Existentialism For Dummies
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No doubt you've heard someone speaking of an "existential crisis." What does that really mean, anyway? Existentialists believe that we're born without purpose into a world that makes no sense — but each person has the ability to create his or her own sense of meaning and peace. Discover who invented this relatively new school of philosophy as well as what concepts define existentialism.

Who are the existentialists?

Existentialism is a term applied to some late 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who may not have agreed about much, but who all believed that each person must define themselves in an absurd, illogical world. The following are the core figures of existentialist philosophy.

  • Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855): The Danish son of a wealthy merchant, Kierkegaard never held an academic post, but he wrote voluminously. Seen by many as the founder of existentialism, particularly Christian existentialism.

    • Key contributions: His analysis of religious experience, and the first developed analysis of many key existential concepts, including absurdity, anguish, authenticity, the weight of responsibility you bear for your choices, and the importance of the irrational to human life

    • Key works: Either/Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), The Sickness Unto Death (1849)

  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900): The devout son of a Lutheran minister in Prussia, Nietzsche eventually broke with the church to become one of its staunchest critics and another founding father of existentialism.

    • Key contributions: Announcing the death of God; changing the human project from that of finding value and meaning to creating value and meaning; returning philosophy to its Greek roots and the concern for the health of the soul

    • Key works: Human, All too Human (1878–1880), The Gay Science (1882–1887), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1891), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Genealogy of Morals (1887), Ecce Homo (1888)

  • Martin Heidegger (1889–1976): The most thoroughly academic of the existentialists. His involvement with the Nazi party couldn’t stop his magnum opus from being one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

    • Key contributions: Turning existentialism into the systematic study of existence, particularly of Dasein; developing the concepts of being thrown and the situated subject

    • Key work: Being and Time (1927)

  • Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980): Heidegger’s most celebrated pupil, and the leading French existentialist. Philosopher, novelist, playwright, and political activist, Sartre lived the existential mantra of engagement in the world.

    • Key contributions: Popularizing existentialism; summarizing the existential perspective in the phrase existence precedes essence; developing existentialism as a philosophy of freedom

    • Key works: Nausea (1938), Being and Nothingness (1943), No Exit (1943), Existentialism is a Humanism (1947), Anti-Semite and Jew (1947)

  • Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986): Seen by some as a mere mouthpiece of Sartre, de Beauvoir was a brilliant thinker in her own right, and she made significant contributions to literature, feminism, and existentialism.

    • Key contributions: Addressing the problem of other people; the development of a sophisticated existential ethics; grounding much of modern feminism in a largely existential framework

    • Key works: The Blood of Others (1945), The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), The Second Sex (1949), The Mandarins (1954)

  • Albert Camus (1913–1960): In many respects, Camus is the conscience of existentialism. A deeply compassionate man, his philosophy was centered on what he considered the universe’s greatest injustice — death. Ironically, he died at a relatively young age.

    • Key contributions: Writing the greatest and most accessible of all existential novels, The Stranger; developing existentialism as a philosophy of absurdity; infusing existential philosophy with compassion and genuine humanity

    • Key works: The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), The Rebel (1951)

Key existential concepts

The meaninglessness of life, the absence of God, the loneliness of being a thinking individual — it sounds like the existentialists weren’t the happiest group of folks, right? Not necessarily true. Read on to get an idea of what existentialism is all about.

  • Absurdity: What human beings encounter when they come into contact with the world. Absurdity is brought about because the human instinct to seek order and meaning is frustrated by the refusal of the world to be orderly or meaningful.

  • Anxiety: Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” You feel anxiety because you recognize that you and you alone are responsible for your actions. This produces the two-sided feeling of simultaneous dread and exhilaration.

  • Alienation: The sense that you’re a stranger in the world, or a stranger to yourself. Many aspects of existence can be alienating. One of the primary sources is absurdity. Ironically, the stories and systems developed by philosophy and religion to address that absurdity can be just as alienating.

  • Existence precedes essence: Sartre’s phrase to describe the existential situation humans find themselves in. It refers to the fact that when you’re born, you have no meaning, no purpose, no definition. Human beings exist first, and only later define themselves.

  • The Übermensch: The word Nietzsche uses to refer to his ideal human being. Literally “overman,” the word reflects the importance in his philosophy of overcoming — overcoming traditional values, overcoming the herd mentality, and, most importantly, overcoming yourself. You overcome these things so that you might attain something greater. Nietzsche’s Übermensch is an unconventional creator of values, a joyous free spirit, and one who embraces the earth instead of pining away for heaven.

  • The death of God: The death of the notion that belief in God alone, or belief in any religious or philosophical system, is sufficient to provide human beings with the meaning, purpose, and definition they crave. It’s the recognition that, because no external system can provide you with the answers, you must take responsibility for providing them yourself.

  • Subjectivity: Your first-person perspective on the world, including the needs, desires, and emotions that accompany that perspective. The existentialists take this as a valid and important starting point for genuinely human endeavors. This can be contrasted with the scientific mindset, which always starts with objectivity — seeing people in impersonal, objective terms without emotion or appreciation for their individual point of view.

About This Article

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Christopher Panza, PhD, teaches courses on existentialism, ethics, and free will and has published articles on teaching philosophy. Gregory Gale is an adjunct professor of philosophy.

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