views updated Jun 08 2018














c. 1960

Existentialism is a philosophical approach that rejects the idea that the universe offers any clues about how humanity should live. A simplified understanding of this thought system can be found in Jean-Paul Sartre's often-repeated dictum, "Existence precedes essence." What this means is that the identity of any one person— their essence—cannot be found by examining what other people are like, but only in what that particular person has done. Because no one can claim that his or her actions are "caused" by anyone else, existentialist literature focuses on freedom and responsibility.

Existentialism attained the height of its popularity in France during World War II. While the German army occupied the country, the philosophers and writers who gathered to discuss and argue their ideas at the cafeś in Paris captured the attention of intellectuals around the world. The oppressive political climate under the Nazis and the need for underground resistance to the invading political force provided the ideal background for Existentialism's focus on individual action and responsibility.

Although the French war-era writers are most frequently associated with Existentialism, its roots began much earlier. Existentialism can be seen as the response to the frightening loneliness that prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce in the 1880s that "God is dead." People's loss of faith in religious and social order created an understanding of personal responsibility, which led to literary works that reflect the existentialist's loneliness, isolation, and fear of the uncaring universe. Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, written in the 1860s and 1870s, show existential themes, as do twentieth-century works by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and Nathaniel West. The French existentialists were so influential on writers elsewhere in Europe and in the United States that many contemporary philosophical works show some influence of their thought.


Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, and lived there most of her life. She was educated at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre in 1929. They began a personal and intellectual relationship that continued for fifty years. Mostly known for her 1949 book The Second Sex, a two-volume examination of the roles of women throughout history, Beauvoir was also a prolific writer of fiction. Her novels, mostly based on events of her own life, provide readers with fictionalized versions of the vibrant intellectual scene in Paris throughout the forties and fifties. They include She Came to Stay (1949), based on the romantic complication between her and Sartre and a young student who lived with them; The Blood of Others (1946), about a young man's struggle to remain uninvolved in the political situation around him; and The Mandarins (1954), about the dissolution of the Parisian intellectual community after the war. The Mandarins won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Beauvoir also wrote plays and philosophical texts. Her death from pneumonia on April 14, 1986, marked the end of the first generation of existentialists.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Albert Camus was one of the most influential figures in the existentialist movement that emerged in Paris in the years before and during the Second World War, although he himself refused to accept the label "existentialist." Camus was born November 7, 1913, in Mondovi, Algeria, a country in northern Africa that at the time was a colony of France. Soon after France entered in World War I, Camus's father was drafted into the army, and he never returned. Albert Camus and his brother were raised by his mother and grandmother in poverty, in a three-room apartment in the working-class section of Algiers.

Camus studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. Graduating in 1936, he was unable to work as a teacher because he had tuberculosis. He became affiliated with a leftist theater group and wrote for a newspaper and moved to Paris just before the start of World War II. In 1942, he published one of the most important and influential novels of his career, The Stranger, about a man who, acting out of complex circumstances, kills a man whom he does not know. The situation explored in the book and the protagonist's detached, curious attitude about his own behavior captured the basic mood of Existentialism and made Camus an international success. His second most significant novel, The Plague, was published in 1947. The novel's depiction of a plague that sweeps across a country was seen as an allegory for the wartime occupation of Nazi forces and of the struggle of the individual against political oppression.

As his fame grew, Camus distanced himself from the existentialist movement in Paris, rejecting their Marxist political stance in favor of political action free of any party. The intellectual rift between him and Jean-Paul Sartre became well known in France. Camus's literary reputation suffered, as his opponents painted him as a populist who was afraid of offending the bourgeoisie because his main interest was selling books. He stayed active in the theater, writing plays and sometimes directing, and in 1957, at age forty-three, Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in an automobile accident near Paris on January 4, 1960.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist whose works examine human existence as a tragedy in which the struggle for rationality is constantly undermined by the inherent senselessness in human events. Born October 30, 1821, in Moscow, he was the son of a surgeon, a cruel and strict man who was murdered by one of his serfs when Dostoevsky was seventeen. In college Dostoevsky studied to be a military engineer, a career path he abandoned after graduation in order to be a writer. His early novels were well received, but they did not anticipate the intellectual achievements he was to later reach.

In his twenties, Dostoevsky began associating with a group of radical socialists, for which he was arrested and sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted, but the feeling of impending death affected him permanently. He served four years of hard labor, followed by four years of military service.

In 1864, he published Notes from the Underground, a short novel that presents the view that humans value freedom over all else, even happiness. This emphasis on freedom identifies Dostoevsky as an antecedent of the existentialist movement. His next novel, Crime and Punishment, remains his most popular work, and it presents the existential situation of a man who kills another man while robbing him and learns to cope with the moral ramifications of his action. His novels The Possessed and The Idiot address the issue of moral behavior in a world in which the actions of humans are not controlled by God. His final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was completed just months before Dostoevsky's death from emphysema complications on January 28, 1881. Its plot concerns four sons who each bear some guilt in the death of their father, mirroring the guilt Dostoevsky himself felt after his father's murder.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21, 1899. At age eighteen, Hemingway did not want to go to college, choosing instead to be a newspaper reporter. Six months later, in 1918, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps to aid World War I soldiers on the Italian front. He was wounded after only a few months and was sent home. Hemingway resumed reporting work, eventually moving to Paris to be a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. There he connected with prominent contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and John Dos Passos. Encouraged by this group of writers, known later as the Lost Generation, Hemingway began to write fiction and poetry. His novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) is a semi-autobiographical account of a group of expatriates traveling around Europe. Hemingway returned to North America in 1923. By 1929, the success of Hemingway's novels made him financially independent. He lived in Key West, Florida, traveling to Spain and Africa to gather material for his writing. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea; the following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hemingway was an active sportsman—and accident prone, receiving serious burns, sprains, gashes, and other injuries on his adventures. His health was also degraded by alcoholism. His memory purportedly damaged by electroconvulsive therapy, Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

A writer of short stories and novels, Kafka often portrayed a surreal world, touching upon themes of modern life such as alienation, absurdity, and the deeply felt dread that is often expressed in existential literature.

Born in Prague, Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), on July 3, 1883, Kafka spent his childhood in Prague's Jewish ghetto. He was educated as a lawyer and spent some time in a government job, working on workmen's compensation claims. He published several important short stories, including "The Hunger Artist" and The Metamorphosis. In spite of his request that the manuscripts of his novels be destroyed after his death, his literary executor saved them and published them. They include The Trial, about a man who finds himself accused of a crime, although no one will tell him the charge against him, and The Castle, about a similarly indecipherable bureaucracy that keeps the main character from entering the building referred to in the title.

Kafka died of complications from tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, at the age of 41. He thought that his literary career had been a failure, when in fact his insights into the fear and confusion caused by modern social life were to make him one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father rose from poverty to amass a considerable fortune, retiring early to devote his time to Christian philosophy. At eighteen, Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology. On his twenty-second birthday, Kierkegaard's life changed when he found out that his father's Christianity was flawed: the older man had once cursed God and had years earlier impregnated a servant. This revelation drove Kierkegaard from religious studies to a life of hedonistic excess. Another significant event in his life happened when, at twenty-seven, he became engaged to a beautiful heiress but called the engagement off two days later. The woman went on to marry and lead a happy life, but Kierkegaard continued to obsess over her throughout his writing career.

Kierkegaard's writings are a mixture of fiction, philosophy, letters, journal entries, aphorisms, and parables. He rejected formal philosophical systems of knowledge, maintaining that no one system could ever offer a complete understanding of the world. His first work, Either/Or, was an assemblage of short unrelated sketches aimed at convincing readers that life is a series of choices. He went on to produce over twenty books. The most significant of these, such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread, explore the terrible aspects of human freedom. The other significant aspect of his philosophy was its fervently Christian nature despite the philosopher's strong opposition to organized religion.

Kierkegaard died in Copenhagen on November 11, 1855. During his lifetime he was mocked in newspapers and vilified in churches, and his writing was not read outside Denmark until well into the twentieth century. In the early 2000s his ideas are recognized as the groundwork of existential thought.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Sartre was the single most important figure of French Existentialism. Born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France, and raised by middle-class Protestants, Sartre made the decision at an early age to be a writer and to expose the hypocrisy of the comfortable life offered to him by his parents and grandparents. In college he studied philosophy, particularly the branch known as Phenomenology, which concerns itself with the fact that life can be experienced but not really known. Throughout the 1930s, he wrote both fiction and philosophy with equal sincerity, leading, in 1938, to the autobiographical novel Nausea, which helped define the uneasy position of people in the modern world. A short story collection followed. His reputation as a literary writer established, Sartre distinguished himself as one of the century's most important philosophers with the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness, in which he examines the human situation as the awkward position of existing but being aware of nonexistence.

In the years after World War II, when Existentialism reached the height of its popularity, Sartre remained in the international spotlight as a philosopher, writer, and political activist. He wrote several plays that continue to be performed into the twenty-first century, including Dirty Hands, No Exit, and The Flies, all demonstrating the existentialist motto, coined by Sartre, "To be is to do." In 1964 Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he refused to accept it because he did not think that such an establishment should define a writer's achievement. Sartre was a familiar face around Paris and was continuously in the news until his death on April 15, 1980, from a lung ailment.


The Brothers Karamazov

Most of Dostoevsky's works concern the existentialist struggle between freedom and responsibility, but the theme is handled with particular grace in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, first published in 1880. In this book, a son kills


  • Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are featured in the 1979 documentary film Sartre by Himself. Released as a motion picture in the United States in 1983, it was as of 2008 available from Citidal Video. Urizen Books published a book of the interviews from the film in 1978.
  • William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Robert Duvall starred in a 1994 film of The Plague, by Albert Camus. As of 2008, the cassette was available from LIVE Home Video.
  • Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Karina, and Georges Wilson starred in the 1968 film version of The Stranger, Camus's most famous novel. The film is in French with English subtitles and as of 2008 was available on cassette from Paramount Pictures.
  • The life of Jean-Paul Sartre is the subject of Existence Is Absurd, a video presentation that was part of the Maryland Public Television series From Socrates to Sartre, narrated by Thelma Z. Lavine and available from Insight Media.
  • A six-videocassette course in the basics of Existentialism, entitled No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, is available from The Teaching Company of Springfield, Virginia. Dr. Robert Solomon conducts the twenty-four lectures in this 2000 series.
  • An audiocassette recording of Sartre's play No Exit was released in 1973 by the Edwards/Everett Company of Deland, Florida.
  • A British Broadcasting Corporation program, Daughters of Beauvoir, was made available on a 1989 videocassette from Film-makers Library of New York.
  • An audio cassette adaptation of Albert Camus's novel The Plague was recorded at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, on May 11, 1973, with Alec McCowan narrating. Featuring music by the National Symphony Orchestra, it was released in 1975 by Decca.
  • The Little Prince (1974) is a classic film that won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score in 1975. Directed by Stanley Donen, it stars Steven Warner as the little prince and also features roles by Richard Kiley, Bob Fosse, Gene Wilder, and Joss Ackland. As of 2008, it was available on DVD from Paramount.

his father, while his two brothers, for separate reasons, feel a sense of guilt over having let the event occur. One chapter in particular "The Grand Inquisitor" was instrumental in promoting existential themes long before the term "Existentialism" even came into usage. This section, a dream sequence, concerns a debate between an inquisitor who represents the devil, and Christ himself, regarding the question of whether humans are or should be free. Long been considered Dostoevsky's most brilliant work, The Brothers Karamazov is a most thought-provoking novel by one Russian literature's most philosophical writers.

The Immoralist

André Gide was a great influence on the French existentialists, particularly his 1902 novel The Immoralist. It concerns a scholar from Paris who falls ill while traveling with his new bride in Tunis. He survives, but his illness leaves him with a taste for life that he was lacking before, so that he quits his intellectual work, leaves Paris to live on a farm, and eventually ends up traveling away from civilization, further and further south on the African continent. The quest for authenticity, for escaping the familiar and conventional, is one that the existentialist writers would return to again and again, as their characters come to recognize what they thought to be true is really false. Unlike the protagonists of existentialist books such as Camus's The Stranger, however, Gide's Michael is constantly thinking over his situation, not just reacting, making him a well-rounded character while some other existential heroes come off as being hollow.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince, written and illustrated by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is often categorized with children's books, perhaps because it has cartoon illustrations or because it rejects the arbitrary rules that adults enforce. It is this last element, however, that qualifies it as a work of existential literature. The story is a fantasy about an airplane pilot who crashes in the Sahara Desert, where a little prince who lives on an asteroid with a single flower approaches him. He explains his travels to different asteroids and the people whom he has met on each. The book offers a satire of serious adults, including a judge, an alcoholic, and a businessman. Its affirmation of childlike innocence has made it a perennial favorite since it was first published in 1943, but the issues that it raises about the superficiality of social structure and the purity of freedom make it one of the more uplifting examples of existential thought.

The Mandarins

Readers interested in the postwar existentialist movement in Paris find two benefits from Simone de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins (1954). First, it is a book true to the existentialist ethos, with characters who struggle to follow their philosophical beliefs while giving in to the basic romantic entanglements that complicate ideological purity. Also, it is a compelling, thinly veiled autobiography, recording Beauvoir's own affairs and affiliations during the late forties and early fifties, when some of the world's greatest thinkers sought out the apartment she kept with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir brings a feminist sensibility to her characters that the male existentialists show no interest in. This book was the winner of France's highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Though it is not one of the most frequently read works of existential literature as of 2008, it is considered Beauvoir's finest novel.


Nausea was Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel, published in 1938. It is a fictionalized account of the author as a young man and is generally considered to be one of the most influential books in the French existential movement. Written in the form of diary entries, the book presents the life of a writer, Antoine Roquentin, who finds himself feeling sick about no particular complaint, but rather about life itself. Because of its unique style and theme, Nausea excited the passions of some literary critics and philosophers when it was first published, while others found it to be too obscure and self-important. In the early 2000s, readers are interested in it as much for the movement that it created as for the ideas that were made familiar by later writers in the movement.

No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre's surreal stage play, No Exit (1944) gave the world the phrase "Hell is other people." The setting is minimal: three characters are confined to one room, not remembering how they got there, carrying on with social interaction until they realize that their small-talk and amenities are the whole point of being there, that they have been damned to each other's company for eternity. Though the catchphrase already mentioned has become the point on which readers and viewers focus, the more important point is why these characters have been condemned to hell: they have all lived with "bad faith," which was Sartre's concept of a life lived insincerely, fearing instead of embracing the universe's lack of meaning. This play was instrumental in bringing the concept of Existentialism to the United States in the late 1940s, and Sartre's storytelling and language are powerful enough to keep the play interesting for modern audiences, so that it has continued to be produced frequently.

The Stranger

Albert Camus's 1942 novel The Stranger was one of the most widely read books of the twentieth century. Its plot concerns a young Algerian man, Meursault, who kills a man for no reason after a minor scuffle and the court trial that ensues. During ', the emphasis is not on whether Meursault committed the murder and not on his possible motive, but rather on the type of person he is. The prosecution focuses on external matters, such as how the defendant treated his mother and his girlfriend, making it clear that it is his existence, not just his action, that is on trial.

Meursault is the quintessential existential hero—aloof and cool. He does not think his actions matter much and is not afraid to accept responsibility for what he has done. Some critics have written this novel off as dated—a clear look at a worldview that has passed like any fad. Others believe that the sense of alienation and absurdity Camus captured will never pass from style.

The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway is often considered to have looked at the world with an existential point of view and that is most obvious in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Published in 1926, the work portrays a man who has been injured in World War I, who is trying to find meaning to his life by traveling from one destination in Europe to another, always seeking excitement and distraction. Allyson Nadia Field describes The Sun Also Rises as a travelogue not only to sights around Europe, but also to a lifestyle. Hemingway's distinctive style does not let readers in on the thoughts of his protagonist, Jake Barnes, but his precise descriptions of actions and tightly focused dialogue make the feelings of the character known. While later Hemingway novels have more tightly structured plots, the disillusionment and freedom in The Sun Also Rises make it an ideal vehicle for existential ideas.

The Trial

When Franz Kafka died in 1924, his novel The Trial was not finished, but his literary executor put the pieces together to publish it the following year. The story concerns Joseph K., a government bureaucrat who is awakened in his bed one morning and taken off to jail. He is released soon after but is told to report back to court regularly. Throughout the whole experience, no one—not the officers who arrest him, the judge, or his own lawyer—tells Joseph what crime he is accused of. As with all of Kafka's works, this absurd situation is used to explore deeper philosophical truths about the nature of society and of the individual, showing how the political system can isolate a person from the basic truths that he once took for granted. The book was written long before the French philosophers coined the term "existentialist" in the 1940s, but its themes and style are the same as the ones they were to use. Though Kafka died in obscurity, he came to be considered as one of the most talented literary figures of the twentieth century.

Waiting for Godot

Written by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and first produced in Paris in 1953, Waiting for Godot has become a mainstay of modern theater. Its absurdist plot features two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait near a barren tree on an empty stretch of road for someone named "Godot," who may represent their pointless hopes. The fact that nothing significant happens during the play's two acts helps to make the existential point of the play: the lack of meaning when life is not actively lived. Beckett's artful use of language makes it easy for readers and viewers to experience the play without becoming bored. Even when the dialogue seems to make no sense and when the characters seem to be bickering with each other pointlessly, there is a deeper meaning to Beckett's structure that offers a running commentary on the state of modern existence.



Existentialism seems to recommend abandonment any belief in God because the concept of God contradicts the idea of personal responsibility that is at the center of the philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most prolific existentialist


  • Describe the plot of a movie that you have seen that you would call "Existential," and explain what you think are the existential elements about it.
  • Writers have noted that the American way of life, with its emphasis on personal freedom, is particularly well-suited to existential thought. Write a dialogue between Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the key figure in Existentialism, with each character explaining his position to the other.
  • Research the basic beliefs of Zen Buddhism and compare them to those of Existentialism, pointing out how they are alike and how they differ.
  • Some critics have charged that Americans are too commercial to accept an abstract philosophical concept. Design an advertising campaign to "sell" Existentialism to the general public.
  • Look through newspapers and magazines for examples of what the existentialist writers would call "bad faith," and discuss them in class.

writer, was an atheist, as were Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. The characters in their novels can be seen as people coping with the loss of faith in God by trying to determine the proper behavior in the absence of some supreme being.

There is, however, a subset of existential writers who combine religious feelings with Existentialism. One of these was Søren Kierkegaard, who solved the question of how to reconcile a belief in God with responsibility of one's own actions in his philosophical works such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling,and The Concept of Dread. For Kierkegaard, there was no contradiction between freedom and God. In fact, the basis of religious belief was the ability to choose freely to believe. Another religious existentialist was Martin Buber, whose 1923 philosophical work I and Thou brought together Jewish, Christian, and humanist beliefs. The book uses personal relationships, such as the ones one forms with other humans ("Thou"), to explain the human relationship to God, who is seen as the ultimate "Thou."


Existentialism derives from the principle that human behavior is based on nothing except free choice. It rejects those theories that try to find other factors that control behavior, such as economic, social, or psychological systems that exist in order to explain what people do. Existential writers do sometimes recognize such comprehensive worldviews, but they do not accept them as being acceptable explanations or excuses for behavior. Sartre, for instance, was a lifelong supporter of the Marxist theory of class struggle, but he would not accept Marx's theory that certain behaviors are necessary for certain classes. Instead, he explained why members of one class might behave similarly as a choice made by people who were unaware of their freedom to choose.

