Word usage changes over time, with new words appearing and old words getting bent out of shape due to ignorance or convenience until, in time, they settle into a new pattern of meaning. In a single work Sir Thomas Browne coined the words “electricity,” “hallucination,” “pathology,” and perhaps a dozen more that we still use today, including "approximate," "aquiline," "cadaverous," "causation," "coexistence," and "elevator."
It's interesting to be reminded that the words "conscience" and "conscious" were once synonymous, although one seems to be a noun and the other a verb. How could that be?
More distressing, perhaps—though some might consider it an honor—is to be a witness to the wanton appropriation of a useful and perhaps even poetic word for use in a new and vulgar way.
We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is to hear the word "existential" dumbed down, battered out of shape, and put to an utterly banal use. This happens every time a newscaster makes use of the phrase "existential threat." Such a remark is meant to suggest, I think, that the thing or concept being referred to is a threat to our existence, or to the existence of whatever is being specified. For example, "Rising seawater poses an existential threat to all coastal cities worldwide."
It would have been far clearer, more accurate, and also more vivid, to have said, "Rising seawater threatens to submerge and destroy the waterfront of many major coastal cities." Don't you think?
Yet the phrase "existential threat" has a trendy and ominous aura that draws what strength it has from the disquieting concept with which it shares no real affinities, namely, existentialism itself.
Existentialism is a, to put it bluntly, a form of romanticism. On the other hand, it's highly prolix and intellectual, as may be suggested by the voluminous tracts produced by Soren Kierkegaard or the two-inch-thick tomb, Being and Nothingness, in which Jean-Paul Sartre masticates at great length the notion that things either are or are not.
But at the same time, existentialism also tends to be vague. The three concepts with which it's most closely associated are ennui, anxiety, and dread. It might be said, in fact, that existentialism, like romanticism, is less a philosophy than a mood. But whereas romanticism rolled in on the surf of the French Revolution, exhibits a hopeful or idealistic sheen, and often inspires meaningful activity, existentialism gurgled up from the quagmires of the First World War, came of age along with the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation, and therefore, at a loss as to what to DO, dwells in passivity, fog, and depression, or at best focuses its attention on what has become known as "the gratuitous act."
Nowadays both moods are prevalent during adolescence, and there's a lot to be said, both at that stage and also later in life, for brooding, yearning, and aspiring. The detachment such thoughts foster allow an individual to reevaluate things and change direction. The problems arise when such ruminations become an end in themselves, a badge of identity, or even a self-bestowed mark of distinction.
And this has been the fate of much existential literature.
As early as 1934, the Italian philosopher Guido de Ruggiero wrote:
Human life, when it is normal and balanced, is a synthesis of individual and universal elements, of freedom and discipline, of immediate spiritual movements and of abiding values, of existence and essence. When this vital synthesis is broken, one of the elements affirms itself to the detriment of the other and undergoes a pathological growth damaging the health of the whole organism. This is precisely what we find in the existentialist philosophy which, as a reaction against universal concepts and values, gives a pathological development to the individual and contingent element of existence by lifting it to a ruling position and making it the measure of all values.as a label for his own work, preferring to associate his thought with broader currents of Socratic dialog. The essay "On the Ontological Mystery," which appears in the nifty paperback collection of Marcel's essays titled The Philosophy of Existentialism, would be a good place to begin an exploration of his subtle, questing, and fruitful approach.
There was a time when I enjoyed dipping from time to time into an essay by Heidegger, a religious tract by Kierkegaard, or a clutch of aphorisms by Nietzsche. Though I seldom agreed with the ideas being advanced, I wasn't sure I really understood them, and I got the impression they'd arisen from a deep-rooted anguish or a need to untangle the seeming contradictions of "existence." In recent years I find myself lingering in those forests less often, having become convinced that the initial frisson such radical critiques provide is the best thing they have to offer.
Nevertheless, I cringe whenever I hear a journalist associating existentialism, albeit inadvertently, with pandemic, global warming, or some other looming disaster. Existential threat? Never. Existential crisis? Perhaps. Existentialism is a land of theory and poetry that we enter of our own free will in an effort to diffuse the fog, confusion, and distress we sometimes feel in the face of existence, and perhaps, find a way out.