change by reversal


[eg-zi-sten-shuh-liz-uhm, ek-si-]
Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine which posits that individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives, and that this essence follows from their existence. It emerged as a movement in twentieth-century literature and philosophy, foreshadowed most notably by nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though it had forerunners in earlier centuries. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka also described existential themes in their literary works.

It took explicit form as a philosophical current in Continental philosophy, first in the work of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers in the 1930s in Germany, and then in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir in the 1940s and 1950s in France. Their work focused on such themes as "dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness" as fundamental to human existence. Walter Kaufmann described existentialism as "The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life".

Although there are some common tendencies amongst "existentialist" thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them (most notably the divide between atheistic existentialists like Sartre and theistic existentialists like Tillich); not all of them accept the validity of the term.

Major concepts

Existence precedes essence

A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the actual life of the individual is what constitutes what could be called his or her "essence" instead of there being a predetermined essence that defines what it is to be a human. In other words, you could say that the claim that is being made is that the "essence" of human beings is to be who, not what they are. Although it was Sartre who explicitly coined the term, similar notions can be found in the thought of many existentialist philosophers, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger.

It is often claimed in this context that man defines himself, which is often perceived as stating that man can "wish" to be something - anything, a bird, for instance - and then be it. According to Sartre's own account, however, this would rather be a kind of bad faith. What is meant by the statement is that man is (1) defined only insofar as he acts and (2) that he is responsible for his actions. To clarify, it can be said that a man who acts cruelly towards other people is, by that act, defined as a cruel man and in that same instance, he (as opposed to his genes, or "the cruel nature of man," for instance) is defined as being responsible for being this cruel man. As Sartre puts it in his Existentialism is a Humanism: "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards." Of course, the more positive therapeutic aspect of this is also implied: You can choose to act in a different way, and to be a good person instead of a cruel person. Here it is also clear that since man can choose to be either cruel or good, he is, in fact, neither of these things essentially.

A focus on concrete existence

As seen in this first central proposition, existentialist thinkers focus on the question of concrete human existence and the conditions of this existence rather than determining a human essence. However, even though the concrete individual existence must be the primary source of information in existentialism, certain conditions are commonly held to be "endemic" to human existence. These conditions are usually in some way related to the inherent meaninglessness or absurdity of the earth and its apparent contrast with our pre-reflexive lived lives which normally present themselves to us as meaningful. When our meaningful representations of the world break down (which they may do at any time, and for any reason - from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment on the side of the individual), and we are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, the results can be devastating. It is in relation to this that Albert Camus famously claimed that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." Although "prescriptions" vary, from Kierkegaard's religious "stage" to Camus' insistence on persevering in spite of absurdity, the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers.


Dread, sometimes called angst, anxiety or even anguish is a term that is common to many existentialist thinkers. Although its concrete properties may vary slightly, it is generally held to be the experience of our freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the example of the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off. In this experience that "nothing is holding me back," one senses the lack of anything that predetermines you to either throw yourself off or to stand still, and one experiences one's own freedom.

It is also claimed, most famously by Sartre, that dread is the fear of nothing (no thing). This relates both to the inherent insecurity about the consequences of one's actions (related to the absurdity of the world), and to the fact that, in experiencing one's freedom, one also realises that one will be fully responsible for these consequences; there is no thing in you (your genes, for instance) that acts and that you can "blame" if something goes wrong. Of course, most of us only have short and shallow encounters with this kind of dread, as not every choice is perceived as having dreadful possible consequences (and, it can be claimed, our lives would be unbearable if every choice facilitated dread), but that doesn't change the fact that freedom remains a condition of every action. Søren Kierkegaard, in his The Concept of Dread, maintains that dread, when experienced by the young child in facing the possibility of responsibility for his actions, is one of the main forces in the child's individuation. As such, the very condition of freedom can be said to be a part of any individual's self.

Bad faith

Bad faith is seen as any denial of free will by lying to oneself about one's self and freedom. This can take many forms, from convincing oneself that some form of determinism is true, to a sort of "mimicry" where one acts as "one should." How "one" should act is often determined by an image one has of how one such as oneself (say, a bank manager) acts. This image usually corresponds to some sort of social norm. This does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is bad faith: The main point is the attitude one takes to one's own freedom, and the extent to which one acts in accordance with this freedom. A sign of bad faith can be something like the denial of responsibility for something one has done on the grounds that one just did "as one does" or that one's genes determined one to do as one did. Lying to oneself might appear impossible or contradictory. Sartre denies the subconscious the power to do this, and he claims that the person who is lying to himself has to be aware that he is lying - that he isn't determined, or this "thing" he makes himself out to be. Consider how far someone is (or you are) aware of lying in the cases of self-deception where someone adheres to comfortable but false beliefs and acting where both audience and actors collude in a make-believe world.


