Existence and the Individual

Existence and the Individual        

“Existentialism insists on a return to the singular, to the individual real-life human being.”[1] This presupposes that there has been a trend which was on in the philosophical world. That philosophical trend that came immediately before existentialism was the metaphysical idealism which was capped up in Hegelian philosophy of Absolute spirit which considers anything that cannot be universalized including man to be unimportant.

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It was precisely this and the hopelessness which Schopenhauer ascribed to human existence that so many existentialists set out to react against and refute. With the success of this attack and refutation, they hope to establish “that the ‘flesh-and-blood’ individual man and not some platonic Form or even a moment in a Hegelian dialectical process is the proper object of study for philosophy.”[2] Gabriel Marcel emphasizes this idea when he observes:

For my part, I should be inclined to deny the properly philosophic quality to all works in which there is no trace of what I can only call the sting of the real.[3]

Almost all existentialists gave credence to this idea hence, man in his existence is studied in his radical singularity and individuality in relation to his nature as a being who is constantly faced with taking momentous decisions. This was actually the background which gives either an authentic or inauthentic individual in the foreground. Going by the spirit of Kierkegaard’s rebellion against Hegel’s “dissolute pantheistic contempt for the individual”[4] a philosophy of existence always considers the individual lived experiences (lebenswelt) in its unrepeatable uniqueness. It abhors all forms of objectification or universalization of that which is preeminently singular and individual. This highlights existence and reality that has remained one of the basic problems of philosophy from its cradle.

 Existence and Reality

Sometimes both terms are proposed to mean or substitute the other. However, “the kind of being that belongs to ‘real’ (as against ideal)[5] objects, things of the sorts investigated by the sciences other than psychology and pure mathematics is called existence.”[6]

Moreso, existence was for Kierkegaard a category relating to the free individual. In his use of the term, to exist means “realizing oneself through free choice between alternatives, through self commitment.”[7]

To exist, therefore, means becoming more and more an individual and less and less a mere member of a group or one can say it implies transcending universality in favour of individuality.

On the other hand, reality in standard philosophical usage refers to “how things actually are, in contrast with their mere appearance.”[8] Appearance deals with how things seem to a particular perceiver or group of perceivers. Bethrand Russel was known to have said that the distinction between appearance and reality is the cause of many troubles in philosophy as evident in Immanuel Kant’s tautology that we can know objects only as they appear to us (to our senses) not as they are in themselves.

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It is this kind of idea that reminds me of Plato’s addition to the comment on the jest which the clever witty Thracian handmaid is said to have made about Thales, who fell into a well while looking at the stars. She said that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven that he could not see what was before his feet. Plato added that this is a jest which is applicable to all philosophers. However, I will limit this application only to those philosophers who go on propounding expressions and descriptions that have little or no value to real human existence. In this regard, A. MacIntyre noted, “many meaningful expressions do not name or denote anything that exists, many descriptions do not characterize anything that exists, as the common examples of “unicorn” and “glass mountain” make clear.” [9]

Such people will also need to have more experiences than fantasies. It is very often said that life is larger than logic. This proves it right that the difficulty which inheres in existence, with which an existing individual is confronted, is one that never really comes to expression in the language of abstract thought, much less receives an explanation. Kierkegaard emphasized this when he said:

Willing as I am to admire Hegel’s logic in the capacity of a humble reader, by no means aspiring to a critical judgment; willing as I am to admit that there may be much for me to learn when I return to a further reading of it, I shall equally be proud, insistent, fearless and even defiant in standing my thesis: that the Hegelian philosophy, by failing to define its relation to the existing individual, and by ignoring the ethical confounds existence.[10]

Most often, abstract thought gets rid of existential difficulty by leaving it out and then proceeds to boast of having solved everything. Such an abstract thinker who neglects the relationship between his abstract thought and his own existence as an individual is said to be already in the process of ceasing to be human. Kierkegaard said that he is like:

A nincompoop; who did indeed marry, but without knowing love or its power and whose marriage must therefore have been as impersonal as his thought; whose personal life was devoid of pathos or pathological struggles, concerned only with which university offered the best livelihood. [11]

The abstract thinker’s existence contradicts his thought and it is those who lack pathos and passion who would profess that thought is higher than feeling and imagination. He was so frightened that he prayed so that it may not be the case that the appearance of such fabulous pure thinkers is a sign that some misfortunes like loss of the ethical and the religious threatens humanity. Also he wished that there be more in numerical strength of existing individuals who strive resolutely towards an end which cannot be realized in a once and for all moment and is thus in a constant becoming, making themselves as it were, by their repeated acts of choice. Stressing it further, he insists that:

The instant of choice is very serious, not so much on account of its rigorous cogitation involved in weighing the alternatives…but rather because there is danger a foot, danger that the next instant it may not be equally in my power to choose, that something already has been lived which must be lived over again.[12]

This further explains that view that the simplest tasks are often the most difficult. Existing is seen as having no complexity much less an art since we all exist; but abstractionism takes rank as an accomplishment. Kierkegaard emphasizes that:

Existence, like movement, is a difficult category to deal with; for if I think it, I abrogate it, and then I do not think it…. But the difficulty persists, in that existence itself combines thinking with existing, in so far as the thinker exists.[13]

The implication is that whenever abstractionism and pure philosophy assume to explain everything by explaining away what is important one must insist in the reality of existence. What is necessary is the courage to be human, and to refuse being terrified or tricked into becoming a phantom merely to save embarrassment. The realm of pure thought is:

A sphere in which the existing individual finds himself only by virtue of a mistaken beginning; and this error revenges itself by making the existence of the individual insignificant, and giving his language a flavour of lunacy.[14]

Existence constitutes the highest interest of the existing individual, and his interest constitutes his reality. Reality cannot be expressed in the language of abstraction. Reality is defined as “an inter-esse between the moments of that hypothetical unity of thought and being which abstract thought presupposes.”[15] To think about the real in the medium of the possible does not involve the same difficulty as attempting to think in the medium of existence, where existence and its process of becoming tend to prevent individual from thinking just as if existence could not be thought although the existing individual is a thinker.

