“Old” versus “New” Existentialism

“I think we should now be able to see clearly the fundamental issue on which the ‘new existentialism’ differs from the older version. The old existentialism emphasises man’s contingency. It says that since there is no God, there are no ‘transcendental values’ either. Man is alone in an empty universe; no act of his has any meaning outside itself – and its social context. Existentialism has removed the universal backcloth against which mediaeval man acted out his dreams, with a sense that everything he did would be brought up on judgement day. In its place, says Sartre, there is only the infinitude of space, which means that man’s actions are of no importance to anyone but himself. ”

“The new existentialism consists of a phenomenological examination of consciousness, with the emphasis upon the problem of what constitutes human values. And since moods of optimism and insight are less accessible than moods of depression and life-devaluation, the phenomenology of life-devaluation constitutes the most valuable field of study

“Existentialism said: There are no transcendental values; therefore man should not look for values outside his everyday consciousness. The new existentialism replies: You have overlooked the third possibility. There are states of consciousness that are not ‘everyday consciousness’ and which are not ‘transcendental’ either. These produce a definite sense of values and purpose. If we investigate these properly, man may be able to replace his old dogmatic religious values with a scientifically objective set of external values. This summarises the purpose of the ‘new existentialism,’ and provides it with a direction in which to advance, and with a philosophical method”

“Let us be frank about this. One of the reasons that the ‘old existentialism’ found itself immobilised was that it tried so hard to compromise with academic philosophy. To a large extent, the difficulties encountered in a text of Jaspers, Heidegger or Sartre are the difficulties that the author feels to be necessary to an academically respectable philosophy.”