Is living life like washing your car, going through the motions time after time, knowing that it is impossible for it to be perfectly clean?
A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence; that is, that a human being’s existence precedes and is more fundamental than any meaning which may be ascribed to human life: humans define their own reality. There is no connection to literature either. One is not bound to the generalities and a priori definitions of what “being human” connotes. This is an inversion of a more traditional view, which was widely accepted from the ancient Greeks to Hegel, that the central project of philosophy was to answer the question “What is a human being?” (i.e., “What is the human essence”) and to derive from that answer one’s conclusions about how human beings should behave.
In Repetition, Kierkegaard’s literary character Young Man laments:
How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?
Heidegger coined the term “thrownness” (also used by Sartre) to describe this idea that human beings are “thrown” into existence without having chosen it. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the horizon or context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create.
Sartre, in Essays in Existentialism, further highlights this consciousness of being thrown into existence in the following fashion. “If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be”.
Kierkegaard also focused on the deep anxiety of human existence — the feeling that there is no purpose, indeed nothing, at its core. Finding a way to counter this nothingness, by embracing existence, is the fundamental theme of existentialism, and the root of the philosophy’s name. Someone who believes in reality might be called a “realist,” and someone who believes in a deity could identify as a “theist.” Someone who believes fundamentally only in existence, and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist.