Introduction

more than existential angst

Most of my students seem to have some notions as to what existentialism is. Many individuals have simplistic answers for what is “existential,” what constitutes “existentialism,” and who were/are “the existentialists.” The standard perception is that existentialism is only about alienation, despair, angst, and absurdity. If you wish to learn something about existentialism — read on. If you seek dark, depressing thoughts about alienation and hopelessness, watch 24-hour news channels. David E. Cooper offered the following as an example of over-simplifying existentialism:

Existentialism was a philosophy born out of the Angst of post-war Europe, out of a loss of faith in the ideals of progress, reason and science which had led to Dresden and Auschwitz. If not only God, but reason and objective value are dead, then man is abandoned in an absurd and alien world. The philosophy for man in this “age of distress” must be a subjective, personal one. A person’s remaining hope is to return to his “inner self”, and to live in whatever ways he feels are true to that self. The hero for this age, the existentialist hero, lives totally free from the constraints of discredited traditions, and commits himself unreservedly to the demands of his inner, authentic being.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; David E. Cooper, pp. 11-2

Cooper intended this definition as satire, a caricature of the existentialist philosopher imagined by an uninformed public. In part, the image of existentialism arose from a generation’s embrace of the word and the philosophy’s lexicon. The 1960s cemented the role of existentialism as one expression of a greater social movement, which also contributed to the reduction of a complex philosophy into a series of clichés.

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.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Steven Earnshaw, pp. 8-9

This introduction begins with a short history of the terms “existentialism” and “phenomenology.” Because this documents is a mere introduction, you should also read the longer documents on each of the topics presented.

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


Western Philosophy

Since the 1950s, Western philosophy has been divided into analytic schools, focused on science, language, and communication, and the metaphysical, experiential approaches of Continental schools. Although this is an artificial division, often based on the organization of university philosophy departments more than philosophical theories, it affects how we discuss philosophy. Granted, the reason we can discuss philosophy is that we are comfortable enough to sit in classes and cafés thinking grand thoughts and pondering existence.

The paradox… is that the scientific conception of the world does not close the gap between knowledge and wisdom, but makes us feel it all the more acutely… It is in advanced Western societies that the gap between knowledge and wisdom seems to widen into an abyss. In this sense, the speculative question of the meaning of life is a consequence of luxury and affluence. Perhaps it was ever thus — philosophy only arises once the basic exigencies of life have been provided.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Simon Critchley, p. 6

In the analytic tradition, philosophers attempt (often in vain) to understand the inherent reason and logic underlying existence. The Continental schools are considered more experiential; existence is random and even absurd. As a more detailed review of Western philosophy before existentialism demonstrates, the analytical and Continental can be traced through Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The conclusions philosophers reach often reflect how they respond to Kant.

Cultural Differences

While the history of Western philosophy runs through Kant, the differences between analytical and Continental philosophy are also cultural. The “Anglo-American” vs. “European” false dichotomy implied by labels like “Continental” do an injustice to the significant cultural differences within philosophy. These difference cannot be simplistically reduced to geopolitical maps. Instead, the differences might be considered as utilitarian-pragmatic philosophers arguing against idealistic-romantic philosophers.

In one camp, we have scientism. In the other, we have philosopher-artists. It is a classic case of the scientist-artist divide more than one of end goals or politics. The scientists want to reduce thought to equations (logical calculus) to prove their views, while the artists want to seek to persuade audiences with parables and poetry.

… [T]he best way of understanding the misunderstanding between opposed philosophical traditions [is] in terms of the model of ‘the two cultures’. According to this model, analytic and Continental philosophy can be seen as expressions of opposed, indeed antagonistic, habits of thought – Benthamite empiricist-utilitarian and Coleridgean-hermeneutic-romantic — that make up the philosophical self-understanding of a specific culture.

Essentially, this is a dispute between the scientific conception of the world, advanced by Carnap and the Vienna Circle, and the existential or ‘hermeneutic’ experience of the world in Heidegger. This dispute is highly significant for subsequent developments in philosophy insofar as Carnap’s views on Heidegger provide the background to Ayer’s attempted logical positivist elimination of metaphysics in the British context, and Carnap had a vast influence on the professional development of analytic philosophy in the United States after the Second World War, not the least through his most celebrated student, W. V. O. Quine.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, pp. 90-1

Analytical Philosophy

Science has always been important to philosophers, with the first philosophers being scholars in many fields. The theological and metaphysical aspects of “truth” were also important to philosophers. Then came the industrial revolution and a shift towards analytical philosophy: searching for truth without considering the transcendent. Some texts suggest the analytic movement began with Ludwig Josef Johan Wittgenstein (1889–1951), an Austrian-born philosopher who lived and taught in Britain. Wittgenstein influenced logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and semiotics.

… [S]cientific pretension requires that it is possible and necessary for the conquest of real knowledge that the world be stripped of everything which human beings have ‘projected’ upon it — from colours to meanings, from smells to values. But this is to suppose that mind and world, subject and object, can be treated in logical isolation from one another and separately examined.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; David E. Cooper, p. 15

Not all analytical philosophers believe truth and reason are external to sentient existence. Most twentieth-century philosophical debates argued not about “truth” but rather how and why we create understandings of truth. There are numerous complications underlying these debates. Does language reflect truth? Or, does language create truth? Can any language or symbolic system accurately translate another language’s truth? This is a bit tangled, since philosophers must use language to communicate with each other.

Carnap’s argument against metaphysics is not that its statements are false, but rather that they are simply meaningless. For logical positivists like Carnap, meaning is rooted in the principle of verification, namely that a word or sentence is meaningful only if it is in principle verifiable. But what are the conditions for verification? They are two-fold: logical and empirical.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 100

I suggest reading the works of Alfred J. Ayer for an overview of logical positivism.

Logical positivism insists there is a truth, which can be communicated and shared. However, scholars specializing in the philosophy of science and the rhetoric of science have challenged the positivists by suggesting that insisting there is a truth is also a leap of faith. Such arguments are circular and unlikely to be settled within philosophy departments.

This positivist habit of mind insisted that the ‘objective’ was synonymous with the measurable and the ‘value­free’. Its aim was to extract the subject from the experiment in order to obtain a purely impersonal ‘view from nowhere’. This led to a number of significant discoveries, but it quickly became apparent that such an approach was inconsistent. The limiting of the knowable to the quantifiable was itself a value that was not quantifiable. That is, the choice of this procedure was itself a ‘leap’ of sorts, an act of faith in a certain set of values that were not themselves measurable.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Thomas R. Flynn, p. 4

University philosophy programs in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Canada, have a marked preferences for analytical philosophy. As a result, some call the philosophical schools within the analytic tradition “Anglo-American philosophy.” However, the dominance of analytic theories does not extend throughout the humanities departments, where the Continental traditions often hold sway.

Continental Philosophy

Yes, Continental philosophy has something to do with “the” Continent. What, precisely, that something is remains open to debate.

