Skip to main content



Existentialism is not easily definable. Its protagonists have traced it back to Pascal, to St. Augustine, even to Socrates. It has been alleged in our time to be the doctrine of writers as various as Miguel de Unamuno and Norman Mailer. At first sight, characteristics of the doctrine are almost as various. That two writers both claim to be existentialists does not seem to entail their agreement on any one cardinal point. Consequently, to define existentialism by means of a set of philosophical formulas could be very misleading. Any formula sufficiently broad to embrace all the major existentialist tendencies would necessarily be so general and so vague as to be vacuous, for if we refer to a common emphasis upon, for example, the concreteness of individual human existence, we shall discover that in the case of different philosophers this emphasis is placed in contexts so dissimilar that it is put to quite different and incompatible uses. How then is existentialism to be defined?

Existentialist Themes

Existentialism may perhaps be considered most fruitfully as a historical movement in which connections of dependence and influence can be traced from one writer to another. Thus, even if two writers who are both rightly called existentialist differ enormously in doctrine, they can be placed in the same family tree. But this only throws the question of definition one stage back. How do we select our philosophical pedigrees? The answer must be in terms of a number of recurrent themes that are in fact independent of one another but have, as a matter of philosophical history, been associated in a variety of patterns. The key themes are the individual and systems; intentionality; being and absurdity; the nature and significance of choice; the role of extreme experiences; and the nature of communication.

the individual and systems

Søren Kierkegaard chose for his own epitaph the words "that individual." The concept of the individual for Kierkegaard was contrasted both with the concept of philosophical system and with the concepts of the stereotype and the mass. Between these contrasts there is a connection. A philosophical system was for Kierkegaard an attempt to understand individual existence within a conceptual scheme of a kind that would exhibit a logically necessary connection between every individual part and the conceptual scheme of the whole universe. People in the mass, or those who live out a stereotyped role, are people who understand themselves in terms of some concept or concepts they happen to embody. In both cases the individual is secondary to the concept it embodies. In fact, however, what exists comes first; concepts are necessarily inadequate attempts to grasp individual existence, which always evades complete conceptualization. One of the difficulties in understanding what Kierkegaard and his later followers have meant by assertions of this kind is that none of their detailed arguments appear to entail their conclusion. Consider two of these arguments.

The first is a revival of Immanuel Kant's argument against the so-called Ontological Proof. Like Kant, Kierkegaard argued that existence is not a property and that no concept of a given object entails the existence of that object. Also, Kierkegaard anticipated some modern writers in arguing that action and choice can be understood only if viewed from the standpoint of the agent rather than from that of the spectator. What is puzzling, however, is that Kierkegaard assumed that the notion of philosophical system is inextricably bound up with the viewpoint of the spectator and the refusal to admit that existence is not a property. In consequence, he concluded that justice can be done to the nature of the individual only if philosophical system building is condemned. The explanation for this particular line of thinking is that Kierkegaard equated the construction of philosophical systems with Hegelianism, and he interpreted Hegelianism as a form of rationalist metaphysics. It is noteworthy that some kind of metaphysical rationalism is almost always the background for existentialism. In countries where empiricism has a long history existentialism does not seem to flourish, even in the form of a reaction to the prevailing moods of thought.

Thus, it is perhaps instructive to regard existentialists as disappointed rationalists. When they announce that reality cannot be comprehended within a conceptual system or, more particularly, that individual existence cannot be so comprehended, they identify the role of a conceptual system with the notion of an all-embracing set of necessary truths derived by deduction from some axiomatic starting point. It may seem, therefore, that existentialists are sometimes doing no more than reformulating the empiricist protest against rationalism (namely, that no matter of fact can be expressed as a necessary truth) in an unnecessary and misleadingly dramatic way. The drama, however, has at least one independent source.

The nineteenth century witnessed a series of very diverse protests against the notion that the universe is a total system, whether one presided over by a Creator God or a purely rational one developing in an evolutionary progress toward higher and higher goals. That the universe does not make sense, that there are no rational patterns discernible in it, is a theme central, for example, to Fëdor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). Dostoevsky is often cited as a forerunner of existentialism precisely because in his disillusionment with rationalist humanism he stressed the unpredictable character of the universe and because his individuals appear face to face with pure contingency. Any established connection between things may break down at any minute. Order is a deceptive mask that the universe, especially the social universe, wears. The individual thus confronts the universe with no rational scheme by means of which he can hope to master it. Reason will only lead him to formulate generalizations that will, if he relies upon them, let him down.