This sense of freedom sometimes leads the protagonists in existential works to commit actions that are commonly considered evil, as if to assert to themselves that no universal system of justice will bring punishment down on their heads. Thus, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Meursault in Camus's The Stranger, and Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son commit murders with no remorse. In each of these books, the transgression is not punished by divine justice, such as the ways that other writers might have the criminals fall victim to illness or bad luck, but they are prosecuted by the legal system.

Guilt and Innocence

One of the central concerns of existential thought is that, in the absence of divine or biological rules, people must be responsible for their own actions. This is the price of freedom; with no rules from God or psychological traumas to excuse what one does, the responsibility for each action falls on the individual. Hemingway's characters offer a good example of this condition. They follow rules of behavior that they establish for themselves, often referred to as the "Hemingway code." Whereas other writers might present characters that are victims of fate, the characters in Hemingway's books and other existential literature are responsible for their own fate. Other examples of this are Sartre's play Dirty Hands, which shows its protagonist accepting guilt for murdering an obviously dangerous opponent during wartime, and Beauvoir's The Blood of Others, in which a student who is shaken by the inadvertent death of a colleague decides that he must still participate in violent radical political activity.

The presumption of innocence that comes from absolute freedom is inverted in the works of Franz Kafka, most notably in his novel The Trial. Instead of being an existential hero who chooses to make himself guilty, Joseph K. is proclaimed guilty by a dense and illogical legal system, for reasons he cannot understand. Rather than focusing attention on the free individual, Kafka shows the repressive social order that makes it difficult for the individual to realize that he is, in fact, free to decide his own fate. By making the bureaucracy that condemns Joseph K. so impersonal and irrational, Kafka shows how transparent it is. In this novel, the legal system is frightening, but it is not in control of the individual. The superficial charge of guilt helps readers see how shallow it is to believe in any universal system of guilt of innocence.

Identity and Self

Existentialism, like other philosophical movements, seeks to explain human identity and condition. Other systems might define identity in relation to something, such as when psychologists find the roots of identity in past experiences or in the effects of chemical balances in the brain, or when Romanticism frames identity in terms of man's relationship to nature. In Existentialism, however, there is no point of reference for human identity. A person's identity does not exist in anything except that person's actions. As Sartre explained it, "existence precedes essence"; there are no rules governing a person's essential identity until after that person exists.

French Existentialism crossed over to the United States in the early 1950s, when the civil rights movement was just beginning to give a voice and identity to black Americans. The two were a natural fit. Blacks who had been treated in society in accordance with the color of their skin were open to the existential concept that a person creates his or her own identity. One of the preeminent American novelists of the twentieth century, Ralph Ellison, explored existential themes as they applied to the race issue in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, about a black man's struggle for self-identity against society's narrow definitions of him.


Alienation was considered by many intellectuals throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to increasingly be the condition of civilized humans. It is the feeling of isolation, of not belonging, of standing alone. Since the advent of the Industrial Age, social philosophers such as Karl Marx have shown how people are alienated from the work that they do, with the connection severed by the economic and industrial system. Psychologists have shown alienation as a rift between the conscious and unconscious aspects of self. Theologians have shown humanity as becoming increasingly alienated from reality as the importance of God diminished.

Existentialism can be seen as a response to the social phenomenon of alienation. As the feeling grew of being left out of society, so did the existentialist's philosophy that it is natural to be separate from society because the idea of belonging to society is an illusion. It is no coincidence that one of the most prominent novels of the French existentialist movement is Albert Camus's The Stranger. As its title implies, the protagonist is outside the social order, alienated even from those closest to him. In novels such as The Deer Park in 1955, Norman Mailer applied the concept of Existentialism to the particular form of alienation that was felt in the postwar United States, with fear of the atomic bomb and of Communism. Mailer devised the concept of the "hipster," who reacts to everything with his own wry sense of irony. In fact, the term "existential hero" came to be used to describe characters in books and movies who acted alone, who had no ties to anyone, and who followed the rules of behavior set down by his own understanding of the world.



Many existential works employ a persona who is a stand-in for the author, with similar life experiences and views. The word persona is Latin, meaning "mask." Authors of fiction tend to hide behind characters like masks, to convey their ideas in the context of their stories, but this is even more common than usual in existential literature. One can draw clear correlations between characters in Sartre's Nausea, for instance, and the people of his early life, and between most of the protagonists in Simone de Beauvoir's novels and her own experience and beliefs. Terry Keefe concluded in his essay "Beauvoir's Memoirs, Diary and Letters" that "in spite of obvious difficulties involved, autobiographical material in Beauvoir's fiction must sometimes be acknowledged to be as telling, or as 'accurate,' as material presented in non-fictional form." The main reason that so many literary works by existential writers feature thinly masked versions of their authors' lives is the genre's clear background in philosophy. Writers such as Sartre and Beauvoir are primarily philosophers, accustomed to pondering the underlying principles that may explain the circumstances of their own lives. The nature of philosophy is to consider the human condition and to locate the individual's place in the world. Existentialism, in particular, rejects the idea that one can understand another person's thoughts. Existential philosophers who have expended most of their energy understanding themselves as unique individuals are typically inclined to think of the protagonists of their works as masks for themselves.


Existential literature is often characterized as grim, depressing, and hopeless. This reputation clings to the movement in spite of the efforts of writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre to show it as an optimistic worldview that offers its readers a chance to take control of their own fates. One reason that Existentialism is assumed to be bleak is that it consciously tries to change people's minds about their traditional avenues of hope. Those who believe that God will justify in the afterlife the hardship of mortal existence will find their ideas opposed in existentialism, and those who believe in the ability of science to raise human behavior toward perfection experience the same sort of resistance. Lacking the hope that one can look to these external sources for comfort and salvation, existential thought aligns itself with the sometimes frightening prospect of meaninglessness, directly standing up to the blank void that other philosophies try to fill. The titles of books such as Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Dread by Søren Kierkegaard, whose works formed the basis of the existentialist movement, give some insight into Existentialism's reputation as a philosophy of despair.

While many works of existential literature do, in fact, tend to emphasize life's pointlessness, it would be too restrictive to say that despair is their only message. The inherent pointlessness of life is almost always followed by an encouraging example about how life can be given meaning by the individual. This is most clearly seen in the short stories of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" has two waiters discussing the bleak existence of an old man who comes to their cafe every night. Readers who focus only on the meaninglessness of the old man's life miss the larger point—that he has somewhere to go that gives him comfort. Similarly, Hemingway's "The Killers" shows a washed-up boxer who waits without hope for two contract killers who are coming to get him, but it is told from the point of view of a young man who is unwilling to sit quietly and accept grim fate.


Because existential writers do not view their characters as the products of past events, their works seldom use the linear, chronological plots that many novelists and playwrights use. Conventional narrative structure is built upon the premise of causality, with one event resulting in the next, following each other in succession to create a cumulative result. While other writers present a psychological web that shows how each character's personality is constructed, characters in existential works are not bound to such interpretation. As a result, existential works tend to present a sequence of events that o not typically appear to be related.

Existentialism tends to support an absurd view of the world, one that ignores commonly assumed rules of reality. In Franz Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis, for instance, a man wakes to find himself transformed into a giant bug—the situation is completely illogical, but it helps the author make a point about the pervasive absurdity of common daily life. Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot takes place in an unnamed, barren wilderness, with two people standing near a tree at a crossroads. The play does not have a plot, just a series of conversations that happen to occur after one another. The lack of any meaningful causal relationship between events helps to reinforce the existential idea that the human condition has no inherent meaning or structure.


Humanism is the cultural and literary philosophy that spread through Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a response to oppressive church doctrine. At the time, the position of clerics was that human beings were weak and immoral. Humanism offered the optimistic view that humanity was rational and was thus able to understand truth and goodness without the Church handing down the definition or intervening. To some extent, Existentialism is the ultimate form of Humanism because it takes all responsibility for human happiness and achievement out of the hands of fate and places it in the hands of human beings.

Yet there has been some debate about whether Existentialism is really a humanistic philosophy. Many existentialists would define themselves as humanists because of their commitment to human responsibility over reliance on outside influences. Detractors, by contrast, say that the philosophy's emphasis on the nothingness and meaninglessness of the world paint too dismal a picture for humanity. They refuse to believe that the existentialist position that action is necessary but pointless can be considered a positive attitude toward humanity. Jean-Paul Sartre addressed this controversy in his early essay "Existentialism Is a Humanism."



Nihilism is a philosophy that asserts that existence is meaningless, that traditional beliefs and values are unfounded, that there is no truth. It is a philosophical stance that recognizes no values and sets no goals. The word comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning "nothing," and was coined by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. The concept is related to the philosophy of the ancient Greek skeptics who rejected the idea of philosophical certainty, and it has appeared in one form or another repeatedly in Western civilization.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, nihilism was most closely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who saw it as more than just despair, but as a force of destruction. In his book The Will to Power, published in 1901, Nietzsche predicts that the meaninglessness presented by nihilism would win acceptance over other systems of thought and that nihilism would eventually lead to society's collapse.

When Existentialism became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, Sartre's idea of life as "nothingness" was seen as a nihilistic position. Leaders of the movement such as Sartre and Camus struggled to show Existentialism as a positive force, but their insistence that true existentialists should embrace life despite its emptiness was not quite convincing for many. The rejection of external values always led back to the idea that existence must be meaningless. Existentialism became almost synonymous with nihilism, leading to a popular caricature of existentialists as grim, dark, empty individuals. Existentialists, by contrast, thought of themselves as fighting nihilism by giving life meaning in spite of its natural meaninglessness.

Theatre of the Grotesque

Theatre of the Grotesque was an Italian movement characterized by plays that emphasize the ironic and macabre aspects of daily life in the World War I era. This movement was named after the play The Mask and the Face (1916) by Luigi Chiarelli, which was subtitled "a grotesque in three acts." Theater of the Grotesque was a reaction against the Naturalism of the nineteenth century and included playwrights Luigi Chiarelli, Alessandro Varaldo, Enrico Cavacchioli, and Alberto Casella. The movement influenced the work of famous Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, who wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Theatre of the Grotesque, known in Italian as teatro grottesco, was a brief movement, but it influenced the much larger and ongoing movements of Absurdism and Existentialism.


The main philosophers of the French existential movement, including Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, wrote dramas for the stage in addition to novels and essays. It is fitting, then, that one of Existentialism's lasting legacies was the Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdist dramas presented no direct linear plot line, instead mocking the traditional forms by presenting the unexpected, and by actively defying any attempts to read meaning into the events on stage. There was always a tendency for artists to violate conventions, to make people think by refusing to give them what they anticipated, but this tendency increased by sharply in the early twentieth century, with Dadaism and Surrealism. It was only after Existentialism gained international attention in the 1950s, making the concept of "meaninglessness" a familiar subject among intellectuals, that a school of drama based in absurdity developed. Samuel Beckett published Waiting for Godot in 1953; The Bald Soprano,byEugène Ionesco, was performedin1956; andEdwardAlbee's The Zoo Story played on Broadway in 1959. These are among the most important and representative works in the Theatre of the Absurd.

The term "absurd" was first used to describe literary works by Albert Camus. In 1961, theater critic Martin Esslin's book Theater of the Absurd named the movement that was already in full swing. Esslin observed how absurdist drama avoided making statements about the human condition by presenting it in its rawest form, which often led to situations that would be incomprehensible within the common view of reality but which were well suited for the stage. Unlike existential fiction, which focused on the internal struggle for beliefs, drama does not present internal thoughts to the audience (except in asides), and so it can focus its energies on the strange instability of the external world. In the early 2000s, Absurdism is a staple of the theater, with constant revivals of the plays from the fifties and sixties and new plays that, while not purely absurd, incorporate absurdist elements.


Jean-Paul Sartre, who first put the phrase "Existentialism" into use as a branch of philosophy, based his thought on his studies in the philosophy of phenomenology. The two are closely linked. Phenomenology is a twentieth-century philosophical movement that examines the relationship between experience and consciousness. The founder of this movement was German philosopher Edward Husserl. In his 1913 text Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Husserl explored the structures within consciousness that enable the human mind to conceive of objects outside of itself. Because the mind is able to think of things that do not exist as well as things that do exist, Husserl focused upon the mind's activity, leaving aside the overall question of existence. Husserl called actions such as remembering and perception "meanings," and the act of examining these meanings "phenomenological reduction."

Although Husserl is credited with generating phenomenology, the name most often associated with that movement is that of his colleague Martin Heidegger. Heidegger focused attention squarely on the question of being, presenting the experience of life as "Dasein," or "being there," putting emphasis on experience as opposed to abstract concepts. Language was also a strong part of Heidegger's phenomenology because humans would have no way of contemplating existence without it. As Heidegger phrased it, "Only where there is language is there world." His philosophical works gave serious consideration to the philosophical value of poetry.

In college, Sartre studied phenomenology, and his theories about Existentialism grew out of Heidegger's ideas. The relationship between the two philosophies can be seen in the title of Sartre's major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, which mirrors the title of Heidegger's own 1927 masterwork Being and Time. Sartre's Existentialism adapted Heidegger's phenomenology, combining his emphasis on language and experience with Husserl's idea that consciousness is always directed away from itself toward objects and not at the nothingness of the subjective self. Since the 1940s the two philosophies have been so closely related that they are often referred to by the combined term "existential phenomenology."



Philosophies are meant to capture the truth, and so there are likely to be traces of any philosophy at any time throughout history. For example, traces of Existentialism can be found in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the fourth century BC founded the Cynics, who distrusted civilization's artifice. existential ideas also appear at various times throughout the world's literature, such as when Job in the Old Testament questioned whether his concept of God was truly relevant to his troubles, or when


  • 1930s-1940s: The world falls into its second global conflict in thirty years, and it looks like international war will be the nature of the modern world.

    Today: Conflicts tend to be small, regional affairs. One side might be able to assemble a coalition or a mission of United Nations forces from around the world, but it has never been met with a similar international force.

  • 1930s-1940s: News about events in other countries travels by radio broadcasts, leaving much about other nations to the imagination. After World War II, broadcasters and consumers begin investing heavily in television: from 1945 to 1948 the number of U.S. homes with televisions rises from 5,000 to a million, and by 1950, 8 million sets have been sold.

    Today: News about world events travels faster on the Internet than news organizations can prepare it for broadcast.

  • 1940s: World War II ends when the United States uses atomic bombs to destroy two Japanese cities. This action initiates the Atomic Age. During the postwar years people try to understand the military potential for what came to be known as mutual assured destruction.

    Today: The potential for nuclear annihilation has existed for several generations. In that time, nuclear arms have not been used.

  • 1940s: Soldiers returning from World War II start a population boom, which leads to a new youth culture. Existentialism's emphasis on the "now" appeals to the youth culture's break with the past.

    Today: Advertisers have long realized the purchasing power of youths, and much of popular culture is aimed at consumers between ages ten and twenty.

  • 1940s-1950s: Europe is the respected focus of Western culture, the center of progressive thinking. In the 1950s, while most of the European countries are struggling to rebuild after World War II destroyed their manufacturing ability, the United States rises to be an economic superpower.

    Today: The international reputation of the United States slumps during the protracted occupation of and conflict in Iraq, and in the United States the economy enters recession with increased home foreclosures and inflationary prices for food and gasoline.

Shakespeare had Hamlet question the purpose of his own existence by asking, "To be, or not to be?"

The first philosopher to touch upon existential themes was the French writer Blaise Pascal, who, in the seventeenth century, rejected the idea that rational humans could explain God. Like the later existentialists, Pascal accepted life as a series of irrational paradoxes.

As a formal philosophy, Existentialism began to take form in the 1800s, with the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought of life as an impossible choice between two conflicting attitudes: the aesthetic, which is based on immediate experience, or existence and the ethical, which is based on ideals. He presented the ethical life as false, based upon imaginary concepts, but the aesthetic life was not satisfying either. In fact, for Kierkegaard, the aesthetic life led only to despair, because human consciousness is not satisfied with the sheer, raw experience that might be enough to distract an unconscious being. His writings, particularly his book Either/Or, were not essays or treatises. They had a literary style to them, presenting his ideas as character sketches, dialogs, and imaginary correspondences.

Unlike Kierkegaard, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist who believed that religious belief was a sign of weakness, which would leave society vulnerable to destruction by those who held no such illusions. Nietzsche's completely unsentimental atheism paved the way for the existential view that life is based on nothingness.

The most immediate antecedent to Existentialism was the twentieth-century philosophy of phenomenology, especially as practiced by the German writer Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology raised questions about how humans could ever know the world that they encounter outside their own consciousness. As with Existentialism, phenomenology relied heavily on examples from literature for understanding, giving the imagined world nearly as much credibility as the experienced world.

French Existentialism

Although earlier philosophers and writers had ideas upon which this philosophy was based, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who gave it the name Existentialism. In school, Sartre studied the works of German philosophers, wrote his exit exam on Nietzsche, and he studied in his postgraduate years under Edward Husserl, who is widely considered a founder of phenomenology, a philosophy similar to Existentialism. In 1928, at the age of 23, he met Simone de Beauvoir. The two fell in love and spent most of the next fifty years living together on and off, although they never married. In 1938, one of the major texts of existentialist literature, Sartre's novel Nausea was published, giving the world its first sense of the moral despair of the philosophy and the cold, unsentimental intellect of the fiction.

The year after Nausea was published, Adolph Hitler gave up any pretense of peace by attacking Poland. France went to war against Germany and was captured in 1940. While France was occupied by Germany, the new existential movement flourished. The principle figures if the movement were acquaintances in Paris, including Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (although Camus would come to resent being called an existentialist when hostilities formed between him and the others). Their ideas were spread by a magazine that Sartre edited, Les Times Moderne ("Modern Times"), and through their plays and novels, which had gained international attention. The war was a fitting backdrop for plays and novels with existential themes, which concerned protagonists who were willing to act politically rather than die passively. The war gave French Existentialism an air of tragic Romanticism, as existential heroes, well aware that nothing they did could change the insanity of the larger social order, still made noble choices, presumably without the false encouragement of sentiment or religion.

After the war ended in 1945, Existentialism became a household word, but the writers who made it famous moved on to other interests. Sartre became increasingly interested in Marxism, and the main circle of French existentialists shunned Camus when he rejected Sartre's political stance. Although Sartre was to identify himself as an existentialist for the rest of his life, his postwar writings never captured readers' imagination as had the radical works produced under the Nazis.

In the United States, Existentialism reached its height of popularity in the 1950. After the stock market crash of 1929, the country suffered desperate times, and the cautious conservatism that had characterized the generations of the Depression and the war gave way to a new youth culture. The disaffected Beat generation, lacking any major political struggle, grappled with meaninglessness and was ripe for Existentialism's message that the world is absurd and that individuals create their own morality.


Existential literature as a phrase came to be seldom used. The description became, for the most part, irrelevant. One reason that literary works are not labeled existential as much as they used to be is that the movement, which captured the wide readership during World War II, faded from public attention after the 1980 death of its most charismatic practitioner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Modes of literature and philosophy that once would have been described as existential were later described by other terms. On the positive side, the main reason that the description existential seems so irrelevant is the massive popularity that it had in the 1940s and 1950s. Calling literature existential is almost a way of stating the obvious, since most contemporary literature presumes an existential worldview.

From the start, existential literature was seen as little more than a forum in which the existential philosophers presented their ideas. For example, Charles I. Glicksberg, in his 1945 essay "Literary Existentialism," writes, "Though Existentialist literature, particularly in the field of fiction and drama, does exist, it has thus far contributed nothing by way of innovation in aesthetic form. By and large, it is a literature based upon a philosophy, a Weltanschauung, a method of interpreting the life of man upon earth, his character and destiny." It soon developed that the most important reason for reading the literature produced by the French existentialists was to prove, if only to oneself, that one belonged to their intellectual society. In 1951, James Collins introduced his book The Existentialists with an explanation about the relationship between Existentialism and how one lives. Stating his intention to focus on disagreements between members of the existential community, he noted that, in studying the people and not their writings, "the picture that [emerges] is drawn more in terms of methods and problems than of a common fund of doctrinal content." As with Glicksburg, the literature was deemed less important than the ideas and the people who lived those ideas.