… Continental philosophy is an invention, or, more accurately, a projection of the Anglo-American academy onto a Continental Europe that would not recognize the legitimacy of such an appellation — a little like asking for a Continental breakfast in Paris.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 32

Continental philosophy might be viewed as a reaction to the analytical, scientific approach to philosophy. The more science explains about the universe, the less important human existence seems. Knowlege and understanding actually increase our alienation from the universe and its natural laws. Humanity is reduced to nothing more than yet another random lifeform, an absurd accident on a spec of a planet. However, rejecting science and knowledge completely can lead to various faiths and “–isms” that are utter nonsense.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics… The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 9

Existentialism grew out of the Continental traditions, especially phenomenology. This was not a complete rejection of science and reason, but a call to examine life as it is experienced — something considered beyond science.

Existentialism grew, in part, out of Husserl’s phenomenology, which in turn was a critical response to nineteenth-century materialism and positivism.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 13

Many European thinkers embraced Marxism, which claimed to be a “scientific” analysis of history and culture. Unfortunately, the best logic and reason are incapable of predicting social evolution. Still, Marx developed a valuable theory of history and economics.

The problem with responding to scientism is that philosophy can risk obscurantism, which deliberately ignores or even prevents the facts and details of something from becoming known.

… [T]here is a risk of obscurantism in some Continental philosophy, where social phenomena are explicated with reference to forces, entities, and categories so vast and vague as to explain everything and nothing at all.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 119

European philosophers began to focus on cultural concerns late in the nineteenth century, a trend that continues. They also embraced reason and logic in their own way, with many of the philosophers coming from scientific and mathematical fields. However, they understood that science could not find, or give, meaning to human existence. Science, for these philosophers, was a tool but not necessarily the best philosophical tool.

While the Existentialist is not, in any serious sense, an irrationalist, he is certainly not a ‘rationalist’ in the philosophical sense that contrasts with ‘empiricist’. He does not hold, that is, that the mind is innately equipped with, or predisposed towards, knowledge of certain truths about the world. This is not because he is an ‘empiricist’, holding that all knowledge is the product of experience. The issue between the two camps is one of several which, for the Existentialist, rest on the false premise that mind and world are logically independent of one another, like a spectator and the show before him. The ‘rationalist’ differs from the ‘empiricist’ only in holding that the spectator arrives with a rich intellectual apparatus through which the passing scene gets filtered.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 15

Phenomenology and, later, existentialism, moved from a focus on larger culture and communities to focus on the individual. This is not to claim that phenomenology and existentialism are not concerned with groups and social philosophy, but there is a clear belief that the individual can define the self. There is also a touch of utopianism, especially within the works of the thinkers associated with phenomenology. The belief of these Continental philosophers is that introspection can lead to a metaphysical transformation. Some even hold this to be true for entire communities.

… [T]he Continental tradition is concerned with giving a philosophical critique of the social practices of the modern world that aspires towards a notion of individual or societal emancipation. In other words, much Continental philosophy asks us to look at the world critically with the intention of identifying some sort of transformation, whether personal or collective.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 54

Phenomenology and related movements are sometimes referred to as experiential because they are concerned with the experiences of the individual. How one person experiences life is unique. Relating to others is possible, but only within the limits of shared experiences. And pondering our experiences can lead to revelations, of a sort.

Continental philosphy itself is divided by debates on how much experience should trump reason, or if the two are one and the same.

The question of the status of reason and rationality versus the irrationality of much of human existence is a conflict that is at the heart of disagreements in the Continental tradition to this day, for example in the modernism / postmodernism debate that defined much of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 20

Continental Movements

Simon Critchley provides a chart of major Continental movements (p. 13). This not not a complete history, but rather a convenient way to consider various thinkers.

Critchley’s Guide to Continental Movements

Movement(s) Some Major Figures
1. German idealism; romanticism and its aftermath Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schlegel and Novalis, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer
2. The critique of metaphysics and the 'masters of suspicion' Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson
3. Germanophone phenomenology and existential philosophy Husserl, Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger
4. French phenomenology, Hegelianism, and anti-Hegelianism Kojeve, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Bataille, de Beauvoir
5. Hermeneutics Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur
6. Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School Lukacs, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas
7. French structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism and feminism Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Irigaray, Kristeva

What the Continental movements seem to share is an impulse to critique, to rebel against something. At times, it seems rebellion is its own purpose in Continental schools of thought, as if there cannot be a moment of contentment. If there isn’t something wrong with the human condition, what is the point of philosophy? And this doesn't mean some minor “room for improvement,” to the Continental thinkers. Life itself is a crisis.

For much of the Continental tradition, philosophy is a means to criticize the present, to promote a reflective awareness of the present as being in crisis, whether this is expressed as a crisis of faith in a bourgeois philistine world (in Kierkegaard), a crisis of the European sciences (in Husserl), of the human sciences (in Foucault), of nihilism (in Nietzsche), of the forgetfulness of Being (in Heidegger), of bourgeois-capitalist society (in Marx), of the hegemony of instrumental rationality and the domination of nature (in Adorno and Max Horkheimer), or whatever. […] Philosophy in the Continental tradition has an emancipatory intent. For a philosopher, the real crisis would be a situation where crisis was not recognized. In such a world, philosophy would have no purpose, other than as a historical curiosity, an intellectual distraction, or a technical means of sharpening one's common sense.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 73

Phenomenology

No discussion of existentialism should occur without an introduction to phenomenology. Edmund Husserl and his assistant Martin Heidegger were not existentialists, though they contributed to the development of phenomenology and, therefore, existentialism. In this respect, all formal existential thought and scholarship descends from the works of Husserl.

If we return to the Existential philosophical lineage, after Nietzsche it is Edmund Husserl’s work on phenomenology which leads, quite directly, into the main Existential thought of the twentieth century. His ideas were seized upon by Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre, among others. He argued that science could only know the world in a certain way which it had already presupposed, but that this was not the way the world was apprehended by individuals. The fact that an object is present or represented in our consciousness has no bearing on the way that that object is in the world.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 6

The basic assumption of phenomenology is that we experience the world as a series of conscious observations and interpretations. We explore existence at a distance, as observers of our own lives. Even when we try to understand ourselves, we are then thinking about “I” as something external to our thoughts. You can try to think about thinking about yourself, but there is always a strange, difficult to comprehend distance between thought and object.

Though the phenomenological method developed by Edmund Husserl in the first third of the 20th century was adopted in one form or another by the existentialists of that same period, many, perhaps most, phenomenologists are not existentialists. But all accept the best-known and most significant claim of this approach, namely that all consciousness is consciousness of an other-than-consciousness. In other words, it is the very nature of consciousness to aim towards (to ‘intend’) an other. Even when it is directed towards itself in reflection, consciousness is directed as towards an ‘other’.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Thomas R. Flynn, p. 17

Karl Jaspers’ approach to philosophy was closer to Husserl’s phenomenology than Sartre’s existentialism, though Jaspers used the term Existenzphilosophie to describe his approach to philosophical reasoning. The term suggests existentialism, but it requires some mental gymnastics to label Jaspers an existentialist. I could defend such a classification, but many scholars reject this outright and place him among the phenomenological thinkers, along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This raises the question: does existential phenomenology differ from existentialism?

For many philosophers, the word ‘existential’ is most at home in the expression existential phenomenology. There is general agreement that the most significant versions of twentieth-century existentialism are developments, welcome or perverse, from phenomenology, the philosophy elaborated by Edmund Husserl in the early years of the century: Heidegger describes Being and Time as a work of phenomenology, while Merleau-Ponty and Sartre use the word in the title or subtitle of their main works.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 5

Husserl’s phenomenology requires that we study experience, the world as it is lived and observed by humans. Science and, to some extent, analytic philosophers are concerned with why and how things are as they end up being perceived. Phenomenology does not seek to explain phenomena, leaving such explanations to scientists; instead the phenomenologist wants us to focus clearly on the experienced phenomena.

