April 15, 2018

Tip to the media

Sam Smith = Please stop using the word existential for matters that are simply of considerable importance. For those of us who consider ourselves existentialists, such use diminishes the significance of our philosophy, which has been defined this way by Merriam-Webster:
 A chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad
Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary addresses this issue, albeit in my view in a far too tolerant manner.
Please explain the usage of the word existential. I hear it frequently on the news and on talk shows. Dictionaries use "existence" in their definitions of this word. This does not help my usage. Help!   - Phil from the United States

Answer

The adjective existential is often defined as, “of, or relating to, existence.” However, as you point out, that doesn’t really explain the meaning of existential in most contexts.

Let’s try another approach, looking at how the word is most often used. Using a language corpus, I found that existential most often occurs in one of these phrases:

    existential threat
    existential questions
    existential crisis

The first phrase, existential threat, is used in texts or discussions about politics, usually politics in the Middle East. In this context, existential is being used literally. An existential threat is a threat to a people’s existence or survival.

The second phrase, existential questions, references Existentialism, a 20th century philosophy concerned with questions about how and whether life has meaning, and why we exist. (For more information, look up Existentialism or the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.)

The third phrase, existential crisis, is also a reference to Existentialism, but it is often used in a humorous or sarcastic way, to suggest that the person or people being described spend too much thinking about themselves and the meaning of their lives.

In sum, existential can be a reference to survival, or to the meaning of our lives, or used to poke fun at others who might take themselves a bit too seriously.
The best thing would be for journalists to stop using the word existential. And while they're at it they might replace collusion, though it can refer to a criminal act, with conspiracy, much more widely understood. And stop letting politicians like Donald Trump draw a red line, which suggests a power that the person doesn't have. Trump can not stop a criminal investigation into his business affairs, so his drawing a red line means nothing. 

1 comment:

greg gerritt said...

I use existential. crisis to discuss events that threaten the existence of life on earth or at least modern civiliztion