There are two famous trios of existentialists; other existentialists are grouped with these trios of “leaders” as appropriate. The first trio of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger is grouped together intellectually. These men are the fathers of existentialism and dedicated themselves to the study of the human condition. While they expressed political views, especially Heidegger, their primary interest was metaphysical.
The second trio of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir is viewed as a political trio. They were a social trio until Sartre and Camus proved that petty squabbles and pride cannot be overcome by basic philosophy. While other individuals moved in and out of these two groups, literally and figuratively, these six individuals define existentialism.
Any attempt to divide existential thinkers into groups is bound to result in oversimplification of their writings, lectures, and public statements. Still, we tend to group related thinkers for purposes of study. St. Elmo Nauman, writing in The New Dictionary of Existentialism, offers the following groupings of existential thinkers:
Existentialism has exerted a profound unifying influence on the usually diverse disciplines of philosophy, theology, literature, and psychology.
The immediate foundations of existentialism were laid by Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and to some extent by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). The major formulations of existentialism are by Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition to these thinkers, the most commonly acknowledged existentialists are Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Migeul de Unamuno y Jugo (1864–1936), and Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948).
The literary existentialists, in addition to many of the above, are Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), Frank Kafka (1883–1924), Albert Camus (1913–1960), André Gide (1869–1951) and André Malraux.
The theological existentialists, in addition to Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Marcel, are Martin Buber, Karl , Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.
— The New Dictionary of Existentialism; St. Elmo Nauman, pp. 46-7
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
The early thinkers associated with existentialism concentrated their writings and lectures upon the metaphysical. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are the primary intellectual and metaphysical existentialists, even though Heidegger claimed to be rejecting metaphysics in his works. The novelist Dostoevsky also emphasized metaphysical questions in his writings.
… [T]here is a very strong spiritual current that carries through into Existentialist writing well into the twentieth century and why there is often a desire to go beyond the present material, physical being and to achieve some kind of transcendence.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, p. 5
Literally, “metaphysics” are those disciplines that are “beyond physics.” In practice, metaphysics is the study of abstract concepts and the very nature of abstract thinking.
Interestingly, the metaphysicians associated with existentialism were so dedicated to thought that they were generally asocial, while caring a great deal about mankind.
The most basic, and complex, metaphysical questions include:
Reference works indicate that Nietzsche (1844–1900) was not a reader of Kierkegaard’s essays (1813–1855), but they both pursued the same general question: What, short of a fear of a Creator, limits the actions of an individual? Kierkegaard approached the problem from the possibility that Christianity, and faith in general, is irrational. Kierkegaard argued that proving the existence of a single, supreme entity was not a useful pursuit. Instead, Kierkegaard believed, the important test of a man was his commitment to faith despite the absurdity of that faith.
Nietzsche, often characterized as an atheist, was more precisely a critic of organized religion and the doctrines of his time. He believed that organized religion, especially the powerful Catholic church, was opposed to anyone gaining power or self-reliance without consent. Nietzsche used the phrase herd to describe the populous, which followed the churches willingly. Nietzsche argued that proving the existence of a Creator was neither possible nor important. However, while Kierkegaard considered devotion in the absence of proof courageous, Nietzsche considered the pursuit of personal excellence a sign of courage. Nietzsche’s philosophy can be compared to Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lucifer said, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Some twentieth-century theologians have debated these differing views of man's relationship with the Creator. The writers addressing this issue include Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich. This group is referred to as the religious or theological existentialists. Tillich was one of the most influential members of this group. Because he emigrated to the United States after opposing the National Socialists in Germany, Tillich was embraced by the American intellectual community.
It might be a bit unfair to call the French Existentialists politicians, but they were politically active and often politically motivated. France was the center of political existentialism, as noted in the included history. German philosophers, until World War II, were isolated from daily political struggles. Even during the two world wars, the German philosophers could only imagine the horrors of concentration camps. The French Resistance, meanwhile, was the refuge of some of France’s leading thinkers.
