Although there is no single doctrine common to all and only existentialists, existentialism is a philosophical movement in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe loosely held together by addressing fundamental questions about human existence. For example: Am I free? Am I responsible for my actions? Is life meaningful, or absurd? Are ethical and aesthetic values discovered or invented? Is an authentic life possible? What sort of political, religious, or sexual commitment should there be? What is existence? How should I face death? Accepting the label “existentialist” is neither necessary nor sufficient for being an existentialist.
To understand the claims of the Danish Lutheran philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846); “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity” it is necessary to be brought up sharp by the reality of one’s own existence. Each of us divides existence into two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive portions: that part one is, and the remainder, which one is not. “Subjectivity” (subjektivitet) is Kierkegaard’s name for the lived reality of one’s own being. Facing death, that inevitable death that really will be my own, I experience a gnawing underlying anxiety or dread (angst) and intermittent despair (fortvivlelse). It is profoundly mysterious and productive of angst that some existence is your own. The “objective” truths of science and history, although truths, are by comparison abstractions. Responses to this condition pass through an aesthetic, an ethical, and a final religious stage which entails a “leap of faith”; according to Kierkegaard, the only viable way out. The scepticism about Christianity caused by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth has increased human alienation. I feel myself a stranger in the world.
The German essayist and aphorist Friedrich Nietzsche (1840-1900) explores ways of living given that “God is dead”, that is, either there is no God or people have stopped believing in God, or both. The “advent of nihilism” is the absence of any God-given source of value and meaning. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872) the early Nietzsche advocates affirming life through art. But, disillusioned with the metaphysics and aesthetics of Schopenhauer and Wagner, Nietzsche urges a shedding of conditioning through self-definition, and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) a transfiguration of values by the over-man (Übermensch). Because people will risk their lives for power, the will to power (Wille zur Macht) is more fundamental than the will to live.
In On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) Nietzsche grounds morality in power relations, distinguishing master from slave morality; the courage and strength valued by those with power, from the piety and compassion valued by those without power. There therefore exists a valuing of values, in which power is primordial. “The eternal recurrence of the same” is Nietzsche’s thesis that one should have the will to live one’s life as though one were doomed to repeat it an infinite number of times. Nietzsche’s own life ends in madness. The Nachlass, The Will to Power (1900),entails a process ontology rather than an ontology of Being.
In I and Thou (1923) the Austrian-Israeli Jewish theologian, Martin Buber (1878-1965) argues that human existing alternates between the relational modes “I-thou” (Ich-du) and “I-it” (Ich-es). In the I-thou relation, the subject treats the other as another subject; a centre of free consciousness, like oneself. In the I-it relation, the other is treated as a mere object, anonymously. Buber diagnoses much of the terror and oppression of the twentieth century in misconstruing people as objects on the I-it model, instead of respecting them as fellow subjects on the I-thou model. Materialist philosophy is a bogus legitimation of the same de-humanisation. The ultimate I-thou relation, between one’s own existence and God’s, is temporarily masked by the empty consumerism and materialism of modernity.
Although ordinary ontology is the branch of philosophy which addresses What is there? the “Fundamental Ontology” of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is a systematic attempt to answer the question What is it to be? The two questions are distinct, because being is not being something. Being, rather than not being, is not the same as being something or other. However, the massive and brilliant 1927 work Being and Time is unfinished, and essentially concerned with Dasein, that manner of being entailed by being a human being, rather than with Being itself (Sein). For this reason, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) categorises Heidegger as an existentialist in his October 1945 lecture to Paris’ Club Maintenant (The Now Club); “Existentialism is a Humanism”.
Heidegger resists the label in his essay “Letter on Humanism” (1949) but Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004), the French pioneer of post-structualism, suggests in “The Ends of Man” (1967) that Sartre has understood Heidegger better than Heidegger has understood himself, and that Heidegger is indeed an existentialist. Derrida is right because Heidegger’s authenticity or “ownness” (Eigentlichkeit), concern (Sorge), temporality, and thrownness (Geworfenheit) are existential structures of Dasein (human being). Heidegger describes being-in-the-world (in-der-Welt-sein) and leaves the question of being (Seinsfrage) unanswered.
Sartre defines “Existentialism” as the thesis that, in the case of human beings, existence precedes essence. Anything’s essence is what it is. Anything’s existence is the fact that it is. Existence is being. Essence is being something or other. (Medieval philosophers used to ask two questions: “Is it?” (an est?) and “What is it?” (quid est?) and distinguish something’s existing (esse) from its being what it is (id quod est)). In “existence precedes essence” “precedes” does not necessarily mean “earlier in time than” but “is a necessary condition for”. So Sartre means that a human being may be what they are, only if they exist.
