The Existential Primer

an overview of this absurd space

Since 1996, The Existential Primer has provided an introduction to existentialism and the related Continental philosophies. As a primer, the website explores connections between many individuals, works, and concepts instead of offering narrow specialization. Scholars appreciate the need for both narrow and broad analyses, which serve different purposes. When you read each section, do not expect narrowly focused depth — by definition, this website offers a survey of the topics and individuals important to existentialism. To locate book-length analyses of one thinker — or one work by that individual — use the complete bibliography.

My passion is creative writing and how “creative” works affect social change. The existentialists interest me because many of them appreciated the power of artistic expression to advance knowledge and understanding. To explore how Kafka’s fiction relates to philosophy, I must read literary and philosophical scholarship. Scholars interested in how thinkers influence each other rely on the works of highly-specialized researchers. As we tell students, knowledge and understanding are socially constructed. Creative works embody that social process.

Playwright, Scholar
As a playwright, I appreciate that art reaches wider audiences than most scholarship. However, scholarship influences policy makers, especially on issues without mass appeal. Sometimes, I address an issue in both genres.

How do we construct meaning as societies if existence is meaningless? Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Many existentialists develop model for decision making, with varying degrees of success. Some thinkers use formal, academic philosophy to explore existential questions. Others turn to creative forms, an equally valid approach to me in light of existentialism’s view that we create meaning.

Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary. In this existence…

The Individual Defines Everything.

Existentialism is a philosophy that takes as its starting point the individual’s existence. Everything that it has to say, and everything that it believes can be said of significance — about the world we inhabit, our feelings, thoughts, knowledge, ethics — stems from this central, founding idea.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, p. 1

Existentialism: The Hip Outsider

Existentialism stands on the outside of philsophy departments, cool and hip, listening to an eclectic mix of music while secretly wanting to be respected by the academic elites. It is Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, rebels looking to the past. It is Sartre and de Beauvoir, political activists with academic credentials. Existentialism is the outsider, Camus, rejecting the label “existentialist” and traveling uneasily between and within journalistic, literary, theatrical, political, and philosophical cliqués.

Was, or is, existentialism an influential movement within philosophy? I could argue that existentialism had minimal influence within the academic discipline of philosophy, and at least in the Anglo-American traditions scholars appear to concur. The textbooks commonly assigned for introductory philosophy courses barely mention existentialism, including the texts I have assigned. But do we limit “influence” to a scholastic metric? That runs counter the very ideals embraced by the existentialists.

Books in the Stores
As of May 2014, our local bookstore had two shelves dedicated to philosophy. Kierkegaard was granted the most shelf space, followed by Nietzsche. A couple of Sartre classics lingered, out of alphabetical order. A copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian was next to Batman and Philosophy. The remaining texts included the Greek thinkers (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates) and a lone Roman (Marcus Aurelius).

If we reconsider influence in terms of popular culture and awareness beyond the ivory towers, then existentialism occupies a rather unique position. Although existentialism doesn’t match the influence of other, better defined philosophical movements in academic circles, it exceeds others in the most basic way: the general public is curious about it. My students know, vaguely and sometimes incorrectly, what existentialism might mean. High school World literature courses include Kafka, Camus, and Sartre, at a minimum. There is something appealing about existentialism to the contemplative teen mind.

Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger are more influential than the existentialists within philosophy, but many (most) of my undergraduate students know nothing of these thinkers. Then again, beyond the ancient Greeks, few philosophers are well-known. What people do remember are people with interesting lives.

The thinkers most commonly labelled existential, correctly or not, had interesting lives. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche embraced their roles as outcasts, offering prophet-like aphorisms embraced by other outcasts. Sartre was complex, especially his personal life. And Kafka? His life defines tragedy in the twentieth century, his literary alienation expressed just before the Holocaust. A boring existential thinker surely exists… unread by most students and scholars.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide in insolation. The Existential Primer is a living academic project, unlike a static text. I revise these pages often because the scholarship never ends. Consult the citations within these pages. Read the works of many scholars! I implore you to read the original works of the thinkers profiled.

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page

Primer News and Updates

2014 May 19
Yet another redesign as I seek to make The Existential Primer more device-friendly for phone and tablet users.
2011 September 14
We are now on Facebook! Please “like” The Existential Primer as a fan.

In response to visitor questions and requests, I do plan to add more biographies and criticisms — after I finish what I consider to be the primary pages. The placeholder pages created include: Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Paul Tillich and several others. Please be patient while I continue efforts to complete “first drafts” of other pages.

Primer Contents

Organizing The Existential Primer required arbitrary choices, grouping information and analyses under imprecise headings. Since a long list of ramblings without order would annoy readers, I organized thinkers based on their primary contributions to human knowledge (or confusion). Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a literary writer, a playwright, a politician, and more. Still, philosopher seemed the best choice.

The nice thing about a hypertext document: links interconnect documents, so many paths lead to the same materials. Follow the links, and then follow the citations within the pages. Ideally, the primer compels you to read more, especially the works of the thinkers mentioned and profiled.

Overview: Basic introduction to existentialism and its place within philosophical schools of thought.

Lexicon: Dictionary of terms and phrases used by the thinkers associated with existentialism.

History: Guide to how history shaped the development of existential philosophy.

Divisions: Short discussion of divisions within existentialism.

Sources: List of sources consulted for and cited in The Existential Primer.

Hopefully, this site offers some useful information and encourages readers to learn more on their own about both existentialism and philosophy in general.

Sources and Reliability

The Existential Primer is more than a static academic paper. Ideally, it improves every time someone offers a suggestion or I read yet another work about or by one of the profiled thinkers.

The nature of the Web allows one to maintain a “living” research project with an infinite number of internal links. The Existential Primer should be explored as the hypertext collection it is. In a traditional academic paper, which The Existential Primer is not, it would be considered bad form to include citations without including background on the source and its context nearby within the paper. I do not omit such information, but I assume you will follow the many links provided. Online, more information is merely a click or a tap away. Of course, I cannot force you to meander link to link.

I offer background on the Sources Cited page, along with explanations of why I selected various scholars for inclusion. Because pages of the primer are often read in isolation, I would have had to introduce sources repeatedly — each page being an “article” of sorts. Admittedly, because pages of The Existential Primer are in various stages of completion, some entries resemble what professors call “quilt” papers. A quilt is a shallow work that merely glues together outside sources with minimal original transitions. In time, the quilted pages evolve into thoughtful reflections.

Much of The Existential Primer content has been reviewed by authors, journalists, and professors with expertise. However, neither I nor these experts can or should tell anyone what thinkers of the past “really meant” in particular works. Please learn more about The Existential Primer, but do not assume anything you read here is more than a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. If you have a suggestion or find an error, contact me.

The Existential Primer will expand and improve as long as I am alive and able to type. I encourage you to read on. The Introduction to Existentialism offers more detail on the history and meaning of existentialism.


Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London; New York: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2006. [0826485294, 9780826485298 (hc); 0826485308, 9780826485304 (pbk)]

Note: Please visit the complete bibliography for source materials consulted.






Written by C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 15-Jan-2018
Edited by S. D. Schnelbach