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Existentialism in Context
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Existential Primer

Existentialism exists within two important contexts: the history of philosophy and the history of humanity. Existentialism appears radical compared to other schools of thought, but it borrows from previous philosophical schools. Just as important, existentialism developed in the face of absurdity: European wars and suffering during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Continental tradition, to which existentialism belongs, embraces history and its effects on humanity, while at the same time rejecting any deterministic quality to history. We are free to reject, change, and forge new histories.

Once the human being has been located as a finite subject embedded in an ultimately contingent network of history, culture, and society, then one can begin to understand a feature common to many philosophers in the Continental tradition, namely the demand that things be otherwise. If human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways. This is the demand for a transformative practice of philosophy, art, poetry, or thinking that would be capable of addressing, criticizing, and ultimately redeeming the present. The demand, then, that runs through much Continental thought and which continues to inspire philosophers like Habermas and Derrida, is that human beings emancipate themselves from their current conditions, which are conditions not amenable to freedom.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Simon Critchley, p. 64

This document emphasized the general historical context of existentialism, not the philosophical context. The Introduction to Existentialism addresses the philsophical context of existentialism.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

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

It has been stated existentialism is uniquely suited to the twentieth century, as if somehow mankind reached a new level of cynicism during the previous century. After all, that is how most view existentialism: a philosophy without hope, without faith. The reality is more complex. Existentialism evolved as a school of philosophy, borrowing from others, while never completely rejecting past ideals.

The idea of writing the history of philosophy with a systematic, argumentative intent has been a very common way of proceeding in the Continental tradition since Hegel’s 1807 masterpiece, Phenomenology of Spirit, which unifies both approaches. One can also find the same approach employed in more contemporary work, such as Jürgen Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1961), and Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967). It is much less common in the Anglo-American tradition.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 32

As with most “modern” philosophies, any student of existentialism must begin with Immanuel Kant, the father of German Idealism. Kant’s works gave rise to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Georg W. F. Hegel. These three successors of Kant — Fichte, Shelling, and Hegel — each attempted to defend faith as logical. These men were influenced by the rise of scientific pursuits and found it necessary to make sense of faith in a Creator. Hegel became the symbol of this philosophical quest to make religious faith reasonable.

Søren Kierkegaard rose to prominence by attacking Hegel, or at least the tradition of defending religious faith as logical. Kierkegaard insisted faith was not logical — and the lack of reason was acceptable. It cannot be “faith” if one tries to establish a logical foundation for religion, according to Kierkegaard. He then went on to define the essence of existentialism: humans suffer a deep anxiety because they cannot be certain of anything, of any meaning. The concepts of anxiety and alienation meld neatly with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche represents what has been called “radical free will” — not only is there no logic to existence, but the truly strong person rises and masters the absurdity of life. For many students, and much of the public, Nietzsche’s words define not only existentialism but also nihilism. Yet Nietzsche does not represent existentialism as it was later defined by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sartre’s existentialism drew from Martin Heidegger, who in turn based much of his work upon those of his mentor, Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. As existentialism was formalized by Sartre, one finds the logic of phenomenology with some Hegelian overtones merged with the radical individualism found in Nietzsche. Existentialism is a paradox, as Sartre came to describe it: an attempt to live logically in a universe that is ultimately absurd. Though “existential” scholars often deny it, without Hegel or the rush to science during the nineteenth century, Sartre’s existentialism would not exist.

How much should Existentialism be regarded and perhaps judged as a social movement? It is unusual for a philosophy to attract so directly a following for its ideas from people who would perhaps otherwise have no interest in philosophy. The typical image of an Existentialist as clad all in black, drinking coffee and smoking on the Paris Left bank has endured, though by all accounts the emergence of the stereotypical Existential figure was something of a surprise to de Beauvoir and other Existentialists of the time (MacDonald, 2000: 5). From 1945 to the 1960s was its heyday, as popular versions of it chimed perfectly with increasing individualism and the concomitant anti-establishment attitudes of those decades, particularly with the counter-culture movements of the Beats in the 1950s and the hippy movement of the 1960s, once it had moved outside mainland Europe.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, pp. 8-9

History and Tradition

Husserl and Heidegger both called on their readers to remember history and tradition. However, this was not meant to be empty nostalgia for European history. Instead, this was a call to critically examine and reflect upon the history of Europe. The evaluation of history and cultural traditions should be a confrontation with our histories, potentially (and likely) an uncomfortable experience. We should see the flaws of our philosophical, political, and cultural histories. This recall is not a conservative effort to preserve history, but a radical effort to reform the present and future.