As Husserl once said, the point of phenomenological method is not to explain (by finding causes) but to get us to see (by presenting essences or intelligible contours).
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 20

Phenomenology is about meaning, and meaning occurs only when a living being uses an object or concept. Meaning comes from experience and application. The phenemologist attempts to separate the observed object from perceptions of the object. It’s a complex and confusing concept, admittedly.

… [I]maging consciousness is a way of ‘derealizing’ the world of our perceptions that manifests its distinctive features to careful phenomenological description. If we imagine an apple that we previously perceived, for instance, a careful description of the experience will reveal how the imagining differs from the perceiving of the same apple. For one thing, unlike the perceived apple, the imagined one has only those features that we choose to give it. Images as such teach us nothing. And so it is with our other conscious acts. Each reveals its distinctive features to phenomenological description.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 20

What is this phenomenological method for describing objects? It reminds some students of a zen-like meditation on objects, including the self. In the language of phenomenology, we must “bracket” reality to consider objects properly. Yes, this does resemble spiritual meditation more than traditional philosophy.

In a procedure akin to Descartes’ methodological doubt, the phenomenologist must suspend belief, or ‘put in brackets’, any reality beyond consciousness and the ‘meanings’ in which consciousness trades. The scientist studies colour by examining its physical properties, but the philosopher concerned with the ‘meaning’ of colour must put aside the assumption of real, physical existence made by the scientist.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 5

The problem with this nearly spiritual approach to observation, despite its claims of a rigorous methodology, is that it potentially elevates the philosopher to seer. When my students read Heidegger, they comment on the mystical nature of his works. They do not mean this as a compliment; philosophy should be more than sensing the “right” insights.

The assumption is that if the description is mounted rigorously, the inquirer will simply see for himself. The potential weakness, of course, is that, in response to the claim ‘I don't see it’, the phenomenologist can merely reply, ‘well, look more closely’.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 21

The stated goal of phenomenology is to describe lived experience without obscuring the description through misapplication of scientific concepts. As you can see (pun intended) from the previous citations and examples, phenomenology itself can be obscure. Even phenomenolgists didn’t always agree on the end results of their method. Merleau-Ponty suggested it was best to view phenomenology not as a single method towards truth, but as a set of methods with the shared goal of moving past theories, including those theories of past philosophers. He sought a “pre-theoretical” experience.

Merleau-Ponty, in a nice turn of phrase, describes the task of phenomenology as ‘unveiling the pre-theoretical layer’ of human experience upon which the theoretical attitude of the scientific conception of the world is based.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 113

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, extending the works of Heidegger, each argued in his own way that an ideal phenomenology was illusory. Humans cannot suspend belief in reality, even though philosophers often write of the absence of reality or universals. Merleau-Ponty wrote that it was absurd to even ask if the world is real. By implication, this would make humanity “unreal” — an even more absurd proposition than the existentialists could accept.

For the Existentialist, the question of whether descriptions of the world are objective or subjective is a bad one. They are not objective, if this means being of a kind which a scrupulously detached spectator would provide, for a spectator completely disengaged from the world could have no conception of it at all. But nor are they subjective, if this means that they are glosses smeared over, and therefore occluding, the world as it is in itself.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 16

Eventually, the existentialist thinkers came to describe the ideal phenomenology as an impossible, illogical task. Though phenomenology continues to influence the social studies, language arts, and general humanities, the existentialists realized the phenomenological method was destined to fall short of its aims.

The existentialists offer two reasons for rejecting Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. First, it makes our basic relationship to the world theoretical rather than practical, as if we were born theoreticians and later learned about practice. Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, on the contrary, insisted that we were originally ‘in the world’ instrumentally by means of our practical concerns and that philosophy should analyse this ‘pre-theoretical’ awareness in order to gain access to being. [...] Even Husserl, later in life, seemed to acknowledge these claims by introducing the concept of the ‘lifeworld’ as the pre-theoretical basis of our theoretical reflection.

But the major existentialist objection is that being itself is not an ‘essence’ subject to reduction and, as Merleau-Ponty famously phrased it, ‘a complete [phenomenological] reduction is impossible’ because you cannot ‘reduce’ the existing ‘reducer’. The existing individual is more than his or her ‘definition’ such as one might hope to capture in a theoretical concept.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 23

Existentialism, the Label

Without question, the dominant figure in existentialism is Jean-Paul Sartre; according to various sources, he either coined the term (unilkely) or at least promoted it briefly (definitely). It is more likely Karl Jaspers or Gabriel Marcel coined the term, or a variation of it, while Sartre popularized the image of the chain-smoking French existentialist. To understand the current definition of existentialism, one must first recognize that the American view of existentialism was derived primarily from the writings of three French political activists (Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir), not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.

None of the great existentialist tomes contains the word ‘existentialism’. Reports on its origin differ, but it seems to have been coined towards the end of World War II by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel as a label for the currently emerging ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and his close friend Simone de Beauvoir.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 1

Sartre would eventually write that existentialism was something of a phase he passed through on the way to Marxism. Sartre came to declare existentialism a minor footnote to Marxism, which illustrates Sartre’s interests were more in politics than pure philosophical theory. It could be argued that living authentically, possibly using Socrates as a model, we should do more than think about philosophy — it must be lived. Albert Camus was an absurdist, suggesting existentialism was more methodology than philosophy. Camus called existentialism “philosophical suicide” if used to ponder life. Considering Camus’ fascination with death, that’s quite a statement.

I call the existential attitude philosophical suicide. How else to start from the world’s lack of meaning and end up by finding a meaning and a depth to it?
— Albert Camus as paraphrased; Introducing Existentialism; Richard Appignanesi, p. 36

Though a twentieth-century creation (or evolution) of philosophers, the label “existentialist” quickly was attached to any number of thinkers. Notably, the term was applied to various authors because the semi-official existentialists were novelists, journalists, and essayists. Not to suggest that the retroactive label wasn’t applied to philosophers, but it seems that literary skills helped earn the label (posthumously).

The next stage was to rake through the remoter philosophical past in search of thinkers deserving of the label, the prime candidates being the two enfants terribles of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were known to have influenced Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. This intellectual archaeology was soon to know no bounds, with Pascal, Montaigne, even St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine, newly excavated as heralds of existentialism. And this labelling game was not confined to the field of philosophy. Novelists reckoned to have concerned themselves with such typically Sartrean themes as anxiety and conflict with others were soon included — Franz Kafka, for example.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 2


Existentialism Is…

Existentialism, broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us — and made without an objective form of truth. There are no “universal” guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe. Instead, even trusting science is often a “leap of faith.” Existentialism is, at its core, individualistic.

