Existentialism is a controversial philosophical tradition that begins with the premise that there is no pre-defined meaning of life. This opens up a range of questions about how to live a good life, freewill, and how to make choices.
Examples of existentialism include believing in individual choice, believing you can choose your own meaning of life, questioning the existence of god, and falling into despair due to overwhelm at having to define your own life.
Existentialism has no clear and universally agreed-upon definition. Generally, it denotes a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century (Crowell, 2020).
Here are three of the clearest scholarly definitions of existentialism that I could find:
- Guignon (2013) writes that “existentialists hold that humans have no pregiven purpose or essence laid out for them by God or by nature; it is up to each one of us to decide who and what we are through our own actions.”
- Lawless (2005, p. 326) writes that existentialists believe that “there are no universal standards for a human life: we are what we do, the sum of our actions.”
- Duignan (2011, p. 113) writes that existentialists believe that “there is no God, and therefore human beings were not designed for any particular purpose”. As there appears to be no pre-ordained meaning of life, humans “are free to choose how they will live.”
Sartre summarized existentialism in the slogan “l’existence précède l’essence” (“existence precedes essence”) (Sartre, 1945/1970).
This claim reverses the traditional philosophical view that the essence or nature of a thing is more fundamental than the mere fact that it exists.
All themes associated with existentialism such as boredom, alienation, absurdity, freedom, nothingness, dread, angst, and so on gain their significance when considered in the context of the search for new categories for understanding human existence.
What follows is a list of themes, concepts, and ideas associated with existentialism as a philosophical theory or an intellectual tradition.
1. Radical free choice: Existentialists often highlight that everyone has freedom of choice, and that no matter how constrained we may feel, there is almost always a choice that can be made. Our task in life is to create or own life with its own meaning through the choices we make.
2. Examining the meaning(less) of life: Life lacks a core meaning, and with that in mind, existentialists are concerned with creating meaning for themselves.
3. Absurdity: Because there appears to be no essential meaning of life, many existential philosophers have explored how the meaningless of life makes life seem absurd.
4. Existence precedes essence: Sartre argued, in his 1945 lecture “L’existentialisme est un humanisme,” that a central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, thereby reversing the traditional view (Sartre, 1945/1970). According to Sartre, the existence of a thing is more fundamental and immutable than its essence or nature. The essence comes later. Human beings create their values and determine the meaning of their life because there is no such thing as inherent value. A personality is not built based on a predetermined precise purpose. As he put it in the same lecture: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre, 1945/1970).
5. Belief in individual responsibility: If there is no invisible hand instructing our lives or directing us where to go, the weight of responsibility for making choices is great. Everyone is responsible for their own lives.
6. Questioning god: While some existentialists have argued for the existence of God, most have at least questioned the existence of god and at most argued that there is a god, he did not ascribe meaning to our lives.
7. Alienation: This, in existentialist thought, refers to the estrangement of the self from the world and itself. It is through our choices that the world takes on a meaning, but the world remains alien because it is not brought into being through our choices. The Heideggerian word “unheimlich” or “uncanny” refers precisely to the strangeness of a world in which we do not feel at home (Crowell, 2020). Even further, when we become aware of being looked at, we become aware of having a nature of being for someone else (Sartre 1943/1992, pp. 340-358).
8. Authenticity: For existentialists, there is a distinction between what we do as ourselves and what we do as anyone. Authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) refers to that attitude in which we interact with the world as ourselves. An action is inauthentic if it is done because that is what [someone] would do. For example, if I keep my promise because that is what “moral people” do, I am acting inauthentically. By contrast, If I keep my promises because I choose to commit to such behavior.
9. Facticity and transcendence: According to some existentialists, the properties of human beings are never merely facts but also questions. Who you are depends on what you make of yourself. To exist as a human being is to be an issue for oneself. Human beings are “self-interpreting animals” (Taylor, 1985, p. 45) and therefore transcend their merely factual properties. Facticity refers to natural and psychological properties, while transcendence refers to the agent’s perspective about themselves.
