Introduction to Existentialism

Existentialist thinkers over the last few centuries have created some of the greatest works of philosophy and literature Western civilization has ever seen. However, putting one’s finger on what existentialism is proves quite difficult. The goal of this article is to help people better understand existentialism and some of the ideas put forth by its greatest thinkers. Before we begin it should be noted that existentialism encompasses a wide variety of ideas and as such we will only touch on a few of the main ones.

More specifically we will briefly go over the history of existentialism, discuss what for existentialists is the key concern of philosophy, examine the meaning of the often quoted phrase “existence precedes essence” and look at the difference between existentialism and nihilism.

In order to understand existentialism, it will be helpful to make clear what it is not. Existentialism is not a philosophical system, nor should it even be viewed as a set of doctrines, rather it is probably best classified as a philosophical movement.

As a movement, existentialism arose in 19th century Europe, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are often characterized as the founding fathers of the movement, with the 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky is also considered one of its originators.

While the modern roots of existentialism are found in the 19th century it was not until the early to mid-20th century, and especially after World War II, that existentialism really rose to prominence. This was the time which saw such influential existentialists as Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and probably most famously the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Having briefly examined the history of existentialism the next question that needs to be addressed is what is it that ties all the existentialist thinkers together?

One answer to this question is that those in the existentialist movement, whether past or present, all share a deep concern, in one way or another, with what they consider to be a monumental problem; that being the problem of life as a human being.

As Robert Solomon expressed it in his work From Hegel to Existentialism:

“[Existentialism] is an attitude that recognizes the unresolvable confusion of the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar. . .The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.” (From Hegel to Existentialism, Robert Solomon)

In other words, existentialists all share a common concern with what is called the “human condition”. They take seriously such questions as; Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?; and How should I go about living my life? Existentialist thinkers have differed widely on their evaluations of the human condition, which is one reason the movement is tough to define.

However, what is common among existentialists is that in addressing the human condition they tend to vehemently reject systems or theories – be they philosophical, religious, or scientific – which attempt to answer questions regarding the meaning and purpose of human life in an all-encompassing or absolute manner. In other words, systems which profess to have answers to such questions, which are not only seen as definitive and timeless, but also seen as applying to all human beings, whether one is willing to accept such answers or not.

The most prominent system of this type in the history of Western Civilization has undoubtedly been Christianity. Religious and philosophical systems which offer such definitive answers to life’s questions have been very attractive throughout history. This is largely due to the fact that they remove the massive burden that is encountered for those who try to create meaning and purpose for their life in a unique and personal manner.

While facing the human condition and life’s inescapable problems as an individual, without the assistance of a pre-made religious or philosophical system, is undoubtedly extremely difficult, it is what most existentialists have advocated. The reason that existentialists are largely in favour of individuals finding answers to life’s problems on their own, is that they believe that adhering to systems which espouse absolute and all-embracing answers to the existential problems of life is actually detrimental to one’s development into an authentic and free human being.

One major problem with these systems, that existentialists have identified, is that they do not adequately take into account what it is like to be human. Often such systems will see the meaning and purpose to life as somehow emanating from an alternative, objective realm, such as heaven or Plato’s world of forms for example. But in doing so they lose sight of the perspective of what life is like for an individual living on this earth and experiencing all the fears, anxieties, hopes and disappointments that are a part of the human condition. For example, many of the mass organized religions often provide answers to many of the vexing questions of life from the perspective of an all-knowing and all-powerful God, whose word is thought to be communicated to us through prophets. However, existentialists stress that what we most need is not a divine perspective of the human condition, but a human perspective, for as Nietzsche put it we are ultimately, much to his chagrin, “human, all too human”.

A specific problem with the divine perspective is that it does not adequately take into account a fundamental aspect of the human condition – that being our mortality. Many religions, both past and present, have denied the temporal nature of life and instead subscribed to a belief in some form of immortality.

Some existentialists have suggested that it is essential for one to face-up to their impending death. For when we come to fully accept that the only existence we can be certain of is a temporal one, the shock of such a realization can help give us the strength to stop living in conformity with the masses and instead take control of our own lives and live by standards and values of our own choosing.

This idea of being able to freely choose standards of value and create meaning and purpose in one’s own life is closely related to another famous existentialist idea; that for humans “existence precedes essence”. This idea was put forth by Jean-Paul Sartre in a lecture he gave in 1945 titled “Existentialism is a Humanism”; but it should be noted before we discuss this view that is was not shared by all existentialists during Sartre’s time, Heidegger for example was not a fan of such an assertion.