The shift in Existentialism's relevance in literature came during the 1960s and can be seen in the writings of Hazel E. Barnes, one of the movement's most prolific observers. In her 1959 book The Literature of Possibilities, Barnes begins her exploration of existential ideas with this bold statement: "About the middle of this century novelists and playwrights stopped making men and women to order for psychologists and began to re-create Man." A few sentences later she attributes that view to Jean-Paul Sartre, but only after she has drawn readers in with that challenging claim. By 1967, in the chapter "Existentialism and Other Rebels" of her book Existentialist Ethics, Barnes was defending the philosophy from being lumped with other, similar movements with which it might be confused: Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the Beatnik or Hipster nihilism espoused by Norman Mailer and others, and Oriental philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. "Like man himself, philosophy is always 'in situation,"' Barnes wrote, continuing that Existentialism "is acutely aware of its own position in the world order of the twentieth century. It can envision its own transcendence." One of Existentialism's strongest supporters, Barnes could already see it dissolving, losing its character to similar philosophies, new and old.

Today, critics frequently point out existential elements in literary works, usually those set in contradictory or self-defeating situations. While used frequently to describe specific elements of literary works, it is seldom used in an attempt to understand an author's worldview. Christopher O. Griffin examines the works of contemporary southern author Barry Hannah and finds significant overlap with Existentialism. Griffin concludes that Hannah's work will take its place, in time, among the big names scholars have ascribed to Existentialism. In literature, the word existential refers to a mood, rather than to a specific philosophy.


David Kelly

Kelly is a professor of literature and creative writing at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County and has written for numerous scholarly publications. In the following essay, Kelly argues the case for using Sartre's novel Nausea as the touchstone for gauging existential literature.

The concept of "existential literature" is a tricky one. Since Existentialism is a philosophy that means to describe existence, everything that has ever been done or written should rightfully fall within its bounds, since everything exists. Even works meant to illuminate other philosophies could be interpreted by existentialists as their authors' attempts to cope with their existential condition, and might reasonably be categorized as existential. But it is useless to have a category with no distinguishing characteristics to set its members off from everything else: if everything is existential, then there would be no use having the word, because the word "everything" would cover their shared idea well enough.

Another possible way to recognize existential literature would be to limit the phrase to works produced by the members of the French intellectual movement—primarily, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus—who named this philosophy during the 1940s, and the writers who followed their example. Since these are the writers who willingly associated their works with Existentialism, they would seem to be the ones who are producing the existential literature. Unfortunately, participation in the existential movement alone does little to help define existential literature. The works of Kafka, Dostoevsky, and early Hemingway are all clearly existential in nature, even though their authors never had the philosophy defined for them. What about Hamlet's dilemma, or Abraham's choice to sacrifice Isaac in the book of Genesis? These are clearly existential moments, if not actual examples of existential literature. Closely associating existential literature with the French existential movement also raises the problem of the people who chose to call themselves and their work by that name when it was in vogue. At the peak of Existentialism's popularity in the 1950s, there were hundreds of fans who used the existential concept of angst to describe their unhappiness, or mistook medium-sized disappointments for "dread." Their works are not considered truly existential, whether the writers thought they were or not.

Labels are anathema within a philosophy that can be characterized by the catchphrase "existence precedes essence." It would be dishonest to the core beliefs of Existentialism to make any general claims about the essence of existential literature. It is the nature of the philosophy that each piece of literature, especially the literature associated with it, should be experienced before it is defined. More than other literary movements, such as Romanticism or even Modernism, existential literature cannot be identified by checking it against a preexisting list of aspects to see if it fits some sort of profile.

In the absence of any set criteria, there is still a possibility of calling a body of literature "existential" by recognizing what specific works resemble. This open-ended option for identifying things is like the one used by the Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but felt sure that he would know it when he saw it. Maybe there are not and cannot be rules that identify the varieties of existential literature, but there should at least be some useful standard by which any one work, experienced in and itself, could have the term applied to it in some meaningful way.

The most likely candidate for a work of existential literature that can be used to test other literature against would be Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. It is not the most accomplished or successful novel of the existential movement, nor even the most fully realized literary work that Sartre himself produced, but this novel has particular characteristics, both in its technique and in its historical situation, that identify it with Existentialism in a way that other works lack.


  • American author Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer tells a poignant and humorous existential story. The plot concerns a young man who tries to find meaning for his life at the movies, with no satisfaction.
  • Dangling Man (1944) was Nobel laureate Saul Bellow's first novel. It presents a young man in the existential limbo of having been drafted into the army and waiting to be called up.
  • The Plague, by Albert Camus, examines how people react to an outbreak of bubonic plague in the north African town of Oran, Algeria. The range of human behaviors covered in this novel are as relevant today as they were when it was published in 1947.
  • Students often find Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophical writings dense and unintelligible, but the essays in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions are chosen to introduce the philosophy to broad audiences.
  • Thus Spake Zarathustra is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's lively, loose-knit allegorical exploration of the relationship between humanity and the world, considered to be the masterpiece of his formidable career. Nietzsche does not directly lecture but instead presents vignettes, mysteries, and riddles, laying the foundation for the existential approach to literature.
  • By 1961, when Joseph Heller's absurdist war novel Catch-22 was published, the existential view of life's meaninglessness had prevailed upon a generation. Set in a bombing squadron during World War II, the book uses humor to raise questions about contradictions that come from order and logic.
  • John Barth's sprawling 1956 novel The Floating Opera approaches serious existential themes with humor and fantasy. The book hardly holds to a single plot, but its events center around man so extremely disillusioned with the world that he cannot even find a reason for his own suicide.
  • One of the central texts of the existential worldview, Søren Kierkegaard's 1843 book Fear and Trembling examines the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to raise questions about man's place in the world and relation to God. This book is one of the best examples of religious Existentialism, as opposed to the French atheistic existentialism.
  • Famed psychotherapist and theologian Rollo May explained the considerable use of Existentialism in understanding the workings of the mind in The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology, a collection of explanatory essays that was reprinted in 1983.

Nausea was Sartre's first published novel. This means that it was the work that launched the literary career of the man who launched the philosophical movement. At the time, Sartre had published some philosophy, but with Nausea he put his philosophy into motion on the page, giving his ideas a reality that talking about them could not achieve. The fact that it was published before he attained a widespread reputation as a literary and philosophical genius almost certainly gave him a freedom that he would have to fight for in later years, when he was aware of the weight a whole world of followers would put on his every word. Later, Sartre was to view the ideas in Nausea as "dated," noting that he thought so even at the time of its publication. His philosophy moved on, becoming more involved with questions of political commitment than those of simply existing, such as those shown in his next-most-famous literary achievements, the plays No Exit and Dirty Hands. Readers can argue which of


Sartre's novels or plays was the "best," and even which stage of his evolution was most "authentic," but his first novel, Nausea, has a purity that it holds in common with almost all other existential literature that came before it or after.

Stylistically, Nausea has the elements that most people have in mind, if only subconsciously, when they speak about existential literature. The story steers clear of a linear plot. Instead, its narrator, Antoine Roquentin, organizes it like a series of journal entries. It is a narrative technique that is common to much existential writing, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to John Hawkes. Just as the point of Sartre's novel, and the cause of Roquentin's nausea, is the contrast between existence and meaning, so too this character's existence is at odds with the faith that readers can traditionally invest in the hidden stream of meaning that holds a plot together. Lacking the desire to sustain a traditional narrative, existential literature works best in short stories, plays (which always take place in the here-and-now), and fragmented novels like Nausea, where scene changes appear as random as the situations in life.

Nausea, in fact, dispenses with its faux-diary style without any hesitation. For example, a section called "Sunday" starts on page 40 and continues on to page 57, which would be an extraordinary amount of writing for a diarist, even one as obsessed with his own ideas as Roquentin, to record in a single day. That particular entry is written in the present tense, and it includes four pages of dialog. Clearly, Sartre was not interested in maintaining the illusion that this was anything like a diary: illusion and Existentialism are incompatible. Most works recognized as existential are just as jarring and fragmented, with little attempt to establish a fictional "reality."

Roquentin's story follows his search for meaning, which leads him through familiar channels of live and community, God and Humanism, before leaving his life as empty as it was at the novel's start. The conflict between reality and meaning has Roquentin nauseous at the beginning, and in the end he is just a little short of convincing himself that writing a book about his experiences might help him accept his situation. It is no small achievement for an author to have his protagonist change so slightly over the course of a novel: Sartre achieves this by filling Roquentin's days with minutely observed details. He creates a reality for the reader, one that is just a little too real for Roquentin to bear. Such an intricate rendering of detail is just good fiction writing, existential or otherwise.

One final element that makes this novel exemplary existential fiction is its relationship to the author's life. Nausea is generally recognized as a thinly-veiled autobiography. It would be almost impossible to conceive of existential literature that does not have the authenticity of its author's own doubts, fears, and misery as a kind of subtext. Not all philosophies require that their fictional versions be bound to the lives of their authors, but not all philosophies are so intricately tied to the author's sense of authenticity, to the importance of her or his own life. Regardless of whether it was written after Sartre or before, existential literature leaves readers with a strong sense of the teller of the tale. This is why, despite its existential elements, Hamlet would not qualify as existential literature: Shakespeare is always indistinguishable in his works. On the other hand, Franz Kafka, who is recognized as a leading existential writer, can tell a richly imagined tale, but his presence is still felt. For instance, Kafka never starved in a circus cage for spectators to watch, as the protagonist does in his story The Hunger Artist. Still, no one can doubt that the suffering for art that is the story's central metaphor was indeed Kafka's own suffering.

In his introduction to Nausea in the current paperback edition, Hayden Carruth examines the ways in which this novel was certainly not the first or finest work of existential literature, and its protagonist was in no way the first "existentialist man." What makes the book so extraordinary, according to Carruth, is that Sartre's Roquentin is "a man living at an extraordinary metaphysical pitch, at least in the pages of the journal he has left us." This, in the end, might be the thing that makes this the most existential work of all. Existentialism is not a philosophy given to sustained fiction, and in this one small book Sartre takes it about as far as it can go. Readers who know Existentialism when they see it are advised to stay away from definitions as much as possible. But, when there is any doubt, they can refer back to this novel, where they will see this particular worldview take form in every word.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Existentialism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Christopher O. Griffin

In this essay, Griffin uses existential thought and the writings of existential writers to analyze the works of southern author Harry Monroe. It focuses on the novel Geronimo Rex.

From beneath the bleachers of the Dream of Pines Colored High School practice field, the narrative voice of Harriman (Harry) Monroe, protagonist of Barry Hannah's novel Geronimo Rex, confesses wonder and dread at the sound of music. The music Harry experiences at the novel's opening is that of the Dream of Pines Colored High School band, directed by "a fanatic man named Jones who risked everything to have the magnificent corps of student musicians he had." While Jones and his band themselves serve negligible roles in terms of plot, Harry's encounter with them in the opening pages of the book sets forth some of the novel's major thematic and metaphoric images.

In the world of music, an overture introduces the listener to a larger piece while also "indicating the character" of that piece. In a similar sense, Chapter 1 functions as an overture to the philosophy of Geronimo Rex. More specifically, Harry's examination of the relationship between Jones and his band members lays a philosophical groundwork for the novel by revealing the absurdity in notions of determinism and by implying a Sartrean philosophy of freedom. In addition to the theme elicited from the Jones/ band relationship, the music created by this union, with its intuitive link in Harry's mind to action, serves as a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the experience of authentic being in the midst of the bourgeois irresolution and inauthenticity of his father. Finally, Harry's early, vicarious exposure to the atrocities of World War II


provides evidence supporting the childhood emergence of his keen and sometimes brutal existential perspective. These three themes submerge and surface throughout Geronimo Rex, providing structure and meaning to even the most absurd stops along Harry's existential journey. More important, perhaps, is that this "existential ethic," established in this, Hannah's debut novel, marks the defining philosophic key in which his scores of later works—both short and long—are loosely played.

Jones's Dream of Pines Colored High School band was undoubtedly the best in Louisiana, and to the eight-year-old Harry Monroe spying from beneath the stands, its image and sound created "a weird forest that sent dread right down to my bones." While the dread of unmitigated existence is, in the words of Kierkegaard, "different from fear and similar concepts which refer to something definite," the dread felt here by the young Harry at first appears more akin to that experienced by an awe-struck devotee before a god. Harry's implicit view of Jones as a god whom he initially seems to revere aligns with his later delusional allegiance to "gods" of equal absurdity. Whether it be music, women, or the novel's namesake, Geronimo, the gods to which Harry bows always dole out absurdity to their followers. Besides this, however, Hannah seems to be suggesting something of greater philosophical import, for in spite of his fear and awe before the "scary celestial horde" that is Jones's band, Harry still possesses enough mettle to admit that for all the scene's beauty and power, "I knew this man was crazy."

In addition to the correlation that can be made between Jones and the other "gods" which throughout Geronimo Rex vie for prominence in Harry's periodic episodes of Sartrean bad faith, the scene described above offers a parodic vision of the conventional God in his Heaven. This comparison is subtly supported by the text: Jones's godlike fierceness in commanding his band, like the fierceness of the God of the Old Testament, "was the kind of wrath you didn't mess with," and Jones demands a level of musical praxis which makes "the kids . . . ashamed to come back [to practice] next day without their parts down perfect." Moreover, Harry admits never to have seen Jones's face, "not ever," a condition similarly noted of God in Exodus 33:17-23. In this Old Testament passage, God agrees to let Moses see his back, but pointedly maintains that "my face shall not be seen." "[Y]ou cannot see my face," says God, "for man shall not see me and live" (v. 20). In his fear, Harry entertains similar thoughts about Jones: "I got the notion he'd kill me if he found me hidden down there [beneath the bleachers] to peek on his band in what [Jones] thought was its imperfect state; it was scary, all the way around—the great music out there, and Jones above."

Both literally and symbolically, Harry's situation broaches questions concerning conventional authority and determinism, and in doing so, the scene lays a subtle but important philosophical groundwork for the novel as a whole by implicitly advancing a Sartrean philosophy of freedom over the conventional idea of a free-will/determinism paradox, one that attempts to account for the individual's freedom of choice while still maintaining the idea of a deterministic, authoritative God.

In The Quintessence of Sartrism, Maurice Cranston writes that "Sartre's starting point as a philosopher was his rejection of the teaching of the central philosopher of the French tradition, Descartes." Similarly, Hannah's starting point for Geronimo Rex is a parody of Descartes's and others' notions of cosmic determinism. With "Jones above" in the symbolic position and role of the conventional Godhead, "the great music out there" (symbolic of the created world) subtly parodies the conventional interpretation of supratemporal power and influence. In the manner of Sartrean thought, beneath this veneer of beauty and power is a madman demanding an impossible perfection, all the while cursing "No, no, no!"

Sartre's existential novel Nausea is often cited as the work of fiction which best illustrates the revelation of existential awareness—the dreadful-yet-awesome apprehension of one's unjustifiable being in the midst of a wholly contingent existence. In Nausea, the protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, comes to an existential realization analogous to Harry's as the former observes the pulsing ocean from the shoreline:

The true sea is cold and black, full of animals; it crawls under this thin green film made to deceive human beings. [People] all round me have let themselves be taken in: they only see the thin film, which proves the existence of God. I see beneath it!

In Geronimo Rex, Harry, viewing the world from the existentially privileged "vantage slot under the bleachers", also perceives the contingent and "crazy" truth of what he witnesses. When the raving leader halts his troops in order to reprimand out-of-step band members, Harry confesses with more than a touch of irony, "That Jones must've had some ear, and some kind of wrath to overcome that music the way he did." The perfection Jones demands of his "creation" is in truth a frightening—and ridiculous—idea.

As in Kierkegaard's famous example of Abraham before Yahweh, situations of "determined" action such as the marching of Jones's band reveal the free potential for action inherent in any situation. The band members on the field are not held by force; they could choose to do anything. They choose, however, to march, to follow the "incredibly difficult and subtle military drills" determined by Jones, regardless of the impossibility of attaining his desired absolute perfection. Moreover, their devotion is extraordinary. "In two months," writes Harry of Jones, "he had them all considering serious life careers in music":

The tone-deaf dummy on cymbals quit smoking so he could conserve his wind, and looked forward to studying at a conservatory after graduation. Three girls quit doing what they used to because of loss of energy on the clarinet.

Although his voice is nevertheless obeyed, the apparent reality of Jones's control—and by analogy, of conventional ideas of God and cosmos—is shown to be absurd.

While Jones and his band offer a deeply philosophical implication concerning the Sartrean concept of existential freedom, music itself— here as well as at particular moments later in Harry's life—is intuitively linked to action. "This band," confesses Harry in Chapter 1, "was the best music I'd ever heard, bar none. They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere." Music plays a key role in Geronimo Rex, serving Hannah as a subtle metaphor for the existential experiences of Harry Monroe. Like moments of existential revelation, music in performance possesses an immediacy unapproached by notes—or words—on a page, and it is such that it can be experienced without "conscious understanding." As Hannah has remarked in one recent interview, "Music remains the ultimate act to me; I love it because there's no comment after good music." Harry's intuitive response to the music of Jones's band leads him to conclude in his retrospective narration that he was a musician before he even could play an instrument. Like existence, music surrounds Harry, even before he is able to understand it. As a child, Harry admits his inability to understand on an abstract, rational level the notes blasting off that field in the middle of the Louisiana pines, but his experience nonetheless sends "dread right down to [his] bones" and calls him to action. Harry's response to the situation thus moves beyond fear of Jones as a god and into the realm of existential angst.

Only a moment of reflection is necessary to conclude that an eight-year-old boy has no business bearing arms and dying in battle. Nevertheless, this is the intuitive call Harry receives from his experience with Jones's music; it is beyond rational thought and squarely in the realm of existential possibility. Harry's intuitive desire to "pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere" is, as Kierkegaard writes concerning existential dread, "the reality of freedom as possibility anterior to possibility." While the actual possibility of such action is practically impossible, the possibility of such a possibility is experienced intuitively, beyond any rational, conscious consideration of the "actual" possibility. This "possibility anterior to possibility," however, is conjoined at this point in the story with the reality of his situation—a Louisiana mill town in 1950—and so his desire is not converted to action. But what this moment does do is articulate Harry's tendency toward (or openness to) existential possibility.

In one of the earliest passages in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, Roquentin demonstrates a moment of incomprehensible, yet palpable, existential dread similar to that felt by Harry hiding beneath the high school bleachers. Standing before the churning ocean watching children "playing ducks and drakes", Roquentin picks up a stone to toss into the water, just as the children are doing without the slightest reservation. "Just at that moment," however, writes Roquentin, "I stopped, dropped the stone and left." Roquentin's difficulty in hurling the stone is linked to the mysterious feelings of dread which have begun to attack him. "I can't explain to myself," he writes; "anyhow, it was certain that I was afraid or had some other feeling of that sort. If I had only known what I was afraid of, I would have made a great step forward."

The anxiety of existence that the informed reader recognizes in Roquentin is the same felt by Harry at the mercy of Jones's band. After conveying the sentiment quoted earlier—that such music makes him "want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere"—Harry adds, "The trombones and tubas went deeper than what before my heart ever had room for. And I just didn't know what to think." While confronted with the desire to act—whether to throw a stone or to take up a rifle—the protagonist in each story is unable to do so. Moreover, each protagonist "can't explain to [him]self" (Nausea) the nature of his dread. For the most part Harry, like Roquentin in Nausea, struggles throughout Geronimo Rex to resolve the myriad dilemmas that result either from action taken recklessly, or from paralysis resulting from over-analysis or bad faith. As a child, however, Harry demonstrates an acute ability to create existential meaning through action.

