I just started At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell and just a few pages in I was rather pleased to see the author clear up a long held confusion of mine. And simply put was to answer my question of what/where the demarc of nihilism and existentialism lie.
She writes, “Sartre put this principle into a three-word slogan, which for him defined existentialism: ‘Existence precedes essence’. What this formula gains in brevity it loses in comprehensibility. But roughly it means that, having found myself thrown into the world, I go on to create my own definition (or nature, or essence), in a way that never happens with other objects or life forms.”
I guess where I’d been long confused was when/where/how nihilism became linked to Sartre’s version* of existentialism. I have periodically read over the years about something called existential nihilism. (Huh?)
So it is very much interesting to note that Sartre’s positional view was highly positive in that every man was responsible for finding their own life’s purpose and reason. (And I kind of like that.)
How then these two seemingly very disparate – at least to me now, very disparate – philosophic systems ever became linked at all is still somewhat of a mystery. (But maybe that is because I am merely a dilettante here.)
But nihilism I think – to provide a small defense – is kind of nebulous, having roots that go back at least as far to Tsarist Russia with their anarchy movement.
*According to Ms. Bakewell, Sartre began thinking as early as 1933 about his nascent belief system thinking man’s ‘freedom lay at the heart of all human experience.’ And it was by the end of WWII that he refined his thoughts into the principal of ‘existence precedes essence’.
So in short, nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value while existentialism purports that ones life’s meaning is not innate but instead must be searched for and discovered.