Existentialism sometimes gives expression to this kind of view of the limitations of reason. But it is not thereby necessarily committed to irrationalism. At least some existentialist philosophers have been prepared to argue the case for the limits of reason on rational groundsindeed, on grounds that are partly Kantian. Moreover, when existentialist philosophers speak of the limits of reason they are usually careful to explain that they wish in no way to trespass upon the territory of the natural sciences or of mathematics. Karl Jaspers goes so far as to accept positivism as a valid account of the sciences, illegitimate only when it aspires to give an account of reasoning as such. Moreover, Jaspers would claim that the areas with which existentialism concerns itself are not outside the competence of reason but only demand that reason be understood in new and less restrictive ways.

The claims, therefore, that the individual cannot be comprehended within a rational system and that the universe which the individual confronts is absurd turn out to have a less striking content than might at first sight have appeared. What has led to their exaggeration is perhaps in part an association with two other philosophical traditions, phenomenology and the kind of philosophy that treats ontology as a central philosophical discipline. Each of these provides existentialism with characteristic themes, which will be considered below.


With the exception of Kierkegaard, existentialist philosophers often make use of a conceptual scheme derived from the phenomenologists Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl and, through them, from René Descartes. In attempting to answer such questions as What is belief?, What is an emotion?, and What is an act of will? phenomenologists wished to combat the associationist psychology that aspired to explain beliefs and emotions in purely naturalistic terms. In contrast, phenomenology emphasized that belief is always belief that and anger is always anger about. The object of belief or of emotion is not an object or a state of affairs in the external world. I may believe what is false or be angry about what did not in fact happen. So the object of belief or emotion is internal to the belief or emotion. It is, in the language of phenomenology, an intentional object.

Brentano concentrated on the isolated individual only in order to describe accurately the central features of believing, feeling, willing, and so on. Husserl treated the individual's consciousness of his own acts as having a primary role not unlike that which Descartes gave it. Among post-Husserl existentialists, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, the doctrine of intentionality is used to underline a fundamental difference between my knowledge of myself and my knowledge of others. Other people, so it is asserted, are viewed not as they are but as intentional objects of my perceptions, my beliefs, my emotions. But to myself I can never be such an object, nor am I in fact an object, and if they regard me as such their view of me is necessarily falsified. The obvious criticism of this is to say that the word object has been used as a pun. To say that my beliefs have intentional objects is to say neither that they are necessarily false nor that my beliefs about other people commit me to viewing them as things rather than people. But no existentialist writer is in fact making so simple a mistake. There is always some additional premise to the argument that provides a basis for the existentialist claim that to make others the object of my perceptions or beliefs is to view them as other than they are. In the writings of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for example, specific theses about the character of love and hate play an important role.

What is clear, however, is that although the doctrine of intentionality need not be understood in an existentialist way, this doctrine does add a dimension to the existentialist concept of the individual. Only through the notion of intentionality could the themes in Kierkegaard (which were partly an inheritance from the individualism of Protestantism and partly a reaction against G. W. F. Hegel) have become in Martin Heidegger part of a theory of knowledge and of a metaphysics.

being and absurdity

Existentialists, believing as they do that reality always evades adequate conceptualization, are especially apt to treat "Being" as a name, the name, in fact, of the realm which we vainly aspire to comprehend. "What the philosophers say about Reality," wrote Kierkegaard, "is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a shop window which reads: Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes to be pressed, you would be fooled; for only the sign is for sale" (Either/Or, 1843).

In Kierkegaard we get little or no systematic treatment of this kind of theme. In some of his successors, however, we find a systematic ontology, which owes more to the influence of scholastic metaphysics and of rationalism than it does to Kierkegaard. Heidegger took up Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's question, Why are there the things that there are rather than nothing? For Leibniz this question could be answered only by producing the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. For Heidegger the question itself is misleading, because the posing of it relies upon an inadequate analysis of the notions of being and of nothing. Heidegger treats "Being" and "Nothing" as if they were both names, sometimes the names of powers, sometimes the names of realms. It is not that he is entirely unaware of the logical difficulties encountered in so doing. But he treats such difficulties as evidence of the exceptionally elusive character of Being and Nothing rather than as a sign of his own mistakes. He also accepts the fact that scientific thought never uses such concepts or language, but this he treats as a testimony to the inadequacy of science as a method for understanding reality and to the need for poetry and philosophy. He distinguishes Being (Sein ) from beings (die Seiende ) and from modes of being. At times his writing is reminiscent of scholastic ontology, but it is more often aphoristic and oracular.