Conversely, essence precedes existence in the case of artefacts; paradigmatically, planned objects produced by the manipulation of matter. An artefact may only exist, therefore, if there is something that it is. Its blueprint makes it possible. In the case of naturally occurring objects (trees, stones) existence and essence “coincide”: their being, and their being what they are, are mutually dependent (and, it follows, mutually sufficient). Sartre thinks it the mistake of the theist to assume humanity is like an artefact: If humanity were created by God, the essence of humanity in the mind of God would determine human existence. But, both at the level of the individual, and humanity as a whole, human beings are self-defining. We are the beings that make ourselves what we are.
Because, in the 1945 lecture, Sartre says “we are free”, “we are freedom”, “there is no determinism”, he is often misunderstood as having an exaggerated view of human freedom. He caused offence after the Second World War by suggesting that no one had been more free than the French resistants being tortured by the Nazis. Although the source of all value, freedom is not something comfortable for Sartre. The resistants agonisingly face the choice between betraying their comrades or remaining silent for moments longer. Freedom entails terrible responsibility.
In the chapter on freedom in Being and Nothingness (1943) Sartre draws a crucial but often overlooked distinction between freedom (la liberté) and power (le pouvoir). I might have very little power, for example be tied up and under torture. But I retain the capacity to choose. Sartre thinks there is no situation in which we do not have a choice, some choice or other. We are inherently choosers, choosing beings. The only respect in which we are not free is that we are not free not to be free. By comparison, scientific (or pseudo-scientific) doctrines of determinism are abstract, and expressive of that denial of one’s own freedom Sartre calls “bad faith” (la mauvaise foi).
In 1949, with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, Sartre successfully petitioned the French government for the release of the playwright and novelist Jean Genet (1910-86) imprisoned for theft and homosexual offences. The depiction of the criminal underworld or political radicals in Genet’s plays, for example The Balcony (1957) and The Blacks (1959), and in the quasi-autobiographical Thief’s Journal (1949) questions conventional “bourgeois” morality in ways endorsed by Sartre in his Saint Genet: Comedian and Martyr (1952) as the choosing of values, as the expression of authentic freedom.
Sartre and the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1913-1960) fuse existentialism with phenomenology into Existential Phenomenology. Phenomenology is the description of what appears to consciousness, with the aim of answering the Kantian question How is knowledge possible? and grounding knowledge in the first person singular, in a rather Cartesian way (while eschewing both Cartesian mind-body dualism and the unknowable Kantian thing-in-itself or thing-as-such (Ding-an-sich)). Following Heidegger, both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty argue that, because being is inextricably being-in the world (être-au-monde), the Austro-Moravian “father” of phenomenology Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was mistaken in attempting to reduce the world to its appearance, through the methodological device of epochē, or suspension of belief (notably in his 1913 book, Ideas).
Sartre fuses existentialism with Marxism in the massive and ambitious Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). Existentialism emphasises the free choice of the conscious individual in the present, but classical Marxism is a determinist, materialist, theory of history as class-struggle. The synthesis of the two philosophies therefore requires solving some central problems of philosophy: freedom and determinism, the mind-body problem, the existence of past, present, and future. Sartre argues that human reality is both individual and social, subjective and objective, bodily and conscious, historical, future directed, and present.
Sartre deploys dialectical reason; that method of problem solving derived (in modern philosophy) from the German idealist G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) which exhibits solutions to philosophical problems as entailing mutual dependencies between prima facie opposed concepts. In “Hegel’s Existentialism” in Sense and Non-Sense (1948) Merleau-Ponty argues that Hegel himself anticipates existentialist themes, especially in the “overcoming” of epistemology in the synthesis of being and knowing in “Absolute Knowledge” (das Absolute Wissen) at the end of his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).
The French Catholic convert Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) argues that although any individual has an ineradicable capacity to choose, addiction to the commodities of consumerism, or identifying oneself with a profession or social role, are obstacles to that increase in freedom that comes through realising one’s own possibilities through meeting the real needs of others. Self-realisation is therefore through the other. Fulfilment, or true being, is not by consuming but by “creative fidelity”. “Communion” with others entails their reciprocal presence. In The Mystery of Being (1951) and in over thirty plays, Marcel may be understood as offering Christian solutions to problems posed by atheistic existentialism. Marcel argued frequently, publicly and acrimoniously with Sartre.