Harry's strong affinity at such a young age for World War II reveals one of the major factors accounting for his intuitive existential perspective. In Nausea, writes René Lafarge, Roquentin's intuition "is [revealed] through a harrowing experience, both disgusting and frightening, [in which] being is grasped in its contingency and its gratuity. ..." Just as Sartre himself found in World War II the impetus for his own existential viewpoint, so does Harry, in viewing images of the harrowing death and frightening action of war, develop as a child the ability to accept life's brutality as merely a consequence of existence, to resist the paralysis of feigned erudition or overanalysis, and to act "when some simple act [is] called for."

Repeated references throughout the early pages of Geronimo Rex to World War II reinforce the importance of action in Harry's psyche and demonstrate Hannah's subtle cues signaling an important historical source for the novel's philosophical underpinnings:

I'm second-grader Harriman Monroe. My mind is full of little else but notes on the atrocities of World War II. I saw them all in photographs in a book compiled by a national magazine. It was on some playmate's daddy's shelf. Then I'm eight, third grade, and have in part understood what I saw. I'm not clever enough to be horrified yet.

The harrowing atrocities of World War II provide Harry with the same evidence that historically supported Sartre's pronouncement of the contingency of existence. In his autobiographical work, The Words, Sartre remarks that "children and soldiers don't bother their heads about the dead." Harry's comments above confirm here the applicability of Sartre's words. Images of war rend the veil of convention and common notions of civility. Harry's viewing of photographs of war atrocities, having already occurred by the time the reader meets him, exposes him to the potential brutality of existence and the contingency of humankind's civility. Humans can be civil or horrible to one another with equal ease, just as a seemingly innocent object like a cheese knife can be used to eat dessert or gouge out an acquaintance's eye. By extension, any suggestion of a purposeful essence inherent in anything is seen to be merely wishful thinking.

Harry's exposure to the horrors of war stands as a major influence in the emergence of his keen existential self-awareness. Nevertheless, according to Sartre these same conditions also surround all humanity, rendering all, in a sense, isolated by conflict. Cranston supports this reading of Sartre, agreeing that "existentialists lay great stress on the isolation, the solitude, the 'abandonment' of the individual; and no existentialist writer has stressed this more than Sartre . . . " The contingent, random absurdity of individual existence, once realized, prohibits the individual from seeing life through established convention. As Roquentin amazedly admits in Nausea,"Anything can happen, anything."

Two episodes from Chapter 2 in particular portray Harry as possessed of an uncanny sense of the existential milieu. Harry's killing of one of his neighbor's peacocks and the entanglement arising from the mysterious appearance in his yard of a festering dog and a dying mule expose to the reader the futility of both feigned erudition and conventional belief. These incidents, as well as the settings in which they occur, not only reveal Harry's existential vision but also heighten its clarity by contrasting it with the bourgeois mind-set of his father, Ode Elann. As a child, Harry recognizes the possibility arising before possibility, and this recognition reveals itself in his willingness to act. In the end, Harry's childhood view of life and death—of human existence—aligns itself surprisingly closely with that of Sartre, as several comparisons will confirm.

One would think that such a revelation, experienced in the truth of subjectivity, would be difficult to ignore. Sartre, however, argues that all individuals are aware of the reality of existence, yet most practice a form of self-deception or self-delusion that keeps the harsh truth of existence at bay. For Sartre, the difference that separates those with authentic existential perspective from those without it involves the latter group's mauvaise foi, defined by Cranston as "culpable self-deception, by means of which certain people evade their moral responsibility." When in mauvaise foi, often translated as "bad faith," an individual denies both the harsh brutality of existence as well as the total gratuity of Being, choosing instead methods of evasion such as abstracted thought or belief in conventional (and often bourgeois) value systems. Such evasion, claims Sartre, is immoral. One must choose to confront one's existence, acknowledging one's past for what it is—mediocre, ineffectual, or whatever—and then choose to throw oneself forward, to project oneself, to be, creating for oneself an essence—a history—involving authentic commitment and action rather than continued inauthentic, self-deceived flight. Among adults such commitment is rare, although in the young it is often implicit in their simple and direct perspective. For Harry, this existential ethic is first demonstrated in his childhood reactions to violence and death.

Hannah, of course, is not the first author to delineate the presence of an intuitive existentialist perspective in children. For the existential philosophers, it seems, the implicit innocence of youth allows closer encounters with the dread of existence, while such encounters remain obscured from or denied by adults. The philosophical premise for the intuitive existential perception of children can be traced back to the earliest generally acknowledged existentialist, Kierkegaard. In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard directly addresses the presence of existential dread in children, whom he sees as "posited in innocence" and, therefore, "not [seated in] guilt", as might occur in the anxiety over a particular wrongdoing, for example. "This dread," writes Kierkegaard, in fact "belongs to the child so essentially that [the child] cannot do without it; even though it alarms him, it captivates him nevertheless by its sweet feeling of apprehension." This apprehension, however, is "more definitely indicated as a seeking after adventure, a thirst for the prodigious, the mysterious."

In Geronimo Rex, Harry's desire for adventure and its manifestation early in the novel in the form of war fantasies tightens the link between Kierkegaardian dread and Sartrean existentialism stemming from the violence of war. Harry plays in patches of cane "where," he thinks, "the Jap snipers should've ideally been sitting in the high crotches and just ready to be potted by my air rifle." On another day of play, Harry calmly notes that "a piece of stick I'd thrown at the mailbox a week ago" had been imagined as "a grenade and the mailbox [as] a German's mouth." Such adventuresome play clearly associates Harry's behavior with that described by Kierkegaard.

Besides philosophical precedent, however, there is also autobiographic evidence on the part of both Sartre and Hannah that suggests the personal impetus for their existential perspectives. In Jean-Paul Sartre: Freedom and Commitment, Charles G. Hill points out that "[Sartre] was already aware as a child of [the contingency] about existence." In his autobiography, The Words, Sartre admits a moment of childhood existential revelation which reveals that the seeming innocuousness of Kierkegaard's comments in reality is not so:

At the very moment when [I was convinced] that nothing exists without a reason . . . my own reason for being slipped away; I would suddenly discover that I did not really count. . . . Nobody, beginning with me, knew why the hell I had been born.

(Qtd. in Hill, p. 41)

The seminal influence of such a revelation on Sartre's work is evident, for as an adult, he worked out on a philosophical level this recognition of gratuitous existence first felt intuitively in his childhood.

Instead of the disturbingly confessional mode emphasized above by Sartre, Hannah uses the veils of fiction and humor to discuss his own childhood. In his heavily autobiographic work Boomerang, Hannah implies the prodigiousness of existence, toning down Sartre's pessimism by mingling his recollections of childhood with punches of humor nonetheless containing the potential for great destructiveness. The results strongly reinforce Kierkegaard's views on the intuitive existentialism of children:

We were so tiny but we were sincere. . . . [W]hen we were tiny we fought and we had secret intrigues. We built a fort out of railroad ties. The kids would roam out and find pecans and horse apples and a stick of dynamite.

There were Reds and Nazis out there.

We knew about dynamite.

Here Hannah intuitively demonstrates Kierkegaard's philosophical observations while also demonstrating the power inherent even in the play of children. The quest of Boomerang's narrator—virtually Hannah himself—for "secret intrigues," along with the underlying seriousness of very real danger, informs the character and experiences of Harry Monroe in Geronimo Rex.

While considerably more overtly humorous than Sartre in his ironic "portrait of the respectable citizens of Bouville ...as they take their Sunday strolls" in Nausea (Hill, p. 40), Hannah creates a bourgeois industrial backdrop before which he lays out the existential drama of most of Book One of Geronimo Rex. In Book One, the condition of mauvaise foi is clearly presented in the life of Ode Elann Monroe, Harry's father. As the behavior of Ode Elann Monroe demonstrates, the attempt both to maintain meaningless conventions of civility where events demand coarser or more direct action and to avoid confrontation with the mediocrity of one's own life fails to protect those in fear of the surging contingency of existence. This failure, while experienced individually, is yet symptomatic of a class of people against whom much of Sartre's Nausea was directed. Nausea, writes one critic, is in large part "a scathing satire of the bourgeoisie and its 'principles"' (Hill, p. 40). For Barry Hannah, Ode Elann acts as the bourgeois target of young Harry's existential indictments.

Harry's description of his home, situated between the houses of "the Sink brothers, who were the paper mill barons of Dream of Pines," contains as great a stereotype of bourgeois capitalism as anything in the seaside town of Bouville in Nausea. Before the arrival of the Monroes, the Sinks in their greed had turned the surrounding woodlands, once "looking deep and sappy," with "real shade on the road and big rocks lying mossy off the roadbank," into a "smelly heap a mile east of Pierre Hills"— the pretentious name the Sinks bestowed upon their estate. Harry observes, "By the time my old man moved us into our house . . . the Sink brothers and the rest of their friends managing the mills had stoked up such a glut of wood in the mill production that Pierre Hills itself breathed a slight fart of the industrialized woodlands."

The Sinks provide an image of bourgeois stature to which Ode Elann, Harry's father, shamelessly aspires. Ode Elann, owner of a local mattress factory, "always had a blind admiration for anybody holding monstrous wealth." According to Harry,

[Ode Elann] thought it took an unearthly talent to become rich beyond rich. He loved the city of New York because it was so incomprehensibly rich. He loved paying homage to it, and I guess that's why we took all the New York magazines and newspapers.

Like Sartre's benefactors of Bouville who "try, through their portraits, to prove that their lives were 'necessary' and 'right"' (Hill, p. 41), Ode Elann Monroe takes "all the New York magazines and newspapers" in order to bolster his idea of himself as a member of the cultural and financial elite. Himself a parvenu in comparison to the Sinks, Ode Elann longs to be accepted by the upper echelon of bourgeois society that the brothers symbolize. Thus it follows that Ode Elann "didn't really allow anything to be said against the Sink brothers" even when they "never sent condolences or anything" when Harry's mother had a miscarriage. Harry eventually forces his father to see the futility in such groveling, but at this point in Harry's life, his father lives in obsequiousness to his bourgeois icons, the Sink brothers.

In addition to his bourgeois vision of wealth, Ode Elann nurses Sartrean bad faith concerning the notion of intellectual pursuit: "He was one of these magazine handsomes who was turning gray in the hair at forty-five; the gray strands were flames from a hot and ancient mental life, or so he thought." But despite all of the New York reading materials in the Monroe household, "nobody read anything in them beyond the gaudiest headlines." Surprisingly keen in his observations, Harry unemotionally notes the chimera of his father's erudition:

[Ode Elann's] mental life was always the great fake of the household. He had three years at L.S.U., makes sixty thousand a year, has the name of a bayou poet . . . and has read a book or two over above what he was assigned as a sophomore. . . . [H]e's a snob, and goes about faking an abundant mental life.

Ode Elann's intellectual airs have a profound impact on the young Harry. By observing his father's self-deception, Harry develops a dislike for hollow rumination, and he comes to identify easily such falsity in others beside his father. At the age of eight, however, Harry's primary interaction is on the home front, and so his disdain for such delusion is focused on Ode Elann. Harry's hypothesis concerning his father's true activity during the latter's periods of "thought" when "he's demanding Quiet Hours outside his study after supper" reveals the existential basis both behind his father's behavior and beneath Harry's criticism of it:

[In] his study, . . . if my guess is right, he sits scrutinizing his latest hangnail and writing his own name over and over in different scripts until he bores himself into a coma. About midnight, he charges out of the study, ignoring Mother and me watching the national anthem on the television, every insipid show of which (TV was bland-new to us then) he adored better than breath, but denied himself for the mental life, and he is banging into the walls of the hall making toward his bed and sleep, so frightened by the mediocrity of his own thoughts that it's truly sad.

The grim hilarity of Harry's description of his father nevertheless belies a deeper observation of existential import, one expounded upon by Sartre, although it is strongly prefigured in the work of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger argues that mere positivist "[c]alculation uses everything that 'is' as units of computation . . . and, in the computation, uses up its stock of units." This calculation, which Sartre would identify as the bourgeois attempt to create order and meaning out of either the material or the abstract, can never reach the essence of Being itself, because the things calculated are always part of what-is (existence), not what transcends what-is—Being. Harry in his innocence recognizes this, while his father, despite his partial college education—which he felt entitled him to "life on a higher plane"—"always endured the horror of knowing that his thoughts in the study were no different than the ones he had during the day when he added a random sum on the to-the-good book." In equating Ode Elann's thinking with mere calculation, Hannah adopts a deeply philosophical analogy symbolizing the inability of Harry's father to contemplate Being, which according to Heidegger must be conceived by "thinking . . . thoughts [that] not only do not calculate but are absolutely determined by what is 'other' than what-is."

But not only can Harry's father not conceive beyond mere calculation; he also cannot surmount his cowardice in the face of existence. It is this "dread of dread" which exudes from Ode Elann Monroe, and which in fact causes his paradoxical despair over and maintenance of a self-deluded mental life. Unconsciously following the lead of Descartes, Ode Elann hopes that by engaging in abstracted thought, he can separate that thought from consciousness and thereby avoid confrontation with his mediocre bourgeois being and perhaps understand his existence in terms of a "meaningful" abstraction.

In contrast to his father's bad faith, Harry in his childhood demonstrates what might be called "good faith," the delineation of which it now seems appropriate to present. "The nature of consciousness" for Sartre "simultaneously is to be what it is not and not to be what it is" (Being). Despite the complexities of this condition of consciousness—a condition that undermines the possibility of good faith as opposite to and separate from bad faith—Sartre maintains that "that does not mean that we can not radically escape bad faith." Instead of the term "good faith," Sartre defers in a footnote to a term original to Heidegger: "authenticity." Sartre's development of authenticity, however, moves beyond Heidegger's more overtly academic analysis of praxis and on to a more concrete realization of authenticity in specific contexts.

As opposed to his father, young Harry Monroe has no reservations about this existential perspective, for his actions demonstrate a commitment in perfect accord with Sartre's pronouncement on authenticity. That perspective, like Roquentin's in Nausea, is "'prereflexive,' or instinctive" (Hill, p. 39). But unlike Roquentin, whose "reactions to things, people, and situations...cause varying degrees and types of physical distress as he periodically rejects what he senses to be the truth about existence", Harry's childhood existential intuition assesses a given situation and reacts immediately, before becoming bogged down in purposeless deliberation that is, in fact, only an attempt to delay or avoid taking action.

Harry's commitment to action is best presented in his slaying of one of the Sink's peacocks, an action to which the protagonist commits himself wholly and for which he provides a straightforward Sartrean explanation. A second demonstration appears shortly after this one, but in both, Ode Elann's reaction to Harry's acts clearly reveals his bourgeois obsequiousness and his flight from the harshness of existence.

"The Sink brothers had two peafowl that came trespassing in our cane patch alongside the driveway," begins Harry. Ode Elann, taken in by the bourgeois ascendancy of the Sinks, relishes the peacocks' "prissing around on his land," believing that the peacocks' presence signifies some vague comradeship between his family and the Sinks. Harry, however, thinks otherwise of the birds: "The female was a whore, and the male lived on her, and was jealous as hell."

"Seeking after adventure" (Kierkegaard, p. 38), air rifle in hand, Harry one day attempts to explore the cane patch, pressing "back to the deeps, where the Jap snipers" of his World-War-II-permeated imagination "should've ideally been sitting . . . " Instead of the Japanese, however, Harry "hit a dip and slid off into that peafowl dung I didn't know was there." The resulting scene is not a sanitary one: "It was all in my hair and up the barrel of my gun, and my lever had this unmentionable stalactite of green hanging on it."

Harry's response to his experience in the cane patch subtly foreshadows the time of the explosive resurgence of Harry's own existential awareness during college: "I looked around and saw there wouldn't be any decent playing in here until maybe I was twenty." It is with the discovery of Geronimo in college that Harry fully realizes the Sartrean nature of his existence: that committed action always supersedes the bourgeois paralysis that results from overanalyzing options. In an absurd world, action must precede moral speculation upon action; committed action, in fact, becomes the moral choice. Immediately following his experience in the cane patch, Harry places himself in a situation demanding just such action.

One day, as he is "walking out for the papers at the end of the drive," Harry is attacked by the male peacock, who "all of a sudden beats out of the deeps and starts hammering at my thigh." Harry clearly states that he "wasn't thinking about the birds or the cane" prior to this incident. Like Roquentin in Nausea, Harry does not seek out existence; rather, manifestations of it rush in on him. On the surface, Harry acknowledges that after the peacock's sudden and unprovoked attack, "I was afraid of him." If the peacock is seen as a metaphor for some Sartrean Other, then the episode contains a powerful lesson in existence and action, for despite his fear, Harry refuses "to detour around the cane walking back on account of any bird." Instead of cowering, Harry chooses to act:

I picked up a piece of stick I'd thrown at the mailbox a week ago, pretending the stick was a grenade and the mailbox was a German's mouth; it was a healthy length of hickory, never a very feasible grenade. I walked back on the cane edge of the drive, and got to where the cock ambushed me coming out. The old boy was roosting about four feet off the ground this time and jumped on me at head level, making a loud racket in the cane as he launched himself. This terrified me, but I stood still and swung on the peacock with both arms. I caught him on the head, and his beak swerved like plastic. He dropped on the bricks like a club, his fantail all folded in. I toed him. He was dead, with an eye wiped away.

Having seen the horrors of war at such a young age, Harry possesses a hazy awareness of the absurdity and cruelty of life, while his father still adheres to fallacious ideas of essential meaning and purpose. Moreover, Harry is not so weighted down with his father's "sheer timidity" that he cannot take action when life demands it. Harry's fear is not enough to drive him to cowardice, as his father's fear of the mediocrity of his own life has driven Ode Elann to the cowardice of feigned erudition.

Motoring up the drive immediately after Harry has "toed" the peacock, Ode Elann can only stare in frightened amazement. When the father finally speaks, another of the peacock's metaphorical functions is suggested. At first in denial, Harry's father asks helplessly, "It's not dead, is it, son?" Then, realizing the truth, he declares, "Pray to God. He is dead." The pronoun in Ode Elann's pronouncement contains an ambiguity which provides the key to interpreting the significance of the peacock here, for while "He" seemingly refers to the dead peacock, the word's proximity to "God" echoes the infamous claim made in Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom by the madman with the lantern:

Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putre-faction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.

The aftermath of Harry's violent act is more than his father can handle, and even though the peacock's death offers Ode Elann a moment of existential insight, he is too far gone in his bad faith to confront the truth. Like the message of Nietzsche's madman, who, casting down his lantern, cries to the astonished listeners, "I come too early.... [M]y time has not yet come," the existential import of the peacock's death comes too early for Ode Elann to realize fully. The reader, nevertheless, can recognize in the scene several metaphors symbolizing Harry's own emergence into an awareness of the existential ethic.

Once Harry's father has pronounced the death of the bird, he asks Harry, "Why would you kill a lovely bird like. . . . You know who he belongs to, don't you?" In his language, Ode Elann reveals his primary reason for being upset: the bird, symbol of his connection with the Sinks (and their status), has been brutally struck down by his own son. Harry's reply to his father's question is simple and direct, "He came at me. Twice." Harry's answer to his father's next question, "What do you think we're going to do about this?", is equally abrupt:

"Put some lime on that sucker, he'll melt into the ground without a stink in three-four days." The old man's jaw dropped.

"Who taught you about lime?"