10. Ideality of values: The idea that freedom is the origin of all values is closely tied to existentialism. Existential thought denies the claim that values can be objectively true or false. In Sartre’s terms, the ideality of values refers to the fact that they have no authority outside the authority we give them. We make decisions concerning our fundamental values “without justification and without excuse” (Sartre, 1943/1992, p. 78).
Existentialism in Literature and Movies
Existential literature includes:
11. Alice in Wonderland: The core existential theme in Alice in Wonderland is Alice’s journey through a series of nonsensical soirees with nonsensical characters. Alice frequently reflects on the absurdity of her existence, questions what it all means, and why she is even in wonderland. The characters, furthermore, continue to pose riddles without answers. In all, the story is characterised as “literary nonsense” that provides no answers to the questions about existence and essence that it poses.
12. Lord of the Flies: The Lord of the Flies is sometimes characterized as existentialist literature for its exploration of a world where “existence precedes essence”. The cast of children find themselves stranded on an island with no purpose, social structure, or future. Their world is a blank slate where they must choose their own future through their actions. This lack of structure and purpose leads to the creation of a nihilistic and self-serving society of saveages.
13. The Age of Reason: In Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, we see a cast of characters – central among them the philosophy teacher Mathieu – who are “condemned to be free”. But this, Sarte means that the characters need to grapple with the fact that their future is not written for them, and they must make choices about the paths they must follow. They have no choice but to carve their own path, with no helping hand to make their decisions any easier for them.
14. The Big Lebowski: In The Big Lebowski, we see existentialism, absurdism, and nihilism represented in the philosophy of the main character, the Dude. The Dude is a laid-back guy who has come to terms with the fact life is meaningless. He establishes a “go with the flow” attitude in response to the meaningless of life and his knowledge that there is nothing beyond this life. This is his choice for how to live, based upon his acknowledgement that life is simply absurd and meaningless, so why bother worrying.
15. I Heart Huckabees: Billed an “existential comedy”, I Heart Huckabees follows a cast of characters who hire “existentialist” detectives to follow them around and help them find the meaning of life. A range of comedic tragedies, such as the loss of a house to a fire, realizing the pointlessness of the corporate ladder, and being fired, unite the characters’ storylines to demonstrate how we create meaning in our existence through ultimately ridiculous endeavors like materialism and seeking social status.
Many philosophers have been identified as existentialists, but some of them (Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, for example) repudiated the title.
Philosophers and writers commonly referred to as existentialists include:
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty
- Albert Camus
- Martin Heidegger
- Karl Jaspers
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Martin Buber
- Jean Wohl
- Gabriel Marcel
- Miguel de Unanimo
- Lev Shestov
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Henrik Ibsen
- Franz Kafka
- Samuel Beckett
- Franz Fanon
- Knut Hamsun
- Søren Kierkegaard
Which of these truly was and was not an existentialist is a matter of debate.
Go Deeper: Existentialism in Education
Existentialism has no clear and universally agreed-upon definition.
It can refer to a cultural movement, a broad philosophical doctrine, the specific shared philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, or an intellectual tradition.
There is no agreement as to who should and should not be considered an existentialist thinker, but the term does have coherence.
Carnap, R. (2022). Überwindung der Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache: (Great Papers Philosophie). Reclam, Philipp.
Crowell, S. (2020). Existentialism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/existentialism/
Guignon, C.(1998). Criticisms and prospects. In Existentialism. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved 22 Nov. 2022, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1/sections/criticisms-and-prospects. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1
Heidegger, M. (1978). Basic Writings from “Being and Time” (1927) to “The Task of Thinking” (1964). Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jonas, H. (1966). Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism. In The Phenomenon of Life. Harper & Row.
Khawaja, N. (2016). The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre. University of Chicago Press.
Sartre, J.-P. (1970). L’existentialisme est un humanisme. Nagel. (Original work published 1945)
Sartre, J.-P. (1992). Being and Nothingness. Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1943)
Saussure, F. de, (1959). Course in General Linguistics. Philosophical Library. (Original work published 1916)
Taylor, C. (1985). Self-Interpreting Animals. In Philosophical Papers I: Human Agency and Language. Cambridge University Press.
Webber, J. (2018). Rethinking Existentialism. Oxford University Press.