Existentialism is a catch-all term for those philosophers who consider the nature of the human condition as a key philosophical problem and who share the view that this problem is best addressed through ontology. This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Those philosophers considered existentialists are mostly from the continent of Europe, and date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Outside philosophy, the existentialist movement is probably the most well-known philosophical movement, and at least two of its members are among the most famous philosophical personalities and widely read philosophical authors. It has certainly had considerable influence outside philosophy, for example on psychological theory and on the arts. Within philosophy, though, it is safe to say that this loose movement considered as a whole has not had a great impact, although individuals or ideas counted within it remain important. Moreover, most of the philosophers conventionally grouped under this heading either never used, or actively disavowed, the term ‘existentialist’. Even Sartre himself once said: “Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” So, there is a case to be made that the term – insofar as it leads us to ignore what is distinctive about philosophical positions and to conflate together significantly different ideas – does more harm than good.

Key Existentialist Philosophers:

  • Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
  • Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
  • Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
  • Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Sources: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Francis Galton and the Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Francis Galton counted many gifted individuals among his relatives, including the evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. So it’s not surprising that Galton was interested in the extent to which abilities are either inborn or learned. He was the first person to identify “nature” and “nurture” as two separate influences whose effects could be measured and compared, maintaining that these two elements alone were responsible for determining personality. In 1869 he used his own family tree, as well as those of “judges, statesmen, commanders, scientists, literary men… diviners, oarsmen, and wrestlers,” to research inherited traits for his book Hereditary Genius. As predicted, he found more highly talented individuals in certain families than among the general population. However, he could not safely attribute this to nature alone, as there were also conferred benefits from growing up in a privileged home environment. Galton himself grew up in a wealthy household with access to unusually good educational resources.

Galton proposed a number of other studies, including the first large survey by questionnaire, which was sent out to members of the Royal Society to inquire about their interests and affiliations. Publishing his results in English Men of Science, he claimed that where nature and nurture are forced to compete, nature triumphs. External influences can make an impression, he says, but nothing can “efface the deeper marks of individual character.” However, he insists that both nature and nurture are essential in forming personality, since even the highest natural endowments may be “starved by defective nurture.” Intelligence, he says, is inherited, but must be fostered through education.

In 1875, Galton undertook a study of 159 pairs of twins. He found that they did not follow the “normal” distribution of similarity between siblings, in which they are moderately alike, but were always extremely similar or extremely dissimilar. What really surprised him was that the degree of similarity never changed over time. He had anticipated that a shared upbringing would lessen dissimilarity between twins as they grew up, but found that this was not the case. Nurture seemed to play no role at all.

The “nature—nurture debate” continues to this day. Some people have favored Galton’s theories, including his notion—now known as eugenics—that people could be “bred” like horses to promote certain characteristics. Others have preferred to believe that every baby is a tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” and we are all born equal. Most psychologists today recognize that nature and nurture are both crucially important in human development, and interact in complex ways.

Sources: The Psychology Book (DK)

Ancient Greeks and the Nature of Matter

The fundamental questions of what the world is made of, and where matter came from, are some of the oldest. In the 6th century BCE, Greek philosophers such as Thales and Anaximenes proposed that all substances were modifications of more intrinsic substances, the main candidates being water, air, earth, and fire. In the 5th century BCE, Empedocles claimed that everything was a mixture of all four of these substances, or elements. His near-contemporary Democritus developed the idea that the universe is made of an infinite number of indivisible particles called atoms. Finally, in the 4th century BCE the influential scholar Aristotle added a fifth element, ether, to Empedocles’four. Although Aristotle was skeptical of the idea of atoms, it is remarkable that the concepts of both atoms and elements had been proposed more than 2,000 years before either was proved to exist.

David John Chalmers

On this date in 1966, philosopher David John Chalmers was born in Australia. Chalmers earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Adelaide in 1986. He was briefly a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, but transferred to Indiana University at Bloomington, where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1993 in philosophy and cognitive science. He worked at Washington University in St. Louis from 1993 to 1995, and at the University of California – Santa Cruz from 1995 to 1998. He worked in the Department of Philosophy and the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, Chalmers is professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Consciousness at Australian National University. As of 2009, he is also a part-time professor of philosophy at New York University. His 1996 book, The Conscious Mind, is considered a seminal work on consciousness. His numerous papers and books have had great influence in the realms of cognitive science, philosophy of the mind and philosophy of language.

“Now I have to say I’m a complete atheist. I have no religious views myself and no spiritual views, except very watered down humanistic spiritual views. And consciousness is just a fact of life. It’s a natural fact of life.”
~ David Chalmers in an interview on “Encounter” with Margaret Coffey for Australian ABC National Radio, April 10, 2011

Charles Fourier

Today in history —> French philosopher Charles Fourier was born on this day in 1772. Although he was considered a radical in his time for his philosophy of utopian socialism, many of his ideas have now become mainstream. For instance, Fourier was a fervent believer in gender equality and is credited with coining the term “feminism” in 1837.