The existentialist concept of freedom is often misunderstood as a sort of liberum arbitrium where almost anything is possible and where values are inconsequential to choice and action. This interpretation of the concept is often related to the insistence on the absurdity of the world and that there are no relevant or absolutely "good" or "bad" values. However, that there are no values to be found in the world in-itself doesn't mean that there are no values: each of us usually already has his or her values before a consideration of their validity is carried through, and it is, after all, upon these values we act. In Kierkegaard's Judge Vilhelm's account in Either/Or, making "choices" without allowing one's values to confer differing values to the alternatives, is, in fact, choosing not to make a choice - to "flip a coin," as it were, and to leave everything to chance. This is considered to be a refusal to live in the consequence of one's freedom, meaning it quickly becomes a sort of bad faith. As such, existentialist freedom isn't situated in some kind of abstract space where everything is possible: since people are free, and since they already exist in the world, it is implied that their freedom is only in this world, and that it, too, is restricted by it.

What isn't implied in this account of existential freedom, however, is that one's values are immutable; a consideration of one's values may cause one to reconsider and change them (though this rarely happens). A consequence of this fact is that one is not only responsible for one's actions, but also for the values one holds. This entails that a reference to "common values" doesn't "excuse" the individual's actions, because, even though these are the values of the society the individual is part of, they are also his or her own in the sense that s/he could choose them to be different at any time. Thus, the focus on freedom in existentialism is related to the limits of the responsibility one bears as a result of one's freedom: the relationship between freedom and responsibility is one of interdependency, and a clarification of freedom also clarifies what one is responsible for.


A concept closely related to freedom is that of facticity. It is defined by Sartre in Being and Nothingness as that in-itself which you are in the mode of not being it. This can be more easily understood when considering it in relation to the temporal dimension of past: Your past is what you are in the sense that it co-constitutes you. However, to say that you are only your past would be to ignore a large part of reality (the present and the future) while saying that your past is what you were, would entirely detach it from you, which would rather be a kind of bad faith.

In relation to freedom, facticity is both a limitation and a condition of your freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of your facticity consists of things you couldn't have chosen (birthplace, etc), but a condition in the sense that your values most likely will depend on it.

Even though your facticity is "set in stone" (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine you. However, to disregard your facticity when you, in the continual process of self-making, project yourself into the future, would be to put yourself in denial of yourself, and thus to put yourself in bad faith. In other words, the origin of your projection will still have to be your facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially).

The Other and The Look

The Other (when written with a capitalised "o") is a concept more properly belonging to phenomenology and its account of intersubjectivity. However, the concept has seen widespread use in existentialist writings, and the conclusions drawn from it differ slightly from the phenomenological accounts. The experience of the Other is the experience of another free subject who inhabits the same world as you do. In its most basic form, it is this experience of the Other that constitutes intersubjectivity and objectivity. To clarify, when one experiences someone else, and that this Other person experiences the world (the same world that you experience), only from "over there," the world itself is constituted as objective in that it is something that is "there" as identical for both of the subjects; you experience the other person as experiencing the same as you. This experience of the Other's look is what is termed the Look (sometimes The Gaze).

While this experience, in its basic phenomenological sense, constitutes the world as objective, and yourself as objectively existing subjectivity (you experience yourself as seen in the Other's Look in precisely the same way that you experience the Other as seen by you, as subjectivity), in existentialism, it also acts as a kind of limitation of your freedom. This is because the Look tends to objectify what it sees. As such, when one experiences oneself in the Look, one doesn't experience oneself as nothing (no thing), but as something. Sartre's own example of a man peeping at someone through a keyhole can help clarify this: At first, this man is entirely caught up in the situation he is in; he is in a pre-reflexive state where his entire consciousness is directed at what goes on in the room. Suddenly, he hears a creaking floorboard behind him, and he becomes aware of himself as seen by the Other. He is thus filled with shame for he perceives himself as he would perceive someone else doing what he was doing, as a Peeping Tom.

Another characteristic feature of the Look is that no Other really needs to have been there: It is quite possible that the creaking floorboard was nothing but the movement of an old house; the Look isn't some kind of mystical telepathic experience of the actual way the other sees you (there may also have been someone there, but he could have not noticed that you were there, or he could be another Peeping Tom who just wants to join you).


