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Existentialism: A Philosophical Form of Enquiry into Subjective Existence

  • Existentialism is a philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence, including questions related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

  • Prominent existentialist thinkers include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Paul Tillich.

  • Existentialist thought emphasizes the human subject and critiques traditional systematic or academic philosophies as too abstract and removed from concrete human experience.

  • A primary virtue in existentialist thought is authenticity, and existentialism would influence many disciplines outside of philosophy, including theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

  • A central tenet of existentialism is that personal freedom, individual responsibility, and deliberate choice are essential to the pursuit of self-discovery and the determination of life's meaning.

  • The term existentialism was coined by the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel in the mid-1940s, and Jean-Paul Sartre adopted the label in a lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris, published as L'existentialisme est un humanisme.

  • Defining existentialism has been relatively difficult, and it is better understood as a general approach used to reject certain systematic philosophies rather than as a systematic philosophy itself.

  • A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which is to say that individuals shape themselves by existing and cannot be perceived through preconceived and a priori categories.

  • The notion of the absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it, and the absurd contrasts with the traditional Abrahamic religious perspective that establishes that life's purpose is the fulfillment of God's commandments.

  • Facticity is defined as the in-itself, which delineates for humans the modalities of being and not being, and is a limitation and a condition of freedom.

  • Authenticity involves the idea that one has to "create oneself" and live in accordance with this self, and for an authentic existence, one should act as oneself, not as "one's acts" or as "one's genes" or as any other essence requires.

  • The relationship between freedom and responsibility is one of interdependency and a clarification of freedom also clarifies that for which one is responsible.Overview of Existentialism

  • Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice, focusing on subjective human experience rather than objective truths of science and mathematics.

  • Facticity, in relation to authenticity, involves acting on one's actual values when making a choice, so that one takes responsibility for the act instead of choosing either-or without allowing the options to have different values.

  • The Other is the experience of another free subject who inhabits the same world as a person does. The Look is the experience of the Other's look and acts as a kind of limitation of freedom.

  • Existential angst is a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility.

  • Despair is a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more of the defining qualities of one's self or identity.

  • Existentialists oppose defining human beings as primarily rational, and, therefore, oppose both positivism and rationalism.

  • An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that they are an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of events.

  • Although nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another since both are rooted in the human experience of anguish and confusion that stems from the apparent meaninglessness of a world in which humans are compelled to find or create meaning.

  • Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement.

  • Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground portrays a man unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself.

  • Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo emphasized the life of "flesh and bone" as opposed to that of abstract rationalism.

  • Existentialism had a significant impact on various intellectual movements, including postmodernism and various strands of psychotherapy.Existentialism: A Brief History and Overview

  • Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice, and the subjective experience of existence.

  • The movement originated in the 19th century, with the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, and gained popularity in the 20th century.

  • Key existentialist themes include the search for meaning and purpose in life, the experience of anxiety and alienation, and the importance of individual choice and responsibility.

  • Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus are among the most famous existentialist thinkers.

  • Heidegger's Being and Time is considered a seminal work in the movement, as it presents a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence, to be analyzed in terms of existential categories.

  • Sartre's Being and Nothingness is another key work, in which he deals with existentialist themes and discusses the nature of human freedom.

  • Camus is known for his novels and essays, including The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, which explore existentialist themes of the absurdity of existence and the search for meaning.

  • Other notable existentialist thinkers include Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Lev Shestov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Paul Tillich.

  • Existentialism has had a significant impact on art, literature, and film, with notable works including Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and Orson Welles's The Trial.

  • Contemporary films dealing with existentialist issues include Melancholia, Fight Club, and Waking Life.

  • Existentialism is often associated with the French intellectual scene of the mid-20th century, with figures such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

  • Existentialism is still a relevant philosophical movement today, with its emphasis on individual freedom and choice remaining influential.Existentialism in Literature, Theatre, and Psychotherapy


  • Existentialism in literature began with the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in 1932.
  • Other authors, including Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse, and Ralph Ellison, composed literature with existential or proto-existential thought.
  • Even pulp literature, such as H. P. Lovecraft, contained existential disparity.
  • Céline’s novel is considered the proto-existential novel, and Sartre’s Nausea is considered an accessible way of grasping his philosophical stance.


  • Sartre’s No Exit, published in 1944, is an existentialist play that is the source of the quote: “Hell is other people.”
  • The Theatre of the Absurd, notably Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, displays existentialist themes.
  • Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist tragicomedy that expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
  • Jean Anouilh’s Antigone presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas.
  • Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov demonstrated the philosophy better than the plays by Sartre and Camus.

Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy:

  • Existentialist psychology and psychoanalysis first crystallized in the work of Otto Rank, Freud's closest associate for 20 years.
  • Psychotherapists using an existentialist approach believe that a patient can harness his anxiety and use it constructively.
  • Humanistic psychology had major impetus from existentialist psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets.
  • Terror management theory, based on the writings of Ernest Becker and Otto Rank, is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology.


  • Critics argue that existentialists are often confused about the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being."
  • Many critics argue that Sartre's philosophy is contradictory and that he makes metaphysical arguments despite his claiming that his philosophical views ignore metaphysics.
  • Herbert Marcuse criticized Being and Nothingness for projecting anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself.


  • "Existentialism." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 6 Jan. 2019.
  • "Existentialism." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Mar. 2021.

Test your knowledge of existentialism with our quiz! From the origins of the movement to its impact on literature, theatre, and psychotherapy, this quiz covers a wide range of topics related to existentialist thought. See how much you know about key existentialist thinkers, themes, and works, and gain a better understanding of this influential philosophical movement. Whether you're a student of philosophy or just curious about existentialism, this quiz is a great way to test your knowledge and learn something new.

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