… a critical conception of tradition is what Heidegger calls the Destruktion (de-structuring) or Abbau (dismantling) of the history of metaphysics, words that the young Derrida sought to render into French as deconstruction

Tradition can be said to have two senses.

  1. As something inherited or handed down without questioning or critical interrogation.
  2. As something made or produced through a critical engagement with the first sense of tradition, as an appeal to tradition that is in no way traditional, a radical tradition.
It is this second sense of tradition that is shared… by Husserl and Heidegger. For the later Husserl of the posthumously published Crisis of the European Sciences (1954), the two senses of tradition correspond to the distinction between a sedimented and a reactivated experience of tradition. […] For Husserl, sedimentation consists in the forgetfulness of the origin of a state of affairs.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 69

We must not romanticize history or tradition. Instead, we should recall history precisely, especially the worst aspects of our histories. This applies to science, philosophy, and geopolitical histories. No “memory” of history should be trusted, no account assumed to be reliable. History is a creation, an interpretation of events that must be incomplete and inaccurate because it is a human creation.

World History (Political)

Culturally, there are two major groups of existentialists: the German-Danish and French-Anglo. In addition, the Jewish and Russian cultures have contributed to the philosophy. Many would argue Russian history might be as existential as any work of fiction. The German and French nations have experienced brutal wars (often against each other), plagues, and other sources of misery. The philosophical movement now known as existentialism can be traced from 1789 through 1986, when Simone de Beauvoir died. After experiencing numerous civil disturbances, localized wars, and two world-wide wars, some people in Europe were bound to conclude that life is inherently miserable and irrational. If war is not absurd, nothing is.

Industrial Revolution

For an overview of the early Industrial Revolution and its lasting effects, I suggest T. S. Ashton’s The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830.

The Industrial Revolution altered society in ways we are still attempting to address. From automation to urbanization, the Industrial Revolution altered how we live our lives. It brought us into larger and larger cities, removing us from small, tight-knit communities with deep familial roots. The pace of change, socially and technologically, proved difficult for humanity. We still are adapting, while advancements continue to risk leaving us more alienated from our physical communities.

For Nietzsche, writing In the second half of the nineteenth century, the human race had become decadent and weak. The descent of Western civilization into decadence was a common sentiment in that period, and his writings proposed how a ‘will to power’ could prove a counter to this negative attitude. [...]

For some commentators these views might be explained historically as reactions to industrialization, the ever-growing atomization of society into little more than unthinking work-units.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 20

The Industrial Revolution’s first stage (1760–1830) ended at a time of social upheaval in Europe. Germany was about to unite under under Otto von Bismark, through a series of orchestrated conflicts. Hegel died in 1831, but his works were influential throughout the second movement of the Industrial Revolution, which lasted until approximately 1905.

In the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) marked the second half of the Industrial Revolution, when automation and technology in general captured the public imagination.

Great and Terrible Wars

After two world wars, major conflicts in Asia, and uprising throughout the Middle East and Africa, a generational embrace of a philosophy associated with absurdity might be viewed as inevitable. The psychological affect of turmoil in Europe shaped Continental philosophy in general, and existentialism in particular.

Nor should we forget that after the First World War and again after the Second World War, the question of what could possibly constitute the human race after these catastrophic events was very much to the fore, and so the Existentialism of Sartre and Camus, and the thinking of Heidegger, can sometimes be seen as responses to these major events.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 20

For Sartre, the experience of World War II was transformational. This is not to suggest that everyone in Europe was not affected by the war; surely everyone was affected and many survivors were permanently traumatized. Sartre reevaluated his previous statements on philosophy and literature. After the war, he publicly moved towards Marxism and socialism and away from existentialism. He viewed political activism as a duty after the war.

