If you’re a news junky like I am, you’ve no doubt noticed an uptick in the use of the word existential, as in such and such a thing is an “existential threat,” by commentators of various stripes and political persuasions. No doubt this increase is the result of America’s decision to install a mad man as president, but as the following results from a (very) quick search of Google news suggests, the range of people and things to blame for or facing “existential threats” (or “existential risks”) is quite wide.
Farmers and landowners are experiencing existential threats
“Agricultural property tax increases are becoming an existential threat to family farmers and rural land owners in Ohio.”
Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk
“Trump’s hard-line views on immigration pose existential risks [to the restaurant industry].”
Climate Change is an existential threat to the international community
“The reality of climate change is not up for debate, and its consequences must not be either. As a country, we face the choice of denying this existential threat.”
Refugees have been called an existential threat to the United States
“No one should expect refugees to be admitted should they pose an existential threat to a nation.”
Balan music faces an existential threat from Pop Music
“With the increasing popularity of folk songs and modern pop and R& B music, the ancient Balan musical culture is facing an existential threat.”
Given the global reach of American cultural exports, I don’t doubt that interest in Balan folk music is on the decline, but is it really correct to say that it is facing an existential threat? To find out if there is was any guidance on using the word, I did what few folks are willing to do these days: I consulted a dictionary!
According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, the word existential (which is derived from existentialis, the Late Latin word for existence) means “of or based on existence.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in almost the same way: “of or pertaining to existence.”
Okay, seems like these dictionaries are kind of phoning it in here, but no big deal. I get it: the term existential pertains to existence. However, if this is true, then the converse must also be true, which means that if existence is NOT on the line — that is, if thing A is not causing the demise of thing B, or if thing B is not at risk of extinction due to the presence of thing A — then the use of the word existential in such contexts amounts to little more than hyperbole and really ought to be dialed back.
With this in mind, let’s revisit our examples!
1) While agricultural property taxes may indeed put farmers out of business and compel landowners to sell off their acreages, it’s unlikely that they will end these peoples’ existence.
2) Do Trump’s views on immigration pose an existential risk to the restaurant industry? Given that, as the article points out, “The industry’s kitchens are filled with immigrant workers. And many immigrants start their own restaurants, sometimes bringing tastes from their original country to new audiences,” it easy to see how thy could have a negative effect and even lead to the closure of some restaurants. But will they bring about the end of the industry? I doubt it.
3) Is climate change is an existential threat to the international community? Given that it could submerge some island nations (e.g., the Marshall Islands) lead to more intense storms and more costly weather-related disasters, the threat is certainly real. But will it wreak havoc on the international community and break bonds between nations? I don’t have a crystal ball, but it could. Thus, I’d say existential threat just might fit here.
4) Are refugees an existential threat to the United States? No.
5) And finally, does Pop Music pose an existential threat Balan music? Nope. Sure, it could lead to (further) decreases in it’s popularity, but will it wipe it off the musical map? Probably not.
Existential and Existentialism
In all fairness, of course, the use of existential isn’t always intended to be so over the top (even though it sometimes comes off that way). More often than not, the word is used to convey significant or irreparable change and/or damage to the essence of something (i.e., a farmer’s way of life, the restaurant industry, or even the United States). This brings us to the relationship between the words existential and existentialism, the philosophy that focuses on the sometimes fractious relationship between existence and essence.
Of the philosophical dictionaries in the Anachronist Library’s Collection, only one — the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy (HCDP) — has an entry for existential. It reads:
[In existentialism] 1) The vivid experience of the reality and varied dimensions of the present. 2) The awareness that one IS and that one is an acting, choosing being creating and experiencing one’s self-identity. 3) The experience of being intensely involved in living, its fulfillment, and its predicaments.
And while all the others contained definitions for existentialism, only two others discussed existence in a way that seemed to mesh with the discussion of the word existential presented here.
For example, Anthony Flew’s Dictionary of Philosophy notes that, “Existence is basic: it is the fact of the individual’s presence and participation in a changing and potentially dangerous world.”
Similarly, A.R. Lacey’s Dictionary of Philosophy opines, “A feature of human existence, for existentialists, is that men are active and creative while things are not…. men are conscious of the contrast between themselves and things, and their relations with other men, of their eventual deaths, and their power to choose to and to become what they are not.”
Clearly, in most if not all of the articles above, the authors were not writing about the end of something’s existence so much as the reality of living in a changing and potentially dangerous world.