#FrenchPhilosophers #CharlesFourier #Feminism

Nothingness in Existential Philosophy & Norse Mythology Concept of Ginnungagap

Nothingness in Existential Philosophy & Norse Mythology Concept of Ginnungagap

Several modern philosophers associated with existentialism, a movement that takes our experience of existence as the starting point of its philosophizing, have spoken of a similar schema using the more prosaic and impersonal language of philosophy and psychology. While the writings of luminaries such as Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre differ considerably on these points, a fascination with negation and anxiety is a central focus of their work. In existentialist parlance, “nothingness” is that which negates oneself, one’s values, and/or one’s worldview – one’s “personal cosmos.” 

The ultimate nothingness is death, because it negates one absolutely (at least in the modern worldview – see Death and the Afterlife for Norse perspective on death), but any condition over which one cannot triumph is a hostile absence into which one’s yearnings, strivings, and beliefs vanish. This negation is the root of anxiety (or “angst” or “Being-toward-death”), the fear of what we might not be able to overcome, that which stands every chance of “getting us” in the end. This is one of the fundamental facts of life with which everyone who strives to live deliberately and authentically must grapple. In Heidegger’s words, “To be a particular being means to be immersed in nothingness.”[5] While these philosophers don’t necessarily identify nothingness with a physical void as the Norse did, the principle remains the same.

This primordial, annihilating chaos is ever-present; wherever there is darkness, wherever there is silence, wherever any wish or belief is negated, there is Ginnungagap.

Sources: Poetic Edda, Norsemythology.org

Daniel Dennett with the Institute of Art and Ideas

From the philosophy section of Institute of Art and Ideas, we have a new 30-minute interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It’s basically about “the arc of his life”, and has some interesting revelations. I’ll just touch on a few key ideas, but you should listen to it yourself:

• Dan’s father was a spy who worked for the OSS, but Dan didn’t learn that until his dad died.

• Dan says that most of his good ideas came from his Ph.D. thesis and postdoc, and since then he’s been largely “turning the crank” on (i.e., working out the consequences of) his early ideas.

• Those good ideas involved “the intentional stance”, how learning takes place, and views about consciousness and the evolution of the brain. He doesn’t talk much about consciousness, though, and doesn’t mention free will once during the interview, much to my relief.

• In new work, Dan says he and a colleague are extending the intentional-stance view down to the level of the cell, visualizing development as the consequences of “what the cell wants.” This isn’t like panpsychism, for Dan isn’t dumb enough to think that cells really have desires, but he’s looking at it as Dawkins looked at the metaphor of the “selfish gene”, gaining insight by imagining how genes would behave if they were selfish even though he realizes (and has repeatedly emphasized in the light of misinterpreters) that genes don’t have desires.

• Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea. But he does say he’s worked to prevent misuses of his ideas.

• Dan decries the truth-denial aspect of postmodernism as “intellectual vandalism,” but also ponders the question of whether some ideas or truths are too dangerous to impart to the world. I’ll leave you listen to that bit yourselves.

• There’s a lot about religion at the end, with Dan arguing that it’s time for the world to “grow up and leave religion behind”. And he thinks many faiths are in fact doing this, stripping out the false claims and injurious morality and leaving the ceremonial bits—bits that he has no quarrel with.


Tikkun ‘olam: Repairing the World

Tikkun ‘olam: Repairing the World

In Chasidic Jewish thinking Tikkun Olam means “repairing the world,” much in the way that a cobbler, with each stitch of his needle, brings shoes back to life. It is a spiritual activity which sets the world in its right order again.

True spirituality must be made real by repairing the world – by engaging in spiritual acts of prayer and worship, as well as Gemilut Chasidim (try to carry out good deeds) practical efforts to make people’s lives better. Meaning that Jews must preserve the world, much in the same way salt preserves food

Tikkun ‘olam, which literally means mending or repairing the world, is an ancient Hebrew phrase that has taken on new meaning in recent decades. It originally meant something like “to establish the world as the kingdom of the Almighty,” or to bring about God’s rule on earth. In contemporary usage it refers to the betterment of the world: relieving human suffering, achieving peace and mutual respect among individuals and peoples, and protecting the planet itself from destruction.

In order to mend or repair something, you first have to acknowledge that it is broken. Tikkun ‘olam begins with recognizing that we live in a broken world. This brokenness is most easily manifest to us in what we call the political realm. Bad regimes repress their people; ethnic and economic rivalries lead to hostility and even war; and people become divided across lines of class, race, and creed.

All these are real problems that must be dealt with, but our world’s brokenness goes much deeper. We do not ask ourselves what it means to be a human being, what we are doing in this world, or how we are to live out the gift of our lives. When we look at ourselves from the perspective of our very best moments, we know that we are not the people we could be or truly want to be. In our rush to survive, accomplish, and excel, all of which seem to run together at an ever faster pace, we have forgotten what it means to live in God’s world, to celebrate the sacredness of life itself.

Source: Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas By Dr. Arthur Green

Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma

Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma

“Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?”

~ Socrates

(1) If divine command theory is true then either (i) morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, or (ii) morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God.

(2) If (i) morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then they are morally good independent of God’s will.

(3) It is not the case that morally good acts are morally good independent of God’s will.


(4) It is not the case that (i) morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good.

(5) If (ii) morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then there is no reason either to care about God’s moral goodness or to worship him.

(6) There are reasons both to care about God’s moral goodness and to worship him.


(7) It is not the case that (ii) morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God.


(8) Divine command theory is false.