Free will requires an individual, and existentialists recognize that individuality is a complex concept. Philosophy was shaken by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of “dehumanizing” technologies. Standing apart is nearly impossible and “for the existentialist, being an individual in our mass society is an achievement rather than a starting point” (Flynn, p. 23). While modern psychology suggests we develop our individuality as we mature, it seems to accept that we are destined to be “individual” in basic sense. Existentialists reject the notion that all humans, or even most humans, will be individuals. No, this is not the “self-actualized individual” of some New Age belief system, but the individual who can and does confront the disorienting absurdity and alienation of an aware and engaged existence. No higher power or “Truth” offers security and reassurance to the existential individual: he or she is alone, yet surrounded by The Other.

The individualism of existentialism means that any attempt to craft a system of existential philosophy or existential ethics runs counter to its core nature. It is not a philosophy of universal truths, yet at the same time the existentialists considered the human condition of alienation to be universal.

…[W]hat sets it [existentialism] apart from most other philosophies is that it begins with the ‘individual’ rather than the 'universal' and so does not aim to arrive at general truths: its insistence on personal insights as the only means to real understanding entails that it makes no claims to objective knowledge.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 1

Most visitors complaining about primer content advocate for a pure Sartrean existentialism… which doesn’t exist.

The major thinkers associated with existentialism appear to agree on little, except for their emphasis on individualism. This intense focus on the individual is not expressed uniformly. Some of the thinkers believed the individual should be pursuing a personal relationship with a Creator, while others were concerned with the individual’s needs within Marxist theory. Even “individuality” is individual to the existentialists. When students (or readers of the primer) complain that a paragraph or slide doesn’t represent The Existentialism, the commenter demonstrates that indviduals select the existetnialist(s) and existentialism they want.

Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists — Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre — are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.
Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre; Walter Kaufmann, p. 11

As one of the common criticisms suggests, emphasizing individuality is not without risks. It might be admirable in the face of the Industrial Revolution and Information Age to resist dehumanization, but it can also lead to a perverse focus on the singular, isolated one who must still live among others.

It is commonly acknowledged that existentialism is a philosophy about the concrete individual. This is both its glory and its shame. In an age of mass communication and mass destruction, it is to its credit that existentialism defends the intrinsic value of what its main proponent Sartre calls the ‘free organic individual’, that is, the flesh-and-blood agent.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, preface p. ii

Though individualism is stressed by existential writers, they also address the struggles of balancing the self and “The Other” in a social existence. The quandry of being both an isolated one and part of the larger many contributes to the alienation that is prominant in many existential works. Existentialism’s historical context contributes to this struggle.

This does not mean that Existential thinkers refuse to comment on ‘humanity’ as a whole. On the contrary, it is usual for them to contrast precisely how the individual is separated from the mass and is obliged to separate him– or herself from it. Further, it is quite usual for this to be placed in the context of the ‘age’ within which the writers place themselves.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 20

We must never forget that existentialism is a Continental movement specific to the experiences of the men and women responsible for the existential works. The thinkers’ lack of faith in science and technology, their disillusionment with the Industrial Revolution, was accompanied by a loss of faith in the traditions of European philosophy.

Existentialism is as it is because the thinkers involved in it perceive that there is not only a problem with philosophy itself, but there are also problems with psychology and with the aims of science. It therefore attempts to carve out a way of thinking, a way of being even, or thinking about being/Being, which at the same time corrects these errors and installs itself as a new kind of philosophy.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 22

Themes of Existentialism

Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, according to most scholars the underlying concepts of existentialism are:

  • Humans define themselves through the act of living (and dying).
    • Living is a series of interactions with other humans and their choices.
    • Alienation is a condition of modern life we cannot avoid.
  • Humans have free will and with that comes despair.
    • Free will implies responsibility for choices and actions.
    • Free will also means that life itself is a choice, once one is self-aware.
  • Life is a series of choices, creating anxiety and stress.
    • Decisions seldom are without any negative consequences.
    • One must commit to decisions, or they aren’t authentic decisions.
  • Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.
    • Life either has no meaning (atheists) or the meaning cannot be understood (theists).
    • Events are random and even cruel, as opposed to a belief in Karma and universal justice.

Illustrating the challenge of defining existentialism, scholars highlight different aspects of existentialism when trying to assembly definitions or lists of defining themes. Though scholars tend to select overlapping themes and concepts when describing existentialism, the different views of what the core tenets are can be frustrating.

Five Themes of Existentialism

There are five basic themes that the existentialist appropriates each in his or her own way. Rather than constituting a strict definition of ‘existentialist’, they depict more of a family resemblance (a crisscrossing and overlapping of the themes) among these philosophers.

  1. Existence precedes essence. What you are (your essence) is the result of your choices (your existence) rather than the reverse. Essence is not destiny. You are what you make yourself to be.
  2. Time is of the essence. We are fundamentally time-bound beings. Unlike measurable, ‘clock’ time, lived time is qualitative: the ‘not yet’, the ‘already’, and the ‘present’ differ among themselves in meaning and value.
  3. Humanism. Existentialism is a person-centred philosophy. Though not anti-science, its focus is on the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning amidst the social and economic pressures of mass society for superficiality and conformism.
  4. Freedom/responsibility. Existentialism is a philosophy of freedom. Its basis is the fact that we can stand back from our lives and reflect on what we have been doing. In this sense, we are always ‘more’ than ourselves. But we are as responsible as we are free.
  5. Ethical considerations are paramount. Though each existentialist understands the ethical, as with ‘freedom’, in his or her own way, the underlying concern is to invite us to examine the authenticity of our personal lives and of our society.

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 8

Essence, Existence, and Language

The desire to define ourselves is why groups advocate for the ideal unbiased, neutral, person-centric language discussed later.

I advise visitors to read the lexicon following this introduction. Existentialism, and philosophy in general, is infected with a variety of lexicons, unfortunately. Definitions of words vary by philosopher; no two seem to use a word to mean the same thing. I have done my best to assemble a basic lexicon. When thinkers differ in meanings, I attempt to explain when, how, and why — if we can ever understand why people change words. (Through the looking glass we venture.)

Most visitors to this site have heard Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement from Being and Nothingness, “Existence precedes and rules essence.” In general, it is accepted that people create an essence while all other things have an essence and are then created or understood by people.

What a person is at any given time, his ‘essence’, is always a function of what he is on the way to becoming in pursuit of the projects issuing from a reflective concern for his life.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 3

If you have a new idea for a tool, the idea exists before the object you intend to create. However, you can understand your idea only via words or symbols already known. This means all comprehension of “essense” is limited by existing language. Questions of philosophy eventually confront matters of language and expression. What we know is complicated when we try to share knowledge or wisdom. Each time we communicate, some loss of meaning occurs.

What does it mean to “exist” for an existential philosopher? Again, language contributes to the haze.

A more decisive reason, having to do with the etymology of the word ‘exist’, helps to explain Heidegger’s use of it. In some of his writings he spells the word with a hyphen, ‘ex-ist’, thereby drawing attention to its derivation from the Greek and Latin words meaning ‘to stand out from’.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 4

How we relate to people and each other is limited by language, even if we accept the idea that first a person exists, then he or she is free to define a “self” in the world. The concepts of language and symbols complicate the existence-essence relationship because how we describe something affects how others perceive that thing or person.

A person has a ‘concreteness’, ‘particularity’ and ‘uniqueness’ which make it impossible to equate him with an aggregate of instantiated universals. …Kierkegaard’s constant references to ‘the existing individual’, ‘the existing thinker’ and the like are intended to remind his readers — versed, presumably, in the traditional doctrine or its more recent Hegelian variation — that, with human beings, their existence is peculiarly ‘particular’, and known to themselves ‘immediately’.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 4

Language and Truth

Frequently, existential concepts have been expressed via the literary arts. Words have power — especially in creative works.

