As with most instances when we attempt to group individuals, we fall short when defining who the existentialists were. The philosophies of these men and women are often contradictory. Not only do the thinkers contradict each other, but individuals tend to contradict their own stated beliefs both in writings and in actions.
One problem many students of philosophy encounter with the works of the existential thinkers is an unfamiliar lexicon. Words we think we understand, such as “amoral” or “dialectic,” take on new meanings in existential works.
…[T]hey [existentialists] normally use a technical vocabulary. An introduction to existentialism cannot… serve its purpose without reproducing the arguments and introducing the terminology actually employed by members of the movement.
— An Introduction to Existentialism; Robert G. Olson, p. vii
Why do philosophers, including those associated with existentialism, create their individual lexicons? Doesn’t creating your own vocabulary work against easing any sense of alienation? The goal might be to create a new, “better” lexicon, but that is seldom realized in philosophical texts.
Taken as a whole, the rich texture and density of Existential writing is not an aesthetic affectation; it is part of each philosopher’s attempt to render their thinking and experiences in a way which is a proper realization of those ideas, sensations and events. To speak with a ‘received language’ would be to speak inauthentically. It is natural, then, for each Existential philosopher to create a way of speaking which can be considered unique.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, p. 10
An example illustrates how confusing an existential lexicon can be:
As they stand, these characterizations [of existentialism] are little more than promissory notes. Nor do we progress much further, at this stage, by trawling in some of the further characterizations which many people associate with the existentialist picture of human being. Existence, they will have heard, is a constant striving, a perpetual choice; it is marked by a radical freedom and responsibility; and it is always prey to a sense of Angst which reveals that, for the most part, it is lived inauthentically and in bad faith. And because the character of a human life is never given, existence is without foundation; hence it is abandoned, or absurd even. The reason why recitation of this existentialist lexicon does not, of itself, advance our understanding is that, without exception, these are terms of art. None of them should be taken at face value, and the thinking of Sartre and others is badly misconstrued if they are.
— Existentialism: A Reconstruction; David E. Cooper, pp. 3-4
After answering many questions regarding the language of existentialism, I decided to compile a list of some of the problematic terms. Existentialism’s lexicon is complicated by translation from German, French, and Russian to English. It truly is a language twice removed from the experiences of most young students.
Beginning to read Existential thought can soon feel like struggling with a foreign language (although the same might be said of other philosophies). […] Some words are familiar yet have special (‘technical’) meanings for Existentialism, such as ‘anxiety’ and ‘the absurd’, and others are actual foreign words and phrases, such as ‘Dasein’ and ‘mauvaise foi.’ Understanding in such circumstances demands a frequent looping back, returning to the same idea a number of times as more commentary becomes available.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 26
You can jump directly to the lexicon or read some definitions of existentialism. I suggest reading the complete introduction at least once, then using the lexicon as a reference later. I also have included additional definitions of existentialism within the Exist List FAQ.
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
Though existentialism is a term applied loosely to a range of philosophies, there are unifying themes in the writings of the existentialists. Dictionaries and first-year philosophy texts offer simple definitions of existentialism:
The doctrine that existence takes precedence over essence and holding that man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of dread and anguish that encompass mankind.
— Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition; William Collins Publishers, Inc.; Cleveland, Ohio; 1979
A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.
— American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation.
Existentialism is largely a revolt against traditional European philosophy, which reached its climax during the late 1700s and early 1800s in the impressive systems of the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Traditional philosophers tended to consider philosophy as a science. They tried to produce principles of knowledge that would be objective, universally true, and certain. The existentialists reject the methods and ideals of science as being improper for philosophy. They argue that objective, universal, and certain knowledge is an unattainable ideal.
Existentialism became influential in the mid-1900s. World War II (1939–1945) gave rise to widespread feelings of despair and of separation from the established order. These feelings led to the idea that people have to create their own values in a world in which traditional values no longer govern. Existentialism insists that choices have to be made arbitrarily by individuals, who thus create themselves, because there are no objective standards to determine choice. The most famous of the Existentialist philosophers is the French author Jean-Paul Sartre.
- World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Existentialism as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre can be traced to phenomenology. Simplistic definitions of phenomenology imply philosophers have no interest in “reality” and science as we have come to know the universe in the last century.
Phenomenology was developed by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl conceived the task of Phenomenology, hence the task of philosophy, as describing phenomena — the objects of experience — accurately and independently of all assumptions derived from science. He thought that this activity would provide philosophic knowledge of reality.
— World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
More accurately, phenomenology is less a rejection of science, which undoubtedly improved life as much as it threatened to destroy it, than it is an embracing of the human emotional experience of life. Phenomenologists suggest what we experience matters more to our decisions than how the experience can be scientifically analyzed.