"Aw, the Nazis used it on bodies in concentration camps."

"Oh yeah? You're really getting an education, aren't you?"

"Yessir. You want me to handle it?" The old man was looking away at some hopeless horizon.

"I want what?" he said.

"You want me to handle this peacock. I'll drag him up in that cane. You get me a little lime, and nobody'll know nothing." Now the old man's roasting me with a hard look.

"You get your little ass up to the bathroom and get your pants down. I'm going to handle you."

Harry's father exhibits anger and confusion at his son's knowledge but more importantly at his ability to act. Note that Harry, who throughout the novel generally adheres to correct grammar, comments that after he disposes of the peacock, "nobody'll know nothing." Heidegger's premise in "What is Metaphysics" is that by bravely thinking beyond mere calculation of what-is, an awareness of Nothing which was once intimated through existential angst or dread reveals itself in its relationship with Being. Similarly, Sartre argues that the authentic individual has realized himself as the origin of the Nothingness that haunts him in his existential angst. Based on such a preponderance of symbolic evidence, it can be argued reasonably that were he to take action, Ode Elann—a "nobody" certainly by Harry's standards— would experience a truly existential moment, a moment of confrontation with Nothingness. As is to be expected, however, Ode Elann continually but unsuccessfully flees from such an encounter. Nevertheless, the metaphorical significance of this episode in Geronimo Rex is one of the most powerful, and its presence early in the novel signifies the importance of existential themes within the story.

Shortly after the incident with the peacock, Harry finds himself in another situation exposing the meaninglessness of existence and of the primacy of action. Despite his father's "trying to explain the concept of a yard chore and what it had to do with Duty," Harry finds himself skeptical of the idea, preferring to let the leaves in the yard "lay and rot, and just imagining all the moldering beauty underneath they must be causing." The appearance of a large Doberman in the front yard, apparently having been led there by the pheromones of Harry's menstruating terrier, Maggie, "save[s Harry] immediate Duty on the leaves." What is important about this incident, however, is not the Doberman but Ode Elann's cowardice and inability to act:

But the old man couldn't do anything about the Doberman. . . . It was the gentleness of his that my mother always bragged on him about. I didn't see this side of him, or wasn't ready to see it, until a couple of days later, when it was too sad to miss.

With this transition, Harry recounts the incident that, more than any other, opens his eyes to his father's inability to take action. Harry writes that one morning, the Doberman is replaced by a "new suitor-dog outside. He wasn't on the porch. He was out in the edge of the cane. He was a sick, scabby, and practically hairless combination of Spitz and setter." The disgusting dog does not arrive alone, but with a mule, the two "apparently . . . joined up to see the last of it together. They were both clearly terminal." Just as Harry's experience in the "the deeps" of the cane prefaces his killing of Bayard the peacock, Ode Elann's experience with the Doberman prefaces his encounter with the Spitz-setter and the mule.

Although both Harry and his father spy the creatures simultaneously while staring out the bay window of their home, they have diametrically opposed reactions. "All right, Daddy, I'll go be getting the lime in the garage while you get the shotgun. Better put in some double-aught shells", declares Harry without a moment's consideration. To Harry, the immediate response to the situation is one of action. His father, however, again demonstrates his ineffectual existence: after "fak[ing] three paragraphs of thought", he suggests, "They look like they're on the move. Don't they?" and takes Harry on to school, leaving the decrepit animals out near the cane. In order to avoid action, Ode Elann practices mauvaise foi, although his asking "Don't they?" immediately after his attempt at self-deception clearly indicates that this statement is an excuse to avoid action, not a logical conclusion based on observation.

"The animals," Harry states laconically, "didn't leave. They were still out there four days later. The old man's sense of beauty was hurt." To a man like Ode Elann, the cruelty of existence as seen in the "hewed-out," "mangy", odiferous and quite clearly dying creatures in his yard is horrifying, and shooting the animals would be too blatant an admission of the senseless existence of these two creatures. Instead, Ode Elann asks Harry to use his air rifle to "pop them" into moving elsewhere. The reader realizes by this point that the father's bourgeois "gentleness" is in reality nothing more than a fear of facing life's cruelties, and that it is not the animals' welfare being considered, but rather the self-deceived, idealized conception of the world under which Ode Elann operates. When his father changes his mind about the air rifle and tells Harry, "Wait! . . . Don't do that. No use to hurt them if they just can't move", Harry realizes that "the old man's as gentle as a nerve."

Such gentleness is a great impediment to action, Harry learns. When the animals do not leave but continue to deteriorate in his yard, Ode Elann attempts another maneuver to avoid action: "There's an organization I've heard of that handles these types of animals" he offers, despite the fact that no such organization is to be found in Dream of Pines. Inaction creates guilt on the part of Ode Elann, but his cowardice in turn refuses to permit action. One day, when father and son are out in the yard examining a spot from which the dog had shuffled a few feet, Harry's father finally admits his self-deception to his son:

Where the dog had lain in the grass, hair remained, and hundreds of maggots.

The old man winced, and groaned, "Harry. This is the first time in my life I ever knew God let things like this happen. . . . I've read books about it," he said flatly. "But somebody has been keeping the real information from me. When things die, they get eaten by worms. They really do."

Ode Elann's revelation is not merely that "when things die, they get eaten by worms." His revelation is that the world abounds in senseless cruelty and absurdity. In reality, of course, Ode Elann has known but has been deceiving himself, acting in bad faith by evading the brutality of existence.

Despite this revelation, however, Ode Elann is still unable to take action to resolve the situation, as Harry observes with great acumen, "[Ode Elann] was not a hero of tender feelings; this gentle portion of himself mixed up his mind quite a bit, and landed him in protracted confusion, when some simple act was called for." Harry finds in this characterization something of his older self; as Harry later admits of himself, Ode Elann would "have to dream an answer before he knew it was right. He'd wake up and know what he ought to do, having just seen some righteous version of himself in his dream." This and the words of his wife are the only things capable of initiating action in Ode Elann, and neither one stems from personal commitment. The novel later reveals in Harry similar characteristics, and even at this point Harry-as-narrator readily admits such similarities: "The old man and I always tended to trust every girl we ever knew, and little else but our own dreams in sleep."

One Saturday night, Harry rises from sleep to realize that his father has "dreamed something, or the old lady had risen up in the night and commanded something in short, simple English." From the beginning of the ordeal, Harry, of course, has "wanted to personally shoot the big mule sucker and see him cave in." Yet his father has refrained from action, because, according to Harry's mother, "He thinks he can shoot them in a kinder way than what the sheriff would." Harry immediately recognizes the absurdity of the idea, stating that "a bullet to the brain is just a bullet to the brain. . . . You can't die quick in different ways." Like his father, Harry's mother is alarmed by her son's frank awareness of the facts of existence. After reprimanding him with her transparent belief that "little boys aren't supposed to be thinking about bullets to the brain," she helplessly offers that "Daddy has to think it out," despite Harry's assessment that "Daddy's waited wrong this time."

At six the next morning, Harry and his father finally rise to take action. The animals, as if sensing the finality of their situation or perhaps the final breaking of Ode Elann's "gentleness," had "gotten in the cane and smashed it up, wallowing": "The mule was lying dead among some broken stalks. The dog lifted up his head in the foot-high pin-plants on the edge of the cane. He smiled when the old man shot him with the twelve-gauge."

In the end, Harry's father is forced to take the same action called for weeks ago by Harry when the animals were first sighted. Moreover, Ode Elann's inability to act has only resulted in the prolonged suffering of two creatures, as well as his own suffering of guilt due to his inaction. In a lesson known intuitively by Harry in his innocence, Ode Elann finally learns the inexplicable nature of existence and the necessity of action over thought, real or feigned. Harry observes, "I think he gave up trying to be a perfect neighbor to the Sink boys that morning." Harry's father even admits in retrospect, "That peacock Bayard needed killing," and he tells Harry, "I was proud of you when you bashed him." Harry, however, realizes that this is merely another, a different, form of bad faith on the part of "Ode Elann Monroe: slayer of the Spitz-setter. Puller of the trigger when the chips were down."

From a theme-setting overture to several character-defining episodes of absurdity and action, the early pages of Geronimo Rex place heavy but subtle emphasis on the existential milieu and the two modes of addressing it: bad faith versus authentic action. Like Roquentin's experiences in Sartre's Nausea, Harry's engagements relate to him the contingency of existence as well as the absurdity of notions such as authority, determinism, duty, and idealistic abstraction. Nevertheless, throughout these examples Hannah keeps the deeper philosophic issues at arm's length, referencing them obliquely, making their final purpose unclear. Moreover, the humor in Hannah's characters consistently threatens to undermine the presumed "seriousness" of any of the novel's philosophic import.

When prodded during a 1992 interview concerning the character of Harry Monroe, Hannah reveals what could be taken as the definitive statement on Geronimo Rex's angst-ridden protagonist:

Hannah: I admit it. Harry's a creep. A jerk. And I don't care for him. It's me.

Cawelti: He carries a gun . . .

Hannah: Very cowardly, and [a] punkish thing to do—

Cawelti: Did you ever carry one?

Hannah: I didn't, but I kinda wanted to, you know I wanted to have a smart coat, and have a gun. I realize now that it's a very clichéd, Southern thing to do. There's not a damn thing original about it, every redneck can do it and does. I think it's in the French mode, you know, creating art by drawing a pistol. You know, it's the absolute act, the act of firing a gun randomly into a crowd—it's the absolute act of art.

Cawelti: Existential act.

Hannah: Right, your existential act.

Cawelti: You've gotta make some choices—

Hannah: I had existential pretensions about Harry.

Hannah's claim of having "existential pretensions about Harry" suggests on one hand an admission of his attempt to create in Harry an existential hero "in the French mode." On the other hand, Hannah has always demonstrated a strong tendency toward farce—something he has admitted doing with all things both Southern and serious. "In one respect," writes critic Fred Hobson, "Hannah belongs to the guns-guts-and-glory world of southern thought. . . . In another respect, it might be claimed, Hannah writes a critique of that southern world." If Hobson seems hesitant to take sides on the issue, it is due to intelligence rather than indecision; of the two options offered, Hannah consistently takes both.

In his biographical and literary sketch of Hannah for Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, Owen Gilman, Jr. concludes that "future scholarship will be obliged to assess Barry Hannah's supercharged style as a mode of being." I would argue that within Hannah's work the search for an authentic mode of being runs much deeper than his style alone—that in fact Hannah's work is haunted by "the big questions" of existence, and that his stories reflect very human attempts to confront those questions with varying degrees of courage and cowardice. It is the resulting interplay that brings Hannah's humor sparkling to the surface. Hannah has said that "all life is absurd, but if you keep laughing and smiling, you can make it better." Discussing his novel Ray, Hannah offers the following:

Life is a lot of confusion and pain and death, and the only way to deal with it is to face it with the attitude that there's no place to go but up. "Sabers up gentlemen!" is the way I end Ray. That's all I know. Straight ahead. Hit 'em high. Let's go get 'em again. That's the only solution I know. There's too much depression and confusion and death to allow any real hope. We don't have a f——ing chance. But "Sabers up!"

Hannah thus remains existentialism's post-modern faithful, cognizant of the philosophy's inherent and undermining potential for farce amid a fragmented, nostalgic, and disintegrating South, yet unwilling to forsake the glorious and daring pursuit of authentic meaning. In Geronimo Rex, as well as throughout his canon, Hannah's oblique handling of deep philosophical issues within the rowdy framework of "neo-Southern Gothic" humor evinces his intuitive command of both the existential ethic and its farcical critique. It is a credit both to the author and to the South that Hannah juggles the fragments of this postmodern world while often making us laugh ourselves to tears.

Source: Christopher O. Griffin, "Bad Faith and the Ethic of Existential Action: Kierkegaard, Sartre, and a Boy Named Harry," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 173-96.


Barnes, Hazel E., Existential Ethics, Alfred A. Knopf, 1967, p. 121.

———, The Literature of Possibility, University of Nebraska Press, 1959, p. 9.

Calendoli, Giovanni, and Denise Applin, "The Theatre of the Grotesque," in Drama Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, March 1978, pp. 13-16.

Carruth, Hayden, Introduction, in Nausea, New Directions, 1964, p. x.

Collins, James, Preface, in The Existentialists: A Critical Study, Henry Regnery, 1952, p. xiii.

Ernest Hemingway, http://www.ernest.hemingway.com/ (accessed July 17, 2008).

"Ernest Hemingway: Biography," in NobelPrize.org, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1954/hemingway-bio.html (accessed July 17, 2008).

Field, Allyson Nadia, "Expatriate Lifestyle as Tourist Destination: The Sun Also Rises and Experiential Travelogues of the Twenties," in the Hemingway Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 2006, pp. 29-43.

Glicksberg, Charles I., "Literary Existentialism," in Existentialist Literature and Aesthetics, edited by William L. McBride, Garland, 1997, pp. 2-39.

Griffin, Christopher O., "Bad Faith and the Ethic of Existential Action: Kierkegaard, Sartre, and a Boy Named Harry," in the Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 173-96.

Keefe, Terry, "Beauvoir's Memoirs, Diary and Letters," in Autobiography and the Existential Self, edited by Terry Keefe and Edmund Smyth, St. Martin's Press, 1995, p. 78.


Baker, Richard E., The Dynamics of the Absurd in the Existentialist Novel, Peter Lang, 1993.

By its nature, absurdity avoids rational understanding. In this study, Baker uses examples from key existentialist novels to illustrate the philosophical basis for the absurdist attitude.

Beauvoir, Simone de, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, Pantheon Books, 1984.

Beauvoir gives her impressions of the last ten years of Sartre's life (1970-1980), followed by a lengthy transcript of a conversation that went on between them in 1974.

Bielmeier, Michael G., Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, and Existential Tragedy, Edward Mellen Press, 2000.

Starting with the references that Kierkegaard made to Shakespeare's plays, Bielmeier offers a full existential reading of the tragedies.

Borowitz, Eugene, A Layman's Introduction to Religious Existentialism, Westminster Press, 1965.

The passionate atheism of the French existentialists is often noted, but there is a powerful school that combines existential thought and religious experience. Borowitz's overview introduces many philosophers and writers who are usually not mentioned in general discussions of the philosophy.

Cotkin, George, Existential America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Historian George Cotkin challenges the claim by Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus that Americans were too shallow and materialistic for Existentialism. In this book, Cotkin traces the history of American Existentialism from Emily Dickinson in the early nineteenth century to Ralph Ellison and Norman Mailer of the twentieth century.

Husserl, Edmund, "The Paris Lectures," in Phenomenology and Existentialism, edited by Robert C. Solomon, Littlefield Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1980, pp. 43-57.

Sartre attended these lectures, given at the Sorbonne in 1929, and they greatly influenced his development of a philosophy of Existentialism that was separate from the Phenomenology of Husserl and Husserl's successor, Heidegger.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, "An Explication of The Stranger," in Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 108-21.

Originally published in 1955, Sartre's explication has frequent references to Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, finding the novel to be one of the greatest of French literature.

Solomon, Robert C., Introducing the Existentialists, Hackett, 1981.

Solomon brings the subject of Existentialism to life for readers by presenting imagined interviews with Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus. The result is more focused and less abstract than actual interviews with these authors, serving well as an introduction to their thoughts.


views updated May 23 2018


Existentialism is a philosophical movement that became associated with the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (who rejected the name as too confining) and whose roots extend to the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Sartre, like most of his existentialist colleagues, was too much the individualist to accept the idea of being part of a movement, no matter how exclusive. Both Heidegger and the writer Albert Camus rejected the label, offended by being so linked to Sartre. But the name stuck, and Sartre, at least, accepted it with reservations. And so existentialism came to name one of the most powerful intellectual and literary movements of the last century and a half.

Sartre's philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy, and other figures are usually considered existentialists insofar as they resonate with certain Sartrean themesextreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives. Thus some key figures who might be considered existentialist, Camus and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, are sometimes excluded because they are not sufficiently Sartrean. Existentialism can be defined as a philosophy that puts special emphasis on personal existence, on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. It tends to distrust abstractions and overgeneralized formulations of "human nature," on the grounds that each of us, in some important sense, makes his or her own nature. Søren Kierkegaard emphasized the "existence" of the individual and the importance of individual choice. The first conception of a movement should be credited to Karl Jaspers (18831969), a German philosopher-psychiatrist who noted the similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and identified them as early practitioners of what he called "existence-philosophy" (Existenzphilosophie ).

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche differed radically, most famously in their approach to religion (Christianity in particular). Kierkegaard was devout while Nietzsche was a blasphemous atheist. But so, too, twentieth-century existentialism would include both religious and atheistic philosophers. The religious existentialists include, among others, Karl Barth (18861968), Martin Buber (18781965), Gabriel Marcel (18871973), Jacques Maritain (18821973), and Paul Tillich (18861965). Among those labeled atheistic existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (19081986), Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (19081961) are prominent. But existentialism also includes a number of more ambiguous figures, notably Martin Heidegger, who was certainly no orthodox Christian thinker but nevertheless bemoaned modernity's abandonment of religion and insisted that "only a new god can save us." So, too, existentialism usually embraces such tormented literary figures as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (18211881), André Gide (18691951), and Franz Kafka (18831924), writers like Norman Mailer (b. 1923), and sympathetic international figures like Miguel de Unamuno (18641936) and Keiji Nishitani (19001990).

Twentieth-century existentialism was greatly influenced by phenomenology, originated by Edmund Husserl (18591938) and pursued into the existential realm by his student Heidegger. The "ontological" problem for Heidegger, "the problem of being," was to find out who one is and what to do with oneself or, as Nietzsche had asked earlier, how one is to become what one is. Phenomenology, for Heidegger, becomes a method for "disclosing [one's] being." Following both Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre used the phenomenological method to defend his central thesis that humans are essentially free, and Merleau-Ponty further refined both that method and the resulting notion of freedom to incorporate a more bodily conception of human existence, pointing to the complexities of freedom in a politically conflicted and ambiguous world.

Oddly enough, the existentialists, perhaps the most moralistic or in any case moralizing philosophers of modern times, often seem to avoid ethics. Kierkegaard noted that ethics was one choice among several. Nietzsche insisted that Western morality is slave morality, and he wrote with delight (in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882, 1887; English trans. The Gay Science ) about dancing on morality's grave. Heidegger emphatically insisted that he was not offering any ethics, and he continued to speak with disdain about those who confusedly worry about values. Even Sartre, moralist par excellence, followed Heidegger in insisting that his existentialism was not an ethical philosophy, although he did promise that the "phenomenological ontology" of his great tome L'être et le néant (1943; English trans. Being and Nothingness, 1956) would be followed up by an ethics, which never came.

The existentialists were rejecting a certain "bourgeois" conception of morality, the kind of ethics that worries about keeping one's promises, paying one's debts, and avoiding scandal. Instead, they were after an ethic of a larger kind, an ethics of "authenticity" or what we would call personal integrity. They called for responsibility, even heroism, in the face of the bourgeois modern world. They rejected traditional philosophical and scientific rationality and typically resorted to literature, prophecy, pamphleteering, and ponderous obfuscation, any means necessary to wake up the world from its boring bourgeois and at the same time brutal and irresponsible behavior.

Jaspers's special word, existence, which he took from Kierkegaard to summarize the centrality of self-doubt and painful freedom that defined the human condition, focused a new kind of attention on the individual. Thus existentialism tends to be a solitary philosophy. Kierkegaard, in particular, wrote at length about "subjective truth" and saving "The Individual" from the crowd, the "public," the Hegelian collective "Spirit." Nietzsche encouraged a muscular individualism in which the "higher man" should reject "the herd" and follow his own noble instincts. Heidegger calls mass-man (Das Man ) "inauthentic" and urges us to discover our own unique "authentic" self. Camus exploded onto the literary and philosophical scene with his novel The Stranger, whose protagonist had only the most tenuous connections with other people, lost as he was in his own sensuous experience. Sartre focused on individual consciousness as "being-for itself" and treated "beingfor-others" as a continuous threat. In his play Huis clos (1944; English trans. No Exit, 1947), he even tells us "Hell is other people."

