more than existential angst

Before The Existentialists began recording their philosophies, several writers had already explored the absurdity of life and the inherent difficulties of free will. John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Mephisto in Faust, and Dostoevsky’s collection of troubled anti-heroes are the literary embodiments of free will. Milton's Satan is almost admirable for his unwillingness to serve in Heaven and accepting his resulting role. Faust is an archetype; he is the scientist willing to trade his soul for knowledge of absolute truths. Both of these characters represent the existential ideal: they accept their fates, however absurd, in return for a form of freedom.

These writers suggest some existential ideals, but predate the label. In the case of Dostoevsky, it can be debated whether or not he was among The Existentialists. Regardless, he is the author of the definitive Christian existentialist poem, The Grand Inquisitor. This one poem explains the difficulties of faith and freedom better than Nietzsche or Kierkegaard ever did.

Individuals influential to existentialism:

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

What Came Before

While knowledge and understanding are forever evolving, there are periods of major upheaval and disruption when major advances occur. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ushered in revolutionary theories in science and philosophy, creating a foundation for the Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century. The advancements in science brought forth a realization that the universe is far more complex than was previously imagined.

Blaise Pascal, writing at the time of the emergence of this transformed world-view in the late 1650s, says that ‘The eternal silence of infinite spaces fills me with dread.’ That is, knowledge of the infinite, open universe of Copernicus and Galileo without meaning or final purpose, inspire sheer anxiety when one turns to the question of wisdom.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Simon Critchley, p. 6

One of the identifying traits of Continental philosophy is its self-reflective view of history. The Historical Context of existentialism, for example, is explored (in detail) by the philosophers themselves in various works.

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

Can’t Begin without Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) might be the most influential figure in Western philosophy. Kant is the subject of numerous critiques, placing him in the company of such figures as Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. Simon Critchley correctly points out that many scholars trace existentialism to Edmund Husserl, but understanding Kant is essential to reading any modern philosophical work.

…20th-century developments in Continental philosophy are largely unintelligible without reference to their 19th-century precursors, especially Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. This is particularly the case with French philosophy since the 1930s, which might well be described in terms of a series of returns to Hegel…, Nietzsche… , or Marx….
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 16

According to Critchley, the differences can be traced to which Kant work a philosopher emphasizes: the First Critique or Critique of Pure Reason (1781) or the Third Critique or Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). The First Critique emphasizes epistemology, the pursuit of logic and knowledge. In this light, the First Critique becomes foundational within analytic traditions. The work offers a philosophy associated with, and commenting on, the scientific impulse of the Enlightenment.

Read in this light, Kant’s major philosophical contribution is to epistemology and, by implication, philosophy of science. Indeed, this was how he was overwhelmingly read by the school of Neo-Kantianism that dominated German and French academic philosophy between 1890 and the late 1920s. It was this epistemological reading of Kant in the work of Peter Strawson and others that dominated the Anglo-American reception of Kant until fairly recently.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 19

The Third Critique addresses how one understands knowledge through experience. This move towards questions of experience foreshadowed such movements and methods as phenomenology. Those philosophers emphasizing the Third Critique ask questions about human nature. How does being human affect how we come to understand knowledge?

Kant attempts to construct a bridge between the faculties of the understanding (the domain of epistemology whose concern is knowledge of nature) and reason (the domain of ethics whose concern is freedom), through a critique of the faculty of judgement… If one takes this route, then the burning issue of Kant's philosophy becomes the plausibility of the relation of pure and practical reason, nature and freedom, or the unity of theory and practice… Arguably, it is this route that Continental philosophy has followed ever since.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 19

The major historical figures in existentialism sought to explore the same questions Kant asked.


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

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Written by C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 28-May-2014
Edited by S. D. Schnelbach