Phenomenology: modern school of philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl. Its influence extended throughout Europe and was particularly important to the early development of existentialism. Husserl attempted to develop a universal philosophic method, devoid of presuppositions, by focusing purely on phenomena and describing them; anything that could not be seen, and thus was not immediately given to the consciousness, was excluded. The concern was with what is known, not how it is known. The phenomenological method is thus neither the deductive method of logic nor the empirical method of the natural sciences; instead it consists in realizing the presence of an object and elucidating its meaning through intuition.
— The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. © 2002 by Columbia University Press
Existentialism and phenomenology are known as “Continental philosophies” by students of philosophy. The “continent” refers to Western Europe, to the exclusion of the United Kingdom. Philosophical studies conducted in the United States of America and the United Kingdom are “analytic philosophies,” featuring a focus on logic, linguistics, and science. Continental philosophies tend to be more metaphysical, emotional, and political.
Continental philosophy: A cluster of 20th-century European philosophical movements that view themselves as continuing the legacy of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger and include phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, structuralism, and deconstructionism, especially as contrasted with analytic philosophy.
— The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Theological Existentialism, dominated in literature by Christian Existentialism, is not concerned with proving the religious beliefs of any particular faith. Instead, existential theologians concentrate on how individuals choose religion.
Existential theologians do not try to base religion on rational demonstration. They argue that the problem of religious belief is not a problem involving proof or disproof, but a decision, which, like other human decisions, must be made separately by each individual in the absence of conclusive evidence. The existentialist’s interest in religion is primarily an interest in human religious experience.
— World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
This lexicon is based upon several works. On 22 June 2003, I located a copy of the out-of-print text, The New Dictionary of Existentialism, by St. Elmo Nauman, Jr. I want to thank The Book Haven in Monterey, Calif., for being such a wonderful store. Nauman’s work was discontinued in 1972. It was the third text I purchased at Book Haven while on vacation, because textbooks are light reading.
Use of NDE indicates definitions borrowed from Nauman’s work. As the work is unlikely to return to print, I am being somewhat liberal in my interpretation of “fair use” while giving credit to the author. Minor errors from the dictionary are recreated; I minimized editing to preserve the text.
abandonment - The consequence of individualism. A metaphysical isolation according to which each individual must ultimately fall back upon his or her own resources.
abstraction - (from NDE) (Latin ab: from + trahere: to remove; to remove from) Existentialists criticize idealistic philosophy for its abstract character, for having abstracted thought from life. Believing that no definition of reality can substitute reality for itself, existentialists seek to avoid abstraction. Existential thinkers recommend abstraction as a kind of synonym for “reflection,” that is, as the opposite of an entirely unreflective life, a life lived on the sensual level of pleasure.
Karl Jaspers writes that the correct degree of abstraction is necessary to prevent blind attachment to hedonism or utopianism. When the correct degree of abstraction is attained, the individual will engage himself in the tasks of the world, accepting life without illusion, accepting conflict, suffering, death, and be able to go forward with hope.
absurd - (from NDE) (Latin absurdus: unheard of) The absurd is viewed either (as with Kierkegaard) as the positive basis for the acceptance of authentic reality, or (as with Sartre) as the negative basis for the rejection of a religious view of the world.
Karl Jaspers rejects the absurd as defined and celebrated by Kierkegaard. Such absurdity is an indication of the bankruptcy of modern Christianity, Protestant and Catholic.
Albert Camus began with the declaration that the world was absurd and meaningless. Refusing to be defeated by such a reality, he celebrated the joy of what he called “the invincible summer” within.
absurdism - The belief nothing can explain or rationalize human existence. There is no answer to “Why am I?” Human beings exist in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them into direct conflict with this universe.
Actaeon Complex - (from NDE) (Greek Aktaion: mythological character who watched Artemis bathe. He was changed into a stag, then killed by his own dogs.) The term used by Sartre in Being and Nothingness to indicate the totality of images which show that knowing is a form of appropriative volition with overtones of sexuality.
aesthetical - (from NDE) (Greek aisthetikos: sensitive) Kierkegaard used “aesthetical” in a technical way in his thought. The aesthetical is the first “stage on life’s way,” or “sphere of existence.” The aesthetical is that sphere of existence in which a person lives rather aimlessly, seeking pleasure.