Emphasizing action, freedom, and decision as fundamental, existentialists oppose themselves to rationalism and positivism. That is, they argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational. Rather, existentialists look at where people find meaning. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on what has meaning to them rather than what is rational. The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety, their fear of being in the world: "If I can believe that I am rational and everyone else is rational then I have nothing to fear and no reason to feel anxious about being free."

Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena — "the other" — that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder us from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress our feelings of anxiety and dread, we confine ourselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing our freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the look" of "the other" (i.e. possessed by another person - or at least our idea of that other person). In a similar vein, Camus believed that society and religion falsely teach humans that "the other" has order and structure. For Camus, when an individual's "consciousness", longing for order, collides with "the other's" lack of order, a third element is born: "absurdity".

The Absurd

The notion of the Absurd contains the idea that there is no meaning to be found in the world beyond what meaning we give to it. This meaninglessness also encompasses the amorality or "unfairness" of the world. This contrasts with "karmic" ways of thinking in which "bad things don't happen to good people"; to the world, metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad thing; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a good person as to a bad person. This contrasts our daily experience where most things appear to us as meaningful, and where good people do indeed, on occasion, receive some sort of "reward" for their goodness. Most existentialist thinkers, however, will maintain that this is not a necessary feature of the world, and that it definitely isn't a property of the world in-itself. Because of the world's absurdity, at any point in time, anything can happen to anyone, and a tragic event could plummet someone into direct confrontation with the Absurd. The notion of the absurd has been prominent in literature throughout history. Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and many of the literary works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus contain descriptions of people who encounter the absurdity of the world. Albert Camus studied the issue of "the absurd" in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.



Atheistic existentialism is the form of existentialism most commonly encountered in today's society. What sets it apart from theistic existentialism is that it rejects the notion of a god and his transcendent will that should in some way dictate how we should live. It rejects the notion that there is any "created" meaning to life and the world, and that a leap of faith is required of man in order for him to live an authentic life. In this kind of existentialism, belief in a god is often considered a form of Bad Faith.

In this kind of existentialism, the way to face the absurdity of the world is to create a meaning for yourself. This creation of meaning ex nihilo doesn't degrade your meaning as such, as all meaning would be created meaning. In other words, creating a meaning to your own life is completely legitimate, as long as you do not base it in "objective" existence, or let it be the main "pillar" of your life. According to Kierkegaard, one would be in a perpetual state of despair (although it would be an unrealised despair that one would flee from whenever it showed itself) if one had some meaning (It doesn't necessarily have to be one single meaning; even a multitude of meanings is fragile) as the main pillar of one's life.


Theistic existentialism is, for the most part, Christian in its outlook, but there have been existentialists of other theological persuasions, like Islam (see Transcendent theosophy) and Judaism. The main thing that sets them apart from atheistic existentialists is that they posit the existence of God, and that He is the source of our being. It is generally held that God has designed the world in such a way that we must define our own lives, and each individual is held accountable for his or her own self-definition.

In addition to this, it is commonly held that the only way to truly face the cruelties of the naked facts of existence is to have faith. This faith is by definition irrational, which means that you cannot be persuaded into faith; belief as the result of a logical proof of God would necessarily be an untrue belief. Reason may only bring you to the threshold of the domain of faith, and to apply reason to anything that lies beyond reason's reach is to "degrade" the irrational into the rational, which implies that you misunderstand it.


Though nihilism isn't existentialism, and existentialism isn't nihilism, these two philosophies are often confused. While a sort of nihilistic existentialism does indeed exist, it isn't as radical as pure nihilism. Another reason why these philosophies are often confused is that Friedrich Nietzsche is a central philosopher in both. What sets existential nihilists apart from pure nihilists is the fact that, while nihilists don't believe in any meaning at all, existential nihilists only believe this in relation to any sort of meaning to life (though this position is implied in "regular" nihilism, and existential nihilists may also subscribe to the full nihilistic view, existential nihilism is a separate view). While other existentialists will allow for meaning in people's lives (that meaning they themselves inject into it), existential nihilists will deny that this meaning is anything but self-deception. Existential nihilists could thus seem to be more pessimistic than the other existentialists, but even here, conclusions vary. Some will claim that the best thing to do is to commit suicide while others will claim that the lack of objective meaning to life means you should just do as you wish - a hedonism of sorts. There also are those who hold that nihilism is both a necessary burden of the authentic thinker and a source of dread, pushing them to hold in suspension his or her tendency to accept the reality of values while maintaining the unfulfilled desire for their discovery.

