Existential Crisis

man facing away, toward the ocean

Epistle 15. Posted on 2019-04-04. Edited on 2019-04-25.

An existential crisis is the experience of a conflict between an evaluation of one’s personal nature and a desire for a different personal nature, where both involve meaning and purpose. For example, torpid Tom evaluates his life as meaningless, and he desires meaning. Empty Emma experiences the emptiness of a life without purpose, but desires to feel fulfilled.

The representation of an existential crisis is a conjunction of three judgments:

one’s personal nature,
an evaluation of one’s personal nature, and
a desire for a different personal nature.

An existential crisis occurs when someone incorrectly evaluates their personal nature, and then desires a different one. Before value is assigned, the judgment about personal nature may also play an explanatory role regarding the presence of a conflict; after all, when propositions are connected in analytic logic, falsehood follows from falsehood (see Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 7.81).

By personal nature, I mean the sum of a person’s qualities and dispositions, where a quality is something essential that is possessed, and a disposition is something inessential. By essential, I mean something that a person has with conceptual necessity. For example, every human being is necessarily a biped, and so your bipedality is essential, it is a quality possessed by every human being. Being brunette is inessential, and so being brunette is merely a disposition of a human being. These relate to human nature, which is part of anyone’s personal nature.

To experience an existential crisis, the evaluation of one’s personal nature must involve meaning and purpose. Nobody who has the disposition of being a smoker has an existential crisis over desiring merely to quit smoking, for instance. Smoking Samantha may experience anxiety, but her distress is not existential.

As an example, torpid Tom questions why he should get out of bed and go to work, since everything is meaningless, or so he reasons. Things seem meaningless to torpid Tom when he considers that death is inevitable. He is failing to find meaning in life while it lasts, in his ability to influence his own character, and in the opportunities to help others and thereby contribute positively to the world. As a consequence of his misunderstanding of his personal nature, torpid Tom desires his life to be meaningful in ways that he perceives it is not. This conflict results in torpid Tom being dissatisfied with his life, and he is not looking forward to his day.

But consider existential crisis in relation to depression, as the mental health industry would have it. Imagine, if you will, someone who does not experience an existential crisis because they do not experience a conflict due to a contradiction between their desire and their personal nature involving meaning and purpose. Now, imagine this same person is clinically depressed. To me, it is conceptually impossible — which is stronger than empirically impossible — for depression to occur without existential crisis, as defined here. Nobody who reasons well regarding meaning and purpose is characterized as irritable, unmotivated, pessimistic, experiencing hopelessness, or describes themselves as worthless. None of these revelers in meaning and pursuers of purpose can be persistently sad, and they certainly cannot agonize about emptiness. Each of these dispositions has its own specific pattern of faulty judgments, and none of these are compatible with reasoning well about meaning and purpose. For someone to be diagnosed as medically depressed, the presence of an existential crisis should also be required. One such benefit is that it is testable thanks to logic, and does not require Likert scales, relying on coefficient alpha, regarding journal articles as credible when college-based convenience samples are used to represent a larger population, extrapolating from studies to an individual, using induction while ignoring the problem of induction, and all of the other shortcomings currently neglected in favor of simply declaring their induced conclusions are evidence-based and (pseudo)scientific. When someone wants credible results, they should use credible methods, and formal reason is the most credible.

Oftentimes, a person has no idea they are experiencing an existential crisis, and a brief description of an existential crisis does not seem to fit because the person does not perceive that they have reflected philosophically on the meaning of existence, and that meaninglessness and purposelessness are not the source of their problems.

As an example, depressed Celest was diagnosed with clinical depression and took medication accordingly, but she opted not to receive subsequent counseling. On occasion, and seemingly without cause, depressed Celest was unmotivated to do anything at all. She was adamant there is no event that caused her depression, no trauma in her childhood, and that her imbalanced brain chemistry requires medication. Medication has helped her with the symptoms, but it did not correct the root cause. In short, she was convinced that the mental health industry was correct in describing and diagnosing depression. But then depressed Celest humored my use of formal reason to explore meaning and purpose. Today she knows that she experienced an existential crisis…for decades.

People may experience several existential crises throughout their life. Meaning and purpose are often questioned during transitions in identity, such as from a teenager to an adult, as a result of divorce, when one’s children become adults, and when one retires, to name only a few. Someone experiencing a midlife crisis may ask themselves if their best years are behind them and this is as good as it gets, for example.

In philosophical counseling, I apply formal reason (deductive logic) to each existential crisis, exploring both meaning and purpose. Most people expect that existential literature will be considered closely, but I usually pay it little attention because logic was not a dominant focus. For example, existentialism concludes that meaning and purpose in life are strictly what we make it. But this overlooks that meaning is affected by everything experienced rather than only certain selected experiences, and some purposes are imposed on us simply by being human, being a neighbor, and so on. If one knows that reason is required to obtain lasting happiness, and prefers being unreasonable but still desires such happiness, the connection between reason and happiness remains, for example. Desire does not strictly separate meaning from meaninglessness, and purpose from purposelessness. There’s more to it than desire. Instead, a logical approach to an existential crisis requires a re-evaluation of meaning and purpose, and this leads toward peace of mind.

If you are experiencing an existential crisis, or if you are unsure and would like to explore that possibility, I am here to help.

Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),

Ron Hall

Ron Hall



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