Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Existentialism is a philosophical movement characterized by an emphasis on individualism, individual freedom, and subjectivity. It was inspired by the works of Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and was particularly popular around the mid-20th century with the works of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and others, including the novelist, essayist, and playwright Albert Camus. The main tenets of the movement are set out in Sartre's L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.

Though many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.

Table of contents
1 Major concepts in existentialism
2 The return of existentialism
3 Criticism of Existentialism
4 Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement
5 See also

Major concepts in existentialism

"Existence precedes essence"

Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre's dictum, "existence precedes essence," which is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity except that which we make for ourselves. Human beings are not pre-determined in any way but are free to do as they choose - they must be judged by their actions rather than by what they are, since they are entirely what they do. In this way, Sartrean existentialism does not admit the existence of a god or of any other determining principle. Sartre also warned against all 'viscous' elements of existence that might ensnare the freedom that is the human being. As long as the traps of viscosity can be avoided, the main problem for the human being then becomes that of how to choose one's actions.




In Sartre's jargon, anguish is the feeling one gets when he recognizes that he is responsible, not only for himself, but for all of mankind.


Sartre defines despair as the feeling resulting from the realization that there is no sure footing in the world, and we can never know the results of our actions beforehand.


"When we speak of 'forlornness,' a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this." (Existentialism is a Humanism)

The return of existentialism

In the 1950's and 1960's, existentialism experienced a resurgence of interest in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Either/Or, sold well in the west, and "arthouse" films began to quote or allude to existentialist thinkers. At the same time that the students of Paris found in Sartre a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, others were appropriating the pessimistic themes found in Albert Camus and Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the despair of the unknowing self featured prominently (often in a pidgin form) in numerous films and novels.

Criticism of Existentialism

The opponents of existentialism assert that it fosters the particularization of human beings, stripping them of a universal sense of identity, which is entirely consistent with the claims of existentialists as the only universal allowed human beings is their fundamental freedom.

Though certainly not the first book to raise such an objection (in fact, Sartre was in some ways writing in response to such statements) Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature argues that of the aspects of an individual's behavior that vary across individuals, 50% is genetically determined, 40-50% is peer group learned, and 0-10% is parental, though what exactly a percentage means when applied to behavior is questionable. This can be read as retort to Satre's statement that "existence precedes essence", as genetics, in this sense, can be seen as a human essence. Sartre's ready-made reply, present in one form or another in most of his writings, is that the existence of choice means that we can choose to do other than what our biology or environment might lead us to do.

Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement

Novelists and Playwrights

Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Kafka, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Marquis de Sade, Hermann Hesse.


Nikolai Berdyaev, Henri Bergson, Karl Jaspers, Soren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, Gabriel Marcel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Blaise Pascal, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Stirner, Peter Wessel Zapffe


Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Viktor Frankl, R. D. Laing, Rollo May, Fritz Perls

See also

Being -- Being in itself -- Being for itself -- Being for others -- Free will -- Humanism -- Libertarianism