Aesthetics, literature, poetics, drama, and music were important to the existentialists. Drama is a common subject, thanks to Hegel (existentialists critique Hegel frequently) and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Camus and Sartre were playwrights, recognizing that art reaches more people than dry philosophy.
agnosticism - The uncertain beliefs of many existentialists, agnostics claim one cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity. Existential agnostics tend to claim they do not care if there is or is not a supreme deity.
alienation - A state of divided selfhood in which one is distanced from one’s true being and confronts the self as an alien being.
anarchy - Absence of any form of political authority. Most existentialists consider all individuals equal politically. Notice political equality is not equated with any other form of measure. Inequities are inevitable, but existentialists believe politics should not produce these differences. Anarchy is not chaos, but the result of social evolution.
anguish - (from NDE) (Latin angere to tighten, choke) One of the key terms in existential philosophy, anguish (or dread) reveals the character of human life and illuminates the nature of the world. In Kierkegaard’s conception, dread (Angest) is not fear, caused by some external threat. Rather, dread is an inward passion, either a continuous melancholy or a sudden and terrifying emotion.
Sartre treats anguish (angoises) as the reflective apprehension of the Self as freedom. Anguish is the realization that a nothingness slips in between my Self and my past and future so that nothing relieves me from the necessity of continually choosing myself and nothing guarantees the validity of the values which I choose.
Jaspers, differing from Sartre, defines anguish (Angst) as “the dizziness and shudder of freedom confronting the necessity of making a choice.” As he develops his thought, anguish is experienced in those ultimate situations, such as before death, in which Existenz faces its most extreme limits.
As one of Dasein’s possibilities of Being, anxiety — together with Dasein itself as disclosed in it — provides the phenomenal basis for explicitly grasping Dasein’s primordial totality of Being. — Heidegger, Being and Time
The normal, existential anxiety of guilt drives the person toward attempts to avoid this anxiety (usually called the uneasy conscience) by avoiding guilt. … The moralistic self-defense of the neurotic makes him see guilt where there is no guilt or where one is guilty in a very indirect way. — Tillich, The Courage to Be
amoral - To reject the ethical system of a community; to develop an independent ethical system. Do not confuse “amoral” in existentialism for “without morality.” Much like anarchy, the concept is misunderstood and misapplied to existentialists.
atheism - Possessing no belief in an omnipotent deity, or finding no need to ponder the existence of a deity. For some, atheism implies the denial a deity exists, as opposed to non-belief. Existential atheism is an active debate, not to be confused with agnosticism.
authentic - To be true. If something is “authentic” it is exactly as named or described. According to some thinkers, nothing is authentic. Because people evolve and alter their essence, people cannot be authentic for more than an instant, frozen in time.
Bad Faith - A lie, especially to the self. Self-deception, the paradox of lying to the self, usually in an attempt to escape the responsibility of being an individual. The extreme example cited by existentialists is, “I was only following orders.” Any denial of free will is an example of bad faith. Sartre believed all moments of Bad Faith (Mauvaise Foi) were self-evident, contradicting many psychologists.
being (from NDE) In general philosophical usage, being is that which “is,” without qualification. According to Spinoza, being is both the source and the ultimate subject of all distinctions. According to Hegel, being contains non-being within itself and is the source of the cosmic process which leads to the synthetic union of being and non-being in becoming.
If being… is understood as empirical being, truth is at once transformed into a desideratum, and everything must be understood in terms of becoming; for the empirical object is unfinished and the existing cognitive spirit is itself in process of becoming. — Kierkegaard (Johannes Climacus), Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
Being is not produced by us; it is not mere interpretation… Rather, by its own impetus, it causes us to interpret and will not permit our interpretation ever to be satisfied. — Jaspers, The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers
Being has nonbeing “within” itself as that which is eternally present and eternally overcome in the process of the divine life. — Tillich, The Courage to Be
[CSW: I find these self-referencing definitions problematic. Definitions should not form loops, otherwise dictionaries are useless.]
Being-for-Itself - Sartre’s terms for sentient existence, namely human existence. A form of consciousness that entertains itself as possibility rather than as terminal fact. The recognition that a being can change itself.
Being-for-Others - The act of existing as an object external to other beings. We all exist in a state of being-for-others at various moments.
Being-in-Itself - Reality prior to human intervention. What is, without mankind.
Being-in-Itself-for-Itself - An impossible form of being attributed to God. A completely realized existence while at the same time a void waiting to be filled… complete freedom.
Being-in-the-Midst - A form of bad faith in which one chooses the self merely as an inert presence, as a thing. In other words, the treatment of the self as without the ability to change freely.