One might generalize that existentialism represents a certain attitude particularly appropriate for modern (and post-modern) mass society. The existentialists share a concern for the individual and personal responsibility (whether or not they embrace "free will"). They tend to resist the submersion of the individual in larger public groups or forces. Thus Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both attacked "the herd," and Heidegger distinguished "authentic existence" from mere social existence. Sartre, in particular, emphasizes the importance of free individual choice, regardless of the power of other people to influence and coerce our desires, beliefs, and decisions. Here he follows Kierkegaard, especially, for whom passionate, personal choice and commitment are essential for true "existence."

Søren Kierkegaard (18131855)

Kierkegaard was born and raised in Copenhagen, where he spent virtually his entire life. He was a pious Lutheran who once defined his task in philosophy as "a Socratic task," to define (or redefine) what it is to be a Christian. At the time, the rationalist influence of Immanuel Kant (17241804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) dominated the Lutheran church, but Kierkegaard insisted that faith was by its very nature irrational, a passion and not a provable belief. Against Hegelian Holism, Kierkegaard insisted on the primacy of the individual and the profound "Otherness" of God. And against the worldly Lutherans, Kierkegaard preached a stark, passionate, solitudinous, and unworldly religion that, in temperament, at least, would go back to the monastery. To properly and passionately choose to be a Christianas opposed to merely being born into the church and mindlessly reciting its dogmaswas to enjoy true existence. To be or become a Christian, according to Kierkegaard, it is necessary to passionately commit oneself, to make a "leap of faith" in the face of the "objective uncertainty" of religious claims. One cannot know or prove that there is a God; one must passionately choose to believe.

Kierkegaard formulated the seemingly self-contradictory notion of "subjective truth" in opposition to the idea that all life choices have a rational or "objective" resolution. In choosing the religious life, for example, Kierkegaard insists that there are no ultimately rational reasons for doing so, only subjective motives, a sense of personal necessity and a desire for passionate commitment. Similarly, choosing to be ethical, which is to say, choosing to act according to the principles of practical reason, is itself a choice, which is not rational. The notion of subjective truth does not mean, as it may seem to mean, a truth that is true "for me." It means resolution in the face of the objectively unknown. More important than what is believed is how it is believed. Against the calm deliberations of so much of the history of philosophy, in opposition to the celebration of reason and rationality, Kierkegaard celebrates angst and the passions, the "leap" into the unknown, and the irrationality of life.

Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900)

Nietzsche was a German philosopher whose writing was flamboyant and deliberately provocative, repudiating the whole Judeo-Christian tradition and liberal ethics. Nietzsche saw a conflict between the West's heroic Greek heritage and its Judeo-Christian history. He was struck, for example, by the difference between the two traditions' approaches to human suffering. While the Judeo-Christian tradition sought the explanation of misfortune in sin, the ancient Greeks took profound suffering to be an indication of the fundamentally tragic nature of human life. His first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie (1872; English trans. The Birth of Tragedy, 1909), analyzed the art of Athenian tragedy as the product of the Greeks' deep and nonevasive thinking about the meaning of life in the face of extreme vulnerability.

Nietzsche applauded the ancient Greeks for their ethical outlook, which stressed the development of excellence and nobility in contrast with what he saw as the Judeo-Christian obsession with sin and guilt. In short, he defended an ancient ethics of virtue and excellence in opposition to the modern morality of equality and "the good will" that he found, for example, in Kant's formalization of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy.

In contrast with the morality of the Homeric Greeks, a morality of heroism and mastery, Christian morality made the mediocre person of no great enthusiasm or accomplishments the moral exemplar. A good person, on this view, is someone who does no harm, breaks no rules or laws, and "means well." Nietzsche complains that the Christian moral worldview has urged people to treat the afterlife as more important than this one. Instead of urging self-improvement in earthly terms, the Christian moral vision emphasizes abstaining from "selfish" action. The person who does essentially nothing with his or her life but has avoided "sin" might merit heaven, in the Christian view, while a creative person will probably be deemed "immoral" because he or she refuses to follow "the herd." Thus the prohibitions of Judeo-Christian and Kantian ethics are in fact "leveling" devices that the weak and mediocre resentfully use to put more talented and stronger spirits at a disadvantage. Accordingly, Nietzsche suggests that we go "beyond good and evil," beyond our tendencies to pass moralistic judgment and toward a more creative and naturalistic perspective.

Nietzsche denied the very idea of the "otherworldly" and the idea of an all-powerful benign deity. As an antidote to the Christian worldview, which treats human life as a mere path to the afterlife, Nietzsche advocates a revival of the ancient view of "eternal recurrence," the view that time repeats itself cyclically. If one were to take this image of eternal recurrence seriously and imagine that one's life must be lived over and over again, suddenly there is enormous weight on what otherwise might seem like the mere "lightness" of being. But it is life, this existence, that alone counts for anything.

Martin Heidegger (18891971)

Heidegger was a theology student before he became a phenomenologist, and his concerns were existentialist concerns, questions about how to live and how to live "authentically," that is, with integrity, in a politically and technologically seductive and dangerous world. His philosophy falls into two parts. His early work as a phenomenologist, culminating in his great tome, Sein und Zeit (1927; English trans. Being and Time, 1962), suggests that he deserves to be counted among the existentialists. Like Kierkegaard, he investigates the meaning of authentic existence, the significance of our mortality, our place in the world and among other people as an individual. Heidegger's later work takes a different turn as he comes to see how his early work is still mired in the suppositions of traditional metaphysics. His philosophy seeks a new openness, a new receptivity toward the world, one that turns out to be very much in line with the program of many radical or "deep" ecologists and, as Heidegger himself later discovered, with several non-Western cultures, which had never been distracted by humanistic arrogance of his own philosophical tradition.

Heidegger's "existentialist" philosophy begins with a profound anti-Cartesianism, an uncompromising holism that rejects any dualism regarding mind and body, the distinction between subject and object, and the very language of "consciousness," "experience," and "mind." Thus he begins with an analysis of Dasein (literally, "being-there"). But the question emerges, because we are the "ontological" (self-questioning) creatures we are, just who this Dasein is. Thus Heidegger's philosophy becomes a search for authenticity or "own-ness" (Eigentlichkeit ), or personal integrity. This search for authenticity will carry us into the now familiar but ever-renewed questions about the nature of the self, and the meaning of life, as well as Heidegger's somewhat morbid central conception of "Being-unto-Death." It will also lead to Heidegger's celebration of tradition and "heritage," the importance of resolutely committing oneself to one's given culture.

In contrast to the Cartesian view of the primacy and importance of knowledge, Heidegger suggests that what attaches or "tunes" us to the world is not knowledge but moods. It is in our moods, not the detached observational standpoint of knowledge, that we are "tuned in" to our world. Mood is the starting point for understanding the nature of the self and who we are, and much of Heidegger's analysis of Dasein is in terms of its moods, angst and boredom, for example.

What Dasein cannot be is what Descartes called "a thinking thing." But, then, who is Dasein, what is the self? It is, at first, merely the roles that other people cast for me, as their son, their daughter, their student, their sullen playmate, their clever friend. That self, the Das Man self, is a social construction. Their is nothing authentic, nothing that is my own, about it. The authentic self, by contrast, is discovered in profound moments of unique self-recognition, notably, when one faces one's own death. It is not enough to acknowledge that "we are all going to die." That, according to Heidegger, is merely an objective truth and inauthentic. It is one's own death that matters here, and one's "own-ness" thus becomes "Being-unto-Death," facing up in full to one's own mortality.

Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980)

Sartre developed his existentialist philosophy during the difficult years of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris, where he lived and spent virtually his entire life. At the center of his philosophy was an all-embracing notion of freedom and an uncompromising sense of personal responsibility. In the oppressive conditions of the Nazi occupation and during the embattled years following the war, Sartre insisted that everyone is responsible for what he or she does and for what he or she becomes or "makes of oneself," no matter what the conditions, even in war and in the face of death. Sartre later insisted that he never ceased to believe that "in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one" (New Left Review, 1971) an only slight revision of his earlier, brasher slogan, "man makes himself." To be sure, as a student of Hegel and Marxand as one afflicted by physical frailty and the tragedies of the warSartre had to be well aware of the many constraints and obstacles to human freedom. But as a Cartesian, he never deviated from Descartes's classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one's "situation," Sartre tells us, but one is always free to "negate" that situation and to try to change it.

In his early work, Sartre follows Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, but he distinguishes between consciousness and the self. The self, Sartre suggests, is out there "in the world, like the self of another" (Transcendance of the Ego ). It is an ongoing project in the world, and Sartre's existentialism is very much bound to the question of how we create that self and how we try to evade that responsibility. This preliminary defense of freedom and the separation of self and consciousness provide the framework for Sartre's great philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of "being-in-itself" and "being-for-itself," which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosenour "facticity"and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and chooseour transcendence. We may find ourselves confronting certain factspoor health, a war, advancing age, or being Jewish in an anti-Semitic societybut it is always up to us what to make of these and how to respond to them. We may occupy a distinctive social role as a policeman or a waiter, but we are always something more; we always transcend such positions. When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in "bad faith." It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by "human nature." It is also bad faith to ignore the always restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choices must be made. We are always trying to define ourselves, but we are always an "open question," a self not yet made. Thus, Sartre tells us, we have a frustrated desire to "be God," to be both in-itself and for-itself, defined and free.

Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls "being-for-others." Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone "catches us in the act," and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear "for others." We "pin down" one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves.

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason (19581959), Sartre turned increasingly to politics and to a defense of Marxism in accordance with existentialist principles. He rejected the materialist determinism of Marxism, but he contended that political solidarity was the condition most conducive to authenticity. Not surprisingly, Sartre found the possibility of such solidarity in revolutionary engagement.

Simone de Beauvoir (19081986)

Simone de Beauvoir deserves special mention as a philosophical novelist who shared with Sartre this emphasis on freedom and responsibility for what one is and "what one makes of what is made of one." In her Pour une morale de l'ambiguité (1947; English trans. Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948) she spelled out the ethical implications of Sartre's philosophy. Beauvoir advanced the important thesis (shared with Merleau-Ponty) that the "ambiguity" of situations always undermines the wishful thinking that demands "right" and "wrong" answers. Beauvoir was always fascinated by her society's resistance to sensitive topics and consequently became one of the most controversial authors of the age. Beauvoir was appalled that her society, and virtually all societies, gave very little attention to the problems and inequities afflicting women. Later in life, she attacked the unsympathetic insensitivity to the inevitability of aging.

Beauvoir's most lasting contribution to philosophy and social thought was her revolutionary discussion of what it meant to be a woman. In Le deuxième sexe (1949; English trans. The Second Sex, 1953) Beauvoir initiates a discussion on the significance of gender. Hers is a powerful existentialist perspective in which gender becomes a matter of choice and imposition (being-for-others) and not a matter of mere biological facticity.

Albert Camus (19131960)

Camus borrowed from Heidegger the sense of being "abandoned" in the world, and he shared with Sartre the sense that the world does not give meaning to individuals. But whereas Sartre joined Heidegger in insisting that one must make meaning for oneself, Camus concluded that the world is "absurd," a term that has (wrongly) come to represent the whole of existentialist thinking. Indeed, one of the persistent errors in the popular understanding of existentialism is to confuse its emphasis on the "meaninglessness" of the universe with an advocacy of despair or "existential angst." Camus insists that the absurd is not license for despair.

At the outset of World War II, Camus published a novel entitled L'étranger (1942; first trans. in English as The Outsider, 1955; best known by the title The Stranger ) and an essay called Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; English trans. The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955). With those two books, he became a spokesman for the new modern morality, the ability to face life in the face of "the Absurd," a metaphysical a sense of confrontation between ourselves and an "indifferent universe." The Myth of Sisyphus is ostensibly a re-telling of the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend all of eternity pushing a rock up a mountain, where it would then roll back down of its own weight. This is the fate of all of us, Camus suggested. We expend all of our energy pushing our weight against futility and frustration. Camus presents the question of whether life is worth living, or, put differently, whether we ought to commit suicide. Camus's Sisyphus throws himself into his meaningless project, and thereby makes it meaningful. "One must consider Sisyphus happy," concludes Camus, and so, too, by acknowledging and throwing ourselves into the absurdity of our own lives, might we be.

The protagonist of The Stranger, by way of contrast, accepts the absurdity of life without much thinking about it. Is our acceptance of the absurd therefore tinged with bitterness and resentment? Camus seems torn between acceptance and defiance. Similar themes motivate La Peste (1947; English trans. The Plague, 1948) and L'Homme révolté (1951; English trans. The Rebel, 1954). In Camus's final novel, La Chute (1956; English trans. The Fall, 1957), a perverse character named Jean-Baptiste Clamence exemplifies the culmination of all of the bitterness and despair for the most part rejected by his previous characters and in his earlier essays. Clamence, like Meursault in The Stranger, refuses to judge people, but Clamence makes the refusal to judge a matter of philosophical principle, "for who among us is innocent?" Indeed, how can one be innocent in a world that is absurd?

Existentialism today has weathered thirty years of post-modernism and a shift of the center of philosophy from Europe to America. Enthusiasm for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre is as great as ever, and the philosophy of choice and responsibility remains the cornerstone of a great deal of American philosophy, even among those who would not recognize their debt to the existentialists.

See also Marxism ; Phenomenology ; Rationalism ; Religion ; Romanticism in Literature and Politics .


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Camus, Albert. The Fall, and Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1957.

. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1955.

. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1948.

. The Stranger. Translated by Matthew Ward. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

. Either/Or. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Douglas Smith. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Translated by Duncan Large. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

. No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Translated by S. Gilbert and L. Abel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.

Solomon, Robert C. From Hegel to Existentialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Robert C. Solomon


views updated May 21 2018


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)


views updated Jun 27 2018


EXISTENTIALISM is a type of philosophy difficult to define because it does not have any agreed body of doctrine; it is rather a way of doing philosophy in which life and thought are closely related to each other. Thus, while some existentialists have been theists and others atheists, they have arrived at their different results by rather similar processes of thought. The existentialist who believes in God does so not as a result of intellectual demonstrationhe or she is more likely to say that the attempts to prove God's existence are a waste of time, or even harmfulbut on the grounds of passionate inward conviction; likewise the atheistic existentialist rejects God not because of being persuaded by argument but because the very idea of God poses a threat to the freedom and autonomy of the human being, and so to the integrity of humanity. But if such nonrational factors are allowed their say, is it not a departure from philosophy altogether? Perhaps not, if one thinks that reason has become so ambitious that it ceases to perceive its own limitations and so becomes misleading. The all-embracing rational system of Hegel provoked not only Kierkegaard's existentialism but also the skepticism of the left-wing Hegelians and neo-Kantian positivism. The existentialists of the twentieth century emerged about the same time as the logical positivists, and both groups shared doubts about the omnicompetence of reason. The existentialist would still claim to be a philosopher, in the sense of a thinker, but, in Kierkegaard's expression, an "existing thinker," that is, a thinker who is always involved in the reality being thought about, so that the thinker cannot take up the purely objective attitude of a spectator; also, the thinker is always on the way from one matter to another, so that as long as the thinker exists he or she never has a complete picture. So existentialism stands opposed to all those grand metaphysical systems that profess to give a comprehensive and objective account of all that is. Significantly, Kierkegaard titles two of his most important writings Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and these titles implicitly contrast his work with that of philosophers who aim at a comprehensive system.

Though some earlier writers, such as Blaise Pascal (16231662), who criticized the theistic proofs and contrasted the God of the philosophers with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, have been seen in retrospect as forerunners of existentialism, the movement belongs essentially to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) is usually regarded as its founder. His philosophy is inextricably entangled with his struggle over what it means to become a Christian. Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) is in many ways at the opposite extreme from Kierkegaard, but his proclamation of the death of God was just as passionate as Kierkegaard's fascination with the God-man paradox. Some Russian thinkers of the same period showed similar existentialist tendencies, notably Fyodor Dostoevsky (18211881) and Vladimir Solovʾev (18531900). All of these profoundly influenced the existentialists of the twentieth century, among whom may be counted Miguel de Unamuno (18641936), Karl Jaspers (18831969), Martin Heidegger (18891976), and Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), though it should be noted that the term existentialist had, in popular usage, become so widely applied and covered so many differences that most of the philosophers mentioned were unwilling to accept it. The Jewish thinker Martin Buber (18781965) had existentialist affinities but criticized the individualism of the typical existentialist. Nevertheless, all the philosophers mentioned above share a number of "family resemblances" that make them existentialists in a broad sense.

It is sometimes suggested that existentialism is a thing of the past, that it was a phenomenon called into being by the specific events of the times in which these thinkers lived but that humanity has now moved into new times with new problems. Up to a point, this may be true. The very fact that the existentialist is an existing thinker means that he or she has a concrete relation to the events of his or her own time. Yet there are some characteristics of the human condition that seem to belong to all times or to recur at different times, and some of the insights of the existential philosophers into what it means to be human have a permanent value and are likely to provoke new thought and new investigations in the future.

Some Distinguishing Characteristics

As the name implies, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. It should be noted, however, that the word existence is used in a restricted sense. In ordinary speech, one says that stars exist, trees exist, cows exist, men and women exist, and so on of everything that has a place in the spatiotemporal world. The existentialist restricts the term to the human existent. By doing this, there is no intention to suggest that stars, trees, cows and the like are unreal. The existentialist only wants to draw attention to the fact that their being is quite different from the being of a human person. When an existentialist speaks of a human being as "existing," he or she is taking the word in what may be supposed to be the original etymological sense of "standing out." Stars and the like have their being simply by lying around, so to speak. Their nature or essence is already given to them. The human being exists actively, by standing out or emerging through the decisions and acts that make this person the unique being that he or she is. In Sartre's famous definition, existence means that the human person begins as nothing, and only afterward does that being become something and form its essence through its chosen policies of action.

Although existentialists use the word existence in the sense just explained, it retains something of its traditional meaning. In the history of philosophy, existence (referring to the fact that something is) has usually been contrasted with essence (referring to what something is or the basic properties of that thing). Philosophies of essence (Platonism is the great example) concentrate attention on the universal properties of things, properties which remain the same in all circumstances and at all times. These universals are amenable to the operations of thinking, so that the essentialist tends to end up as an idealist, holding that thought and reality coincide. The philosopher of existence, on the other hand, concentrates attention on the concrete, individually existing reality, but this has a particularity and contingency that make it much more resistant to the systematizing tendencies of thought, so that, for such a thinker, reality does not conform to thought, and there are always loose ends that refuse to be accommodated in some tidy intellectual construction.

It should be noticed too that the existentialist finds room for dimensions of human existence other than thinking. For several centuries, Western philosophy has been deeply influenced by Descartes's famous pronouncement, "I think, therefore I am." The existentialist would claim that this accords too much preeminence to thinking. Humans are also beings who experience emotion, and these emotions are not just transient inner moods but rather ways of relating to the world and becoming aware of some of its properties that do not reveal themselves to rational observation. Equally important is the will. One learns about the world not just by beholding it and reflecting upon it but rather by acting in it and encountering its resistances.