We communicate via images, sounds, and touch. For most of us, what we think is converted to a form of “unspoken speech” in our minds. This means we can only understand and explain things in some form of spoken word. Philosophers dealing with ideas of deconstruction and postmodern linguistics have come to appreciate the limits of language and the social implications of words.

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; Earnshaw, p. 10

The question of “truth” is often linked to language by philosophers. The pragmatists theorize that truth is the best, and generally dominant, description of a phenomenon. Some existentialists appear to embrace this view of truth, though they are not in the same philosophical tradition as pragmatists.

While he cannot accept a definition of truth as correspondence with a reality independent of all human conceptions of it, the Existentialist is perfectly able to accept that beliefs can be objectively true in the sense of being warranted by criteria on which there is tried and tested public agreement.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 17

Existentialism has been questioning “truth” since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche pondered how we come to understand knowledge. Kierkegaard suggested truth was personal, a question of faith even when pondering mundane matters. The idea that truth could be individual was radical, especially since Kierkegaard focused on the “truth” of Christianity. For Nietzsche, the problem of truth was one of interpretation: you and I will interpret accurate data differently.

Nietzsche had insisted that all knowledge was interpretation and that there was no ‘original’ non-interpreted text. In other words, what counted as knowledge was interpretation ‘all the way down’.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 13

The analytical philosophers have traditionally viewed language and grammars as closer to “truth” than Continental philosophers do. This is a fundamental, defining difference between analytic and Continental schools of thought. This can confuse readers unfamiliar with the conceptual differences, since Continental philosophers often sound certain. Even the existentialists seem to be making universal claims about humanity, but this is a rhetorical device.

The philosophical term for the study of Being is ‘ontology’ and Existentialism, when viewed as a philosophical endeavour, is essentially an ontological analysis (as opposed to, say, ‘epistemology’, the study of knowledge). Being is not open to scientific analysis — at least, not as we currently understand science. And yet Existentialism, and those writers who have contributed to Existential thought, treat their pronouncements upon human being as if they were giving us ‘facts’.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 21

Language and Identity

Words are Actions
Few of the works discussed here were composed in English. A female visitor complained about “mankind” on several pages, including within quoted material. Language concerns the existentialists; languages reveal cultural prejudices. We define ourselves via words. Attempts at “non-sexist” writing ignore etymology: man was Old English for “any person.” Man as gender-specific is unique to Modern English.
— see Style Guide, Mankind.

If we each define an essence by living and making choices, we are still limited by words and other forms of text when we want to express that essence to others. We accept, embrace, reject, and create our labels, trying to define ourselves… to ourselves and to others.

A dog does not worry over its being and does not name itself ‘dog’; nor does it consciously worry over its future or how it can live its life to its full potential.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, pp. 20-1

French, as with most languages, is gender-specific even when naming objects. Simone de Beauvoir wondered how language affects gender identity. Language shapes us, while we also have some power to shape language. Because language is not static, we can argue for new words, new meanings, and even new grammars. Unfortunately, no language is a perfect representation of ideas, and our ideas are shaped by existing language. We are the words we use — which is why creating new words and modifying existing terminology appeals to some thinkers, as the existential lexicon illustrates.

Life and Free Will

Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, first a man or woman exists, then the individual spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self… which is why there is existential psychotherapy. (Imagine a therapist telling people life has no meaning!) If you must define yourself through living, then you are never able to say, “I am this” because even pondering self-definition changes you.

We can get nowhere, Heidegger argues, unless we consider the most fundamental of all questions — ‘What is the meaning of Being?’ and it is clear, both in Heidegger and in Sartre, that self and existence can have no fixed definition at all: to exist as a human being is precisely to ask the question ‘What is Being?’
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 2

While essence and existence can be confusing concepts, the basic nature of free will means that a person can only be defined in terms of his or her choices and the path towards the future charted by those choices.

… [At] any given point in an acorn’s career, it is possible to give an exhaustive description of it in terms of the properties — colour, molecular structure, etc. — which belong to it at that moment. But no complete account can be given of a human being without reference to what he is in the process of becoming — without reference, that is, to the projects and intentions which he is on the way to realizing, and in terms of which sense is made of his present condition.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 3

A student is in the process of becoming a graduate. The new employee might be in the process of becoming a manager. The apprentice is training to be the master. We are each on several paths, as we are several things and becoming several more at all times.

Authenticity

Again, we see the importance of language and definitions in existentialism. What is “authentic” living?

Usually associated with Sartre, the notion of “authenticity” appears throughout the works of existential thinkers. The term actually traces back to Kierkegaard, who also explained the challenges of being true to yourself in the face of social pressures. To be authentic is to choose your own path in life, though that might or might not comply with social norms.

Kierkegaard also introduced the idea of ‘authenticity’ and the idea of ‘an authentic self’ for which we alone are responsible. He described how there was a public pressure to conform to society and that this necessarily led to ‘inauthenticity’, and that a certain feeling or mood, ‘anxiety’, indicated or revealed to us that the true nature of our lives is founded on choices which we must make based only on what we as individuals create as values. As such, we are therefore forced to make choices based on ‘nothing’ that is certain: our existence has no grounding, or, to put it in a more dramatically Existential way, we are suspended over an abyss.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, pp. 3-4

The demand for authenticity contributes to one of the criticisms of existentialism: since no one can be entirely authentic, can anyone be existential? Or is the pursuit of authentic existence sufficient, something like the pursuit of good in some religions? To this, existentialism adds another quandary, by insisting that questioning “being” is a human pursuit. What if some humans do not question what it is to be, much less to be authentically?

If to be human is to question being, are those people who do not question being somehow not human? In Existential terms they would certainly be considered ‘inauthentic’. Does that mean that to be authentic it is necessary to be (or aspire to be) a philosopher and to at least have read Being and Time and Being and Nothingness?
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 24

Choosing Life, Pondering Death

Existentialism is not (necessarily) depressing. Existentialism is about life: existentialists believe in living — and in fighting for life. We define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.

‘Death’ alone does not create meaningfulness, nor exactly does the self's confrontation with its own end. This is because death in the thinking of Heidegger and Sartre is not a future event isolated in time which is yet to happen; it is bound up with the now and how I project myself. Sartre takes issue with Heidegger’s notion that we are waiting upon death since, he argues, we can never know the moment of our death. This leads to a greater sense of urgency in Sartre for our lives are the projects we achieve, not the ones we intend to achieve. Camus understands death in a different way. It is the absurdity of life that we exist and that simultaneously death renders everything futile. Why not commit suicide, then? Because that would show that we were certain that life was not worth living, and to be certain we would have to know what the meaning of life is.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 19

What happens when we realize that even life itself is a choice? The initial response is existential “angst” and “despair” because this means getting out of bed every day is a choice. For an existentialist, the saying “Everything is political” becomes “Everything is philosophical” — including living. You are confronted by life, by the fact every action throughout the day is a choice that sets more events in motion and necessitates yet more choices.

The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions. Because individuals make their own choices, they are free; but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedom — and therefore their responsibility — thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free.”