There is certainly nothing in Existential thought itself which necessitates political engagement, although it can certainly be argued, especially in the Sartrean line of thought, that 'to exist' is 'to act', is to be engaged in a manner with the world and others and is therefore not like Kierkegaard's view of existence as a deepening inwardness which has the result of removing the individual from the public realm.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 12
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, recognized as the two most influential 20th-century existential writers, were both active in the French Resistance. Camus had been politically active in his native Algeria. Camus had been born into poverty. As a result, he was drawn into socialist groups while attending college. Sartre, in comparison, was more political after World War II. His family’s prominent social standing had isolated him from most political matters. The war galvanized these two men into activists. Sartre became a leading defender of the Soviet Union for a time, while Camus promoted what he called “humanistic socialism” or socialism with compassion.
It was over political stances that Camus and Sartre fell out, and Sartre is often seen as abandoning Existentialism for socialism. It is Sartre again who articulates the difficulty his brand of intellectual finds when it comes to committing to political activity; it is dramatized in a number of his creative pieces, for example the play Dirty Hands (1948), The Roads to Freedom novel trilogy (1945-9), and in his essay ‘Search for a Method’ (1957) which had originally begun as a piece on the situation of Existentialism in the latter half of the 1950s.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 14
Other thinkers associated with existentialism also shifted towards political affairs at the expense of academic philosophical pursuits. The shift from primarily philosophical to primarily political concerns among the “original” existentialists was completed by de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir in her novel The Blood of Others (1945) explores the relationship between individual authenticity and our being-in-the-world-with-others. The significance of choice and freedom is all the more dramatic for being set among the French Resistance in the Second World War and so the choices facing the individual are political. For de Beauvoir there is the inescapable fact that when we choose for ourselves we choose for others, to the point where we may be responsible for the deaths of others. With her book The Second Sex (1949), however, she too began to move away from a more central Existentialist perspective to a primarily political one. In the narrative that puts Sartre and others closely associated with him at the centre of Existentialism, it is indeed politics which brings about the end of that particular driving force.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 14
European texts as well as the writings of Marx and Lenin help clarify communism and socialism as understood by the political existentialists. The writings of Camus, Sartre, and other existentialists who claimed to be either Communist Party supporters or socialists add to this understanding.
The American public has been taught that the “real” definition of Marism is communal living. This is not the case in most writings contemporary to Karl Marx himself. In 1847, Marx explained to the Communist League of London that a strong central power was needed to manage the production and distribution of goods for the benefit of all. Marx abandoned Engels’ idea that utopia was all working for each other, with no central structure.
Marx stated that a dictatorship was a step toward the “classless” society, stating in 1852 that “class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Remember that Marx’s famous quote, from about 1880, is “I am not a Marxist,” referring to the misinterpretation of his writings.
Marx would have, in fact, considered the Soviet Union a Marxist nation, in that he defined Marxism in his letters as a belief that a few men can and should decide issues for the masses, freeing them from the problems of capitalism. In other words, Marx thought it honorable that some men would sacrifice their freedom to worry about the business of production, leaving the masses equal and free to pursue their interests. Marx was asked what these men would do if everyone wanted to go fishing when the society needed wheat. His answer was to state that Marxism was not freedom to do anything, but freedom from things, such as worries about money, food, and shelter.
In other words, sacrifice your freedom to do things in favor of a freedom from things. That is, in its simplest form, the promise that Marx, not necessarily Engels, saw in a single-party, dictatorial government. His biggest concerns were the basics of life. This makes sense, as he saw that European culture was very exclusive, with the poor always worrying about basic needs. Communism has come to mean Marxism, which his own writings indicate was not a utopian society in which men were free to do as they wanted. Only his early writings were so idealistic as to dream of worker-owners. By the 1850s, Marx was an authoritarian. Lenin and Stalin took these later writings to justify killing “enemies of the state.”
Camus and Sartre, both originally supporters of Marxist ideas, used their fame as writers of fiction to promote their ideals. The metaphysicians would have avoided most direct political engagement. Camus accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, considering it a tool to argue for human rights. Curiously, Sartre, who loved to be the center of attention, refused to accept the award in 1964. His public refusal probably attracted more attention for him.
Public perception of existentialism was furthered (and tainted) by the political existentialists. For many Americans, the existentialists are Sartre and Camus, with Nietzsche symbolizing an even darker image.