Foundation in Existential and Humanistic Approaches


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The question is almost as old as the very existence of humanity. It has been – and continues to be – discussed in every society around the world. Our first records of this within Western philosophy are Greek and date to about the 7th century BCE. The question crosses cultures and religions, ethics, and psychology: Does free will, or freedom to choose, exist, or is our life’s path pre-determined?

Within my own Jewish culture and tradition, free will is one of the most studied and sensitive philosophical topics. Most religious people will have to grapple with the concept of free will in a Godly world at some point in their lives. In contrast, many Existential philosophers are famed for their atheism. Therefore, in this essay, I would like to compare Existential and traditional Jewish approaches and see whether they align, meet or veer in different directions.

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Existential Concept of Freedom of Choice

Mathematicians, Biologists, and Chemists, all use clear methodology and calculated formulas to understand our world and to create new ideas and deliver results. The precise combination of specific chemicals under meticulous environmental factors will always produce the same outcome each time it is repeated. This is Causal Determination. For a long time, philosophers and psychologists believed in the Determinism of the human condition – often due to deeply held religious views of God’s omnipresence in the universe. God being all-knowing, placing us in the situations we find ourselves in our lives and deciding on the challenges we face. This approach abnegates us from responsibility for our actions. If my surroundings, determined by God or Nature, dictate my actions, then were I to murder, it would not be my fault, as it was pre-determined for me.

Sigmund Freud developed a Theory of Repression in which he believed that we are ruled by our repressed unconscious (Freud 1917). Freud declared “Prove to the ‘I’ that it is not even master in its own home” (Freud 1917)to distill further the religion-based belief of purpose and civilization and the centrality of Man in the universe. Freud developed his id, ego, and superego theories that the unconscious, of which we have no control and cultivated in our infancy, rules the choices we make in our conscious lifetime (Freud 1923). We spend our lives repressing the urges of our unconscious while attempting to balance them with our morally driven superego. To Freud, our choices are the result of this ongoing battle within us that is beyond our control.

The existential theory is opposed to this outlook. Sartre said: “Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 1946). A person does not choose the family or social circumstances that he is born into – those are part of his Existential Givens, facts of his being in the world. Yet from the point that he reaches consciousness, he is constantly choosing his direction and is entirely responsible for that. Even when he does not choose, that is a choice he is making; when he sits on the fence, that is his choice too. The way a person interprets the world around him, events of his past, his present circumstances, and the way he foresees his future – all of these are his choice to interpret in the way he does. Should he choose to change his paradigm, he will be able to make different choices. Jean Paul Sartre, “Existentialism & Humanism” Lecture 1945.

Existential Givens are, in Irvin Yalom’s (1980) view, a person’s ultimate concerns in life; they are an inexorable part of humanity. Over the development of Existential Theory, these Givens have been named by many psychotherapists. Yalom clearly defines them into four categories: Death, Freedom, Isolation, and Meaninglessness. To summarise: Death, Human Limitation and Finiteness, are ever-present and a central premise of existential psychology as important contributors to healthy living. The second, Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency, will shortly be discussed below. Isolation and Connectedness, our third Given according to Yalom, represents our deeply held need to belong, for social interactions, and to form part of a group. Our interpersonal relationships give meaning to our lives, leading us to our fourth Given – Meaning and Meaninglessness. Giving meaning to life is so important to humans that Victor Frankl (1984) named his mode of therapy “logotherapy” or “meaning therapy”. When we find meaning in our life, we are motivated to pursue it more fully.

Looking at the second of the four Givens: Freedom is at the heart of understanding the human experience. Without it, our approaches to all other Givens would change. Existential Freedom believes that we are full of potential and can reach beyond our present and become something more than we are today. As discussed earlier, we are entirely free to choose at every moment. However, with this freedom to be ourselves comes the responsibility to choose how we want to be, and to accept the consequences of every choice that we make. Understanding and accepting the concept of our complete freedom and inter-related responsibility for our lives is the foundation upon which Existential philosophy is based. Victor Frankl maintains that his survival in Nazi concentration camps was due to his psychological freedom, which allowed him to find meaning within the horrors he was experiencing. During his incarceration, all his physical, social, and political freedoms were denied him. Yet he searched for personal meaning in every experience by using his personal freedom – that of his mind and his attitude – to find the will to live.

