What is Existentialism?

This entire blog is dedicated to ‘avant-garde existentialism’, so it makes sense that I should write a blog post that explains what this actually means.

In a nutshell, existentialism is a philosophical inquiry into human existence. Specifically, it is the questioning of our being, as everything we know (or think we know), about ourselves and our so-called ‘identity’, is predicated on language and our perception of time. Through the combination of the two, we come up with ways to describe the concept of ‘self’, ‘other’ and the experience of life itself, which is always bounded to the social practices we are involved in with other people, and the relationship we have with nature.

But in all truthfulness, how is it that we even know that we exist?

Existentialism is fundamentally the questioning of what you think you know about your existence. And isn’t it a curious  thing that we each of us have our own interests and pursuits in life? Collectively, we give each other and our shared existence meaning. No one on the planet shares the same experiences of life that you yourself experience. The collection of these experiences is the entire point for our Universal understanding. We are each an aperture for the Universe to figure itself out.

However, in Western contexts, views of existentialism are not this “deep”. In fact, Søren Kierkegaard is said to be the first Western existentialist, and he only died in 1885. Compare this to the more Eastern views of existence which originated in the 4C BC. The more ‘famous’ or well-known of the Western existentialists in current contexts include Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre and Heidegger – all of whom tackled the nature of the human condition, and questioned what it means to exist in the world as a human, but all of them struggled on the main theme of existentialism: identity. They attached to their identity as a way to explore the collective identities of other people. In Eastern views, identity must be abandoned. In fact, most of the world’s problems boil down to a false sense of identity.

The French word ‘Avant-garde’ is therefore indicative of having a radical or otherwise unorthodox view about current views of existentialism. My ultimate goal in being this type of existentialist is to bring-in a more Eastern view of existentialism to the West which, I believe, is more aligned to what it actually means to exist in the world, and for which the Eastern lens can compliment the Western dominance.

Anyone who labels themselves an existentialist is both weird and interesting. In a way, you somewhat have to be, because by going into existentialism you question the very thing that most people in this world cling onto or are outright afraid of questioning: the self, otherwise known as me, myself and I. Our understanding of the self is only possible by understanding everything defined not as the self, so existentialism is often the route you take in abandoning your ego in order to understand, appreciate and forgive everything in our collective world.

This is what makes me ‘avant-garde’, and is also why Alan Watts has been my biggest philosophical influence thus far. Although he never called himself an existentialist, Watts tried to bring Eastern philosophy to the world of the West. Fundamentally, Eastern philosophy is primed on existentialism, but is more likely to be talked about in reference to spirituality or enlightenment. There is even a saying that Western philosophy is often only ever discussed, whereas Eastern philosophy has to be experienced – for its essence is ultimately incommunicable, but truth itself is the reward you get by ‘going into yourself’ to find the answers about existence.

In Western existential philosophy, ‘being’ is looked at via time, context and the concept of ‘identity’. Where we are born, and to whom, influences our interests in life and our perception of life. This is not to be confused with psychological discussions of nature versus nurture, as modern psychology is dominated by the Western belief that humans exist as ‘objects’ in the ‘objective’ world, and that normative/prescriptive behaviour is an ideal that can be attained. Existentialism, on the other hand, sees an entwinement with other living things, and supports the idea that everything we know about life is based on our social practices, bounded to perceptions of time and place. The concept of time, however, throws out all logical views of ‘reality’, as nature goes with a Universal flow in the constant now. It is as it is.

Everyone in the world calls themselves ‘I’, and everything we see that we believe exists ‘outside’ of ourselves is filtered through our ‘eyes’, which themselves look like the images we have of the Known Universe. Coincidence?

As an analogy for my own inquiry into the matter, mankind will often stare at the night sky in wonder, whereas I am much more fascinated in the person who does the looking. The reason for the person looking, and what it is they infer or discover in their looking,  reveals things existentially about us as a species; more so than it reveals any ‘objective’ reality or so-called truth or ‘fact’ about the night sky.

Everything we know stems from a place behind our eyes, which language calls ‘the mind’, but for which the mind itself has no physical existence; other than existing ‘in the mind’. Yet this abstracted mind houses our entire reality and is itself bounded to our physical and social experience of this world. We live in a world both ‘in here’ as well as ‘out there’ – a world of manifested thought – in which the two perceived states have implicit unity and a holism between them.

As an example, where does this circle begin, and where does it end?


The boundary of the white space inside the circle can be changed if I were to pinch the sides of the circle. Likewise, if I took a white marker and erased part of the black circle line, would the white space be flowing inwards or outwards? The same analogy is true for yourself as a person. You cannot exist in this world without both your insides and your outside environment. All that separates the two is a layer of skin – a resemblance of that black line – which is nothing more than a boundary that keeps the two states in unison.

It is the fallacy of our judgment that we impose such a distinction onto the world. Just like drawing the black circle, we often label ourselves as being ‘in here’ whilst the rest of the world is somewhere ‘out there’. This is even in the face of knowing that the black line is permeable. We eat food from ‘out there’ which goes ‘in here’ and then returns, again, somewhere ‘out there’.

To a large extent, existentialism is the exploration of the false belief of duality and what it means to be a human in a somewhat paradoxical world. We use ourselves to realise that our identity is fallacious, as we cannot exist without everything other than the self being in existence. There is a Taoist parable, symbolised by yin-and-yang, which says that for those of us who understand, everything is as it is. For those who do not understand, everything is at it is.

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