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Existential Self-Help 1: Finding Purpose in Life

View through a tube of water
Image from Canva, altered by Author

One of the key distinctions that you will find in the variety of existential philosophies of the 20th century: What counts as an authentic life and inauthentic one. What typically sets the two apart is a genuine value, purpose, or project that underwrites how one lives.

Sounds straightforward enough?

Just remember that what is meant by “genuine” and “authentic” does not typically involve familiar and conventional aims, such as

  • getting wealthy;

  • having children;

  • getting promoted;

  • being famous;

  • being happy.

This is because one of the central maxims of existential thinking is that we misunderstand what the world and life are really about. So the solution (and resolution) is to

  1. diagnose what’s wrong about one’s perception of oneself, the world, and others

  2. in order to find what is of real value.

I wouldn’t pretend to be able to present a comprehensive view of existential thought on this point. Existential philosophies vary widely, and most philosophers characterized by scholars as being “existential” never adopted the label.

So to make things as practicable as possible, I’m going to distill different aspects of existential thought into a general schema—i.e. a 3-step process for self-help.

What follows is for educational – and not medical – purposes. I am a former academic philosopher (not a physical or mental health expert).

Step 1: Bracketing Your Ideas and Views

One of the perennial problems of philosophy is finding a perspective, or view on things, that does not involve significant biases. This is as an epistemic problem, or a problem involving how we can determine whether what we believe is truthful and accurate. It used to be a significant (yet futile) project for some philosophers to find and occupy a completely unbiased point of view—that is, a view that is purely objective, or what's called the view from nowhere.

Of course, it’s a bit contradictory to use the term “unbiased” to characterize “a point of view” since a point of view is one that is necessarily from a specific vantage. It is person-specific.

The way existential thinking approaches this epistemic problem is to accept that having a biased view is inevitable but not fatally flawed for our understanding. (For those familiar with philosophical terms, existentialism adopts a version of fallibilism.)

Instead, the answer lies in finding a practical process of becoming aware of biases and determining when they need to be revised or corrected (or what is referred to as hermeneutical understanding).

Here are a few pointers to get started.

Be aware that one has biases, both known and unknown to oneself.

Biases are things of which we often become aware when someone else points them out to us . . . and in sometimes embarrassing or vexed ways. Understanding this is the first step in mitigating any harmful effects of biases.

Biases are at root positive.

Let me clarify. Without biases, we wouldn’t have a point of view. Biases actually present our specific windows on to the world. And it’s in that sense that they are positive. Or more precisely, they are formative of who we are. But it doesn't mean they are incorrigible.

Biases may need to be confronted and changed.

Not all biases are harmful to oneself and/or others. For example, I look highly upon people who can engage with nature and accomplish feats and personal bests in adventure-type sports. That view by itself is not a bad thing. But it could become questionable or even harmful if it becomes a measure by which I judge those who do not engage in adventure-type sports.

In sum, if one is aware that biases are inevitable, it puts in check one’s sense of certainty and temptation to judge others. Suspending a commitment to one’s beliefs (because they are biased) is called “bracketing”—that is, bracketing one’s beliefs in order to assess them.

One philosopher puts this well when describing it like this (I paraphrase):

When you find that others are putting pressure on your ideas, values, and concepts, it’s time to engage in a practice of critical self-reflection. One’s duty to oneself and others is to at the very least test one’s ideas on measures and values external to one’s own beliefs.

In fact, begin able to do the above is what counts as a central feature of being rational. If there is a need for changing one’s ideas, enter Step 2. Set sail!

Bird's eye view of sailboat on the sea.
Image by Daniel Kuruvilla at Unsplash

Step 2: Discovering New Views & Purpose

Discovering is what takes place when your biases have been bracketed. What will take their place?

It may take a lifetime to find an adequate filler, as it were. But that is what human reflection and life are about. In other words, when bracketing and vacating a bias, finding a replacement should not be accompanied by a sense that “now, I’ve got it right”.

Instead, the thought is,

“I have a better understanding of how to be and live . . . but it’s something that has to be tested as I continue to live, encounter others, and confront new situations.

Will my views be put under pressure at some point? If so, then it’s time for critical self-reflection and taking up the bracketing process once again.”

This step may sound a bit dissatisfying or challenging, but think of it like this:

Finding new ideas and values is a part of the process of self-development. To make sure those ideas and values are worthy in some sense requires testing them and challenging them over one's lifetime.

Each existential philosopher has their own process and criteria for performing this test, but one of my favorites ideas is that of “being-with others”. It’s a concept that has been reflected in different ways—from Gabriel Marcel and Martin Heidegger to Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricoeur.

The key takeaway for our purposes is that the capability of being-with others is not to be able to be with people with whom you agree. That is easy. A genuine living philosophy ought to be able to accommodate those

  • who are strangers; and

  • those with whom one disagrees.

There is a lot that needs to be said here. But in a short, self-help blog, let it suffice to say that if one’s point of view cannot meet these two criteria, then . . . well, you’re view is being put under pressure.

Step 3: Being and Not Existing

Existential thinkers often make the distinction between two modes of living. One is genuine or authentic; the other is inauthentic.

Think of Being as a mode of living in which one is living according to what one earnestly believes . . . yet (and this is key!) with the sense that one still may have it wrong in some sense. In other words, being is a mode of commitment and conviction, yet having humility and entertaining doubt.

Sound paradoxical?

Ah, the so-called father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, captures this paradox so well.

What he called faith in being was not a mode of self-certainty, but an avowal to live as fully as one can along with the sense of doubt that one may not be fully or even partially right. This dynamic relation between faith and doubt (the two are not mutually exclusive but mutually affirming) is articulated convincingly in the existential theology of Paul Tillich.

Existing, in contrast, is a mode of living in either complacency or self-certainty.

Complacency involves accepting what you’ve been told without self-examination and without reflection on how it affects others. It’s a form of vicious habit. Think of accepting the life of the everyday work world. Albert Camus describes the routine so well:

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Penguin (1975): 18.

Why accept this trajectory of life? Can you find either a genuine vocation or transform the workplace? (Check out Philosophy2u's Thinkific platform to find out how!)

Self-certainty . . . well, we covered it above. In a future blog, we’ll examine the merits of ancient skepticism and how no belief is immune to fallacy.

But for our immediate purposes, let us say that self-certainty is an epistemic short-circuit by which one no longer has to do the work of analyzing biases. It’s a sort of hubris that tries to substitute for the real work of intellectual self-reflection with zeal and, as Martin Heidegger would say, ignorance (oblivion).

How This Can Be Applied

If you are aware of a bias which others have brought to your attention and has become sort of a niggling point for you, why not:

Bracket the bias as much as you can. What situations are there in which your bias moves from inactive to active; from hidden to expressed in words or gestures?

Discover what it would be like to think without that bias. This does not necessarily mean entertaining the opposite view (though it can), but what the Nobel Prize economist, Amartya Sen, referred to as occupying views from "nowhere in particular". Be open and sensitive to shifts and changes in how you are processing and evaluating things from within the new view(s).

Commit, enact, practice . . . in short, take up the mode of being and not merely existing! Remain open, and test your values; revise as appropriate!


About Dr Todd Mei

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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