In Sartre, too, there is an implicit relation to metaphysical rationalism of the kind mentioned above. The thesis that existence is absurd, which is especially important in French existentialism, turns out to be a denial of the principle of sufficient reason. There is no ultimate explanation of why things are as they are and not otherwise. What is curious here is that on the one hand the fact that this is so is seen as a flaw in the nature of things. It belongs to what Heidegger calls their "fallenness"; the experience of it arouses in us anxiety and perplexity. Yet on the other hand that it is so is the guarantee of human freedom. Both German and French existentialists distinguish sharply between the beings that exist for themselves (pour-soi ), which have consciousness and freedom, and the beings that exist in themselves (en-soi ), which are simply things. Now, for existentialism all the important possibilities of human life are bound up with the fact of human freedom, so that to lament the absurdity of existence is in a way odd. But what this lament does reflect is the ambiguous attitude of existentialists to human freedom.

freedom and choice

If any single thesis could be said to constitute the doctrine of existentialism, it would be that the possibility of choice is the central fact of human nature. Even the thesis that existence precedes essence often means no more than that people do not have fixed natures that limit or determine their choices, but rather it is their choices that bring whatever nature they have into being. As existentialists develop this thesis, they are involved in at least three separate contentions.

The first is that choice is ubiquitous. All my actions imply choices. Even when I do not choose explicitly, as I may not do in the majority of cases, my action bears witness to an implicit choice. The second contention is that although in many of my actions my choices are governed by criteria, the criteria which I employ are themselves chosen, and there are no rational grounds for such choices. The third is that no causal explanation of my actions can be given.

The first thesis is given varying interpretations. For Kierkegaard a person's actions will always form part of a coherent way of life: the aesthetic, in which pleasure is pursued, or the ethical, in which principles are treated as binding, or the religious, in which God is obeyed. Between these one must choose, and it is in this sense that behind any action there lies a choice. For Sartre it sometimes appears as if each separate action expresses an individual choice. Even if I do not choose, I have chosen not to choose.

The second thesis is fundamental to existentialism. But it is plausible to hold that I am free to choose the criteria by which I discriminate true from false beliefs only if this contention is restricted to the field of morals and religions. Kierkegaard sometimes, although not always, allowed for this restriction.

The third thesis, which seems to be logically independent of the others, is often treated by existentialist writers as though it were entailed by the first two. This is less surprising when it is recognized that one of the impulses behind existentialism seems to be a dissatisfaction with the kind of nineteenth-century materialism which held that if human actions can be causally explained, then determinism is true in a sense that excludes the possibility of human agents' being responsible and free. However, instead of denying that causal explanation entails this kind of determinism, the existentialist takes the unnecessary step of denying the probability of causal explanations of human action.

anxiety, dread, and death

Kierkegaard argued that in certain psychologically defined moments truths about human nature are grasped. One such moment would be when we realize that we do not just fear specific objects but experience a generalized dread. Of what? Of nothing in particular. What is this nothing, this void we confront? Kierkegaard interpreted it in terms of original sin. Heidegger sees it as an ontological constituent of the universe. Sartre sees it as a confrontation with the fact of freedom, of our unmade future.

The variety of interpretations suggests that perhaps different experiences are being discussed or that the ratio of interpretation to experience may be too high. But stress on the extreme and the exceptional experience is common to all existentialism. Everyday experience, by contrast, is thought of as a conventionalized, predigested aid to complacency, conformity, and self-deception. Heidegger gives a very special place to the continuous awareness of one's own future death; Jaspers lays a more generalized stress on a range of situations in which the fragility of our existence is brought home to us.

the form of communication

Since the existentialist writer acknowledges the sovereignty of individual choice and the importance of the concrete situation, he cannot address himself to his audience in the manner of traditional philosophy, for ex hypothesi the reader has to make his own choices in the light of his own experiences. Argument will be powerless unless the reader chooses to agree with the author's premises. As a matter of fact, existentialist writings do commonly argue with the reader. But Kierkegaard, for example, was usually careful to frame his arguments in a hypothetical way: "If you choose this starting point, then that logically follows." He was also in the habit of writing different works under different pseudonyms, so that what the reader was confronted with would be a continuing debate between rival standpoints rather than a single argued case.

Later existentialist writers have developed in two differing ways. All the major existentialist philosophers have written systematic treatises. But they have also made large contributions to imaginative literature, and the content of existentialist philosophy makes it clear that dramatic dialogue, whether in plays or in the novel, is probably a form of expression more consistent with the author's intentions than deductive argument would be.

Such, then, are the shared themes of existentialism. But at this point one ought also to stress, even if briefly, the large differences that are compatible with the thematic resemblances between individual authors.

Existentialist Authors

Since the major existentialist philosophers are all treated in separate articles, what is delineated here is their interconnections insofar as they influence one another and above all the way in which the same themes recur in quite different social and philosophical contexts.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard elaborated all his fundamental doctrines in order to expound and to defend what he took to be true Christianity. The philosophers upon whom he drew were Hegel (though only to attack), Kant, Aristotle (purely as understood through the writings of Friedrich Trendelenburg), and the Platonic Socrates. In contrasting philosophy from Plato to Hegel with authentic Christianity, Kierkegaard emphasized the concepts of the individual, of choice, of dread, and of paradox. He thus originated all the fundamental themes of existentialism.