Historical background


Existential themes have been hinted at throughout history. Examples include the Buddha's teachings, the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes and Book of Job, Saint Augustine in his Confessions, Averroes' school of philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas' writings, and Mulla Sadra's transcendent theosophy. Another early precursor to Existentialism can be found in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Individualist political theories, such as those advanced by John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination rather than state rule over the individual. This kind of political philosophy, although not existential per se, provided a welcoming climate for existentialism. In 1670, Blaise Pascal's unfinished notes were published under the title of Pensées ("Thoughts"). He described many fundamental themes common to what would be known as existentialism two and three centuries later. Pascal argued that without a God, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, since people would eventually die. This was good enough reason not to choose to become an atheist, according to Pascal.

Existentialism, in its currently recognizable 20th century form, was inspired by Søren Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. It became popular in the mid-20th century through the works of the French writer-philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whose versions of it were set out in a popular form in Sartre's 1946 Existentialism is a Humanism and Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity. Gabriel Marcel pursued theological versions of existentialism, most notably Christian existentialism. Other theological existentialists include Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Miguel de Unamuno, Thomas Hora and Martin Buber. Moreover, one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer are also important influences on the development of existentialism (although not precursors), because the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were written in response or opposition to Hegel and Schopenhauer, respectively.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

The first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement were Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though neither used the term "existentialism" and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. Their focus was on human experience, rather than the objective truths of math and science that are too detached or observational to truly get at human experience. Like Pascal, they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. But Pascal did not consider the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs: such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser, in the view of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard's knight of faith and Nietzsche's Übermensch are examples of those who define the nature of their own existence. Great individuals invent their own values and create the very terms under which they excel. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism, nihilism, and various strands of psychology.

Heidegger and the German existentialists

One of the first German existentialists was Karl Jaspers, who recognized the importance of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and attempted to build an "Existenz" philosophy around the two. Heidegger, who was influenced by Jaspers and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, wrote his most influential work Being and Time which postulates Dasein (dah-zine), translated as, all at once, "being here", "being there", and "being-in-the-world"—a being that is constituted by its temporality, illuminates and interprets the meaning of being in time. Dasein is sometimes considered the human subject, but Heidegger denied the Cartesian dualism of subject-object/mind-body. Although existentialists view Heidegger to be an important philosopher in the movement, he vehemently denied being an existentialist in the Sartrean sense, in his "Letter on Humanism".

Sartre, Camus, and the French existentialists

Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist and is one of the few to have accepted being called an "existentialist". Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Being and Nothingness is perhaps his most important work about existentialism. Sartre was also talented in his ability to espouse his ideas in different media, including philosophical essays, lectures, novels, plays, and the theater. No Exit and Nausea are two of his celebrated works. In the 1960s, he attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason. A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility.

Albert Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Summer in Algiers. Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be concerned with people facing the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.

Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existential belief that we are absurd beings loose in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled "Absurdist" (based on Esslin's book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example Ionesco often claimed he identified more with 'Pataphysics or with Surrealism than with existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to existentialism based on Esslin's observation.

Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre, de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time, resulting in alienation from fellow writers such as Camus. Frantz Fanon, a Martiniquan-born critic of colonialism, has been considered an important existentialist.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an often overlooked existentialist, was for a time a companion of Sartre. His understanding of Husserl's phenomenology was far greater than that of Merleau-Ponty's fellow existentialists. It has been said that his work, Humanism and Terror, greatly influenced Sartre. However, in later years they were to disagree irreparably, dividing many existentialists such as de Beauvoir, who sided with Sartre. Michel Foucault would also be considered an existentialist through his use of history to reveal the constant alterations of created meaning, thus proving history's failure to produce a cohesive version of reality.

Dostoevsky, Kafka, and the literary existentialists

Many writers who are not usually considered philosophers have also had a major influence on existentialism. Among them, Czech author Franz Kafka and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky are most prominent. Kafka created often surreal and alienated characters who struggle with hopelessness and absurdity, notably in his most famous novella, The Metamorphosis, or in his master novel, The Trial. Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground details the story of a man who is unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself. [paragraph needs citations and clarification.] Many of Dostoevsky's novels, such as Crime and Punishment, covered issues pertinent to existential philosophy while offering story lines divergent from secular existentialism: for example in Crime and Punishment one sees the protagonist, Raskolnikov, experience existential crises and move toward a worldview similar to Christian Existentialism, which Dostoevsky had come to advocate.