Let us move further in our discourse with the consideration of subjective and objective truth. This will help us to appreciate that existence is real, concrete and more appreciable as an individual in reality than in thought.

The Subjective and Objective Truth

The dispute which holds that one cannot fully grasp that which is true has triggered off so many intellectuals in the fields of philosophy, theology and thinkers of other fields. For this reason definitions of truth vary as there are interests. Truth defined more empirically “is the conformity of being and thought”[16] but if defined more idealistically, “it is the conformity of being with thought”[17]. In whichever case, the notion of being is to be kept in its place. This is to ensure that the knowing spirit does not lose itself in the indeterminate, thereby becoming what no existing individual human being was or can become. It is in a bid to stress this idea that Kierkegaard elaborates thus:

That the knowing spirit is an existing individual spirit, and that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot often repeat; of the fantastic neglect of this is responsible for much confusion.[18]

The confusion becomes more axiomatic when there is a juxtaposition of subjective truth or subjectivity and objective truth or objectivity. For an objective reflection, truth becomes an object, something objective and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection, the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness and thought must probe very deeply into the subject and subjectivity. The way of objective reflection makes the individual or subject accidental and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing, and something merely abstract. Since “the way of objective reflection leads to abstract thought, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of different kinds…”[19], it tends to ignore the concrete and the temporal, the existential process, the predicament of the existing individual. It is rather subjectivity that determines every human being in terms of their particularity.

Objectivity tends to truth as it is, a common idea of truth as it rests within the frame work of the community. In such a case, people just accept it without inward reflection or effort to go beyond it. Thus Kierkegaard asserts that “the objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane”[20]. In other words, his assertion is that the truth which bears authenticity is sought subjectively. What is of great importance is not how the truth of fact presents itself but how an individual understands and lives it. This means that the objective truth has to be subjectivized by the individual. The case of Abraham elucidates this.

It is recorded in Genesis Chapter 22 that God tested Abraham. He called him and said, “take your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.”[21] In obedience, Abraham started the journey very early the next morning in the company of Isaac and two servants of his. Three days later, Abraham saw their destination still in a distance. Then he said to the servants “stay here with the donkey, the boy and I will go over there and worship, and we will come back to you.”[22] On their reaching where God told him about, Abraham erected an altar and arranged wood on it. He then securely tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. At this juncture, he picked up his knife to kill him but was stopped by the angel of the Lord who called from heaven “Abraham, Abraham! …don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him. Now I know that you honour and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.”[23]

Obviously, objective system views this as a horrible crime under attempted murder but subjectively, this episode is praise worthy since it stems from faith, a subjective quality. This is exactly why faith is regarded as paradox. Very often, it moves people to go contrary to socially expected standards. Such people always attract public and civil punishments or criticisms. Hegel for one loudly and clearly protested against the fact that Abraham enjoys honour and glory as the father of faith, whereas he ought to be prosecuted and convicted of murder.

Abraham transcended the objectivity which commands a father’s love for his son and abhors murder but Kierkegaard justifies him when he said that what matters is to see what it really is that God wills one should do. When divine will is revealed to man it demands a leap of faith which effects obedience to divine ordinances and outright or immediate suspension of all societal ethos. When occasion for this presents itself:

The reflection of inwardness gives to the subjective thinker a double reflection, in thinking, he thinks the universal, but as an existing, in his thought and as assimilating it in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.[24]

Thus, the individual is invited to assert his authenticity in his freedom and ability to choose, to eschew fear and cowardice in his exhibitions and as well be aware or conscious of why he acts. This implies that he becomes himself and will not be other-directed. Far from denying rational motives for the act of faith and holding that it is a purely arbitrary act of choice, Kierkegaard’s task was minimizing the rational motives for religious belief and to emphasize the subjectivity of truth and the nature of faith as a leap.

[1] F.J. Lescoe, Op. Cit., p. 11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] G. Marcel quoted in Ibid.

[4] F. J Lescoe, Op Cit., p.11.

[5] The words in bracket are mine.

[6] R. Audi (ed.) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, (New York: Cambridge University Press,

1999), p. 887.

[7] F. Copleston, Op Cit.,p. 335.

[8] R. Audi, Op. Cit., p. 775.

[9] A. MacIntyre, Essence, in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. III, ed. by Paul Edwards, (U.S.A:

Mcmillan Publ. Co. Inc. and Free Press, 1967), p. 60.

[10] S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 275.

[11] Ibid., p.268.

[12] S. Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Vol. II, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 168.

[13] Op. Cit., p.274.

[14] Ibid., p.277.

[15] Ibid., p.279.

[16] Ibid., p. 169.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p.173.

[20] Ibid., p. 174.

[21] Genesis 22: 2.

[22] Genesis 22:5.

[23] Genesis 22:11-12.

[24] S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 68.

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