For existentialism, responsibility is the dark side of freedom. When individuals realize that they are completely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, they are overcome by anxiety. They try to escape from this anxiety by ignoring or denying their freedom and their responsibility. But because this amounts to ignoring or denying their actual situation, they succeed only in deceiving themselves. The existentialists criticize this flight from freedom and responsibility into self-deception. They insist that individuals must accept full responsibility for their behavior, no matter how difficult. If an individual is to live meaningfully and authentically, he or she must become fully aware of the true character of the human situation and bravely accept it.
World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc.
Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Alienation and The Other

Existentialism is rooted decidedly in post-Industrial Revolution Western culture. The migration of people from small farming communities to crowded cities revealed that even among thousands, or millions, of people it is possible to be alienated as an individual. Philosophers began to ask if it was possible for humans to be anything other than alienated from each other.

Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can be seen as outsiders, in their writings and in their lives, and it is a feature of Existentialism that its precepts and many of its examples present us with alienated figures. The refusal to conform to society's received values is common to both these writers and is a strong thread that runs throughout Existentialism.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 5

Today, alienation is an important concern of not only philosophers, but also of psychologists and social theorists. Alienation, as a state of being, has implications both personal and social.

This is the sense that the most serious question with which philosophy has to deal is that of alienation in its various forms — alienation from the world, from one’s fellows, from oneself. It is to the alienation threatened by a dualism of mind and body and by the scientific image of an objective reality untainted by human concerns, and not to the spectre of scepticism, which philosophy must, before all else, respond. Existentialism itself is just such a response.
Existentialism: A Reconstruction; Cooper, p. 8

For Continental philosophers, including those associated with existentialism, the emergence of analytical philosophy contributed to alienation. The Industrial Revolution was followed by a technology revolution and the emergence of the “knowledge economy” that emphasizes science and technical solutions to problems, including social problems.

From a Continental perspective, the adoption of scientism in philosophy fails to grasp the critical and emancipatory function of philosophy: that is, it fails to see the possible complicity between a scientific conception of the world and what Nietzsche saw as nihilism. It fails fundamentally to see the role that science and technology play in the alienation of human beings from the world. This alienation can happen in a number of ways, whether through turning the world into a causally determined realm of objects that stand against an isolated human subject, or through turning those objects into empty commodities that can be surveyed or traded with indifference.
Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction; Critchley, p. 111

According to existentialists, the scientific method separates people from their actual, lived experiences. Existentialists believe their methods are the only way to recognize the nature of and confront alienation.

Philosophy as Art

I am expanding the page on existentialism’s contribution to art and literature.

Existentialism is associated with literature, theatre, music, and film. Though not all “existential works” are by “existentialists,” most people learn of existentialism through literary works. From Dostoevsky’s novels to Kafka’s short stories, novels have confronted existentialism and absurdism. The forefathers of existentialism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both wrote parables. Students throughout the Western world read Sartre’s plays and Camus’ novels.

…[T]here is a certain ‘literariness’ to Existentialism, so that the prevalence of novels and other literary texts in the canon of Existential literature would seem to remove it further from the possibility of being a philosophy. Many of the ‘straight’ philosophical essays and books by thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are themselves cast in a literary vein, rather than in the disciplined rhetoric of a rigorous philosophical discourse.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 1

As a writer, I know the power of creative writing, especially when you want to explore how an individual reacts to situations. Academic writing tends to be not only dry but, bluntly, much of it is horrible. By mastering other literary forms, the existentialists became more effective writers in general. Few other philosophical schools of thought have had the reach of existentialism outside academia, in no small part because these thinkers were interesting authors.

Because of its dramatic conception of existence, its widespread use of powerful images in its arguments, and its appeal to personal response in its communications, existentialism has always been closely associated with the fine arts. [...] So strong is the influence ofexistentialist ideas in the fine arts that, as we have seen, some would prefer to describe existentialism as a literary movement. Certainly, authors like Dostoevsky and Kafka, playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco, and artists like Giacometti and Picasso exemplify many of the defining characteristics of existentialist thought.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 16

Most stories, excluding generational or situational epics, deal with one character’s journey. Stories are how we, as a culture, explore what it means to make choices about self-definition. The literature most closely associated with existential themes tends toward psychological thriller. It might be Sartre’s No Exit or any work by Kafka — the literature features an element of mystery.

The novel form has been of particular use to the Existentialists, and quite often in the guise of a thriller, literally in works such as Crime and Punishment, and metaphysically in a novel like The Trial. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. Novels usually depend upon a central character, and throughout the history of the form the focus of the novel has more often than not been the psychological, the inner workings of the mind and consciousness. As such, therefore, it is tailor-made for working through an individual’s awakening to the exigencies of existence.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, pp. 10-1

Sartre went so far as to suggest that art without an underlying, activist philosophy was worthless. An authentic writer would always be advocating for a set of beliefs, ideals, or actions. Sartre called this a commitment, not only to the art form but to humanity.

In a famous set of essays, What is Literature? published in 1948, Sartre develops the concept of ‘committed literature’. His basic premise is that writing is a form of action for which responsibility must be taken, but that this responsibility carries over into the content and not just the form of what is communicated.
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction; Flynn, p. 13

By communicating through art, existential thinkers of the past and present aim to reach the mass audience — moving existentialism from university philosophy departments to the general public. Using art to reach the public illustrates trust in the public, an egalitarian view of philosophy.

Art therefore has not simply been a pleasant and less demanding tool with which to disseminate and explore ideas; it has been part of the Existential ‘concern’.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 10

Politics of Freedom

Philosophy is political, and most political theories have been shaped by philosophy. Existentialism’s lack of a unified set of principles and its emphasis on individualism might imply that it is somewhat removed from public political action.

Existentialism might seem a refuge from politics. The focus on the subjective individual would appear to make any consideration of politics and political activity irrelevant.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 12

Existentialism, however, is often associated with politics. The political existentialists tended to be “leftist” during the twentieth century. These men and women felt compelled to be political, to act based on their ideals.

Camus, Sartre, and even Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they believed passionately in fighting for the survival of their nations and peoples. The politics of the existentialists and their colleagues varies, but each seeks the most individual freedom for people within a society.

Because of this emphasis on radical individualism, existentialism is sometimes compared to Ayn Rand’s objectivism or political libertarianism. Like existentialists, Rand and her followers used the arts to further a philosophy. However, objectivism claims there are basic, universal truths of human nature and experience. Rand’s works and objectivism embody a neo-liberal philosophy of personal self-interest and, by some, of greed. Most of the existential thinkers of the twentieth century are associated with left-leaning democratic socialism and even communism. Yes, this is also contradictory on its face, reflecting the complexity of any attempt to unravel existentialism.

Beliefs of Existentialists

There were and are scholars of theology associated with existentialism. The most famous might be Kierkegaard; other theologically inclined thinkers include Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich. Too often people link a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential ideals.

Existentialism is about being a saint without God; being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society.
— Anita Brookner (b. 1938), British novelist, art historian.
Interview in Writers at Work, Eighth Series, ed. George Plimpton (1988).

Existential thinkers as diverse as Kierkegaard and Sartre were not concerned with which beliefs (or unbelief) someone held, but instead the existential thinkers worried that too many people accept the values of community leaders uncritically. Nietzsche worried about following the “herd” instead of establishing personal beliefs and values.