These themes have been put to a quite new use by Karl Jaspers, who is concerned with criticizing positivism rather than Hegelianism. He has undertaken this with a view to defending a generalized spirituality that Christianity shares with other religions, rather than to defending specifically Christian doctrines. Where Kierkegaard spoke of paradox, Jaspers speaks of contradictions, and in this he is influenced as much by Friedrich Nietzsche as by Kierkegaard.

Martin Heidegger, too, has felt the influence of Nietzsche. But St. Augustine and Husserl have also been important for his synthesis of existentialism and phenomenology. As a result of this synthesis Heidegger has outlined a systematic ontology which, as such, stands at the opposite pole to Kierkegaard's enterprise. Heidegger's world is one from which God is absent (in this, too, he contrasts with Kierkegaard), but he has denied that he is therefore an atheist. This has no doubt made it easier for theologians to utilize his writings but makes it all the more surprising that his key concepts should have been so easily integrated into yet another existentialist system, that of Jean-Paul Sartre.

In Sartre the concept of choice, which for Kierkegaard was a decision between fundamentally different ways of life, has become a ubiquitous presence behind every human action, and the being of people, which Heidegger has distinguished from the being of things in terms of the relationship of consciousness in its various modes to the world, is now defined essentially in terms of such choices.

Sartre brings together other threads from the earlier history of existentialism. He employs psychological analyses similar to Kierkegaard's analysis of dread but sets them out in terms borrowed from phenomenology. These analyses are carried through for their own sake in Sartre's philosophical writings but are put to work in his novels and plays. They are employed, too, in the novels of Simone de Beauvoir, whose moral and political writings also use the Sartrian concept of choice.

Of parallel psychological interest are the novels of Albert Camus, but the atheism that for Sartre is a consequence of his views of human nature and the world was basic in the thought of Camus. Human life is represented in the myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed eternally to roll up a hill a vast stone that would always fall back just as he was about to reach the top. The dignity of life derives from humankind's continual perseverance in projects for which the universe affords no foothold or encouragement.

Gabriel Marcel is linked to Sartre and Camus by his critique of their atheism. He is an existentialist in his stress on key experiences and on the impossibility of adequately conceptualizing the important features of human life. But the features upon which he lays stress are those of hope and relationship, and his philosophy derives from Josiah Royce's personal idealism and even from F. H. Bradley, rather than from any existentialist predecessors.

The range of views expressed by existentialist writers has made it all too easy for the most multifarious authors to claim the title and for the most widespread ancestry to be found for existentialism. Someone like Unamuno, whose book on the tragic sense of life belongs to the same climate as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, could scarcely for that reason be called an existentialist, but those influenced by him in Spain today might well make use of the term. Karl Heim, the German writer on the philosophy of physics, has defined existentialism so widely that almost everything not strictly in the area of science becomes the subject matter of existentialism. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Therefore, it seems wise now to consider the diffused influence of existentialism in the fields of theology, politics, and psychoanalysis.

Existentialist Theologians

There is a variety of theological systems which in some way are in debt to existentialism. The multiplicity of conclusions which theological writers have drawn from existentialist premises is perhaps testimony both to the ambiguity of those premises and to an underlying failure to analyze adequately some of the basic concepts involved.


The earliest theological developments are to be found in Kierkegaard's thought, not surprisingly, since he was a theologian in his own right. When Karl Barth repudiated the optimistic liberal theologies of pre-1914 Protestantism, he did so in a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief, 1919), which draws quite as heavily on Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky as it does on St. Paul. From Kierkegaard, Barth took the view that God is totally other than man. Finite reason cannot hope to grasp or comprehend infinite deity. From both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, Barth inherited the thesis that nature and human life are enigmatic, that nothing in the world is reliable.

Barth used these doctrines in two ways. In one direction he repudiated all attempts to find a rational foundation for Christianity, whether in the rational theology of Roman Catholicism or in the philosophical idealism of nineteenth-century Protestantism. In another he used his arguments to revivify the orthodox Protestant theory of the Reformation period. It is worth noting that although Barth repudiates the possibility of any rational ground for revelation, he has, like Kierkegaard, used philosophical argument when it suited his purposes.


Paul Tillich, unlike Barth, used existentialist materials in constructing a system that has analogies with Heidegger's but, in contrast with Heidegger's, reaches theistic conclusions. As with Heidegger, the terms "Being" and "Not-being" or "Nothing" played a key role in his thought. God is Being-itself, but in Tillich's interpretation this characterization of God has a quite different sense from that which the same form of words would bear in medieval theology. For according to Tillich we discover "Being-itself" through self-affirmation; we discover that what we call "God" or "Being-itself" represents our ultimate concern with overcoming doubt and anxiety in the face of nothingness. The message of theology is that we can overcome the meaninglessness of contemporary existence by taking up certain types of attitudes to that meaninglessness. It is pertinent to ask whether Tillich was trying to provide Christian conclusions with a new set of existentialist premises from which they may validly be derived or was trying to provide those Christian conclusions with a new sense, which enabled him to repeat some of the traditional forms of language but gave them a quite unorthodox meaning. Support for the latter alternative can be derived from the fact that Tillich was quite content to admit that the God of traditional theism does not exist. What remains unclear is whether the word God is an appropriate name for the concept of Being-itself as it figures in Tillich's thought.