Being-in-the-World - Choosing the self as a sentient, real being as manifested by thoughts, actions, and meaning. This is the existential existence, recognizing that at least in humans existence does precede essence. Being-in-the-World is a contrast to Being-in-the-Midst.
collective - Any organized set of human relationship, however temporary. According to Sartre, any collective exists only for brief instants. “We” is not the natural state of humans, who think in terms of individuality.
concepts - General ideas that represent a “class” of objects with common traits. (Object-oriented thinking, in programming terms.) Any descendent object inherits traits of previous members, therefore a concept applying to previous members applies to the new object.
conscience - (from NDE) (Latin conscientia: feeling, knowledge) Existentialists are divided in their view of conscience. Some consider conscience to be the moral voice within the individual, helpful and necessary. Others believe conscience to be the product of society and thus completely relative.
conscious - All choices are conscious choices, according to Sartre. In existentialism, every choice is made aware of the consequences. There is no “subconscious” for in Sartre’s early works on psychology. Choices are made and denying a memory is an act of Bad Faith — a lie to the self.
Dasein - (from NDE) (German Dasein: being there) Dasein literally means “Being there,” or, in other words, being in a particular place. Hence Dasein is used to mean human existence.
In traditional German philosophy, Dasein was used in a general way to stand for almost any kind of Being or existence which something has, for example, the existence of God. In common usage, Dasein was used to stand for the kind of existence which belongs to persons.
death - (from NDE) (Indo-European dheu: to become senseless) One of the preoccupations of existential philosophy, death for Sartre proves the absurdity of life. Existential thinkers on the whole are concerned to define and interpret death properly so that man is encouraged to face death with reckless freedom, embracing its absurdity yet not permitting death to rob life of all meaning and freedom.
The thought of death can give rise to the fear of not living authentically. One glimpse of the void within and without, and we take refuge in ceaseless activity, eschewing reflection. But the secret restlessness remains. The life force delivers us from it only in appearance; only the sheer force of the thought of death itself frees us in truth. It affirms that other than merely vital significance of man: the eternal weight of his love. Peace in the face of death springs from the awareness of what no death can take away. — Jaspers, Philosophy Is for Everyman
When Heidegger speaks about the anticipation of one’s own death it is not the question of immortality which concerns him but the questions of what the anticipation of death means for the human situation. — Tillich, The Courage to Be
despair - (from NDE) (Latin de + spes: without hope) For existential thinkers, particularly Kierkegaard, despair is one of the most significant human emotions which provides the spur to fruitful thought about the nature of the human condition. Tillich later repeats the same estimate, adding the qualification that the emotion of despair itself is not necessarily experienced by all or even the majority of people.
All human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. — Tillich, The Courage to Be
dialectic - Process associated with Hegel of discovering truth by stating a thesis, developing a contradictory antithesis, and combining and resolving them into a coherent synthesis. The Marxian process of change through the conflict of opposing forces, whereby a given contradiction is characterized by a primary and a secondary aspect, the secondary succumbing to the primary, which is then transformed into an aspect of a new contradiction.
ego - Used by Sartre to describe self-acknowledgment. This is not the Freudian ego, but rather a consciousness of self in the world.
epistemology - A branch of philosophy dedicated to scientific studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity.
epoché - The act of suspending interpretation and judgment in order to better study the actual structure and content of an object or phenomena. A term from phenomenology.
essence - The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things. Phenomenology and existentialism aim to observe the essence of objects. In existentialism, one’s essence is his or her role in the universe. This essence changes constantly with each decision made.
ethics - In existential works, ethics refers to a system, a formalized method for determining “right and wrong” in any situation. Morals are practices dictated by probability, producing a conformity of behavior among a community.
existence - The state of being, usually in the material, scientific sense. In existentialism, the existence of a person does not define the individual; the individual is defined by his or her actions and thoughts.
(from NDE) (Latin existere: to stand forth) Existential thinkers write of existence as it is in its factuality as opposed to idealistic philosophy (such as Hegelianism) which equated essence with existence to the detriment of existence. Passion and responsibility are two of the most significant aspects of existence as viewed by Kierkegaard and Sartre.
existentialism - (You skipped the introduction, didn’t you? Scroll back and read this page completely.) The doctrine that among sentient beings, especially humanity, existence takes precedence over essence and holding that man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of dread and anguish that encompass mankind.
An existential system is impossible. An existential system cannot be formulated. Does this mean that no such system exists? By no means; nor is this implied in our assertion. Reality itself is a system — for God; but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit. System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality. — Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
Existential Vacuum - (from NDE) The psychological condition in which a person doubts that life has any meaning. This new neurosis is characterized by loss of interest and lack of initiative. According to Viktor Frankl, the existential vacuum is apparently a concomitant of industrialization. When neither instinct nor social tradition direct man toward what he ought to do, soon he will not even know what he wants to do, and the existential vacuum results.