The experience of the Second World War had given Sartre a sense of social responsibility that, arguably, was lacking or at least ill­developed in his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness (1943). In fact, the existentialists had generally been criticized for their excessive individualism and apparent lack of social conscience.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Thomas R. Flynn, p. 13

The Korean and Vietnam conflicts followed World War II. The absurdity merely continued, despite the obvious horrors of war. There was little new to express about the recklessness of humanity. If anything, we seemed destined to repeat our mistakes until our eventual demise.

Though some suggest that there are modern existential philosophers, they clearly are not prominent figures. In my research, by no means exhaustive since I am one person, I do not know of any major advancements to the school since the 1980s, and that is being generous. Scholars suggest existentialism’s greatest works and lectures were completed by the mid-1940s and everything else is a response to or promotion of those works.

… [W]hat are now considered the major texts had all been published by 1943 with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, or by 1946 if his Existentialism and Humanism is included.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 9.

As I have written in the general introduction, most scholars of philosophy and literature consider existentialism to have been a product of historical events. Though the existentialists sought to find universal “truths” in their experiences (Cooper, p. 13), they are forever associated with the tumult of European upheavals, two world wars, and major geopolitical shifts. Even the scholars resistant to the impulse to cordon off existentialsm admit it is perceived as a symbol of a certain period.

The existentialists’ urge for contemporary relevance fired their social and political commitment. But it also linked them with the problems of their day and invited subsequent generations to view them as having the currency of yesterday’s news.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, preface (p. i)

Today, several individuals are exploring existential psychoanalysis and existential fiction, but they are lacking major influence upon philosophy in general. Though the world is not at peace, existentialism is no longer viewed as offering one of the better explanations for the absurdity of human events. Philosophy has continued to advance, as the Continental tradition suggests it must.

Existential Timeline

This timeline is primarily European, as Europe is the birthplace of Continental philosophy and existentialism.

