Existentialism is a philosophy which emphasizes subjective experience over against subjective rationality. I think of it as the view that all of life is like playing a tape (DVD or MP4 or your format of choice)–Someone has pushed play, and there are no other controls such as pause, rewind, or fast-forward. Thus, everything is NOW. Reality happens. Even when we think, observe, analyze, etc., we do so in the here and now.
In this view, history becomes somewhat fuzzy because we cannot revisit it (rewind). We can contemplate a memory that we have, but even this takes place as an event (an important term in existential thought) in the present. We might also read a text which reports ‘historical’ events. Still, the reading and reflecting on such a text is done in the present, too.
So what about meaning? As you might have guessed, the meaning of a text (according to many existentialists) is not found in a text or in the author of the text. Rather, meaning happens as you ‘experience’ the text.
Recall our movie player illustration above. We only have a play button. Thus, in this movie you cannot read a book and rewind to find the author’s original intent. Traces of the author might be found as you read the text (an event in the present), but this may or may not correspond to the author’s original intent. Further, since the play button is pressed, meaning is best thought of in terms of an experience, not a thing or object that lives somewhere else (like in an author).
Strengths and Weaknesses
This view has weaknesses (though it is not without certain strengths, too). In the next post, I will offer a brief critique.