Existentialism Explained

What is the meaning of life? It is likely that you have asked yourself this question before, this is known as an existential crisis. A state in which you re-examine your life in the context of death and are impacted by the contemplation of the meaning, purpose, or value of life.

Existentialism is a philosophy that explores this problem of human existence, with an emphasis on the individual who starts in an apparently meaningless world, and who seeks to create meaning in a world without inherent meaning.

Existentialism is most commonly associated with several 19th and 20th century philosophers: Søren  Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

However, many of these thinkers never used the term “existentialist” to describe themselves, some of them even rejected the label, while others accepted it. What they did share is a common template. Many of them regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies too abstract and remote from concrete human experience and focused on the authenticity of the individual.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of existentialism, who along with Nietzsche, provided the basic foundations of 19th century Existentialism.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

Dostoevsky is a key figure as well, although he was a novelist more than a philosopher, he was one of the first to properly define key existentialist ideas. Walter Kaufmann declares: “it is as if Kierkegaard had stepped right out of Dostoevsky’s pen”.

Thus, Existentialism is not just about philosophy, but also combines together into novels, literature, and poetry. Notes from the Underground is one of the most important works of existentialist literature, where Dostoevsky attempts to justify the existence of individual freedom as a necessary part of humankind. He argues that the abstraction of ideologies has no basis in what one actually is and that makes a person live an inauthentic life.

One of Dostoevsky’s existential messages is that the purpose of life is to act properly by being authentic to yourself.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Kierkegaard’s work focused on the individual as well, highlighting the importance of subjectivity, personal choice, and commitment. Although he was a Christian, he was very critical of Christendom, which was represented by the Danish Established Church, who made people live falsely religious lives.

People became so absorbed in the crowd that they became mere numbers of a herd. When religion is integrated into society, the social scene becomes the religious scene, and for that reason, religion had died.

Kierkegaard suggests that the only way out of existential angst is to take a leap of faith towards Christianity, emphasising a personal relationship with God, the subjective truth of the individual. It is the ultimate irrational experience, which is the most rational thing to do.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, was completely disillusioned with religion, announcing that God is Dead. He calls Christianity a slave morality, which resents the virtues of the powerful and promotes turning the other cheek. He wanted to create life affirming individuals, calling for a master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life, through a Revaluation of All Values, giving way to the figure of the ubermensch, thus man becomes God.

Friedrich Nietzsche

It is interesting to see the profound doctrinal differences between the thinkers, even while sharing a common template. Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were theistic thinkers, while Nietzsche was atheistic.

The term existentialism was actually coined in the mid-1940s by Christian Existentialist Gabriel Marcel, who focused on the modern individual’s struggle in a technologically dehumanising society.

Gabriel Marcel, coined Existentialism

Marcel later came to reject the label he himself had coined, to dissociate himself from figures such as fellow French Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, preferring the term Christian Socratic in honour of Kierkegaard’s work with Socratic irony.

Sartre adopted the existentialist label and greatly helped popularise existentialist thought. He proposes the famous maxim: “existence precedes essence”.

Jean Paul Sartre

Ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle believed that essence precedes existence. Every human being is born with an essence, that is what gives us the properties of being a human being. This is known as Essentialism.

Sartre flips this around and tells us that we are a blank canvas, that we create and make ourselves through what we do, and thus existence precedes essence. In this way, our life is a work of art. However, this freedom also becomes a slightly horrifying realisation:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Martin Heidegger is another important existentialist who talks about the idea of “thrownness”, that we are all thrown into the world, arbitrarily born into a given family, within a given culture and at a given moment in human history, these “givens” are facticities.

The task we decide to be constantly engaged in and care about have very little to do with us, they are sort of decided for us by the particular facticity that we were born into. We are thrown with neither prior knowledge nor individual opinion into a world that was there before and will remain there after we are gone.

Sartre would tell us that “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” He was very influenced by Heidegger’s masterpiece Being and Time, publishing his own book titled Being and Nothingness. However, Heidegger distances himself from Sartre’s existentialism due to major differences in their ideas.