Rudolf Bultmann, by contrast with Tillich, is avowedly concerned with reconstructing Christianity. Bultmann is a historical critic of the New Testament who believes that in the New Testament a genuinely existentialist message is distorted by being presented in terms of a prescientific cosmology. This cosmology, Gnostic in origin, is a myth from which the kernel of the gospel must be extracted. The Gnostic cosmology pictures a three-tiered universe with human life on the earth occupying a place midway between the divine realm above and the powers of darkness below. The message concealed is that men are poised between the possibility of an "authentic" (Heidegger's term) human existence, in which the individual faces up to the limits of human existence and especially his own death, and the possibility of inauthentic existence, in which the individual retreats from death and Angst and Sorge and so becomes their victim. The charge made against Bultmann by orthodox theologians is that he turns Jesus Christ into a mere precursor of Heidegger. Bultmann's reply is that his interpretation of the gospel is still distinctively Christian because of his insistence that the decision in which man chooses between authentic and inauthentic existence is one that the rational man does not have the power to make for himself. But here either Bultmann is bringing in a supernaturalism that he otherwise disowns or he means simply that the choice of authentic existence is an action of which no account can be given in terms of the life of "rational man," of inauthentic existence. But to suppose that the traditional Christian assertion of the need for grace and the necessity of Christ's work is even a disguised version of the Heideggerian account of the choice of authenticity seems highly implausible.

Two of Bultmann's followers, Wilhelm Kamlah and S. N. Ogden, have argued that there is a deep inconsistency between Bultmann's Heideggerian themes and his Christian interpretations. Kamlah has argued that not only belief in the historical Jesus but also belief in a God who intervenes in history is inconsistent with Heidegger and draws atheistic conclusions. Ogden, who remains a Christian, believes that the role of the historical Jesus must be less important than either Bultmann or traditional orthodoxy suggests if justice is to be done to existentialism. It is notable that for all the writers of this kind, existentialism is above all else a characterization of the human condition as such, sharing much of the generality and the theoretical character of the Hegelian doctrines which Kierkegaard condemned.

Bultmann's references to God always appear to be external to his central concerns. When his critics ask him how he justifies belief in and speech about God, he tends to reply in traditional Christian terms that have little to do with existentialism. This perhaps provides some confirmation of the view that existentialism is in fact a theologically neutral doctrine. Its neutrality derives from its stress on ultimate commitment and the unjustifiable character of any particular commitment. If the only justification for any belief is, in the last analysis, that I have chosen to believe, then the same justification is equally available for all beliefs, whether theistic or atheistic. But insofar as existentialism is a doctrine about human nature, its themes are very close to those of traditional theology, and it is therefore not surprising, quite apart from any impulses originating from Kierkegaard's special concerns, that most existentialist philosophers have taken up well-defined positions in relation to theology.

An existentialist vocabulary is often used by theological writers who are not in any strong sense existentialists. So the Russian Orthodox thinker Nikolai Berdyaev and some Catholic theologians, in their discussions of anxiety, guilt, and man's relation to God, have used existentialist concepts. But these uses reflect the fashionable character of existentialism rather than any of its philosophical characteristics.

Existentialism and Politics

As in theology so also in politics existentialism appears to be compatible with almost every possible standpoint. Kierkegaard was a rigid conservative who viewed with approval the monarchical repression of the popular movements of 1848; Jaspers was a liberal; Heidegger was for a short time a Nazi; and Sartre was over a long period a Communist Party fellow traveler. However, at least three systematic political themes can be discerned in existentialism.

The first is a form of religious humanism designed to counteract what is believed to be an unsatisfactory value system at the basis of modern society. Both Jaspers and Marcel maintained that the growth in technology and bureaucracy was creating in Europe a cult of mediocrity, conformism, and loss of individuality, with the inner life of the individual sacrificed to external forms. Heidegger, too, saw the individual as threatened by impersonality. But although Jaspers and Marcel pleaded for a greater recognition of transcendent and religious values in general, neither had a specific program of social reform to offer.

Second, the existentialist stress on commitment and irrationality of choice has sometimes been used in support of irrationalistic extremism. The most notorious but not the only example is Heidegger's brief excursion into politics. Needless to say, advocates of Nazism tend to ignore the existentialist stress on the importance of the individual.

