Existentialism, Empiricism, and Rationalism

One commonality among existentialists is the importance they place on recognizing the inevitably of our demise. Thomas Wartenberg, in his great introduction to existentialism, makes the interesting suggestion that the way that existentialists approach the finitude of human existence has roots which stretch back to Aristotle and the empiricist tradition. As Wartenberg writes:

“There seem to be two basic philosophical strategies for dealing with the undeniable fact that we are finite creatures. The first, tracing its roots all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato, is to try to overcome it as best we can. Since Plato conceived of humans as having aspects of the divine within them, he thought human life ought to aim at validating our divine aspects, so that they could rule over (and overrule) our finite features. This rationalist tradition taught that humans ought to live so as to overcome their limitations as finite beings and aspire to instantiate a divine, and hence complete, being, most notably by denying our desires in favor of the demands of reason. . .Plato’s pupil Aristotle began the alternative philosophical tradition of empiricism. For the empiricist, it was a mistake to try to overcome our finitude. Instead, the philosophical project of empiricism was to explicate the nature of human knowing, doing, and valuing, not what such capacities might be like in a being fundamentally different from us. Rather than aspiring to root out that in which we differ from the divine, the empiricists acknowledged our finitude and its effects on every aspect of our being.” (Thomas Wartenberg)