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What Is Existentialism?

What is the meaning of life? What is my fundamental purpose? Why do I exist? If you’ve ever found yourself pondering such questions, you’ve been dabbling in existentialist philosophy. The concept, however, is not easy to define. It can take diverse and sometimes contrasting directions — and many of the major names in existentialism, including Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, didn’t even accept the label.

Existentialism has its roots in the 19th century, with the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard in Denmark and Friedrich Nietzsche in Germany, as well as the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. These great thinkers were critical of rationalism and its adherence to pure reason, and instead focused on the question of meaning. One of the earliest statements of existentialist thought comes from a journal entry written by Kierkegaard in 1835: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know… the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Existentialism flourished in Europe from around 1930 to the mid-20th century, championed by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, a trio whose frequent meetings in Parisian cafés have become the stuff of literary legend. And while many of the leading existentialists of the 20th century disagreed about its tenets, there are certain shared elements that form the foundation of existentialism today.

We determine our own lives

Existentialism argues that we are defined by our existence as humans, and are responsible for finding meaning in our own individual lives. In existentialism, no omnipotent being or force determines a person’s life; rather, it’s up to each individual to set the course through our actions and decisions. We can see how this idea has been passed down through decades of existential thought in this quote, which first appeared in Dostoevsky’s ​​philosophical novel The Brothers Karamazov in 1880 and, in 1945, was used as an epigraph by Simone de Beauvoir: “Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being.” Or, as Sartre put it: “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”

Existential dread

The flip side of all this individual freedom and responsibility is that it can easily give rise to existential dread, also known as existential angst, anxiety, or anguish — or, in a modern psychological sense, an existential crisis. This arises from the search for meaning in life and confusion around our personal purpose. “Man is condemned to be free,” wrote Sartre, “because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” This freedom can give rise to the dreaded questions of whether life actually has meaning at all, and, if not, why do we go on living? In his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus posed the disconcerting notion that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

The absurd

Another central tenet of existentialism is absurdity — specifically, the absurdity of searching for answers in an answerless world. Take one of the most famous opening sentences in literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The line is fantastic and surreal, but beneath the strangeness of Franz Kafka’s famous short story, “The Metamorphosis,” lies an exploration of alienation and existential anxiety. For Kafka, the human condition is beyond tragic or depressed: It is absurd. Camus, meanwhile, argued that absurdity arises when an individual’s search for order clashes with the world’s inherent lack of order. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we have the courage to accept it, Camus suggested: “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

What about God?

Existentialism can be atheistic, theological, or agnostic. Kierkegaard was intensely religious, despite at times struggling with what that meant, and Paul Tillich was a devout Christian existentialist philosopher. Nietzsche, on the other hand, famously proclaimed that “God is dead,” while Sartre and De Beauvoir were radical humanist atheists. For the existentialists, the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe was more important than faith itself. Sartre saw belief in God as a non-issue: “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”

What is the meaning of life?

Existentialism cannot tell us the meaning of life. But if, as they say, we have been thrown into an absurd world, then the existentialists ask us to consider why, by exploring the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence. The philosophy also challenges us to strive for authenticity — to be true to ourselves. The concept of authenticity can vary from one existential philosopher to the next but, generally speaking, inauthenticity involves a form of social conformism and “bad faith,” whereas authenticity requires the individual to own up to their own existence, to accept it and take responsibility for it. This can lead to angst and alienation, but these are accepted as an integral part of authentic living.

As for the conclusions of the existentialist philosophers? Well, they are rarely set in stone, like existentialism itself. In Sartre’s Nausea, the main theme is that “existence precedes essence” — that humans do not possess any inherent identity or value, but rather create it themselves as individuals. In Camus’ The Stranger, we see the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. And in Either/Or, Kierkegaard concludes that “there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” So, again, don’t expect concrete answers from the existentialists. But perhaps we can take Kafka’s words here as a guidepost for how to think about life, by finding meaning in the simple fact of existence itself. In a heartbreaking letter to his abusive father — a letter his father never even read — Kafka wrote, “It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on Earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”

Photo credit: Milad Fakurian/ Unsplash

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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