So what exactly does such a statement mean? To understand what Sartre was getting at, it will be helpful to start by examining the meaning of the term essence. The concept of an essence is put forth most famously in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle believed that every substance – or in other words every independent thing be it a person, a rock, or a tree – has an essence. The essence of a substance is also sometimes referred to as its nature and can be seen as the necessary properties or characteristics which are essential for the thing to be what it is.

Aristotle had a teleological, or goal-oriented view of nature as he believed that all substances in nature tend towards the actualization of their essence. So for example an acorn has a tendency to develop into its essence of a full grown oak tree. In terms of humans, Aristotle saw our nature, or essence, as acting in full accordance with reason, and it was this idea which influenced scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages to come up with the now commonly used definition of man as the “rational animal”. Aristotle believed that humans, unlike inanimate matter and other animals, were free to choose whether or not to act in accordance with their essence. However, that being said he did not believe humans could create their own unique essence during the course of their lives.

In a similar manner, for those who believe in an omnipotent God who designed and created the universe, the essence of humans is not something determined in the course of one’s life, but rather is determined by god prior to the existence of the individual. Thus for those who adhere to such beliefs the essence of humans can be said to precede their existence.

Sartre, on the other hand, saw the situation of humans in the opposite light, to him, our existence precedes our essence. In Sartre’s mind humans are fundamentally different from things such as cars, watches, or phones. For things of this type it is obviously appropriate to say that their essence precedes their existence as they are designed and built with a pre-determined function in mind. But for Sartre, who was an atheist, humans are not designed by a supernatural being with a specific function in mind, rather we come into this world lacking a pre-determined essence. However, our ability to make free choices gives us the chance to sculpt a unique essence for ourselves during the course of our lifetime, or as Abraham Kaplan puts it in The New World of Philosophy:

“…for man and man alone, his existence precedes his essence. First, a man is; and what he is is settled in the course of his existence. A man’s existence is not exhausted by his exhibiting a particular essence, by his being just a man of whatever kind he is. He is more than just a type, a character defined by some role or other. People of this sort are sometimes met with in fiction, and then we say in fact that the character isn’t “real” but only a personified type without human personality. The author has given him a name but has failed to breathe life into him; he is only an animated cliché. In short, his existence is determined by an essence, but in reality the situation is exactly the reverse. The human being, in his every action, defines his own essence.” (The New World of Philosophy, Abraham Kaplan)

A final point that we will address in this article is the difference between existentialism and nihilism.  Often people mistakenly view all existentialists as nihilists, but as we will see this is not true. Nihilism, in its broadest sense, is the view that there is no meaning or purpose to life. Now while an existentialist could certainly be a nihilist, and some indeed are, nihilism is not a necessary characteristic of existentialism. Rather, many existentialists while rejecting any objective purpose to life, as a nihilist would, have stressed the ability for humans to create personal or subjective meaning for their lives, something a nihilist would deny as a possibility.

Nietzsche, for example, who saw nihilism as a disease, formulated the idea of “become who you are” which was aimed at helping individual’s overcome the affliction. But for Nietzsche becoming who you are and thus overcoming nihilism was not done by grasping onto some objective meaning or clinging dogmatically to the answers given by some all-encompassing system, but rather was done by developing a meaning and purpose for one’s own life and living by the standards and values one created in the process.

Nietzsche, like virtually all existentialists who have advocated the creation of a personal meaning to life, understood the huge difficulty associated with such a task, and we will conclude this article with a poetic warning by Nietzsche for those who choose to take such a road:

“Injustice and filth they throw after the lonely one: but, my brother, if you would be a star, you must not shine less for them because of that. And beware of the good and the just! They like to crucify those who invent their own virtue for themselves—they hate the lonely one.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Existentialism
Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1962) – William Barrett
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (2006) – Thomas Flynn
Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide (2008) – Thomas Wartenberg
Existentialism For Dummies (2008) – Christopher Panza and Gregory Gale

Famous Existentialist Works 
Basic Writings of Existentialism (2004) – ed. Gordon Marino
Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1975) – Walter Kaufmann
A Kierkegaard Anthology (1973) – ed. Robert Bretall
The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Being and Time (1927) – Martin Heidegger
The Stranger (1942) – Albert Camus
Being and Nothingness (1943) – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Ethics Of Ambiguity (1947) – Simone de Beauvoir
The Outsider (1956) – Colin Wilson