What is Existentialism?

Existentialism was a mid-twentieth century European philosophical movement that focused on human existence and the meaning of life (1). Major themes within existentialist literature include freedom, absurdity, and alienation.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is sometimes considered the founder of existentialism. In matters of religious faith, Kierkegaard emphasized the intensity of emotions and the willingness to believe in that which cannot be rationally understood. Kierkegaard referred to “anxiety” as constituting the person’s most fundamental trait. Anxiety is a real feature of experience because people have the freedom to choose from countless options in the world but know they have to, at some point, select one. The individual is free but is also able to make mistakes in this freedom; the more options one has the greater his chances of making errors are. Freedom thus evokes feelings of ambiguity and the uncomfortable experience of “dread.” It is nonetheless important, maintains Kierkegaard, that one avoids running away from anxiety. Instead, to fulfill one’s human potential this anxiety needs to be embraced, challenged, and, ultimately, overcome. How one is to go about doing this is a question that interested later philosophers.

Much of existentialist thought traces back to Martin Heidegger (1889-1876), the author of Being in Time (1927). According to Heidegger, an individual ascribes her own life with meaning by engaging in specific projects. A project, such as studying a course in university or working a specific occupation, is an activity that the person has freely selected to pursue. However, although Heidegger emphasizes freedom, he was also aware that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. An individual’s choices are bound by circumstances, historical period, social context, one’s own nature, and is therefore limited. Heidegger also speaks of alienation from the world. One is alienated because she has been thrown into the world and discovers that many things are beyond her control.

Perhaps the most famous of the existentialist philosophers was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), notable for his claim that “existence precedes essence.” This phrase was Sartre’s way of saying that persons do not have an intrinsic essence constituting their purpose. In other words, human life possesses no intrinsic meaning. However, to Sartre, that life lacks intrinsic meaning actually opens up a field of possibilities to define meaning. One is free to define the meaning of her life, a view espoused by the feminist, existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who wrote that “the task of man is one: to fashion the world by giving it a meaning… it seeks to explain the individual’s place “in a world turned upside down”” (2). The French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960), in his book The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), attempted to explicate the purposelessness of human existence. Camus compares human existence to the Greek myth of Sisyphus who is condemned to push a rock up a hill for all eternity, yet to only have it roll back down to the bottom each time he reaches the hill’s top. Although Sisyphus’s project is meaningless, he still ultimately finds meaning and purpose in it by applying himself to the project.

In all this there is an absurdity to human existence. Human existence is absurd, claim the existentialists, because life and the universe have no reason for existing. Just as there is no ultimate purpose to Sisyphus pushing the stone to the top of the hill, so is human life purposeless no matter what projects one pursues. Consequently, phenomena typically deemed meaningful, such as scientific and moral progress, are devoid of ultimate value and meaning. Nonetheless, in the midst of this absurdity persons can embrace freedom. Sartre maintained that human beings are radically free to define themselves and the meaning of their lives. It is because of the freedom to define one’s own meaning that human beings are unique. Individualism can be seen to underpin much of existentialist thought. As de Beauvoir realized, “it affirms that the will of free being is sufficient for the accomplishment of freedom, yet it also states that this will can posit itself only by struggling against the obstacles and the oppressions that limit the concrete possibilities of man” (3). There is no external agent or source, such as God, to give humans meaning. The purpose of one’s life is entirely up to the individual, which itself carries huge responsibility.

Like any philosophy, existentialism has its challenges. One issue de Beauvoir attempted to address is existentialism being merely a “nihilist philosophy, willfully pessimistic, frivolous, licentious, despairing, and ignoble” (4). Indeed many have criticized existentialism for failing to break free of the meaninglessness constituting its foundations. The critic argues that if human life is objectively meaningless then no matter what project one dedicates himself to will this ever change. The critic observes a cognitive dissonance in the existentialist who, on the one hand, claims life to be absurd and meaningless, yet, on the other, that one can define his own purpose and live meaningfully. To live on such a worldview believing one’s life is meaningful is to embrace delusion. Some other philosophers, a number of whom are religious, argue that human life has objective purpose and meaning. Indeed if human existence can be successfully argued to be purposeful and meaningful, then existentialism loses its central claim. Existentialism also encounters the problem of subjectivism. Without a transcendent standard by which the existentialist can use to define what is meaningful as opposed to what is not, any claim to this effect reduces to personal preference. But if personal preference is the standard, then whose preference ought to be preferred or claimed to be superior?


  1. Bonevac, Daniel, 2015. Existentialism. Available.
  2. de Beauvoir, Simone. 2005. “What is Existentialism?” In Philosophical Writings (Beauvoir Series), edited by Marybeth Timmermann and Margaret Simons, 323-326. p. 325.
  3. de Beauvoir, Simone. 2005. Ibid. p. 325.
  4. de Beauvoir, Simone. 2005. Ibid. p. 320.


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