Because of social pressure, individualism is rejected by most people in favor of conformity. Thus the individual relies mainly upon the actions of others and neglects the meaning of his own personal life. Hence he sees his own life as meaningless and falls into the “existential vacuum” feeling inner void. Progressive automation causes increasing alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, and suicide. — Frankl speaking.
facticity - Those features of reality that cannot be transformed. Many things are not controlled by anyone, especially in nature and science. Sartre recognized these external factors, to which sentient beings can only respond.
freedom - The condition leading to both human accomplishment and anguish. I differ from existentialists in that I support the “freedom to” while Sartre and his socialist colleagues supported a “freedom from” certain conditions. I worry that we sacrifice our freedom to do things and express thoughts in return for “freedoms from” various concerns.
(from NDE) (Anglo-Saxon freo: not in bondage, noble) Man is essentially free and not determined by any external factor whatever, according to existential thought. Jean-Paul Sartre has formulated the most radical doctrine of freedom in the history of western thought. Accordingly, no limit to human freedom is admitted, neither temporal nor divine.
Sartre wants men to accept their own absolute responsibility for their lives. Thus he opposes any reliance upon the divine. All of man’s alibis are unacceptable: no gods are responsible for man’s condition, no original sin, no heredity or environment, no race, no caste, no father, no mother, no wrong-headed education, no impulse or disposition, no complex, no childhood trauma. Man is completely free. Man is condemned to be free.
Our description of freedom, since it does not distinguish between choosing and doing, compels us to abandon at once the distinction between the intention and the act. The intention can no more be separated from the act than thought can be separated from the language which expresses it. — Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility — that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them. — Heidegger, Being and Time
[CSW: Can anyone untangle Heidegger? His writings are as clear as a legal filing.]
fused group - A collective formed by a spontaneous common social goal or aspiration. Unfortunately, most fused groups are merely mobs.
future - Existentialists focus their lives on the future, always attempting to become more, to learn more, to experience more of life. Life, being, is the process of becoming; this means the future is how men define themselves. We act and think looking forward. The future is why we do things.
god / God - (from NDE) (Unknown origin, goth or guth: to call out) Existential philosophers are divided into atheistic and theistic schools of thought, according to Sartre. The atheistic existentialists are Nietzsche, Sartre and the French school of existentialism, and Heidegger. The theistic existentialists are Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Tillich. More important than this formal division is each thinker’s conception of God and the place assigned to God within his thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the “death of God,” by which he meant the loss of the culture’s base values.
Jean-Paul Sartre, who also speaks of the death of God, means that it is necessary for man to invent his own values, to freely choose oneself as an image of man for all men.
Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.
Existentialism is not atheistic in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that it would make no difference from its point of view. — Sartre, essay: “Existentialism”
The best proof of the soul’s immortality, that God exists, etc., actually is the impression once received thereof in childhood, namely the proof which, differing from the many learned and grandiloquent proofs, could be summarized thus: It is absolutely true, because my father told me so. — Kierkegaard, The Diary
good - (from NDE) (Sanskrit gadh: to hold fast, fit) The individual is the only center for the choice of the good. No rules or commandments or laws have any ethical significance unless they are chosen by the individual. This choice is completely free. Man is free to choose his own nature. Man alone is responsible to choose what he is to become, and this is his choice alone. Objective advice on moral matters cannot be given, as choice and value are subjective.
Nobody, up to now, has doubted that the “good” man represents a higher value than the “evil,” in terms of promoting and benefiting mankind generally, even taking the long view. But suppose the exact opposite were true. What if the “good” man represents not merely a retrogression but even a danger, a temptation, a narcotic drug enabling the present to live at the expense of the future? More comfortable, less hazardous, perhaps, but also baser, more petty — so that morality itself would be responsible for man, as a species, failing to reach the peak of magnificence of which he is capable? What if morality should turn out to be the danger of dangers? — Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
Sartre’s definition of the good vary with his three major works. [CSW: What is good to Sartre and the French movement is that which preserves freedom. Unfortunately, preserving freedom is not a clear matter. Sartre was not bothered by inconsistency. He shifted his beliefs and arguments throughout his life.] In the first, Being and Nothingness (1943), he argues that one man’s freedom represents a hopeless obstacle to another’s. In the second, Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), he argues that it is impossible for one to choose one’s own freedom without thereby choosing freedom for others as well. In the third, Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), the viewpoint is that experience shows each individual that he is capable of inventing the world in “praxis,” which proceeds by means of a dialectical struggle to replace the present by a future which is foreseen.
Historical Materialism - (from NDE) Jean-Paul Sartre’s term explaining part of his attitude toward Marxism. The only view of dialectical materialism which makes sense is historical materialism, that is, materialism viewed from inside the history of man’s relation with matter.
history - (from NDE) History, according to existential thinking, is the precondition of human knowledge.