Martin Heidegger

Once you realise that you are completely free, the responsibility that follows and the infinite possibilities that are open to you, creates a sort of dread.

It leads many people to adopt what Sartre calls Bad Faith, a way of denying the fundamental nature of our freedom and responsibility and accepting something as true, that might not be convincing, but that is convenient and easy for us to believe in.

He gives the example of a waiter who does not enjoy his job but goes to work every day and assumes the roles of a waiter, without feeling fulfilled. And when he thinks of applying to a different job, and all the difficult questions that would come along with that sort of life choice, he convinces himself that it’d be better to just remain a waiter.

This is similar to Kierkegaard’s idea that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”.

One may possess the ability to freely act, but if one never uses it and thinks about an endless sea of possibilities, one is effectively not capable of freely acting. One gets lost in the “infinite”, as Kierkegaard puts it, and lives a totally unimaginative everyday life.

Infinite sea of possibilities

The other part is getting lost in the “finite”. That is, not considering enough possibilities and just mindlessly going around the demands of culture and social expectations. People live a complete lie; they live because of what everyone tells them that’s what one does. This can be a scary realisation as most people are not aware of this, they see everything they do as their own choice.

Similarly, Heidegger tells us that inauthenticity occurs when we embody only our facticity (the reality we have been thrown into) and our fallenness (falling into tasks that other people tell us to do). One becomes Das Man “The-they”, surrendering one’s existence to a formless entity, instead of choosing to do something that we want, we do it because “that is what they do”.

Das Man “the-they”

Albert Camus was an acquaintance of Sartre. However, the disagreements between them emerged quickly and they eventually split. Camus is considered to be an existentialist, even though he firmly rejected the term throughout his life. He contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as Absurdism.

Camus describes the Absurd as:

“the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any meaning in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe”.

Man seeks for meaning, only to receive the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response.

Camus states: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.” This reflects the notion of the Absurd. The search of the possibility of the existence of God is humanly impossible, but this also entails that the proof that God does not exist is impossible too.

Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus is a fierce expression of the Absurd. Sisyphus is the absurd hero condemned to a lifetime of rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to reach the top and have the boulder roll back down to the bottom for him to start all over again, for eternity.

The Myth of Sisyphus

This incredibly vivid imagery is an allegory of the human condition, of our futile search for meaning in an indifferent and meaningless universe, while working on the same mundane tasks, we all have to push our own boulders, only to watch it roll back down.

Although all this only scratches the surface of existentialism, it can serve as a guide to explore its diverse thinkers, with core ideas such as authenticity, individuality, subjectivity, freedom and responsibility, in order to understand and pursue the meaning of your life.

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Existentialism in 10 Minutes

Existentialism is a philosophy that explores the problem of human existence, with an emphasis on the individual who starts in an apparently meaningless world, and who seeks to create meaning in a world without inherent meaning.

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6 thoughts on “Existentialism Explained

  1. Excellent piece! Thanks for sharing. Always had an interest in the existentialists, but let them kind of slip my mind for decades. Getting back into them now. Finished Camus’ “The Plague.” Loved it. Tackling Kirkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” Much more difficult for my pea sized brain. Maybe I like the presentation as fiction (Camus), rather than as “lecture” (Kirkegaard). At any rate, glad to be trying to absorb their works back into my brain. Thanks again.

    1. Awesome. I finished The Stranger by Camus recently. Getting into some Nietzsche now. Yeah if you like fiction, you should try Camus and Dostoevsky more. I am going to read Fear and Trembling as well soon 🙂 Thanks for your comment & interest!

  2. We push our boulders in circles too. Can the mind that needs to improve, do the improving? Can one really change their personality?
    Nice summation and interesting blog. Thanks.

    1. Those are great questions. I believe one has a certain control over one’s mind (Stoic perspective, to focus on what we can control, not on what we cannot). One’s personality can be changed through shadow integration (Jungian perspective). There’s many examples, but those are two that I like.

  3. Hmmm, I learned that while behavior can change; personality is set and can not change. Personality traits are consistent and stable; behavior is contextual. While we have control over our behavior, personality traits are beyond conscious control; thus, happening on a subconscious level.

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