It follows from this that existentialism is also a philosophy of the subject. Kierkegaard declared that truth is subjectivity. At first sight, this seems a subversive statement, one which might even imply the abolition of truth. But what Kierkegaard meant was that the most important truths of life are not to be achieved by observation and cannot be set down in textbooks to be looked up when required. They are the kind of truths that can be won only through inward and perhaps painful appropriation. The truths of religion are the most obvious casethey cannot be learned from books of theology but only by following the way of faith that is one with the truth and the life (John 14:6).

Implications for Religion

The existentialist recognition of the distinctiveness of human existence as over against the world of nature, together with the claim that the truth of human existence is to be reached by the way of subjectivity, is significant for the philosophy of religion. The tendency in modern times has been to treat the human person as one more natural phenomenon, to be understood objectively through human sciences which model their methods on that of the natural sciences. Existentialists, however, believe that human nature can be understood only from the inside, as it were, through one's own participation in it. The phenomenological analysis of consciousness, developed by Husserl, has been adopted by existentialist philosophers, but long before Husserl similar methods were being used, for instance, by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety.

One obvious result of the application of such methods of inquiry to the human person is the claim that freedom is essential to being human. Decision, conscience, and responsibility are major themes in existentialist writers, in opposition to the determinism or near-determinism characteristic of supposedly scientific views of humanity. Perhaps it would not be going too far to say that freedom is the supreme value among the existentialists. Human existence is said to be "authentic" when the individual freely chooses who and what he or she will become. The freedom to choose and decide is, of course, never absolute. The human being is finite, inserted at a given position in space and time and therefore subject to all the constraints and influences that operate at that point. Thus one's freedom is always threatened. One may simply reflect the values of one's culture, without ever deciding one's relation to those values, or one may be caught up in the race for money or pleasure, though these may be inimical to the development of one's finest potentialities.

Thus all human existence is lived in the tension between finitude and freedom. This tension can also be expressed as that between freedom (the areas that are still open for choice) and facticity (those elements in existence which are simply given and reduce the area of free decision). It is because of this tension that freedom is always accompanied by anxiety. Existentialists, from Kierkegaard on, have laid great stress on anxiety as a basic emotion or state of mind which illuminates the human condition. In the case of Kierkegaard and other Christian existentialists, the experience of anxiety may predispose toward the life of faith by awakening the need for salvation; but among atheistic existentialists, anxiety points rather to despair, for the inner contradiction in the human being is taken to be incapable of resolution, so that human existence is always on the verge of absurdity. Part of human finitude is the fact that existence will in any case come to an end in death. But here too there are differences in interpretation. Heidegger believes that the fact of death, by closing off the future of existence, makes it possible to achieve a unifying and meaningful pattern in that existence. Sartre, on the other hand, thinks that death, by canceling out all achievement, is the ultimate indication of the absurdity of existence.

The criticism is sometimes made that there is something morbid in the existentialists' preoccupation with anxiety and death, and this criticism also impinges on those Christian theologians who have used these ideas to urge the need for faith and dependence on God. But it should be noted that there is another and more affirmative side to existentialism. Many writers of the school speak also of "transcendence," and by this they do not mean the transcendence of God, as commonly understood in theology, but the transcendence of the human existent moving constantly beyond itself into new situations. Those who stress transcendence believe that the goal of human life is to realize more and more one's authentic possibilities. Whereas the early Heidegger believed that this is to be achieved by human effort, by a steady "resoluteness" in the face of facticity and death, Christian writers such as Gabriel Marcel have thought of human transcendence as a transcendence toward God, and have taught that this is to be achieved not just through human effort but through the assistance of divine grace.

Most existentialists have had a bias toward individualism. This was true of Kierkegaard, who was alarmed by the tendencies toward collectivism in Hegel's philosophy. It is also true of Sartre, who depicts interpersonal relations as essentially frustrating. On the other hand, Marcel claims that a relation to others is essential to an authentic human existence, while Heidegger sees "being-with-others" as an inescapable dimension of the human being. Critics of existentialism have reckoned its individualism as a defect, on the ground that it prevents the development of a political philosophy, but others have praised the stress on the individual as a defense of human freedom in face of the totalitarian pretensions of the modern state. Nietzsche and Heidegger have both sought to go beyond the biography of the individual to the outlines of a philosophy of history. In this, they oppose the so-called scientific history that seeks to establish objective facts. Nietzsche speaks scornfully of the "antiquarian" type of historian who seeks to reconstruct the past. He prefers the "monumental" historian who goes to some great creative event of the past in order to discover its power and to learn its lessons for the present and future. Heidegger likewise is uninterested in the history that confines itself to the analysis of past events. History, he claims, is oriented to the future. The historian goes to the past only in order to learn about such authentic possibilities of human existence as may be repeatable in the present. This view of history was very influential for Rudolf Bultmann's existential interpretation of the "saving events" of the New Testament, an interpretation succinctly expressed as "making Christ's cross one's own."

The stress on human freedom together with the bias toward individualism raises the question of the significance of existentialism for ethics. The existentialist has no use for an ethic of law, for the requirement of a universal law ignores the unique individual and conforms everyone to the same pattern. So one finds Kierkegaard defending Abraham's decision to sacrifice Isaac, for although this meant the "suspension" of ethics, only so could Abraham be true to his own self and be "authentic." Similary Nietzsche is found claiming that the "superman" must create his own values to supersede traditional values, while Heidegger claims that what is ordinarily called "conscience" is only the voice of the mediocre values of society and that the true conscience is the deep inward summons of the authentic self. In each case, the value of an action is judged not by its content but by the intensity and freedom with which it is done. Such an ethic is too formless for human society and represents an overreaction against the cramping restraints of legalism. Nevertheless, this extremely permissive ethic has seemed to some Christian thinkers to be compatible with Jesus' teaching that love rather than law must guide one's conduct, and it is reflected in the various types of "situation ethics" that flourished for a short time.

Finally, although existentialism turns away from the attempt to formulate any detailed and inclusive metaphysic, its adherents seem to find it impossible to avoid assenting to some ontology or theory of being. Kierkegaard and other Christian existentialists assume (but do not seek to prove) a theistic view of the world as the setting of human existence; Sartre is frankly dualistic in opposing the free but fragile being of humankind (the pour soi) to the massive unintelligent being (the en soi) of the physical world; there are mystical elements both in Heidegger's talk of "being" and Jaspers's of "transcendence." Existentialist theologians have also found that the reconstruction of Christian theology in terms of human possibilities is inadequate and needs the supplementation of a theistic philosophy.


An introduction to existentialism is provided in my book Existentialism (Baltimore, 1973). Major existentialist texts include Søren Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, translated by David F. Swenson (Princeton, N. J., 1936); Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, translated by me and Edward Robinson (New York, 1962); Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel E. Barnes (New York, 1956); and Fritz Buri's Theology of Existence, translated by Harold H. Oliver and Gerhard Onder (Greenwood, S.C., 1965).

New Sources

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore, 2003.

Fulton, Ann. Apostles of Sartre: Existentialists in America, 19451963. Evanston, Ill., 1999.

Hardwick, Charley. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. New York, 1996.

Low, Douglas Beck. The Existential Dialogue of Marx and Merleau Ponty. New York, 1987.

Murdoch, Iris, and Peter Conradi, eds. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London, 1998.

Pattison, George. Anxious Angels: A Retrospective View of Religious Existentialism. New York, 1999.

Solomon, Robert. From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth-Century Backgrounds. Lanham, Md., 1992.

John Macquarrie (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018


The philosophy of existentialism, as the name itself implies, indicates a special concern with the problem of existencenot with each and every type of existence, but with human existence. Although there may be fore- shadowings of existentialism in St. augustine, R. descartes, and B. pascal, the inspiration of contemporary existentialism is to be found in the writings of the Danish Lutheran S. A. kierkegaard (181355). Kierkegaard was convinced that his countrymen had a false notion of what it means to be a Christian. As he saw it, too many of them regarded Christianity as a doctrine to be under- stood speculatively and to be grasped intellectually. This to him was but the acceptance of the erroneous notion of G. W. F. hegel, who had taught that it was the role of speculative philosophy to comprehend all the mysteries of religion, even those of Christianity having to do with the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Kierkegaard for his part insisted that Christianity is not an abstract doctrine to be approached in an impersonal and dispassionate manner as though it were a system of speculative truths. On the contrary, Christianity is a way of life, a mode of living that consists in appropriating and assimilating the message of Christ into one's own existence. If one wanted to call Christianity a doctrine, he should understand that it is a doctrine that proposes to be realized in existence; that the true way of understanding the doctrine of Christianity is to understand its task as one of existing in the doctrine, not of speculating on it.

In his polemic against Hegel and against those Danes who accepted the speculative approach to Christianity, Kierkegaard emphasized a number of ideas, such as existence and the existent, the individual, decision and choice, passion, fear and trembling, dread and despair. These notions have become pivotal for those writers who are usually designated as existential. A partial listing of existentialists whose works have become known to American audiences would include, among the more philosophical, men such as N. berdi'a'ev (18741948),M. buber (18781965), M. heidegger (1889), K. jaspers (18831969), G. marcel (18891973), J. ortegay gasset (18831955), J. P. sartre (19051980), P. tillich (18861965), and, among the more literary, writers such as E. Albee (1928), F. Arrabal (1932), S. Beauvoir (19081986), S. Beckett (19061989), A. Camus (19131960), J. Genet (19101986), E. Ionesco (1912), F. Kafka (18831924), H. Pinter (1930), R.M. Rilke (18751926), and M. unamuno y jugo (18641936).

Although it would be impossible here to give a detailed and adequate exposition of the various teachings of these existentialists, they do adopt certain basic notions that can be indicated in a general way.

Existence and the Individual. First, in all existentialist thought there is an absorbing interest in human existence or human living. This existence is not that of the physical or chemical level or that of the biological realm; ather the existence in question is what might be designated broadly as ethical or moral existence, for the existentialist is concerned with the problem of what it means really to exist as a man; how does one live a truly human life; what are the characteristics of authentic human endeavor? In Heidegger's expression: other realities are, man alone exists. Questions about the chemical composition of man, the biological functioning of his organs, or the physical constitution of the world in which he lives are of little interest to most existentialists. Their concern is with man and with man's existence, i.e., the existence that marks him off from all the other beings in this universe. Kierkegaard's question: how does one exist as a true Christian, has been broadened into the question: how does one exist as a true human being?

The existence in question here is not that of abstract man, of man in general. Human existence, human living, as the existentialist views it, is always achieved by a man in the here and now, in a concrete situation with a host of particular and accidental circumstances surrounding it. The concern of the existentialist is not with the general and the universal, but with the singular and the individual.

This interest in the individual arises for several reasons. Most existentialists are wary of systems of speculative thought as avenues of approach to problems of human existence. The existentialist regards such systems as abstracting from the particular and unique features in each human situation that make human living the complex and difficult thing it is. This was Kierkegaard's constant complaint against the pure thought of Hegel, and it has been repeated by most existentialists in relation to any abstract view of human existence. The disdain for the universal and the abstract in other existentialists arises from their intense interest in human freedom. Since the very nature of freedom consists in some sort of contingency and indetermination, namely, the power to will something or not to will it, freedom becomes a rather awkward theme in a speculative system such as Hegel's that regards all natures as necessary deductions one from the other. The existentialist sees this determination and necessity as the enemy of all he holds as precious. This is true especially of Sartre and Camus, who make freedom the very essence of man. Then, too, most existentialists see the abstract and the universal as an indignity toward man; for these perspectives degenerate human existence, the human being, the individual person, into an object, a thing, an "it." From such a preoccupation arises the realization of the inhumanity of the view of modern technology wherein man is an impersonal number and a mere member of a group. This protest against the technological attitude is basic to the existentialism of such thinkers as Jaspers and Marcel.

The interest of existentialism in the existing individual not only explains its suspicion of the abstract consideration of human affairs, but also explains why much existentialist writing has taken the form of the novel, the short story, the autobiographical essay, and the play. All these types of literature easily lend themselves to the vivid description and analysis of the human individual groping for an answer to a unique human situation.

Consciousness and Freedom. Because existentialism is concerned with the individual as a conscious self and a responsible agent, as a subject and a "thou" rather than as an object and an "it," consciousness and freedom are central themes in all existentialist thought. Man becomes truly existent only when he lives an intensely conscious life in which he is vividly aware of all the exigencies, decisions, and problems of human living. The existentialist demands that men should become conscious of themselves as reflective beings whose existence must be interpenetrated with thought. He insists that they become fully alive to the richness inherent in each experience; that they live a life that is vibrantly alert to all the anguish, burden, and care of existence.

Too many men, Heidegger complains, are mere followers of the crowd; they are men whose personal judgments are only dull echoes of the anonymous "they say." The man of existence, on the contrary, is the self-thinking man, the man of decision, the free man; for if men should be conscious beings, they should be conscious primarily of their freedom, and of the personal danger into which their freedom plunges them.

One becomes free only by having a personal interest in things, by making decisions, and by consciously following one's choice. Although objective science and the scientific method demand that the knower be disinterested and free from passion, existentialism contends that the individual be personally involved in the situation, that he make his decision with passionate concern. Far from advocating disinterestedness, the existentialist urges that the self become totally engaged in life, that one have a strong and radical commitment to existence, that one consciously, freely, and passionately be involved in one's ultimate concern.

Because the man of existence is fully committed to life and all that it entails, he is aware that his freedom carries with it the heavy burden of responsibility. In Kierkegaard's view, one truly becomes a Christian only when as an adult he assumes full responsibility for all the consequences of his infant Baptism. Sartre sees each individual as the arbiter of all values who must assume therefore the awesome responsibility of being the supreme legislator for his total destiny. Camus regards the real man, the lucid man, as the man who realizes that there are no guilty en, only responsible ones; and, in the existentialism of Heidegger the very existential meaning of the true man is care or concern.

Anguish and Absurdity. Closely intertwined with the notions of freedom, decision, and responsibility are those of abandonment, anguish, dread, fear, and trembling. Because the existentialists have emphasized man in his concreteness and individuality, there is a tendency among them to describe him as alone, solitary, cut off from his fellowmen. The note of abandonment arises also because for many existentialists there are no objective moral standards to guide man in his choice. Each man is "on his own"; he is abandoned to his own personal decision. If the onerous weight of responsible decision means anxiety and anguish of spirit, the existentialist's awareness of the fragile instability of human existence, which can be snuffed out by a myriad of uncontrollable events, adds to that anxiety. There is also in existentialism the insistence on the alienation of modern man, who finds himself estranged from the world of nature by his reflective consciousness and at cross-purposes with his fellowmen by his freedom. Like the stranger of Camus, modern man finds himself a lone outsider for whom the reasons and certainties of a past generation are no longer satisfying or assuring. Existence results in bewilderment, anxiety, and frustration. This searing anguish finds expression in Heidegger's notion of human existence as a movement toward the nothingness of the grave and in Sartre's lament that life is a useless passion.

Another salient theme in existentialism is that of absurdity. In all existentialist literature there is an interest in the nonrational, using that term to signify whatever escapes the comprehension of man. This nonrational element in existence is often called "the absurd." Kierkegaard designates Christ as the absurd; for the fact that God became man out of love for man is something incomprehensible to human reason. The Incarnation cannot be understood by reason; it must be grasped by the leap of faith. Absurdity in Sartre's existentialism signifies the absolute gratuity or contingency of things. Since there is no God to conceive of essences according to the philosophy of Sartre, there is no reason for the things of the physical world, either for their essences or for their existence. They just are; and since they are what they are without reason, they are absurd. In the essays of Camus the notion of absurdity has a somewhat different connotation. Camus admits that there are scientific explanations and descriptions of various parts of the universe, but he denies that there is any all-embracing, comprehensive truth for the whole of reality. There are truths, partial truths, but there is no Truth, no final and decisive reason making the universe a rational whole for man. Marcel makes a distinction between a problem and a mystery: the former is open to human solution, while the latter, as something beyond human comprehension, is a matter for faith. This interest in the absurd is the bond of unity among a number of playwrights such as Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, and Albee, whose plays are portrayals of the absurd in modern existence.

God and Nothingness. Finally, for many of the existentialists the common setting in which human existence seeks its goal is the absence of God. Although Berdăev, Marcel, and Jaspers are theists, the atheistic existentialism of such men as Sartre, Camus, Kafka, Rilke, and the dramatists of the Theater of the Absurd has been more influential. Heidegger's private opinion concerning the existence of God may be open to question, but it is commonly agreed that in his writings he philosophizes as though there were no divinity.

There is little if any attempt made by these existentialists to argue against the traditional proofs for the existence of God; atheism is simply taken for granted. Sartre makes a rather brief attempt to disprove the existence of God, but his procedure clearly indicates that he has misunderstood the traditional notion concerning the divinity. For example, Sartre speaks of God as Causa Sui; his explanation of what this definition means indicates that God, in his view, would be a contradictory and self-denying notion. God would be for him an unconscious-conscious being, a full-empty absolute. Camus seems to suggest that the problem of human suffering is the reason for his denial of the existence of a Supreme Being.

Existentialism for these thinkers is a serious attempt to describe an existence from which God has been banished and for which man alone can be the ultimate reason. Man thus becomes the new transcendent for man. He is the unique being through which all being reveals itself; he is the first source of order and meaning in the universe; he is the sole lawgiver in the domain of morality; and he is the creator of all values and ends. Existence is to be what man makes it to be. One can understand the interest of these existentialists in the writings of F. W. nietzsche.

Such atheism could explain the morbid gloom, the heightening anxiety, and the sheer absurdity of life that one often finds in existentialism of this type. Existence has no antecedent explanation nor has it any permanent fulfillment. One strives to be absolutely free, to be consistent with one's fundamental choice; but one should not become serious, to use Sartre's expression, since all human actions are equally doomed to failure.

The absence of God makes death an absolute, an absolute that is regarded by some as an absurd stupidity, by others as a ludicrous monstrosity. In either case, the negation of death, as these writers indicate, should overshadow all the activities of human existence.

Nor is death the only negation. Negativity, negation, and emptiness become recurring themes. Being, as Heidegger envisages it, is filled with nothingness. In Sartre, consciousness is described as a negativity, since consciousness is always consciousness of an object, that is, of something that is not the actually knowing consciousness. Freedom for him is also negation since it is a thrust toward the future goal that is not yet possessed. (see non-being.)

This note of negation shows itself in another characteristic that is fairly common to existentialists of the atheistic type, viz, an extreme emphasis on the dark side of human existence. Frustration, annoyance, and sorrows are part of all human living, but existentialism seems centered on them. There is very little joy and gladness in existentialist literature, whether one considers the short stories of Kafka, the novels of Sartre, or the plays of Camus. The tragic, the irrational, and the depraved are constantly employed in these works to indicate man's freedom as a crushing responsibility in an existence that is seen more as a condemnation to loneliness than as a call to knowledge, love, and service of others.

Critique. Many critics regard existentialism as an unbalanced view of existence. In their opinion it is a protest that has become too extreme. Arising in Kierkegaard as a warning against the rigid rationalism of Hegel, it has become in many of its adherents a denial of the relevance of any general and abstract truth concerning man, his nature, and his activity. Protesting against the artificiality and hypocrisy of much in bourgeois morality, it has become for some a repudiation of any and every standard of objective morality, including that of Christianity. Morality is said to be completely situational and entirely personal. Aware of the inhumanity that a misguided technology can bring about in modern life by its tendency to regard men as mere numbers, the existentialists have so extolled the inwardness, the subjectivity, and the absolute freedom of the individual that social life becomes philosophically indefensible.

One can well understand why Pope Pius XII on Aug. 12, 1950, in his encyclical Humani generis called existentialism "the new erroneous philosophy."

See Also: existential ethics; existential metaphysics; existential psychology; existential theology.