Commonly, existentialism may be associated with communism, and this is largely due to the influence of Sartre. However, Sartre has occupied more than one position. His prewar writings contain scarcely any reference to politics. During the war and immediately after, his political aimsthose of a radical democratwere expressed in terms that seem largely independent of his existentialism. At that time, in his analysis of political activity he found himself at odds with orthodox Marxism because Marxism offered causal explanations of behavior that Sartre wanted to explain in terms of choices and purposes. But in his later writings he has accepted a Marxist framework for both political theory and political practice and has presented existentialism as merely a corrective to a too rigid and too deterministic Marxism. Yet his account of political life is, in fact, still far more psychological than any a Marxist would give.

Existentialism and Psychoanalytic Topics

There are several points at which existentialism touches on psychiatric themes. Karl Jaspers originally practiced as a psychiatrist, and in Allgemeine Psychiatrie (1913) he criticized ordinary scientific psychology and the psychotherapy based upon it. He did so on the ground that what he regards as the positivistic approach of conventional psychotherapy is unnecessarily and misleadingly deterministic. It treats the actual outcome of the patient's life as the inevitable outcome. Jaspers concedes that scientific examination will not reveal the fact of human freedom of choice. The personality available for empirical scrutiny is simply what it is, but the assumption that there is nothing to personality but what empirical scrutiny will reveal is groundless and arbitrary. Behind the empirical self there is, in Jaspers's view, a true self of which we are made aware in what Jaspers calls "boundary-situations"that is, in situations of an extreme kind where we confront despair, guilt, anxiety, and death. In these moments of awareness we realize our own responsibility for what we are, and the reality of freedom of choice is thrust upon us.

The name "existential psychiatry" has been taken, however, by another tradition of thought, which derives from Heidegger and whose most important exponent is Ludwig Binswanger. Binswanger, who calls his system of analysis Daseinsanalyse, criticizes two of Sigmund Freud's central concepts. Freud saw the neurotic symptom of the adult as caused by a past traumatic event, the memory of which has been repressed into the unconscious, from where it exerts its causal power upon present behavior. According to Binswanger, however, the neurotic symptom is to be explained not in terms of the content of the patient's unconscious but in terms of his mode of consciousness, and the key concept involved in the explanation is not that of causality but that of meaning. When an adult reacts to a situation neurotically it is because his consciousness confers upon that situation a meaning he does not recognize as deriving from the nature of his own consciousness. Certainly, past traumatic events are relevant. But they are relevant precisely because in them a like meaning was given to a like situation. Attention is thus focused upon the patient's whole mode of consciousness, the way in which he approaches, attends to, and comprehends the world. The explanation of behavior lies in the present, in the mode of consciousness, not in the past or in the unconscious.

Binswanger's understanding of the different possible modes of consciousness is derived directly from Heidegger. He speaks of "Being-in-the-world" and its modes and of the contribution of existentialist philosophy to psychiatry as consisting in the a priori analysis of all possible modes of "Being-in-the-world." He very largely discounts the biological determination of human behavior, although he allows it a minor role. But he tends to insist on interpreting behavior, even at the biological level, in terms of the meaning it has for the agent.

This emphasis is reiterated by Sartre, who uses the doctrine of intentionality to criticize all causal theories of emotion and behavior. Sartre attacks both the James-Lange theory of the emotions and the Freudian theory of the unconscious because he holds that they cannot allow for the intentional (in the Husserlian sense) and purposive aspects of emotion and behavior. It has already been suggested that it is unclear why Sartre believes that if emotions, for example, must be understood in terms of their intentional object and aim, they cannot also be explicable in causal terms. Like Binswanger, Sartre approves of much in Freudian technique, and in his writings on Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert he has emphasized the formative experiences of early childhood. Perhaps his most extensive treatment of these themes is his book on Jean Genet (Saint Genet: Comédien et martyre, 1952).

Both Sartre's earlier and his later writings have been utilized by R. D. Laing in the study of schizophrenia (The Divided Self ). Sartre's account of experiencing another person as a free agent for whom one exists only as an object and by whom one is reduced to the status of an object (in L'être et le néant, III, 1943) is used by Laing to throw light on case histories of the kind where the decisive actions of another person have resulted in a loss of identity on the part of the patient. Laing's work does, in fact, strongly suggest that Sartre has sometimes offered us not, as he purports to do, a description of what is basic to human consciousness as such but a description of certain abnormal types of consciousness, to which we are all sometimes prone but which become dominant in mental illness. However, Laing himself does not make this criticism of Sartre and has used in the study of normal family life some of the concepts that Sartre elaborates in the Critique de la raison dialectique (1960).