Emmy Van Deurzen (2018) succinctly describes the process a person goes through when discovering new ways to live. Researching our own existence during therapy sessions leads us to retain and rejecting past experiences and emotions, thereby, allowing us to understand the possibility of flexibility in the ways we perceive our lives. Once we reach a point of understanding that there can be flexibility in our thought processes about ourselves and the world around us, we begin to understand the primary freedoms we possess in choosing who we are and how we respond to the world. This freedom is empowering. However, it is only possible when we accept that we have that interlinked responsibility for our lives. The responsibility is in knowing that the sum of our lives is a result of the choices we have made – including in our perception and interpretation of the world. Once this responsibility is accepted, decisions and choices are made more knowingly, not passively. As dynamic beings, our behavior in the present can change our future and we can even create new paradigms by which to interpret our past, which could affect our present and future interactions. Sartre (1946) said “the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders”. While this may be a heavy burden to bear, it allows us to live a more meaningful life.

Jewish Concept of Freedom of Choice

In the Bible (Old Testament) there are several instances of freedom of choice being discussed. In one such example, King Solomon tells a group of youth that they may follow their heart’s desires but know that there will be an accounting for their actions. Likewise, Malachi asks whether God will accept Man’s actions, clearly showing that Man’s actions are his to choose. Isaiah. When we move further forward in time, we come across some more difficult proclamations. Rabbi Akiva states in the Talmud “Everything is foreseen and free will is given”, which at first glance appears incongruent. Surely, if everything is foreseen then our path is predestined. So how could humanity be given free will if every action is known ahead of time?

Maimonides tackles this question of free will versus pre-determination. He goes further to question the need for the Torah, religious laws, instructions, and reprimands. If life is pre-determined and beyond our own control, if we are entirely dependent on God and cannot exercise our choices, then how could free will be given to us and what is the purpose of religious instruction? Maimonides quotes the angels in Genesis when looking for his answer: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil’. People have been gifted with the freedom to choose the good or wicked path in life, whichever our personal inclination. How is this concept squared with the original thought “Everything is foreseen”? Furthermore, asks Maimonides, if there is a freedom to choose one’s own path, how do we understand the Psalm.

Maimonides describes God as “He is the knower, He is the knowing, and He is the knowledge.” God is not in duality as we are. To us, pre-knowledge of an event means the removal of freedom of choice. How can the choice be mine to make if the outcome is known in advance? Yet God transcends the limitations of time, of our being, and our understanding. We are limited by our capacity to think and rationalize, God is not. Rabbi Hannina states: “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of God”. Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s response to the dichotomy this throws up is that God’s knowledge is not causative. God does not predetermine man’s action or development in his life; that is entirely up to a person’s own choosing. God knows what our destiny is because there is no past, present, or future in God’s reality, only in ours. Yet He allows us to choose how we will arrive at our destiny alone.

Similarities & Differences

The Existential Givens could be paralleled with the Jewish unquestionable faith that those Givens – the circumstances of our birth and the inevitability of human life – are specifically chosen by God for each person individually and a greater purpose. However, ultimately, both schools of thought focus on how the individual uses those circumstances in their life to live. As opposed to Determinists and the Freudian school of thought, which believe that we are directed by a greater power (be it God or the Unconscious) and our behavior is subsequently determined for us and not by us.

While religious doctrine believes in Destiny and purpose, Sartre posed (1948) : “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterward”. Judaism believes, somewhat similarly to Humanistic thought, that every person is born with an innate potential, which they work to discover and develop throughout their life to better the world, known in Judaism as “Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World” . Sartre categorically opposes this concept, saying that we first exist meaninglessly, and if we want to, we can decisively create a sense of who we are and what we can become.

In Conclusion

At the core of Existential philosophy are man’s freedom and his responsibility that inexorably comes with it. Likewise, Rabbinical Judaism regards man’s freedom to choose as a fundamental principle of the religion. To my mind, there is a shared philosophy between Existentialism and Judaism, which leads to a shared outcome – a purpose-filled life lived in authenticity. The difference between the two positions lies in the deeper echoes of belief in a greater being, purpose, and destiny versus Sartre’s meaningless chaos of the here and now. Ultimately, both philosophies lead us towards a whole and congruent life full of meaning and personal responsibility to ourselves, others, and the world.

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