Tillich: The Significance of the Existential Philosophy

One of the most formative courses in my undergraduate philosophy degree was an Existentialism intensive taught by one of the department’s graduate assistants, Arsalan Memon, who has now gone on to teach philosophy at Lewis University (congratulations, Dr.!). The passion with which Dr. Memon taught the material, the degree to which he permitted students to direct the conversation, and the substantial quality of the syllabus material invigorated a respect and admiration in my own mind for the existentialists. In fact, one of the most perennially popular posts (and one that I am quite proud of) on an older blog of mine deals with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. In any case, since that course, existential thought has retained a structural and categorical force in my own thinking, and I’m always attracted to theological and philosophical (re-)incorporations of existential philosophy.

That, of course, brings us to the title of the post. In one of the most well-constructed and easily the lengthiest of the essays in Theology of Culture, Tillich outlines existential philosophy in a broad but substantial historical and categorical sweep. If you’re curious about the structure or important figures of existentialism up to 1959, I can’t recommend this essay enough. Quoted at length below is part of Tillich’s conclusion to this essay:  what is existential philosophy’s significance? In answering this question, Tillich writes:

What all philosophers of Existence oppose is the ‘rational’ system of thought and  life developed by Western industrial society and its philosophic representatives. During the last hundred years the implications of this system have become increasingly clear: a logical or naturalistic mechanism which seemed to destroy individual freedom, personal decision, and organic community; an analytic rationalism which saps the vital forces of life and transforms everything, including man himself, into an object of calculation and control; a secularized humanism which cuts man and the world off from the creative Source and the ultimate mystery of existence. The Existential philosophers, supported by poets and artists in every European country, were consciously or subconsciously aware of the approach of this self-estranged form of life. They tried to resist it in a desperate struggle which drove them often to mental self-destruction and made their utterances extremely aggressive, passionate, paradoxical, fragmentary, revolutionary, prophetic, and ecstatic. But this did not prevent them from achieving fundamental insights into the sociological structure of modern society and the psychological dynamics of modern man, into the originality and spontaneity of life, into the paradoxical character of religion and the Existential roots of knowledge. They immensely enriched philosophy, if it be taken as man’s interpretation of his own existence, and they worked out intellectual tools and spiritual symbols for the European revolution of the twentieth century.

To understand the fundamental drive and function of Existential philosophy, it is necessary to view it against the background of what was happening in the nineteenth-century religious situation, especially in Germany, for all the groups that appeared after 1830 had to face a common problem, the problem created by the breakdown of the religious tradition under the impact of enlightenment, social revolution, and bourgeois liberalism.  First among the educated classes, then increasingly in the mass of industrial workers, religion lost its ‘immediacy,’ it ceased to offer an unquestioned sense of direction and relevance to human living. What was lost in immediacy Hegel tried to restore by conscious reinterpretation. But this mediating reinterpretation was attacked and dissolved from both sides by a revived theology on the one hand and by philosophical positivism on the other. The Existential philosophers were trying to discover an ultimate meaning of life beyond the reach of reinterpretation, revived theologies, or positivism. In their search they passionately rejected the ‘estranged’ objective world with its religious radicals, revolutionaries, and mediators. They turned toward man’s immediate experience, toward ‘subjectivity,’ not as something opposed to ‘objectivity,’ but as that living experience in which both objectivity and subjectivity are rooted. They turned toward Reality as men experience it immediately in their actual living, to Innerlichkeit or inward experience. They tried to discover the creative realm of being which is prior to and beyond the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.

… Historically speaking, Existential philosophy attempts to return to a pre-Cartesian attitude, to an attitude in which the sharp gulf between the subjective and objective ‘realms’ had not yet been created, and the essence of objectivity could be found in the depth of subjectivity–in which God could be best approached through the soul.

This problem and this solution are in some respects peculiar to the German situation, in others common to all European culture. It is the desperate struggle to find a new meaning of life in a reality from which men have been estranged, in a cultural situation in which two great traditions, the Christian and the humanistic, have lost their comprehensive character and their convincing power. The turning towards Innerlichkeit, or more precisely, toward the creative sources of life in the depth of man’s experience, occurred throughout Europe. …

In understanding Existential philosophy a comparison with the situation in England may be helpful. England is the only European country in which the Existential problem of finding a new meaning for life had no significance, because there positivism and the religious tradition lived on side by side, united by a social conformism which prevented radical questions about the meaning of human ‘Existence.’ It is important to note that the one country without an Existential philosophy is that in which during the period from 1830 to 1930 the religious tradition remained strongest. This illustrates once more the dependence of the Existential philosophy on the problems created by the breakdown of the religious tradition on the European continent.

It is a dramatic picture that Existential philosophy presents: the polarity between the Existential attitude and its philosophic expression dominates the whole movement. At times the Existential element prevails, at times the philosophical–even in the same thinker. In all of them, the critical interest is predominant. All of them are reacting–in theory and practice–against an historical destiny the fulfillment of which they are furthering by their very reaction against it. They are the expression of the great revolution within and against Western industrial society which was prepared in the nineteenth century and is being carried out in the twentieth.[1]

Tillich’s analysis of existentialism’s provenance draws some fairly sharp parallels to our contemporary milieu. Traditional cultural mores and institutions are disintegrating before our eyes, and the institutional church has done little to stem the collapse as it has itself grown weaker over the last few decades. Although the United States was particularly insulated from the problems that plagued the Continent during the early twentieth century,[2] it does not appear that our domestic institutions could permanently withstand a changing sociological landscape in which religion in the West would no longer retain pride of place.[3]

A narrative exists that most of the Westerners, particularly second- and third-generation immigrants, who decide to join ISIL do so out of nihilistic boredom and a search for an ultimate purpose. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances shift from a church that failed to provide a substantial view of life and god to a radical, quasi-militant atheism, joining even the online communities of like-minded higher thinkers. My first exposure to existentialism in its academic forms also coincided with a spiritual depression, in which my view of god’s place in the world had diminished, and existentialism provided a new seriousness and critical value to everyday, human decision. It appears, as far as I can tell, that the situation in the West has again arisen for existentialism, or something like it, to reinsert itself into this void, because the typical institutions are not providing the grand vision of being that they ought.


[1] Tillich, Theology of Culture, 105 – 111.

[2] Most notably, two massive world wars. In fact, the geography of the world wars may have contributed as much to England’s lack of a domestic existentialism. On the continent, where battles ravaged the landscape and decimated a generation or two of young men, existential philosophy filled the void. In Britain, where the most sustained domestic action was the London Blitz, it’s not difficult to see how countrymen returning home to a nation still mostly intact could revert to traditional institutions more easily than a Frenchman returning to a pockmarked Paris.

[3] Pannenberg noted that phenomenon as well.

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