whether you are consciously aware of making this choice or not, it is a choice to my mind. There are other parts of our minds that we are not consciously aware of, but they think and they choose and they influence our actions very strongly.

There is only one reason to live, as far as I’m concerned and that is to see what happens next. Curiosity. If you have no curiosity; if you are completely and utterly bored; if you are totally superfluous—then die. There is no point, except perhaps that you can’t be bothered to kill yourself. But that’s a choice that says you really aren’t so bored as all that.

josie's avatar

A principle of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence.
To a living thing, life is synonymous with existence.
Based on that, it seems like one could probably make the argument (I will let you or somebody else do it, I don’t have time) that Will to Live is more primary than essence, which is where values like children, self, work, others etc. come from.

Blackberry's avatar

Know one knows why organisms chose to multiply instead of not: they just did it. So here we are. We’re kind of like the product of a process experiencing itself.

Coloma's avatar

I don’t think “will” has anything to do with our innate survival instincts. We don’t will ourselves to live, anymore than we will ourselves to breathe. Living happens, breathing happens.
Purpose is ever changing, living just is.
I like the saying that we don’t have a life, we are life.

gailcalled's avatar

“The proposition that existence precedes essence is a central claim of existentialism, which reverses the traditional philosophical view that the essence or nature of a thing is more fundamental and immutable than its existence.[

To existentialists, human beings—through their consciousness—create their own values and determine a meaning for their life because, in the beginning, the human being does not possess any inherent identity or value. By posing the acts that constitute him or her, he or she makes his or her existence more significant.

The idea can be found in the works of Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, but was explicitly formulated by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th century.Source

Being willing to live certainly is one way of determining a meaning for my life; perhaps the primary one.

SavoirFaire's avatar

No, the will to live does not constitute existentialism. It is part of it, but not the whole. There are various forms of existentialism, but one thing that unites them is that they are all responses to the loss of fundamental principles of life taken for granted in previous ages. Specifically, they are responses to the loss of principles concerning God and morals. Philosophy is not monolithic, of course, and so no single thesis was ever accepted by anyone. The mainstream of Western philosophy, however, had largely accepted that God existed, that God was understandable enough to be demonstrable and rationally believed in, that there were such things as moral facts, and that God had some role in justifying ethics.

Confidence in these views then started to break down due to advancements in both philosophy and science. People started to realize that the philosophical and scientific revolutions started by Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton were leading inexorably to the decline of traditional Western moral and religious beliefs. The ascendancy of Hume’s philosophy, which followed earlier views to their logical ends, was particularly influential on this score. Kant attempted to stop this, but his system turned out to be in no better position than those he sought to replace. His attempt to make God a transcendental condition of morality just made people doubt both God and morality even more.

These problems led to what might be referred to as the problem of the absurd: people are left attempting to live in ways that they have inherited from the past despite the fact that the belief systems justifying those ways of life have been discarded in favor of belief systems that entail the impossibility of meaningfully living in such ways. This in turn gave rise to the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer and others. One of their central theses was that life has no inherent meaning or value. Only God could instill life with such things, they argued, but they did not believe that God exists. Furthermore, they could see no other possible source of meaning or value. Thus they concluded that life had no meaning and an overall negative value. Life is not worth living.

Existentialists accept the problem of the absurd, but they reject the pessimistic conclusion that life is not worth living. Thus we can see how the will to live is an important characteristic of existentialism. It is not the whole of it because the will to live is shared by those who reject the problem of the absurd altogether. Such people typically do not focus on the issue, however, as they have never seen it as under threat to begin with. Thus the association of the will to live with existentialism: the existentialists accept that there is a legitimate challenge to be made, but believe it can be overcome. There are three basic ways of responding, which might be referred to most generally as theistic existentialism, atheistic existentialism, and agnostic existentialism.

Theistic existentialists accept that the traditional arguments for God fail (as even Kant had admitted), and that the pessimists’ lack of belief in God is understandable if rationality is the only way of approaching belief in God. They reject the view that rationality is the only way of approaching God, however, and emphasize the fact that faith has always been an essential element of belief in God. Faith is non-rational, but they insist that it is not irrational. Through faith, we come to have a real belief in God rather than the weak belief susceptible to changes in philosophical and scientific knowledge. This belief also restores God’s ability to be a foundation for our lives and morals. Thus we construct a meaningful life for ourselves in relation to God and have faith that it mirrors the meaning God has for us and the world.

Atheistic existentialists accept that the traditional arguments for God fail and do not seek to replace them with alternative justifications for God. Thus they abandon the possibility of life having inherent meaning or value that must be approached non-rationally. Instead, they take it that we construct a meaningful life for ourselves by creating meaning for ourselves and without relying on God to justify it in the end. They take the pursuits of theistic existentialists to themselves be meaningless because there is no inherent meaning or value in the world for our constructed meanings to reflect. Yet they also take it that this mirroring relationship is unnecessary. Life only has negative value if you fail to value it for what it is, they argue, and thus the affirmation of life as it is—and not as we once wished it to be—is what they take to be essential for finding one’s own way of living a meaningful life.

Agnostic existentialists, more commonly referred to as absurdists, suspend judgment with regard to the questions that divide theistic and atheistic existentialists. Perhaps there is an inherent meaning to the universe that we can reflect in our lives, but that it cannot be rationally approached or appreciated means that it is necessarily beyond human grasp. What we must do, then, is reject attempts to hide the problem of the absurd from our mind. Attempting to rely on God is a subtle rejection of this life, the absurdist argues, for it implicitly accepts that the pessimist is correct unless something that we cannot possibly know turns out to be true. Yet attempting to create our way of living can also be a way of hiding the problem of the absurd if it is used as a means of distracting ourselves from the fact that life has no inherent meaning or value rather than as a means of confronting that fact.

This should give you a much more thorough picture of the philosophical landscape here than the simple dictionary definition. When an existentialist talks about a free and responsible person, then, he is not talking about a person with responsibilities in the sense of an employee or a parent. He is talking about a person who recognizes himself as part of the great causal chain that determines facts about himself and the world around him. Such a person realizes that he is not merely acted upon by the world, but in fact acts upon the world—which includes himself. We obtain the will to live, then, by not giving in to the pessimists’ inability to see how life could be worth living in the absence of some external factor telling us how to live. In the end, it is the pessimist who is revealed as an infant who has never learned to walk—a desperate follower without a leader.

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