Criticism and Explanation

The suggestion that existentialism is a form of disappointed rationalism has already been made. It may now be extended to the charge that existentialism's dissatisfaction with the concepts of traditional rationalist metaphysics has been insufficiently radical. If the thesis that the universe is absurd is simply a denial that the universe has a Leibnizian sufficient reason, then it relies as much as Leibniz did on the adequacy of the concept of a sufficient reason. When the existentialist could profitably have questioned the very terms with which the rationalist characterized the world, he has all too often simply taken over the rationalist scheme of concepts and denied what the rationalist affirmed. Moreover, he has mistaken his own denials for a positive characterization of the nature of things.

It has also been suggested that the existentialist often makes the same logical points against rationalism that the empiricist did but invests them with more drama. Perhaps the explanation of this is that the discovery that there are no sufficient reasons or ultimate justifications, of the kind offered by rationalist metaphysics and allied types of theology, is not private to existentialist philosophers. Questions of ultimate justification remain unimportant and unexamined by most people so long as social life is relatively stable and social conflict is not disruptive. When, however, the conventional supports of civilized life are withdrawn, as they have been too often in Europe since 1914, ordinary people are forced to ask questions about justification that normally do not arise for them. The loneliness and self-questioning of a Kierkegaard become far more common. Moreover, people find that their normal responses are put in question; deception and self-deception become pressing topics. What were publicly approved acts with established utilitarian justifications become signals into a darkness where there are no answering lights.

It is a commonplace that it is people living in loneliness and doubt who provide the characters for existentialist novels, but it is less remarked that the existentialist's conceptual psychology rests equally upon examples drawn from extreme situations. How, indeed, could it be otherwise for those who assert that it is only in extreme situations, in what Jaspers calls boundary situations, that authentic human nature is revealed? But existentialist writers remain open to the criticism that they treat the exceptional as the typical. Indeed, because the contrast between the exceptional and the typical has been obliterated, the force of the notion of the boundary situation tends to be lost.

When existentialists come to construct their own systems, the most obvious criticism they are subject to is that they are insensitive to the syntactic and semantic properties of the language they employ. So Kierkegaard spoke of a dread of nothing in particular as though this implied that such dread had an object whose name was "Nothing." So Heidegger hypostatizes Being and Nothing as substantial entities. So Jaspers discards the traditional framework for metaphysics but writes of "the transcendent" as though this were an expression whose meaning raised few difficulties. A. J. Ayer accused Sartre of a systematic misuse, in his ontology, of the verb "to be."

Ayer suggested that when a philosophical criticism of existentialism has been carried through it is not improper to ask for a sociological explanation of its use and vogue. He himself pointed to the fact that German existentialism followed on the defeat of 1918, whereas French existentialism is a sequel to 1940. But, in fact, Sartre took up all his main existentialist positions before 1939. And the purely philosophical ancestry of later existentialism must be allowed for.

This is not to say that we should look for an account of existentialism only in terms of philosophical antecedents. It would be more illuminating to see existentialism as the fusion of a certain kind of dramatization of social experience with the desire to resolve certain unsolved philosophical problems. The unsolved problems are those of traditional epistemology and metaphysics. In the period between Descartes and Francis Bacon, on the one hand, and Kant and Hegel, on the other, certain philosophical problems were posed but not solved. Within the framework of assumptions in which they were posed they could not, in fact, have been solved. Foremost among these assumptions is that the whole of knowledge has to be reconstructed out of the epistemological resources of the single, isolated knowing subject. Also, there is the search for first principles, based either upon an indubitable, because logically undeniable, proposition or upon an incorrigible set of reports of immediate experience. There is the treatment of the first principles as axioms and their employment as a basis for a deductive model within which all human knowledge is to be set forth. There is the invocation of God or Nature to bridge the gulfs too great for argument on its own.

Hegel abandoned all these assumptions, as Ludwig Wittgenstein did later on. But where Wittgenstein placed epistemological problems in the context of an understanding of language as a social phenomenon Hegel placed them, in the end, in the context of a metaphysical system. Those who rejected his system retreated to the epistemological assumptions of the earlier period, but with this difference: after David Hume and Kant they could no longer believe in guaranteed first principles. So Kierkegaard's choice between the ethical and the aesthetic reproduces the Kantian choice between duty and inclination but lacks its rational basis. More generally, Kierkegaard's individual resembles the Cartesian ego without the cogito. Sartre inherited from phenomenology an explicit Cartesianism. In Sartre the individual as the knowing subject is the isolated Cartesian ego; the individual as a moral being is a Kantian man for whom rational first principles have been replaced by criterionless choices. Neither God nor Nature is at hand to render the universe rational and meaningful, and there is no background of socially established and recognized criteria in either knowledge or morals. The individual of existentialism is Descartes's true heir.