Sartre used the term historicize: (from NDE) To have a history, in the sense of becoming involved as a person in the actual world. Sartre seems to say that the individual can choose to have a history.
All the Existential philosophers agree on the historical character of immediate personal experience. But the fact that man has a fundamentally “historical Existence” does not mean merely that he has a theoretical interest in the past; his Existence is not directed toward the past at all. It is the attitude not of the detached spectator, but of the actor who must face the future and make personal decisions. — Tillich, Theology of Culture
hope - (from NDE) Kierkegaard, in recounting the Abraham story, says that it was necessary for Abraham to have renounced everything, to have given up all hope that things were going to turn out all right in the end, before anything divine could happen to him.
[CSW: I’m sure Isaac would have appreciated a bit of hope. But hope is not the same as loyalty and faith. What God asks of us, no matter how odd, is what we must do in Kierkegaard’s view.]
Human Nature - (from NDE) There is no settled human nature, according to existentialism. Because the will is more basic than the reason, the choice the individual makes of his own nature is more basic than the rational analysis of that nature.
ideal - (from NDE) An important concept for Kierkegaard’s later thought. As he sought to apply his concepts to social and religious conditions, he made extensive use of the category of the ideal. Not defined, it was considered a self-evident idea, the ideal being contrasted with the actual.
The ideal means hatred of man. What man naturally loves is finitude. To face him with the ideal is the most dreadful torture. Certainly, when the ideal is produced in the most exalted poetic fashion, like an enchanting vision of the imagination, he accepts this pleasure. … (¶) But when the ideal is produces as the ethico-religious demand, it is the most dreadful torture of man. — Kierkegaard, The Last Years
All ideals of man are impossible, because man’s potentialities are infinite. There can be no perfect man. This has important philosophical consequences.
Conscious of his freedom, man desires to become what he can and should be. He conceives an ideal of his nature. As on the plane of cognition, the idea of man as an object of scientific inquiry may lead to a falsely definitive image of him, so on the plane of freedom he may falsely choose a path leading to an absolute ideal. From helpless questioning and bewilderment, he thus aspires to take refuge in a universal that he can imitate in its concrete forms. — Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy
immortality - (from NDE) This topic, of tremendous interest to the history of western philosophy in general, if of little interest to Existentialism. … Most Existentialists prefer to discuss and analyze the present and the immediate future rather than the transcendent reality of a supernatural world-view.
The philosophical idea of the natural immortality of the soul deduced from its substantiality leads nowhere. It ignores the fact of death and denies the tragedy of it. — Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man
We are mortal as mere empirical beings, immortal when we appear in time as that which is eternal. We are mortal when we are loveless, immortal as lovers. We are mortal in indecision, immortal in resolution. We are mortal as natural processes, immortal when given to ourselves in freedom. — Jaspers, Philosophy Is for Everyman
individual - (from NDE) One of the key Existential themes, originating with Kierkegaard, expressing the opposition to idealism, to any tyranny whether rational or legal over the right of the existing person to choose the course and nature of his own life.
The individual is opposed to universal laws, norms, necessities; untragically, he represents mere willfulness opposing the law; tragically, he represents the genuine exception which, though opposing the law, yet has truth on his side. — Jaspers, Tragedy Is Not Enough
The very term “individual” points to the interdependence of self-relatedness and individualization. A self-centered being cannot be divided. It can be destroyed, or it can be deprived of certain parts out of which new self-centered beings emerge… Man not only is completely self-centered; he also is completely individualized. — Tillich, Systematic Theology
The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. — Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism
in-itself - (from NDE) (French en-soi) Sartre’s term for non-conscious reality, as contrasted with conscious reality, or the being of the human person (being-for-itself).
knowledge - (from NDE) For Kierkegaard, the term knowledge was ambiguous. If it meant the Hegelian attempt to understand the world and man in completely rational terms, then it represented the idealistic system which Existential thinking completely opposed.
That is, Kierkegaard believed that it is impossible to base faith upon knowledge, especially knowledge about historical events. Knowledge cannot provide certainty, not for the existing individual, and it is a fatal distraction for the individual to attempt to ground his faith in knowledge.
Knowledge and Becoming exclude each other. Consequently knowledge must signify something different. A “will to make recognizable” must precede it; a special kind of becoming, man, must have created the deception of Being. — Nietzsche, Will to Power
Man… lost the power of knowing real being… lost access to reality and was reduced to studying knowledge. One cannot arrive at being — one can only start with it. — Nicolas Berdyaev, Solitude and Society
Knowing is a form of union. In every act of knowledge the knower and that which is known are united; the gap between subject and object is overcome. The subject “grasps” the object, adapts it to itself, and, at the same time, adapts itself to the object. But the union of knowledge is a peculiar one; it is a union through separation. Detachment is the condition of cognitive union. In order to know, one must “look” at a thing, and, in order to look at a thing, one must be “at a distance.” — Tillich, Systematic Theology
law - (from NDE) (Norman laq: due place) Every law is a tyranny over the living man. As an objective and universal thing, law seeks to control the individual and impair his freedom. The particular view taken of law by the various Existential thinkers will depend on their view of the more general term, “good.”