Historical Events Shaping Existentialism
1770 August 27 G. W. F. Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Swabia.
1776 July 2 Celebrated on The Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence was signed in the United States on 2 July. News was not fast, back then.
1813 War of Liberation. Prussia and other German states drive out the French
1813 May 5 Søren Kierkegaard born in Copenhagen, Denmark.
1814–1815 Congress of Vienna restores the nobility in Germany and reduces the number of recognized states from several hundred to several dozen. The Hapsburg family declares an Austrian Empire.
1821 October 30 Dostoevsky is born in Czarist Russia.
1831 November 13 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel dies.
1834 Prussia forms a tariff union, controlling taxes in most of Germany
1844 October 15 Friedrich Nietzsche born.
1848 The German Liberal Revolutions. The German states agree to formulate a new constitution, with a constitutional monarchy based upon the British model.
1849 Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, refuses to rule a parliamentary government, crushes the Frankfurt Parliament.
1855 November 4 Søren Kierkegaard dies at 42, in Copenhagen.
1859 April 8 Edmund Husserl born.
1862 Prussian Minister-President Otto von Bismarck devises a secret plan to unite Germany.
1864 The war against Denmark, resulting in Danish cession of territories. Austria was aligned with Prussia.
1866 The Seven Weeks’ War. Bismarck creates a dispute with Austria over formerly Danish territories, and attacks Austria.
1867 Bismarck declares the Northern Germany Confederation.
1870–1871 Declaring war on France, Bismarck directs troops through southern Germany. Following the Franco-Prussian War, he declares the southern states are now part of the German Federation.
1871 January 18 The New Reich of Versailles. Prussian King William I named Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany. It should be noted that Otto von Bismarck was actually in charge of the country.
1878 February 8 Martin Buber born in Austria.
1881 January 8 Dostoevsky dies.
1882 Bismarck leads Germany into the Triple Alliance with Austria and Italy.
1883 February 23 Karl Jaspers born in Oldenburg.
1883 July 3 Franz Kafka born in Prague.
1886 August 20 Paul Tillich born in Starzeddel, Germany.
1887 Bismarck negotiates a treaty with Russia.
1888 William II assumes the crown, after a short (few months!) reign by Frederick III.
1889 September 26 Martin Heidegger born.
1890 Bismarck loses control of the Reichstag (parliament) and is asked to resign by William II.
1890 After Bismarck is forced to resign, William II allows the treaty with Russia to lapse. France then forms an alliance with Russia, signing a treaty in 1894.
1905 June 21 Jean-Paul Sartre born in Paris.
1905 October 20 The General Strike of Russia, leading to the formation of the first Soviet in St. Petersburg.
1908 January 9 Simone de Beauvoir born in Paris
1908 March 14 Maurice Merleau-Ponty born.
1913 November 7/8 Albert Camus born in Modovi, French Algeria.
1914 June 28 Assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo signals the start of World War I.
1914 August 1–23 Various European nations formally declare war against each other. Russia and Austria dispute Serbia. Under terms of the Triple Alliance, Germany declares war on Russia. As France has a treaty with Russia, all Europe eventually enters World War I.
1916 January 29 Germans launch an air raid on Paris, using the Zeppelin Fleet.
1917 April 2 America declares war on Germany.
1917 November 7 (October 26, according to old Russian calendar) The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
1917 November 8 Lenin assumes the chair of the Council of People's Commissars.
1918 November The German people force the government to seek a peace treaty. The Kaiser is forced into exile.
1918–1919 Several Communist uprising take place in German states.
1919 The democratic assembly meets in Weimar to form a republic, known as the Weimar Republic. The first group of ministers resign instead of signing the Treaty of Versailles. ending World War I.
1919 June The new Weimar Assembly government is forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, including cession of territories held before the war.
1920 February German Workers’ Party changes its name to the National Socialist Party.
1923 August 10–13 Riots in Germany, lead by unions and National Socialists. The National Socialist Party attempts a coup in Bavaria. Adolf Hitler, their leader is ridiculed for the ridiculous attempt.
1924 June 3 Franz Kafka dies of tuberculosis.
1925 January 16 Trotsky dismissed as chair of people's Military Council.
1926 October Stalin expels Trotsky and Zinoviev from Politburo.
1929 January 31 Trotsky exiled from Soviet Union.
1932 After patiently building support, the National Socialists become the largest party in the Reichstag.
1933 January 30 Reichstag President Paul von Hindenburg names Adolf Hitler his Chancellor (chief executive).
1934 June 30 The socialists demand that the new chancellor implement socialism in Germany. Hitler has their leaders purged from government. More importantly, 150 military leaders from the Sturmabteilung (storm troopers or S.A.) are tried on various false charges and executed, leaving Hitler and the Nazi Party in charge of Germany.
1936 Series of government changes in France, the result of power struggles between the left and moderates.
1936 July 18 Spanish Civil War begins.
1938 April 26 Edmund Husserl dies.
1938 September 7 French government activates all reserve military personnel.
1940 June 14 German troops enter Paris.
1941 December 8, 11 America declares war on Japan, then Germany.
1944 August 25 Allied troops enter Paris. The liberation of France does little to change the instability of the French government.
1946 November 10 French elections are marked by Communist and Socialist gains, leading to a Socialist-Communist coalition government.
1952 May 28 Communists demonstrate in Paris. Communists oppose colonial powers, support North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union. U.S. leaders worry, but there are no major social movements at American universities.
1954 January
– February
The former Allies meet to discuss German autonomy. The Soviet Union vetoes proposed free elections in Germany.
1955 May 5 Occupation of Germany officially ends, but troops remain.
1955 October 2 France withdraws from the United Nations over perceived interference by other nations in the Algerian-French Revolt.
1956 November Soviet intervention in Hungary begins following pro-democracy protests.
1956 December Martial law is declared in Hungary.
1958 December 21 Anti-communist Charles De Gaulle elected president of France, just two months after radical-socialists had formed a coalition government. De Gaulle’s rise is a result of Soviet actions.
1960 January 4 Albert Camus dies in a car accident, outside Sens, France.
1961 May 4 Merleau-Ponty dies.
1962 July 3 Algeria wins independence from France and soon after joins the Arab League.
1969 February 26 Karl Jaspers dies.
1972 May 22 American President Richard Nixon becomes the first President to visit Moscow.
1974 Feb 13 The Soviet Union deports Solzhenitsyn and revokes his Soviet citizenship.
1976 May 26 Martin Heidegger dies.
1978 March 12 In French elections leftists parties win an absolute majority for the first time.
1980 April 15 Jean-Paul Sartre dies in Paris.
1986 April 14 Simone de Beauvoir dies in Paris.


