Existentialism | Definition, History, Characteristics, Examples, Types, & Facts (2023)


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existentialism, any of various philosophies, most influential in continental Europe from about 1930 to the mid-20th century, that have in common an interpretation of human existence in the world that stresses its concreteness and its problematic character.

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Nature of existentialist thought and manner

According to existentialism: (1) Existence is always particular and individual—always my existence, your existence, his existence, her existence. (2) Existence is primarily the problem of existence (i.e., of its mode of being); it is, therefore, also the investigation of the meaning of Being. (3) That investigation is continually faced with diverse possibilities, from among which the existent (i.e., the human individual) must make a selection, to which he must then commit himself. (4) Because those possibilities are constituted by the individual’s relationships with things and with other humans, existence is always a being-in-the-world—i.e., in a concrete and historically determinate situation that limits or conditions choice. Humans are therefore called, in Martin Heidegger’s phrase, Dasein (“there being”) because they are defined by the fact that they exist, or are in the world and inhabit it.

With respect to the first point, that existence is particular, existentialism is opposed to any doctrine that views human beings as the manifestation of an absolute or of an infinite substance. It is thus opposed to most forms of idealism, such as those that stress Consciousness, Spirit, Reason, Idea, or Oversoul. Second, it is opposed to any doctrine that sees in human beings some given and complete reality that must be resolved into its elements in order to be known or contemplated. It is thus opposed to any form of objectivism or scientism, since those approaches stress the crass reality of external fact. Third, existentialism is opposed to any form of necessitarianism; for existence is constituted by possibilities from among which the individual may choose and through which he can project himself. And, finally, with respect to the fourth point, existentialism is opposed to any solipsism (holding that I alone exist) or any epistemological idealism (holding that the objects of knowledge are mental), because existence, which is the relationship with other beings, always extends beyond itself, toward the being of those entities; it is, so to speak, transcendence.

Starting from such bases, existentialism can take diverse and contrasting directions. It can insist on the transcendence of Being with respect to existence, and, by holding that transcendence to be the origin or foundation of existence, it can thus assume a theistic form. On the other hand, it can hold that human existence, posing itself as a problem, projects itself with absolute freedom, creating itself by itself, thus assuming to itself the function of God. As such, existentialism presents itself as a radical atheism. Or it may insist on the finitude of human existence—i.e., on the limits inherent in its possibilities of projection and choice. As such, existentialism presents itself as a humanism.

From 1940 on, with the diffusion of existentialism through continental Europe, its directions developed in keeping with the diversity of the interests to which they were subject: the religious interest, the metaphysical (or nature of Being) interest, and the moral and political interest. That diversity was rooted, at least in part, in the diversity of sources on which existentialism draws. One such source is the subjectivism of the 4th–5th-century theologian St. Augustine, who exhorted others not to go outside themselves in the quest for truth, for it is within them that truth abides. “If you find that you are by nature mutable,” he wrote, “transcend yourself.” Another source is the Dionysian Romanticism of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who exalted life in its most irrational and cruel features and made such exaltation the proper task of the “higher man,” who exists beyond good and evil. Still another source is the nihilism of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who, in his novels, presented human beings as continually defeated as a result of their choices and as continually placed before the insoluble enigma of themselves. As a consequence of the diversity of such sources, existentialist doctrines focus on several aspects of existence.

They focus, first, on the problematic character of the human situation, through which the individual is continually confronted with diverse possibilities or alternatives, among which he may choose and on the basis of which he can project his life.

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Second, the doctrines focus on the phenomena of that situation and especially on those that are negative or baffling, such as the concern or preoccupation that dominates the individual because of the dependence of all his possibilities upon his relationships with things and with other people; the dread of death or of the failure of his projects; the “shipwreck” upon insurmountable “limit situations” (death, the struggle and suffering inherent in every form of life, the situation in which everyone daily finds himself); the guilt inherent in the limitation of choices and in the responsibilities that derive from making them; the boredom from the repetition of situations; and the absurdity of his dangling between the infinity of his aspirations and the finitude of his possibilities.

Third, the doctrines focus on the intersubjectivity that is inherent in existence and is understood either as a personal relationship between two individuals, I and thou, such that the thou may be another person or God, or as an impersonal relationship between the anonymous mass and the individual self deprived of any authentic communication with others.

Fourth, existentialism focuses on ontology, on some doctrine of the general meaning of Being, which can be approached in any of a number of ways: through the analysis of the temporal structure of existence; through the etymologies of the most common words—on the supposition that in ordinary language Being itself is disclosed, at least partly (and thus is also hidden); through the rational clarification of existence by which it is possible to catch a glimpse, through ciphers or symbols, of the Being of the world, of the soul, and of God; through existential psychoanalysis that makes conscious the fundamental “project” in which existence consists; or, finally, through the analysis of the fundamental modality to which all the aspects of existence conform—i.e., through the analysis of possibility.

There is, in the fifth place, the therapeutic value of existential analysis that permits, on the one hand, the liberating of human existence from the beguilements or debasements to which it is subject in daily life and, on the other, the directing of human existence toward its authenticity—i.e., toward a relationship that is well-grounded on itself, and with other humans, with the world, and with God.

The various forms of existentialism may also be distinguished on the basis of language, which is an indication of the cultural traditions to which they belong and which often explains the differences in terminology among various authors. The principal representatives of German existentialism in the 20th century were Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers; those of French personalistic existentialism were Gabriel Marcel and Jean-Paul Sartre; that of French phenomenology were Maurice Merleau-Ponty; that of Spanish existentialism was José Ortega y Gasset; that of Russian idealistic existentialism was Nikolay Berdyayev (who, however, lived half of his adult life in France); and that of Italian existentialism was Nicola Abbagnano. The linguistic differences, however, are not decisive for a determination of philosophical affinities. For example, Marcel and Sartre were farther apart than Heidegger and Sartre; and there was greater affinity between Abbagnano and Merleau-Ponty than between Merleau-Ponty and Marcel.