The “angst” of existential freedom arises, at least partially, from the impulse to develop beliefs and values independently of a community. Not everyone feels the need intellectually or emotionally to develop his or her own beliefs; Nietzsche suggests only a handful of individuals are capable of such independence. And, for the theistic existentialists, one can still decide religious values are authentic for his or her existence.

The accompanying table illustrates the range of ideals expressed by the major existentialists. Not every existentialist follows a perfect row in the grid. In particular, their political theories are more varied than the three categories listed.


Religious Predetermination Elitist Moralistic Intentions
Agnostic Chance Communist Relativistic Actions
Atheistic Free Will Anarchist Amoralistic Results

The first row might represent the writings of Blaise Pascal or Fyodor Dostoevsky, both of whom defended fundamentalist religious beliefs, including their inherent contradictions. The last row is representative of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, if not his own beliefs. As previously stated, uniting the men and women behind this matrix of concepts is futile. Their thoughts are linked by a belief that this life is a near-futile struggle against forces aligned in opposition to the individual.

The Existentialists

The individuals listed represent major contributors to existentialism and related philosophies. This chart is in philosophical order, not in the order of publication or life. Following the chart is further information on other existentialists or contributors to the philosophy. I would like to thank site visitor Eduardo Tenenbaum for his suggestions for this chart. This chart has been revised several times, based on further readings and suggestions from site visitors.


Name
Philosophy / Faith
Contribution
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Eastern Orthodox
Russian novelist. Studied individual will, freedom, and anguish. Several of the characters created by Dostoevsky explore existential issues of freedom and self-determination. Many of these characters are criminals.
Søren Kierkegaard
Existentialist;
Protestant Theist
Danish theologian and philosopher. Sometimes considered the first existentialist, Kierkegaard’s works were popularized by Heidegger.
Formulated the aesthetic, ethical and religious as modes of existence. Perhaps best known for describing the “leap of faith” required of Christians in modern circumstances.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Individualist;
Anti-Christian
German philosopher and philologist (classicist). Ideas influenced Heidegger and Sartre. Developed concepts of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence and Overman.
Georg W. F. Hegel
German Idealism;
Protestant
German idealist philosopher and social theorist. Influenced Marx, Husserl, Sartre, and many others. Hegel’s followers broke into “left” and “right” wings. First to promote the concept of phenomenology.
Edmund Husserl
Phenomenologist
Austrian-born German philosopher and mathematician. Explored the subjective and objective nature of human experience. His mathematical training influenced his philosophical writings. Developed concept of essences and being. Also, the concept of the Lifeworld
Martin Heidegger
Phenomenologist, Existentialist;
Theist
German philosopher and curiously metaphysical thinker who disavowed metaphysics. Assistant to Husserl, wrote about Kierkegaard’s works. Argued that confronting the question of the meaning of being, encompassing one’s own death, was central for an authentic human existence. Proclaimed the end of metaphysics.
Franz Kafka
Absurdist;
Jewish
Austrian short story author, known for his depictions of absurd situations and illogical justice. Like Camus, Kafka admired those who rebelled against the natural absurdity of existence.
Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialist;
Atheist
French philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Student of Heidegger, colleague and lover of de Beauvoir. Likely the most influential figure in existentialism.
Gabriel Marcel
Humanist;
Roman-Catholic
French contemporary of Sartre, attempted to craft a definition of existentialism that allowed for faith.
Simone de Beauvoir
Existentialist;
Atheist
French writer, existentialist, and feminist. Best known as a “feminist” writer, she was the editor of many of Sartre’s works. Lover of Sartre, friend to Camus and Merleau-Ponty.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Phenomenologist, Existentialist;
Theist
French philosopher and educational theorist. One-time friend of Sartre, Camus. Supporter of Husserlian Phenomenology. Affirmed a reality beyond what humans could comprehend.
Albert Camus
Existentialist, Absurdist;
Atheist
French-Algerian author and journalist. Resistance member during WWII with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir. Brought “humanism” to his existentialism.
Karl Jaspers
Existentialist;
Agnostic, Theist
German psychiatrist, philosopher, and theologian. Contemporary of Sartre, Camus, et al. Jaspers sought to make philosophy more open for the general public… more relevant.

Other Thinkers of Note

Other figures important to understanding existentialism include:

  • Jean Wahl (1888–1974), French scholar
  • Nicolas Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948), Russian Neo-Romanticist
  • José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955), Spanish writer
  • Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Spanish philosopher
  • Leo Isakovich Shestov Schwarzman (1866–1938), Russian Irrationalist

Questions to Ponder

Philosophy and religion exist to answer “why?” when we want an excuse for human nature. Maybe science will explain away sociopaths and even mere anger someday. We can treat depression, anxiety, mania, and numerous other “disorders” with pills. Alienation, despair, and anguish may vanish. If they do, what of existentialism? Do humans need their pain? Is suffering what makes us stronger, as Nietzsche suspected?

Some questions posed by the thinkers profiled on this site:

  • If something worth living for is worth dying for, what about something not worth dying for? (Camus)
  • Did man create God to have a reason to live? (Dostoevsky)
  • Does society make women and men different or do we choose our roles? (Beauvoir)
  • Would living forever add meaning to life? (Heidegger)
  • How do you really act in private? (Sartre)
  • Without love, without people, what is a person? (Kafka)

As this short review of concepts demonstrates, the label existentialist is applied broadly. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist works, or at least the writings of people groups as the existentialists. There is no one or two sentence statement summarizing what more than a dozen famous and infamous people pondered. The only common factor seems to be “despair.”


Major Criticisms

Understand, I don’t claim to be an “existentialist” but rather a rhetorician with an interest in existentialism’s influence on the arts. While I agree with some of the criticisms of existentialism and its leading proponents, my primary interest is in broader existential questions, which are often at the core of great literature. Seldom is a good story about a community — great stories tend to be about one individual trying to define his or her purpose in life. But, the criticisms should be discussed so readers are aware of complaints against existentialism.

There Is No Existentialism

The charge there is no clear “existentialism” is a fair complaint, since only a few people ever embraced the term officially during the first half of the twentieth century. There is no one formal existential program, unless you start and stop with Jean-Paul Sartre. Even then, Sartre was constantly revising his own thoughts on the matter. Existentialism often finds itself excluded from “serious” discussions of philosophy because it seems fleeting — and even anti-philosophical.

… Sartre, while delivering a public lecture on Existentialism, at the same time wanted to claim it for technicians and philosophers alone. On the other hand, philosophy as a discipline has often had scant regard for Existentialism, and Bertrand Russell famously omitted Heidegger (and Husserl) from his History of Western Philosophy. Hence Existentialism would appear to fall between two stools, appropriated by many who otherwise have nothing to do with philosophy, while itself wishing to shun these in preference for an embrace from Philosophy proper.
Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 22

Alienated from Others

Among the criticisms of existentialism is that many of the celebrated figures were alienated from their own families, friends, and communities. This personal alienation resulted in a psychological need to rationalize their personal isolation, according to some critics. Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Nietzsche had unusual relationships with the people closest to them, certainly. No one describes Sartre and de Beauvoir as a model couple. Camus also struggled with various relationships.