According to Marxist critics, especially Georg Lukács, the debased individualism of the existentialist is a symptom of the malaise of the bourgeois intellectual. Bourgeois man can no longer find his values incarnated in the social life that surrounds him; therefore, he makes a fetish of his own inner experience and tries by the fiat of his own choice to legitimate the values that in public life no longer appear to have validity. This theory of Lukács's has two central weaknesses: it appears to suggest a correlation between holding existentialist views in philosophy and having certain highly specific political and social attitudes, and it assimilates all existentialism to one rather restricted model. The suggested correlation is not warranted by the evidence, and the preceding discussion points to the dangers of assimilating different existentialisms too closely to one another.

A more relevant criticism might be phrased as follows. Certain philosophical attitudes are embedded in the matrix of existentialism; in general, existentialism embodies a distrust of metaphysical rationalism. Insofar as existentialist philosophers elaborate conceptual analyses in such fields as ethics and the philosophy of mind, their work can be understood and assessed in the same way as the work of analytical philosophers. Paradoxically, however, when they go beyond conceptual analysis it is usually not only to stress the inevitability of choice or the importance of dread but also to construct systems of the kind that existentialists originally protested against. The outcome of these systems on the whole lends further weight to the protests.

Finally, the doctrine of choice itself stands in need of closer scrutiny than existentialist philosophers have given it. This doctrine depends on the relationship between choice and criteria for judging between true and false and right and wrong. In existentialist writings this relationship remains, on the whole, unscrutinized.

See also Alienation; Augustine, St.; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Bacon, Francis; Barth, Karl; Beauvoir, Simone de; Being; Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Binswanger, Ludwig; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Bultmann, Rudolf; Camus, Albert; Cartesianism; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Cosmology; Death; Descartes, René; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Essence and Existence; Existential Psychoanalysis; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Heidegger, Martin; Heim, Karl; Hume, David; Husserl, Edmund; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lukács, Georg; Marcel, Gabriel; Marxism; Nihilism; Nothing; Pascal, Blaise; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Socrates; Tillich, Paul; Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de.


Works by individual existentialist philosophers are included only if they contain discussions of existentialism.

Ayer, A. J. "Some Aspects of Existentialism." Rationalist Annual (1948).

Barrett, William. Irrational Man. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Binswanger, Ludwig. "Daseinsanalyse und Psychotherapie." Acta Psychotherapeutica et Psychosomatica 8 (4) (1960): 258. Translated as "Existential Analysis and Psychotherapy," in Progress in Psychotherapy, edited by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1956.

Blackham, H. J. Six Existentialist Thinkers. London, 1951; New York: Macmillan, 1952.

Brock, W. Introduction to Contemporary German Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1947.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Glauben und Verstehen. Vol II. Tübingen, 1952. Translated as Essays: Philosophical and Theological. London: SCM Press, 1955.

Collins, James. The Existentialists: A Critical Study. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1952.

Gilson, Étienne, ed. Existentialisme chrétien. Paris: Plon, 1947.

Grene, Marjorie. Introduction to Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Grimsley, R. Existentialist Thought. Cardiff, 1960.

Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being. Translated by D. Scott, R. Hull, and A. Crick. Chicago: Regnery, 1949. Translation of Was ist Metaphysik?; Vom Wesen der Wahrheit; Höderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung : and Andenken an den Dichter: "Heimkunftan die Verwandten."

Kaufmann, Walter, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1956. Selections with introductions.

Kolnai, A. "Existence and Ethics." PAS, Supp. Vol. 27 (1963).

Laing, R. D. The Divided Self. London: Tavistock, 1960.

Lukács, Georg. Existentialismus oder Marxismus? Berlin, 1951.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. "Existentialism." In A Critical History of Western Philosophy. London and New York: Free Press, 1964.

Manser, A. "Existence and Ethics." PAS, Supp. Vol. 27 (1963).

Marcel, Gabriel. The Philosophy of Existence. Translated by Manya Harari. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Republished as Philosophy of Existentialism. New York, 1961.

Molina, Fernando. Existentialism as Philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Mounier, E. Introduction aux existentialismes. Paris, 1947.

Ogden, S. N. Christ without Myth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

Ruggiero, Guido de. Existentialism. London: Secker and Warbug, 1946.

Salvan, Jacques. To Be and Not to Be. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1962.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'existentialisme est un humanisme. Paris: Nagel, 1946. Translated by P. Mairet as Existentialism and Humanism. London: Metheun, 1948.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Questions de méthode." In Critique de la raison dialectique, Vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, 1960. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes as The Problem of a Method. New York, 1963.

Sartre, J.-P., R. Garandy, J. Hyppolite, et al. Marxisme et existentialisme. Paris: Plon, 1962.

Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. London: Nisbet, 1952.

Weigert, E. "Existentialism and Its Relation to Psychotherapy." Psychiatry 12 (1949).

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Existentialism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 23 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Existentialism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (July 23, 2017).

"Existentialism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.