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What is existentialism in history? ›

Existentialism (/ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃəlɪzəm/ /ˌɛksəˈstɛntʃəˌlɪzəm/) is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence. Existentialist philosophers explore questions related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

What are the types of existentialism? ›

Existentialism can be atheistic, theological (or theistic) or agnostic.

What are the 4 major themes of existentialism? ›

The four themes of Existentialism that I found to be the most significant and recurring in the works of the existentialists are as follows: the individual, God, being, and truth.

What are three beliefs of existentialism? ›

Of this work, there are generally three core principles that emerge as central to existentialist philosophy: phenomenology, freedom, and authenticity.

What is the origin and history of existentialism? ›

The roots of existentialism as a philosophy began with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard was intensely interested in man's relationship with God, and its ultimate impossibility. Man is finite and individual, whereas God is infinite and absolute, so the two can never truly meet.

What is an example of existentialism in real life? ›

Here are examples: You identify yourself as an athlete and have a promising career. Then you have a severe injury and your career is over. At that point, you would have an existential crisis because you have defined yourself as an athlete.

What are two basic concepts of existentialism? ›

What are the basic tenets of existentialism? - that Existence precedes Essence, meaning that what people do is more important that what they are. - People are both subjective and objective, they are thinking as well as acting beings.

What is the first characteristic of existentialism? ›

According to existentialism: (1) Existence is always particular and individual—always my existence, your existence, his existence, her existence. (2) Existence is primarily the problem of existence (i.e., of its mode of being); it is, therefore, also the investigation of the meaning of Being.

What type of theory is existentialism? ›

Existential theory is a centuries-old philosophy. It embraces personal freedom and choice. It purports that humans choose their own existence and meaning. European philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is thought to be one of the first philosophers of existential theory.

What are the six themes of existentialism? ›

  • Existence precedes essence.
  • Life is absurd.
  • Alienation.
  • Nothingness and Death.
  • Fear, Dread, Anxiety.
  • Freedom.

What are the big five existential concerns? ›

Five major Existential Concerns (ECs) have been posited: Death, Isolation, Identity, Freedom, and Meaning (see Koole, Greenberg, & Psyzezynski, 2006). The present study is an analysis of the inter-relations between all five ECs, as well as their relationships with depression and existential thinking.

What are the core values of existentialism? ›

The fundamental values that can be drawn from existential approaches such as the value of human life, freedom, authenticity, responsibility, and self-realization.

What is the main goal of existentialism? ›

Its principal aim is to clarify, comprehend, describe and explore rather than analyze, explain, treat or “cure” someone's subjective experience of suffering. What techniques or methods do existential therapists employ?

What are the most important facts about existentialism? ›

Existentialists argue that there is no master plan, no fate, and no god in heaven above making decisions for us. Instead, we have complete freedom of choice. Sartre argued that existence precedes essence, or in other words, we are born without a purpose, and it is up to us to find meaning in life and make it happen.

How do existentialists view life? ›

ABSTRACT: Existentialism lays stress on the existence of humans; Sartre believed that human existence is the result of chance or accident. There is no meaning or purpose of our lives other than what our freedom creates, therefore, we must rely on our own resources.

What is existentialism based on? ›

Existentialists believe that the nature of existence varies and is individualized to each person. We are defined by our existence, and our existence is made up of our relationship to other people and things in the world. They believe each person must choose and commit to meaning and direction in life.

Who influenced existentialism? ›

The development of existentialism as a philosophical doctrine in the 20th century was largely influenced by the German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, who in the 1920s and 1930s laid the groundwork for the French existentialists to come.

What is an example of existentialism in education? ›

An existentialist classroom typically involves the teachers and school laying out what they feel is important and allowing the students to choose what they study. All students work on different, self-selected assignments at their own pace.

What is a best example of existential question? ›

An existential question is a deep, philosophical question concerning the nature of of someone or something's existence. “What is the meaning of life?” is an example of an existential question.

What is existentialism example in literature? ›

In literature, existential themes can be found in No Exit, the Myth of Sisyphus and Waiting for Godot. In these literary works, we find characters engaged in pointless activities or waiting for other characters that never arrive.

What are existential key concepts? ›

There are many key ideas of existentialism.
  • Existence precedes essence. This is one of the most crucial concepts in understanding existentialist theory. ...
  • Freedom. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of unrestricted freedom for individuals to make their own choices. ...
  • Absurdity. ...
  • Anxiety. ...
  • Authenticity. ...
  • Abandonment.
Jun 14, 2022

What are the two branches of existentialism? ›

  • Existentialist anarchism.
  • Atheistic existentialism.

What are the characteristics of existentialism in education? ›

Existentialists believe that every individual is unique and education must cater to the individual differences. Therefore, the objective of education is to enable every individual to develop his unique qualities, to harness his potentialities and cultivate his individualities.

What are the four existential ways of being? ›

Four Existential Ways of Being
  • Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  • Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  • Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  • Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.
Jan 5, 2018

What are the key problems for existentialism? ›

The key problems for existentialism are those of the individual himself, of his situation in the world, and of his more ultimate significance.

What are the 6 tenets of existentialism? ›

  • Existence precedes essence.
  • Life is absurd.
  • Alienation.
  • Nothingness and Death.
  • Fear, Dread, Anxiety.
  • Freedom.


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