The ethics of law is the expression of herd morality. It organizes the life of the average man, of the human herd, and leaves altogether out of account the creative human personality which rises above the common level. It deals with personality in the abstract; the concrete person does not exist for it. — Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man
[CSW: Complying with laws is a choice. Ideally, the existentialist tries to balance the need for individual freedom with order in a society.]
With us, law is no longer custom, it can only command and be compulsion; none of us any longer possesses a traditional sense of justice; we must therefore content ourselves with arbitrary laws, which are the expressions of the necessity that there must be law. The most logical is then in any case the most acceptable, because it is the most impartial, granting even that in every case the smallest unit of measure in the relation of crime and punishment is arbitrarily fixed. — Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human
Logotherapy - (from NDE) In Existential psychology, the term for Dr. Viktor Frankl’s therapy. The theory states that the spiritual aspects of the distressed individuals require treatment rather than the physical symptoms. Thus it is names Logotherapy, from the Greek word “logos,” which is “word,” “meanings,” or “spiritual.”
Thus, logotherapy is a personalistic psychotherapy which does not concern itself primarily with symptoms, but rather tries to bring about a change in orientation with respect to the symptoms. The therapeutic aim of logotherapy is to make the individual aware of him purpose in life and to bring him to a fuller understanding of it.
Logotherapy is based on the observation that uncertainty about life’s meaning is one of the most important causes of emotional problems in the world today.
love - (from NDE) (Old English lëof: dear, or Latin lubere) Jaspers writes that one of the elements of philosophical faith is “love as the fundamental actualization of the eternal man.” To this end, a sympathy must be maintained even for those forms of knowledge, such as myths, which have been rejected by philosophy.
Mythological categories contain a truth that strikes us with irresistible evidence when the chaff is separated from the grain. To ignore this truth is to impoverish one’s soul, to create a vacuum. A man who has lost his ear for such language seems no longer capable of love. For if the transcendent has become entirely nonsensuous, it no longer holds for him an object of love. — Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy
Love is always love; that is its static and absolute side. But love is always dependent on that which is loved, and therefore it is unable to force finite elements on finite existence in the name of an assumed absolute. The absoluteness of love is its power to go into the concrete situation, to discover what is demanded by the predicament of the concrete to which it turns. Therefore, love can never become fanatical in a fight with an absolute, or cynical under the impact of the relative. — Tillich, Systematic Theology
man - (from NDE) (Sanscrit manu) Existentialists form their view of man by beginning with the fact that the individual is always the existent-in-the-world, already in encounter. Generally speaking, they hold that there is no such thing as a pure subject. [CSW: Man, in this view, is whatever he chooses to be, not merely a physical entity, but a collection of actions and interactions.]
Kierkegaard’s view of man can be viewed as similar to that of the classical Greek philosophers. Man is a unit composed of three parts: the soul, the body, and the spirit, or self. By “soul” he means the intellect or reason. By “body” he means sense-perceptions or sensuousness, the Danish masking an ambiguity. By “spirit” or “self” he means the self-consciousness or will.
To know what man is, is the only knowledge that is possible for us, for we are men ourselves — and that alone is essential — for man is the measure of all things. — Jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy
Marxism - (from NDE) In his later thought, Sartre tends to see the ethical and political completion of existentialism in Marxism. This Marxism is a Marxism of a special kind, namely one which is purged of such “nineteenth-century anachronisms” as determinism, and one which incorporates the humanizing influences of existentialism with its regard for the existing individual. The conflict between individuals, rather than being due to the nature of the universe, is instead due to economic scarcity. When scarcity is overcome, conflict will also, in principle, be cured.
[CSW: Marxism is a return to German Idealism or even the Enlightenment notion that mankind could achieve peace and some form of utopia. This idealism is counter to existentialism, in that it removes the challenges of life from existence.]
morality - Doing as the powerful in a society or social system dictate. If one believes in a deity, that deity is the most powerful entity in existence, so its rules must be followed in order to be moral.
nausea - (from NDE) (Greek nausia: illness) The title of Sartre’s famous novel of solipsistic despair, and the name Sartre uses for man’s reaction in experiencing the absurd world. Both the physical world and the realization of their own uselessness give men the feeling of revulsion which Sartre calls nausea.