The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus (1913-1960) opens with the claim that there is only one truly serious philosophical problem: suicide; whether life is worth the bother of living or not. Camus’ sustained answer is that life should not be refused, by suicide, but affirmed by perpetual revolt. The struggle for meaning is the meaning. Camus does not believe in God but says in his Notebooks (1951-9) “I am not an atheist”. The two positions are mutually consistent, because not believing does not entail disbelieving.
Camus’ literary work is held together by the question of how to live life in the certainty of one’s own death. Camus thinks religion provides no viable answer. In the short influential novel The Stranger (1942) Camus’s Mersault seems indifferent to the deaths of his own mother, the Arab he murders on the beach, and his own juridical execution for that crime. The novel ends with Mersault’s openness to the world’s “tender indifference” to him. In The Plague (1947) the lives, lifestyles, and ideologies of the inhabitants of Oran are tested by the terrible confrontation with suffering and death. For example: a journalist, a doctor, a smuggler, a magistrate, a priest, are depicted before, during, and (if they survive) after the plague. In the novel The Fall (1956) Amsterdam’s concentric system of canals is disturbingly reminiscent of Dante Alegeri’s Circles of Hell in his Inferno.
Martin Esslin seems to have coined the expression “The Theatre of the Absurd” in his 1960 essay and 1962 book of that name. The themes are markedly existentialist. In the play Waiting for Godot (1954), first published in French as En Attendant Godot (1952), by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-89) the tramps Vladimir and Estragon await the arrival of the unexplained, and perhaps inexplicable, Godot. Is Godot God? Is Godot meaning? Is Godot some perpetually postponed future? The play made little impact in early performances, and audiences were nonplussed, but it was received rapturously in St. Quentin Prison in California in 1957 by inmates who clearly understood it. The French Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco (1931-1994) breaks with conventional understandings of the real, for example by absurdly introducing rhinoceri on stage.
In the chapter “Existential Psychoanalysis” in Being and Nothingness Sartre rejects the existence of the unconscious on the ground that “unconscious mind” is contradictory. In a rather Cartesian way, Sartre insists that minds are essentially conscious or, more accurately, are consciousnesses. That which psychoanalysts have assumed to be the unconscious is, in fact, the subject’s past. Any past is someone’s past. Human beings make themselves what they are by their free present choices. Because anyone can always change, it is only at death that we may say: He was a coward, etc. In Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939) Sartre resists the assumption that emotions well over us deterministically. We choose our emotions as social strategies in refusing to face up to our very real choices. Existential psychiatry is advocated by Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969), Viktor Frankl (1905-97) and R. D. Laing (1927-89).
The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) argues that the existentialist thesis that existence precedes essence does not apply to women. In The Second Sex (1949) she describes how the essence of woman is prescriptively and oppressively imposed by man. In patriarchal society, a woman is essentially wife, mistress, sex object. de Beauvoir’s ethical claim is that human beings are worthy of respect as human beings, irrespective of their sex.
The American philosopher Hazel Barnes (1918-2008), the translator of Being and Nothingness, is the author of The Literature of Possibility: A Study in Humanistic Existentialism (1959) and An Existentialist Ethics (1967). Her The Story I tell Myself is subtitled A Venture in Existentialist Autobiography (1997).
In Crime and Punishment, the Russian novelist Fydor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) has Raskalnikov undergo an existential transformation through murdering his landlady.
The Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) authored a study of Sartre and over two dozen novels, many with overtly existentialist themes; the grounds for ethical, sexual, and political choice; the question of how to live.
In The Trial (1925) by the German-speaking Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) Joseph K.’s prosecution for an unknown crime by an unknown legal authority may be understood as an allegory for the human condition, construed in existentialist ways: We exist but did not choose to be. We face death but do not know why we are here.
In The Courage to Be (1952), and more technical works, the German Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) offers an existentialist theology. Anxiety in the face of non-being may be overcome by affirming one’s own existence through courage ultimately derived from “the God beyond God” that is, God as more or less ineffable ultimate reality and the object of faith, rather than God as conceptualised by philosophers and theologians. In Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (1955) Tillich argues that the fundamental questions of philosophy concern being, especially one’s own being.
There is existentialism outside modern European philosophy and literature. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates interrogates his interlocutors on questions of how to live. St. Augustine has that heightened sense of one’s own being necessary for existentialist thought. The New York philosopher Thomas Nagel (1938- ) also raises recognisably existentialist questions, perhaps most poignantly in his essays on death in Mortal Questions (1979) and in the chapter “Being Someone” in his The View from Nowhere (1986).