Germany’s history can be viewed as contributing to the evolution of existential thought. Browsing a good history book, it becomes clear that Germany has been attacked and has attacked… repeatedly. The German culture is shaped by war, from Germanic tribal feuds through the Cold War. However, it is the period from 1871 through World War II that shaped most existential thought.

The timeline represents only a fraction of the events within the borders we now know as Germany. The individual most responsible for the rise and fall of Germany during the period outlined is Otto von Bismarck. In order to control Germany from 1862 through 1890, he found enemies first in other nations. Then, once he believed Germany had a reasonable amount of territory, he found liberals and socialists to persecute. To many cynics, it seemed as if Bismarck had no real political ideals, other than the illusion that he alone should rule Germany.

As you might observe in the timeline, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard experienced the rise of a great German culture. Bismarck did bring amazing prosperity to Germany via both war and solid trade policies, which penalized imports in a world market that wanted German goods. Nietzsche’s idea of the superman, a man operating in life with a pure desire for power and excellence, was shaped by Bismarck’s Germany. Hitler would later pervert the philosophical debating point into a belief system.


World War II is the defining event in the history of French existentialism. Before the second war, the French had prided their country as one of the world powers. With expansive colonies, a rich history, and a victorious end to World War I, the French dared to consider their country safe and secure.

A summary of French-German history is as follows: France invades Germany, Germany fights back, Germany attacks out of anger, the French public demands a tougher stance…. And this cycle continues for several hundred years. World War I was as much about Napoleon I as it was about Austria and Serbia.

When World War I ended, the French public demanded that Germany be punished severely. What the French governments and people did not comprehend was that they would be responsible for the instability in Germany that produced Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In effect, the French demands in the Treaty of Versailles placed an unreasonable stress upon the German economy and newly-formed democracy. French hubris once again resulted in German rage.

German expenditures during World War I were ultimately responsible for a weak economy, but the French and allied demands affected German national pride as much as the economy. Germany’s instability was like that throughout European nations — workers were demanding more influence in German, and would later do so in France.

French existentialism was shaped by the experiences and emotions of the French Resistance. Jean- Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others were already socialists. Sartre, however, was not as politically active as other students and teachers he knew. Sartre's years as a student were not spent as an activist, by French standards. Camus was much more political and passionate than Sartre. In part, this might be due to their differing family backgrounds. The war temporarily made members of the French Resistance equal.

The war further aligned the famous French Existentialists with the Soviet Communist Party. While the Soviet Union was eventually seen as The Evil Empire in the United States, the French public never embraced the idea. The Russian army had held the German army in place; any enemy of Germany could not be all bad.

Current Thought

The word “existential” is now applied to postmodern philosophy and social theory. Most people now assume existentialism has been replaced by various social and critical theories, most of those with the name of Marx attached. Jean-Paul Sartre suggested Marxism was the logical successor to existentialism — an attempt to reclaim the individual from capitalistic hegemony.

Some scholars suggest existentialism is historical, a mass emotional depression lasting from the middle of the nineteenth century though the middle of the twentieth. Once Sartre declared existentialism a thing of the past, that was it. Critical theory, postmodernism, and all things Marx rose in stature, fending off the likes of Ayn Rand.


Cooper, David E. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. [0631213228 (hc), 0631213236 (pbk)]

Critchley, Simon. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. [0192853597]

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

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [0192804286]

Complete Bibliography

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