In the 20th century, existentialism experienced a resurgence in popular art forms. In fiction, Hermann Hesse's 1928 novel Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), sold well in the West. Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. "Arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers. Existentialist novelists were generally seen as a mid-1950s phenomenon that continued until the mid- to late 1970s. Most of the major writers were either French or from French African colonies. Small circles of other Europeans were seen as literary precursors by the existentialists, but literary history increasingly has questioned the accuracy of this perception.


Herbert Marcuse criticised Existentialism, especially Being and Nothingness (1943), by Jean-Paul Sartre, for projecting anxiety and meaninglessness (features of modern society) onto the nature of existence itself: "Insofar as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory". In 1946, Sartre already had replied to Marxist criticism of Existentialism in the lecture Existentialism is a humanism. In Jargon of Authenticity, Theodor Adorno criticised Heidegger's philosophy, especially his use of language, as a mystifying ideology of advanced, industrial society, and its power structure.

In Letters on Humanism, Heidegger criticized Sartre's existentialism:

Existentialism says existence precedes essence. In this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which, from Plato's time on, has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it, he stays with metaphysics, in oblivion of the truth of Being.

In From Descartes to Wittgenstein, Roger Scruton says that Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith were self-inconsistent; both deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide them. In chapter 18, he says: "In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity, which consists in the purely self-made morality, is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force."

Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, say Existentialists frequently are confused about the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being". They argue that the verb is transitive, and pre-fixed to a predicate (e.g., an apple is red): without a predicate, the word is meaningless. Another confusion, in existentialist metaphysical literature, is that existentialists try to understand the meaning of the word "nothing" (the negation of existence) by presuming it must refer to something. Borrowing Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, logical positivists argue that existence is not a property.

Influence outside philosophy

Cultural movement and influence

The term existentialism was first adopted as a self-reference in the 1940s and 1950s by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the widespread use of literature as a means of disseminating their ideas by Sartre and his associates (notably novelist Albert Camus) meant existentialism "was as much a literary phenomenon as a philosophical one." Among existentialist writers were Parisians Jean Genet, André Gide, André Malraux, and playwright Samuel Beckett, the Norwegian Knut Hamsun, and the Romanian friends Eugene Ionesco and Emil Cioran. Prominent artists such as the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning have been understood in existentialist terms, as have filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman. Individual films such as the 1952 western High Noon and Fight Club (1999) have also been cited as existentialist. Also, existential theological influence is apparent in the Angel's Egg.


Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodernist and existential elements. Books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (now republished as Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick, Toilet: The Novel by Michael Szymczyk and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existential themes. Ideas from such thinkers as Dostoevsky, Foucault, Kafka, Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, Gilles Deleuze, and Eduard von Hartmann permeate the works of artists such as Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Szymczyk, David Lynch, Crispin Glover, and Charles Bukowski, and one often finds in their works a delicate balance between distastefulness and beauty.


Existential themes have been evident throughout 20th century cinema. Many films portray characters going through the "existential dilemma" or existential problems. Just as there is much controversy about the definition of existentialism, there is a fine line between existential and non-existential films. One might ask how certain movies can be considered existential, while others are not, and the judgment is purely subjective. However, for the sake of discussion, it is beneficial to provide a clear definition of existential movies. The most accurate definition says that existential movies are those which have strong plots that deal with subjects such as dread, boredom, nothingness, anxiety, alienation and the absurd. Furthermore, the definition states that movies which deal with the themes of existential literature seriously are also considered as being existential.

A number of 1940s and 1950s-era films explored existential themes, including the US film noir genre, which explored the ambiguous moral dilemmas of people drawn into the gangster underworld. Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. The characteristic heroes of noir are described by many critics as "alienated" and "filled with existential bitterness." Film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The movies are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. Classic film noir has been associated by many critics with the American social landscape of the era—in particular, with a sense of heightened anxiety and alienation that is said to have followed World War II.

Existentialist themes were also present in other genres. The French director Jean Genet's 1950 fantasy-erotic film Un chant d'amour shows two inmates in solitary cells whose only contact is through a hole in their cell wall, who are spied on by the prison warden. Reviewer James Travers calls the film a "...visual poem evoking homosexual desire and existentialist suffering" which "... conveys the bleakness of a existence in a godless universe with painful believability"; he calls it "... probably the most effective fusion of existentialist philosophy and cinema.

Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory "illustrates, and even illuminates...existentialism" by examining the "necessary absurdity of the human condition" and the "horror of war" . The film tells the story of a fictional WWI French army regiment which is ordered to attack an impregnable German stronghold; when the attack fails, three soldiers are chosen at random, court-martialed by a "kangaroo court", and executed by firing squad. The film examines existential ethics, such as the issue of whether objectivity is possible and the "problem of authenticity".

Some contemporary films dealing with existential issues include Fight Club, Waking Life, and Ordinary People. Likewise, films throughout the 20th century such as Taxi Driver, High Noon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, The Seventh Seal, Ikiru, I Heart Huckabees and Blade Runner also have existential qualities. Notable directors known for their existentialist films include Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Woody Allen.


Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, an existentialist play originally published in French as Huis Clos (meaning in camera or "behind closed doors") which is the source of the popular quote, "Hell is other people." (In French, "l'enfer, c'est les autres"). The play begins with a Valet leading a man into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell. Eventually he is joined by two women. After their entry, the Valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All three expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively, by probing each other's sins, desires, and unpleasant memories.

Existentialist themes have also influenced the Theatre of the Absurd, notably in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which two men divert themselves while they wait expectantly for someone (or something) named Godot who never arrives. They claim Godot to be an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting they would not recognize him if they saw him. Samuel Beckett, once asked who or what Godot is, replied, "If I knew, I would have said so in the play." To occupy themselves they eat, sleep, talk, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide—anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay”. The play “exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos.” The play also illustrates an attitude toward man's experience on earth: the poignancy, oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and bewilderment of human experience that can only be reconciled in mind and art of the absurdist. The play examines questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of God in human existence.

Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Comparisons have also been drawn to Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, for the presence of two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character. Many plot features are similar as well: the characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time. The two characters are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding. They stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications, and muse on the irrationality and randomness of the world.

Jean Anouilh's Antigone also presents arguments founded on existentialist ideas. It is a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and the play of the same name (Antigone, by Sophocles) from the fifth century B.C. In English, it is often distinguished from its antecedent by being pronounced in its original French form, approximately "Ante-GŌN." The play was first performed in Paris on 6 February 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France. Produced under Nazi censorship, the play is purposefully ambiguous with regards to the rejection of authority (represented by Antigone) and the acceptance of it (represented by Creon). The parallels to the French Resistance and the Nazi occupation have been drawn. Antigone rejects life as desperately meaningless but without affirmatively choosing a noble death. The crux of the play is the lengthy dialogue concerning the nature of power, fate, and choice, during which Antigone says that she is "... disgusted with [the]...promise of a humdrum happiness"; she states that she would rather die than live a mediocre existence.


Christ's teachings had an indirect style, in which his point is often left unsaid for the purpose of letting the single individual confront the truth on their own. This is evident in his parables, which are a response to a question he is asked. After he tells the parable, he returns the question to the individual. An existential reading of the Bible demands that the reader recognize that he is an existing subject studying the words more as a recolection of possible events. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" which are outside and unrelated to the reader, but may devlop your reality/God. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon him, but as though they are inside him and guiding him from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life-or the learner who should put it to use? Existentially speaking, the Bible doesn't become an authority in a person's life until they authorize the Bible to be their personal authority. Existentialism has had a significant influence on theology, notably on postmodern Christianity and on theologians and religious thinkers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and John Macquarrie. It has also surfaced in theologically-themed media, such as the Angel's Egg.

Existential psychoanalysis and psychotherapy

One of the major offshoots of existentialism as a philosophy is existential psychology and psychoanalysis, which first crystallized in the work of Ludwig Binswanger, a clinician who was influenced by both Freud and Heidegger, and Sartre, who was not a clinician but wrote theoretical material about existential psychoanalysis. A later figure was Viktor Frankl, who had studied with Freud and Jung as a young man. His logotherapy can be regarded as a form of existential therapy. An early contributor to existential psychology in the United States was Rollo May, who was influenced by Kierkegaard. One of the most prolific writers on techniques and theory of existential psychology in the USA is Irvin D. Yalom. The person who has contributed most to the development of a European version of existential psychotherapy is the British-based Emmy van Deurzen.

With complete freedom to decide, and complete responsibility for the outcome of decisions, comes anxiety (angst). Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that a patient can harness his anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his or her full potential in life. Humanistic psychology also had major impetus from existential psychology and shares many of the fundamental tenets. Terror management theory is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when they are confronted with the knowledge they will eventually die.

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