Necessary Being - The rationalistic explanation of a deity; a being that cannot not exist due to the paradox created. Many existentialists have faith, therefore they believe in a being or intellect preceding all other existence. Sartre viewed the paradox as evidence there was no Creator.
nihilism - Often viewed as "amoral" by some, nihilism is amoral in the existential sense. Nihilism is the rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief. Politically, nihilism is the belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
Nihilism is associated with Nietzsche, who was not a nihilist according to most scholars.
objectivity - The ability to study events or objects dispassionately, without any prejudice or bias. Existentialists consider claims of objectivity bad faith, since human objectivity is impossible.
ontology - The theory of existence; the idea there is a reality.
original project - The fundamental choice of being that each sentient being makes in every action performed.
Paradoxical Intention - (from NDE) Frankl’s term for one of the procedural methods in treatment of mental illness on existential-psychoanalytic principles. It refers to the paradoxical wish which the patient may use to take the place of his fears
As soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way, by applying paradoxical intention, the vicious circle is out. — Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
phenomenology - The long definitions are at the top of this Web page, so scroll on back if you want to read the long-winded discussion. The simplified version: A movement originated by Edmund Husserl, meaning the study of appearances. The study of all possible appearances in human experience, during which considerations of objective reality and of purely subjective response are left out of account. It should be noted Hegel published essays on phenomenology, but Husserl organized a formalized system recognized as the “phenomenological method” of philosophical study.
Philosophical Anthropology - (from NDE) Sartre’s term for the new science which he believes is needed to properly understand man. The existing tools and methods of the sciences — natural science, traditional sociology, anthropology — are not adequate for the task.
positivism - The philosophy contending that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought. Phenomenology, epistemology, and other schools of thought reflect some positivistic influences.
praxis - (from NDE) (Greek: deed or action) Sartre uses this Greek word to refer to any purposeful human activity. The whole structure of the Critique of Dialectical Reason depends on the notion of praxis, that is, man’s action in the world, his work, and his rational intention in the material universe.
[CSW: An action, as defined by Karl Marx, leading to a definitive chain of events. Existentialists view every decision as a “defining moment” but a praxis represents a revolution in the essence of an individual or community.]
psychology - (from NDE) Existential interest in the theory of man has led to its formulation of a psychological theory which is distinctive. Sartre, Jaspers, and others of the philosophical Existentialists have written a great deal on the topic.
In Europe there are four explicitly Existential psycho-therapists, who are (1) Viktor Frankl, the Viennese neuropsychiatrist, founder of “Logotherapy,” (2) Ludwig Binswanger, the Swiss psychiatrist, founder of “Existential Analysis,” (3) Medard Boss, also a Swiss psychiatrist, who calls his therapy “Daseinanalysis,” and (4) Hans Trüb, Swiss, who calls his therapy “anthropological.”
Existential psychoanalysis is going to reveal to man the real goal of his pursuit, which is being as a synthetic fusion of the in-itself with the for-itself; existential psychoanalysis is going to acquaint man with his passion. — Sartre, Being and Nothingness
radical conversion - The responsibility and possibility that each being has in each moment of life. At any moment a sentient being can reject his or her original project and select another course in life.
rationalism - The theory all events are logically linked.
reason - (from NDE) (Latin ratio: computation, calculation) Kierkegaard uses reason in two senses: (1) discursively, as in the normal, everyday type of reasoning, reasoning for the sake of a definite conclusion, and (2) as it is in a faith-philosophy, as a term for all the creative processes of the mind, including imagination and esthetic judgment.
reflected consciousness - Thoughts about thoughts. Sartre found thinking about how and why we think quite interesting. The moment one ponders other thoughts, he or she is acting as a philosopher.
society - (from NDE) The reason for the existential rejection of society lies in the failure of existential philosophy to provide for a clearly non-repressive social organization, one which allows the individual freedom to develop.
Freedom for the individual is possible only by becoming free from the restrictions of society, which is the animal organization of man at any rate — “the herd,” or “the crowd.” This is a theme which Nietzsche also developed, in speaking of the “transvaluation of values,” by which the true individual would be freed from the restrictions of society.
subjective - How everything is viewed by existentialism: nothing is certain, it is all opinion, bias, and prejudice.
totalization - Sartre’s theory that every historical moment is a product of and contains traces of all the moments leading up to it.
transcendence - The mental act of projecting a consciousness beyond itself, referring to and establishing new relations with entities that are external to the self.
unreflected consciousness - Thoughts of external objects and concepts, without any consideration as to the nature of the thoughts. This form of consciousness is the “practical” mode of thought used at most times by sentient beings, as compared to reflected consciousness.
Olson, Robert G. An Introduction to Existentialism. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.