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The Popularity of Existentialism

Existentialism appears to be everywhere. According to UK Prime Minister David Cameron IS poses an 'existential threat' to the West. It is not uncommon to read about Europe being in the midst of an 'existential crisis' brought about by the displacement of untold number of people seeking a safe environment. Even the Moors murderer Ian Brady had the audacity to describe his barbarity as an 'existential exercise'. I expect we will be hearing of New-Old Labour having an existential crisis for quite some time to come now the bearded JC has declared a policy of 'honest communication', a Catch-22 for politicians if ever there was one.

But when did all this existentialism come to the forefront of public consciousness? When I was a student in the 70s at Exeter University even bearded professors of jurisprudence would go a little bit pink around the gills using the word 'existentialism' as if it was just a tad too pretentious. Or maybe such academics were worried that only those who had read Jean-Paul Sartre in French were entitled to utter such a fearfully loaded philosophical term rooted well outside the grounds of any British tradition.

Whether one traces the concept of existentialism to Sartre, Kant, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kafka, Kierkegaard or even Plato's simile of the cave, there are not many British 'fathers' of existentialism around.

A relatively recent Anglo-Saxon reference point for existentialism was Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' published to immediate critical acclaim in 1956 at a time when the Suez Canal crisis would not be described in 'existential' terms; it was simply a crisis.

There are today literally hundreds of existential-related works in print, many now using the term existential in a therapeutic context, as in 'existential therapy'. One could argue that both in the USA, across Europe and in the UK there is a whole industry dedicated to and predicated upon 'existentialism'.

However I wonder whether credit should be placed on the shoulders of R.D. Laing, my much-maligned dad whose first book: 'The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness' published in 1960, appears to have had and continues to have significant influence in the popularization of 'existentialism'.

But what is meant by existentialism? Perhaps the concept of 'existential thought' is best captured in a speech by R.D. Laing entitled 'Practice and Theory', first delivered at the Sixth International Congress for Psychotherapy held in London, later published as a leading article in The New Society published on the 1st of October 1964:

'Existential thought is a flame which constantly melts and recasts its own verbal objectifications. It offers no security, no home for the homeless. It addresses no one except you and me. It finds its validation when, across the gulf of our idioms and styles, our mistakes, errings and perversities, we recognize in the other's communication a certain common experience of relationship that we are seeking to convey, knowing that we shall never entirely succeed.'

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