Did a set of alienated thinkers develop a philosophy that celebrates awareness of alienation as a sign of intelligence? If so, the implication is that these thinkers wanted to validate themselves and their own failed social connections.

Limits of Free Will

Belief in pure free will would require rejecting all science or embracing the narcissistic view that some individuals are inherently superior. If free will is constrained by a number of factors, then existentialism rests on a faulty foundation according to some critics. Most psychiatrists long ago rejected notions of unconstrained free will.

Advancements in science have revealed the limits of “free will” and the human brain. Neurology, psychiatry, and other disciplines suggest a range of human conditions such as bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsion, depression, attention deficit, and others are physical in origin. The physical cause might be neurological damage or genetic mutation, but the cause is still beyond “free will.” Evolutionary psychologists, sociologists, behavioral economists, and other researchers suggest some behaviors are adaptations that help the human species survive.

Anarchy, Nihilism, and Fatalism

Especially among various radical groups and students, existentialism is associated with anarchism, nihilism, and fatalism. The criticism that existentialism can lead someone to these radical political movements is correct only insofar as people have found ways to co-opt Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and other existential thinkers. It is correct that misguided individuals use works associated with existentialism to justify political violence.

However, the philosophers and writers associated with existentialism present extremely complex analyses of rebellion and resistance — certainly not fatalistic views of social order. Having lived through World War II, the French existential figures Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre offered nuanced writings and speeches on revolutionary movements.

When existentialism is associated with anarchy, this is not the anarchy of theory, in which people evolve into a cooperative society without the need for governmental, organizational controls. Instead, this is the political movement that gained prominence in Europe during the early twentieth century, particularly in Mediterranean nations. The most famous anarchists’ movement is in Spain, tracing its history to the Spanish Civil War, but anarchists are influential in Greece, Italy, and southern France. The anarchists seek the violent overthrow of governments they believe to be obstacles to equality and freedom.

The violent protests of anarchists, a common event at international economic conferences, pale in comparison to the goals of political nihilists. Associated with pre-Revolutionary Russia, nihilism takes the belief that life is meaningless to an extreme. Originally the nihilists sought an embrace of science and logic, rejecting Romanticism. They also rejected German Idealism. Eventually the movement was overtaken be people who believed only the complete and total destruction of current order could free mankind. When people discuss nihilism and existentialism, they are suggesting the extreme belief that society as it is must be destroyed to free people from traditions and beliefs that serve no purpose.

Fatalism is the most extreme political movement associated, correctly or not, with existentialism. Fatalism doesn’t assume a reconstituted society will be better, as anarchism or nihilism do. Fatalism calls for the permanent, total destruction of humanity because life and existence is meaningless. The radical fatalist kills because killing quickens the end of humanity. Some fatalists seek to start larger conflicts, convinced wars and terrorism prove that mankind is unworthy of even an absurd existence.


What is Not Existential?

Lacking one answer to what is “existential,” I am going to present what is not in an attempt to clarify things through the fog (a reference to Camus). By understanding what existentialism excludes, discussions of what might be included become somewhat clearer. Generally, what we consider existentialism does not support any of the following:

  • The “good life” in classical terms, such as a philosophical key to wealth, pleasure, or honor.
  • A traditional embrace of social approval and social structure, trumping the individual.
  • A Tao-like acceptance what is, and accepting “being” as enough in life.
  • A belief, or even faith, that science can and will make everything better.
  • The utopian ideal that people are good by nature, ruined by society or external forces.

There are, according to existentialism and its predecessor, phenomenology, some problems with Western philosophical traditions. The basic problem is that humans are not good, sharing, generous creatures. Children are what we remain our entire lives… greedy, manipulative, brats. Some people disguise it better than others. The people in charge of America would be the people in charge of most countries: the best “political” people. Or, as one 60s radical said, “There were eventually leaders in every commune.”

Watch a preschool class. I owned a children’s bookstore, and before that I was a teacher. Children are not nurtured to behave poorly — the challenge is to socialize a child. We struggle to be social creatures. Society is unnatural. Rules are difficult.

“Mine” is naturally a child’s way of thinking. It is soon followed by “I didn’t do it!”

Existentialism requires the active acceptance of our nature. Robert G. Olson noted that we spend our lives wanting more and more. Once we realize the futility of wordly desire, we try to accept what we have. We turn to philosophy or religion to accept less. We want to detach from our worldly needs — but we cannot do so. It is the human condition to desire. To want. To seek more, even when that “more” is “more of less.” It is a desire to prove something to ourselves, as well as others.

The existentialists … mock the notion of a complete and fully satisfying life. The life of every man, whether he explicitly recognizes it or not, is marked by irreparable losses. Man cannot help aspiring toward the goods of this world, nor can he help aspiring toward the serene detachment from the things of this world which the traditional philosopher sought; but it is not within his power to achieve either of these ambitions, or having achieved them to find therein the satisfaction he had anticipated.
An Introduction to Existentialism; Robert G. Olson, p. 14

Existentialism assumes we are best when we struggle against our nature. Mankind is best challenging itself to improve, yet knowing perfection is not possible. Religions present rules, yet the believers know they cannot live by all of those rules. The “sin-free” life is beyond human nature. Is that any less reason to try to be good, generous, caring, and compassionate? Perfectionism is considered unhealthy by psychiatrists for a reason.

The Struggle

The word “existential” is used to describe so many people, fictional characters, choices, and situations that it has been reduced to meaning any dilemma revealing the true nature of a person. The notion of dilemma reduces “existential” to an adjective describing too many common choices. Existentialism properly defines a broader philosophy, in which life itself is a choice.

Why is Buddhism Not Existential?

Siddharta Gautama was appalled by suffering and chaos in the world. So much so, he left his wife and son to meditate on the meaning of everything. Unfortunately, he didn’t find answers among the gurus. There were no easy answers. In some ways, yes, Siddharta experienced an “existential” discovery: life is suffering.

But, Siddharta did not follow the existential notion of openly and physically rebelling or fighting to establish a meaning. He did not openly challenge people and political leaders. Instead, he took a different approach:

When he met his first disciples at Benares after his enlightenment, the Buddha outlines his system, which was based on one essential fact: all existence was dukkha. It consisted entirely of suffering; life was wholly awry. Things come and go in meaningless flux. Nothing has permanent significance. Religion starts with the perception that something is wrong. […] The Buddha taught that is was possible to gain release from dukkha by living a life of compassion for all living beings, speaking and behaving gently, kindly and accurately, and refraining from anything like drugs or intoxicants that cloud the mind.
A History of God; Karen Armstrong, p. 32

Unlike the existentialists, Siddharta is a stoic in nature: accept things as they are, don’t try to change them or control them. Curiously, the Buddha is rebellious in that his response rejects social norms. Siddharta was rejecting the Hindu teachings of his time, much as Kierkegaard challenged the ritualized nature of Christianity. But, Siddharta was not an “active” rebel (though all choices are active choices). He was, in many ways, teaching a passive resistance that the existentialists would reject.


Sources

Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate. Introducing Existentialism. Lanham, Md.: Totem Books, 2002. [1840462663]

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: A. A. Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1993. [0679426000]

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]

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: New American Library, 1975. [0452009308]

Olson, Robert G. An Introduction to Existentialism. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

Complete Bibliography




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Written by C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 10-Jun-2014
Edited by S. D. Schnelbach