Bibliography: e. l. allen, Existentialism from Within (London 1953). w. barrett, Irrational Man (New York 1962). h. j. blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers (London 1952). j. d. collins, The Existentialists (Chicago 1952). m. esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York 1961). r. harper, Existentialism: A Theory of Man (Cambridge, Mass. 1948). f. h. heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (2d ed. New York 1954). h. kuhn, Encounter with Nothingness (Hinsdale, Ill. 1949). v. m. martin, Existentialism (Washington 1962). c. michalson, ed., Christianity and the Existentialists (New York 1956). k. f. reinhardt, The Existentialist Revolt (Milwaukee 1952). j. a. wahl, A Short History of Existentialism, tr. f. williams and s. maron (New York 1949).

[v. m. martin]


views updated Jun 11 2018


Existentialism came to prominence shortly after World War II as a philosophical and literary movement stressing individual human experience in a hostile or indifferent world and highlighting freedom of choice and personal responsibility. As a word, existentialism has roots in the Latin existere, meaning to stand forth. Indeed existentialists argue that human beings stand out from other things because of the way humans stand consciously and freely in relation with things and with one another. Existentialists developed criticisms of science and technology especially insofar as they deny or obscure this uniqueness.

Historical Development

In the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) first used the word existence to designate a deep individuality that escaped the grip of bourgeois society and religion, and rationalistic philosophy. Though Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) did not use the word, his radical analyses and demands for self-creation influenced later existentialist thinkers. Nineteenth-century Romanticism can be seen as proto-existentialist, and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) (who both influenced Nietzsche) sought to redefine the self and called for new levels of choice and new social relations.

In part this was a response to industrial and social revolutions that shook traditional values. Writers were aghast at poverty and social dislocation amid the optimistic complacency of a society that seemed to offer no place to be fully human. The dislocations and wars of the twentieth century increased this tension, and the triumphs of technological rationality and the growth of the psychological and social sciences threatened those dimensions of human existence that cannot be reduced to relations among law-governed objects. The twentieth-century tone is more despairing in authors such as Franz Kafka (1883–1924) who chronicle human imprisonment and lack of possibilities.

Along with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) also influenced the French generation that created existentialism as an explicit philosophical school. Husserl tried to reveal the acts and necessities that lay beneath and make possible our ordinary perceptions and actions. Seeking to go behind science to reveal it as a construction within a more fluid lived experience, Husserl showed how science's power could nonetheless transform human life and be readily accepted. Max Scheler (1874–1928), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and others extended Husserl's analyses in more practical and dramatic directions. The most influential work before World War II was Heidegger's Being and Time (1927), which proclaimed a new mode of analysis of the self and a new conception of our relation to time and history. After the war, existentialism as such manifested itself in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Soon the label "existentialist" was also given to the work of Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973), Albert Camus (1913–1960), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), and others, though Marcel and Merleau-Ponty later rejected the term. Although these thinkers had been forming and writing their ideas before the war, the experience of the Nazi occupation and the problems of postwar reconstruction intensified the urgency of their thought.

Common Threads

The common thread of the existentialist critiques of science and technology is that human existence has dimensions that cannot be scientifically or technologically grasped. In a technoscientific world, humans are in danger of being imprisoned in an impoverished mode of living that denies their deepest possibilities. This situation calls for a deeper analysis of the structures of human experience, and for the assertion of human freedom through new ethical values and new projects, or avant-garde art, or political action, or religion; these all escape an everydayness that hides who human beings really are or can be.

Existentialists refuse technological determinism even while they admit that for the most part humans may be determined by received values and orientations that deny them the chance to revise basic choices. Rational calculation is an inadequate approach to policy issues because it avoids questioning the framework within which calculations will be performed.

The existentialists demand self-creation that goes beyond everyday and rationally analyzed frameworks. To bring their message of a more than rational criticism and creativity, existentialists produced novels, plays, autobiographies, journals, and literary criticism as well as philosophical tracts. Some were politically radical, some conservative, some religious, and some atheistic, but they shared a sense that self and society faced a crisis that was all the more serious for its general invisibility. Crucial dimensions of selfhood and social life were being ignored, and the need for self-creative decision was being denied even while such decisions were made but covered over in what Sartre called bad faith.

Contra Science and Technology

For issues relevant to science and technology the two most important existentialist writers are Sartre and Heidegger. Sartre demands that human individuals realize that their freedom is the sole source of meaning, and act resolutely in an inherently meaningless world. Though Sartre himself did not write extensively about science or technology until his later more Marxist period, his early existentialist ideas fit well with technological ambitions to control the world and decide its significance. Sartre refuses any appeal to social roles or to a given human nature. Things acquire meaning when humans project possible courses of action and language involving them. Human selves and personalities acquire meaning in the same way, within a projected net of values and activities, that projection is totally free and need not be consistent with the past; people are bound only by how they choose to bind themselves. Individuals fear this totally open freedom, and cling to rigid self-definitions as if they were natural things with a fixed nature. Sartre's ideas resemble those technological optimists and some posthumanists who find no limits to what people might make of themselves.

In his later writings Sartre saw the expansion of science and technology as part of a larger thinning of life and denial of freedom due to the capitalist mode of production, which attempts to reduce humans to docile subjects of serial processes. The image of technological progress seduces people away from collective free responsibility for the future. Social processes seem fixed and unavoidable; changing them requires cooperative revolutionary action, not just Sartre's earlier individualistic choice.

Denying that objects dictate their own meaning and human possibilities, the existentialists denied the adequacy of reductions of human activity to physiology, and the reduction social connections to economic and technological relations. They saw science as science reducing experience to static abstractions and collected data. They saw capitalist industrial systems as increasing the dominance of impersonal routine in human life, and condemned the technologization of war, as in the atom bombing of Hiroshima, associating it with the mechanization of death in the holocaust.

Heidegger feared the technological impulse to control and wrote in opposition to it. He wrote not about the choice of values but about finding creative and resolute new paths within the network of projects and significations that make up the lived world. No free Sartrean choice will allow individuals to escape their time's overall basic meanings, but they can invent creative responses that find unexpected possibilities within those basic meanings.

Heidegger argues that people are mistaken when viewing technology as a neutral tool or as an application of disinterested science. Scientific research and technology are expressions of a more basic way of interpreting-revealing things as raw material to be manipulated efficiently. He claimed that this differs from older ways of understanding the being and meaning of things. It also differs from any simple anthropocentric view, because in the completed technological world human persons too join the standing reserve ready for manipulation and service. No one profits from this and no one escapes it.

Heidegger protests the spoliation of the environment and the technologization of life. Yet for Heidegger there is no return to an earlier world. Any active human choice will replay the technological game. Individuals can only wait for some new way of valuing and interpreting to come about. In that waiting, though, they are redefining themselves as resolutely receptive and creatively open to the coming of a new basic meaning of reality, which brings a deeper sense of human existence than the image of themselves as manipulated manipulators that technology offers.

Between them Heidegger and Sartre raise the question of how projects for the future link to past frameworks and values. Both deny that the past merely continues due to inertia; they argue that open temporal existence means that the influence of the past is carried on in human freedom, so the future is open to more authentic choices. They deny that rational analysis of the past can legislate future values. For Sartre human choices are always separated from the past by a moment of indeterminate freedom. For Heidegger human choices are always within a net of meanings and projects that individuals did not originate and cannot eliminate, but which they can creatively reread and reform by discovering new depths and new possibilities.

Both these alternatives stand opposed to the idea that a completed social and psychological science could provide a whole explanation of human life and a guide to its values. The project for such a complete explanation threatens to create a society where other dimensions of self or society can neither be expressed nor thought of, a society that has lost the ability to question its own values and directions.

Other existentialists who rejected Sartre's pure freedom followed Kierkegaard in seeing authentic choices arising in free receptivity to a call from beyond the ordinary, from God, one's deepest self, or the unrevealed possibilities of a particular time and tradition. Camus struggled to develop a position that was more socially engaged than the early Sartre while still affirming individual freedom in a world devoid of both traditional religious and scientifically rational meanings. Gabriel Marcel stressed interpersonal encounter and dialogue, arguing that freedom and true personhood happen amid the active receptivity of mutual commitment, fidelity, and hope. This space of mutual encounter is fundamentally open to include God. Scientifically objectivist and technologically manipulative approaches to humanity deny the deepest human possibilities when they reduce persons to calculable units and human excellence to "having" rather than "being."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed existentialist issues through dialogue with scientific developments in biology and experimental psychology. He used ideas from Gestalt psychology and added his own analysis of the relation of animal to environment and perceiving body to objects. He claimed that scientific materialism paradoxically reinforces a split between subject and object when it mistakenly presumes that perception is the presentation of discrete data that is then subjectively interpreted. He argued that the perceived world and the perceiving bodily person are intertwined, revealing each other in perception and practical activity, without the need for a middle layer of data or representations. His ideas have become part of attacks that question the adequacy of computer models for the mind and fault cognitive theory for clinging to a theory of mental representations.

Merleau-Ponty's ideas about embodiment have been taken up by those trying to develop an environmental ethics that questions any purely manipulative approach to nature and seeks to foster more connectedness with non-human creatures.

Human Nature and Authenticity

Existentialists encourage choosing more authentic lives. The English authentic comes from the French autentique, meaning authored. An authentic life is not one attained through social conditioning or everyday expectations but is authored by the individual's own deep choice and self-creation. An authentic choice need not be restricted to the social roles commonly available. While Kierkegaard thought that individuals might choose to lead authentic lives that were to all outside appearances totally humdrum and ordinary, Sartre and especially Heidegger thought that authenticity could require dramatic new commitments and modes of action.

Existentialism denies traditional pictures of a fixed human nature, and also denies programs for a rational foundation of values derived from Kantian, Hegelian, or Marxist philosophy, or in a different way from economics and game theory. Existentialists agree with Max Weber (1864–1920) that ultimate values cannot have a rational foundation, but they make these choices subject to the criterion of authenticity, rather than arbitrarily. The crucial question becomes just what ethical import the criterion of authenticity can have. Can it provide limits on self-invention? Can one say that some authentic choices would be wrong? Could individuals make authentic choices to be fully conscious Nazis? Could people sacrifice others to their own projects? Must every situation be approached with the possibility that it may call for extreme measures that will seem unethical?

Nietzsche thought so, and he took seriously the idea that individuals would have to move beyond standard notions of good and evil. Facing this issue and wanting to find some limits through a sense of justice, Sartre and Camus both wrote dramas where characters confronted violence and the choice of becoming assassins and terrorists. These plays derived from the demand for self-sacrifice in the French Resistance against the Nazis, and from the terror on both sides of the 1950s Algerian liberation struggle. Twenty-first-century society faces this issue not only in its struggles with violent movements, but also in making decisions about the use of powerful weapons, and about the biotechnology revolution that will allow humankind to redefine itself, perhaps reshaping human potentials with no consideration for freedom and authenticity. Existentialists would argue that such issues demand active choice, lest humanity be carried along an unthinking path of automatic supposed "progress" that avoids the central choices of humans as self-making.

Existentialists ask about the limits of rationality in fundamental decisions. How do individuals determine the values that should guide their ethical choices about the limits of technology, or its application in situations of scarcity? They also urge reevaluating the success of social scientific explanations of self and society. Could a total scientific explanation really guide human choices, or would its application depend upon values that are not the outcome of scientific investigations? This leads to more general questions that get overlooked in the technological rush for efficiency and comfort: What is science for? Can one have choices about its meaning? Are there directions built into technology that ought to be questioned? Heidegger argues that individuals are caught within the technological dynamic and must learn to resist its onward rush while understanding themselves more deeply and waiting for a new basic meaning. Sartre argues that individuals should shake off the past, take the future in their hands, and choose anew. Merleau-Ponty urges a reexamination of the basic experience of bodily inhabiting the world and a consequent redefinition of individuals and their possibilities.

For all existentialists, the real question is: What will people choose to become? Do they have more freedom than they imagine in relation to the past, traditions, and social conditions? Modernist writers extol freedom, but think of it mainly in terms of linear progress in already obvious directions. Existentialists argue that issues of authentic choice open more possibilities than such standard options.


SEE ALSO Alienation;Heidegger, Martin;Husserl, Edmund;Kierkegaard, Søren;Nietzsche, Friedrich W.;Neutrality in Science and Technology;Values and Valuing.


Abram, David. (1966). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Pantheon Books. Ecological discussion influenced by Merleau-Ponty's ideas.

Camus, Albert. (1972). "The Just Assassins" [Les justes]. In Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage Books. Camus's play examines the experience of self-righteous terrorists.

Heidegger, Martin. (1996). Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press. Originally published in German in 1929. Heidegger's most influential work, rethinking humans' relation to time and history, and the need for authenticity.

Heidegger, Martin. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row. Includes: "The Question Concerning Technology," "The Turning," "The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead," "The Age of the World Picture," "Science and Reflection." Heidegger's major critical writings on science and technological civilization.

Husserl, Edmund. (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. Posthumously published in German in 1954. Husserl's examination of science and the origin of the modern experience of nature out of the more basic flow of bodily and temporal perception and meaning.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1974). Fear and Trembling, and the Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Anxiety, despair, and their healing in an authentic selfhood in relation to God.

Marcel, Gabriel. (1965). Being and Having: An Existentialist Diary, trans. Katharine Farrer. New York: Harper and Row. Originally published in French in 1935.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press. Originally published in French in 1945. Merleau-Ponty's study of the bodily intertwining of subject and object.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (2001). The Gay Science, trans Adrian Del Caro. New York: Cambridge University Press. Nietzsche's most accessible presentation of his views; in the fifth part he discusses and critiques science.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1956). Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library. Originally published in French in 1942. The most influential existentialist treatment of individual freedom.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1973). "Dirty Hands" (Les mains sales). In No Exit, and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert and Lionel Abel. New York: Vintage Books. In the play Sartre asks whether there can be an authentic act of violence.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1983). The Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published in French in 1960, with a second volume published posthumously in 1982. In this work Sartre reformulated existentialism, taking more account of social and economic relations in modern routinized society.

Zimmerman, Michael E. (1994). Contesting Earth's Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity. Berkeley: University of California Press. Deep ecology that borrows from Heidegger's ideas.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Existentialism refers to a loosely knit movement holding, in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, that existence comes before essence. This proposition should be understood in opposition to both rationalism and empiricism. Both philosophies, existentialism argues, overlook the unique character of being human, of being an existent thrown into a world without pregiven meaning or significance. Moreover, the human condition is such that it does not fit into even the most exhaustive system of objective concepts. Instead, it calls for a new language of analysis that finds its expression in the works of not only Sartre but also Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Miguel de Unamuno, José Ortega y Gasset, Nicholai Berdyaev, and Lev Shestov.

These thinkerssome of whom rejected the label existentialistfound inspiration in the philosophies of a long list of forerunners. The most important ones are Søren Kierkegaards anti-Hegelian philosophy and Martin Heideggers phenomenological ontology. Common to both philosophies is the idea that being human is an issue for itself, that is, that the specter of death (finitude) makes it all-important how we interpret the primal nature of our own beingwhat Heidegger refers to as Dasein. The condition of Dasein is an ecstatic and angst-inducing one. To begin with, it discloses the historicity of our beliefs and habits, which in turn points to the openness of Being itself. But it also reveals the absence of a shared anchoran infinite void or fundamental nothingnesschallenging philosophys pretense to know the nature of our moral obligations and political responsibilities. Kierkegaard enacts the fear that follows from this challenge through an analysis of cases such as Abrahams sacrifice of his son, a case in which Gods commandment is comprehensible, not as a universal law pertaining to all, but as an injunction addressed to Abraham in his singularity.

The tension between the ecstatic and the fearful is important to the way in which existentialism approaches its main themes: intentionality, intersubjectivity, meaning, and human freedom. One line of researchassociated with theologians such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillichinterprets these themes from a theistic perspective according to which the affirmation of God, although itself an act of madness, is the proper answer to the meaninglessness of contemporary existence. Another lineperhaps better knownentails a turn to atheistic humanism. Sartre dramatizes this turn in his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit). At issue in this play is the way in which individuals take responsibility for their own lives. The play revolves around three strangers who confront the singularity of their deaths in a room that has no significance, no signs of some higher Being. The result is not only a sense of absurdityone that reveals the inauthenticity of everyday life (whether lived in a bourgeoisie manner or not)but also a need for turning this absurdity into a cause for engaging ones own life head on. We must transcend the contingency of our surroundings in order to become authentic beings. As Inez, one of the three main characters in the play, says, You areyour life, and nothing else.

Although significant, it is important not to overstate the differences between the atheistic and theistic brands of existentialism. Both brands criticize the churchs appropriation of God; and both brands emphasize living an authentic existence through an encounter with a transcendent of some sort. The political implications that impinge on existentialisms analysis of the human condition, then, are first and foremost related to the concepts of freedom and free will. Humans are free in the sense that (1) neither God nor any value or command binds their choices, (2) their concept of selfhood hinges on the intentional activity directed toward things in the world, and (3) reality proper is what follows from this kind of activity. While this may give the impression that existentialism is committed to an individualistic ideology, it is important not to mistake the affirmation of freedom (and free will) for a lack of interest in criticizing the liberal state. Because humans are free, and because they constitute reality through their own undertakings, they must also take active responsibility for society as a whole. The existentialist movement translates this responsibility into an often Marxist-inspired critique of male domination, technology, and capitalism.

SEE ALSO Empiricism; Epistemology; Essentialism; Freedom; Phenomenology; Philosophy; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Supreme Being


Cooper, David E. 1990. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, Martin. 1927. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1843. Fear and Trembling: Repetition. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1944. No Exit. In No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1945. Existentialism and Humanism. Trans. Philip Mairet. In Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, ed. Stephen Priest. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Lars Tønder


views updated May 21 2018




Existentialism began as an obscure philosophical movement and ended up as a way of life. The term existentialism now embraces thinkers who did not necessarily see themselves as members of a common enterprise. That makes identifying a core set of beliefs difficult. But there is no doubt at all about the identity of its best-known champion or about the moment of its greatest recognition. Although forever linked with the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and his famous intellectual coterie just after World War II, when the themes of existentialism, and the term itself, entered global consciousness, the philosophy had begun its history long before.


The name existentialism referred to the movement's radical new position on the long-standing opposition between essence and existence. Ancient philosophers and their medieval heirs defended the priority of essences. A thing, they argued, is what it is independent of any transformations it undergoes. Like ordinary things, human beings have an essence. That premise allowed the ancients a robust (and highly restrictive) theory of human virtues and vices supposed to follow from man's unchanging nature. Monotheistic religion found a compromise with this view by holding that it is God, the creator, who bestows an essence on each thing (including human beings). Existentialists argued, quite simply, that the ancient and monotheistic thesis was false. Humans have no essence, whether naturally appointed or God-given, and therefore no foreordained purpose, no matter how profoundly they may desire one: in Sartre's famous formula from his central text, Being and Nothingness (1943), "man is a useless passion" (p. 784). Human beings, at least, are wholly defined by their choices, acts, and transformations, and therefore by their ongoing existence. For this reason, existentialism, like no other philosophical movement before or since, stressed the temporality of human consciousness and action. Few failed to notice that the existentialist destruction of the ancient and monotheistic position on human nature also endangered traditional ethical—and political—teachings.

No text better captures both the apparently demobilizing implications of existentialism, which seemed to undermine the basis for any commitment, and the simultaneous desire to find some grounds for action, than the memorable concluding passage of Sartre's Being and Nothingness: "All human activities are equivalent … and all are destined in principle to fail. So it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or leads nations. If one of these activities is superior to the other, it is not because of its objective in the world, but because of the degree of consciousness involved in its adoption; in this sense, it is possible that the quietism of the solitary drunk will take precedence over the vain agitation of the leader of nations.… The ontology [of this work] cannot allow the formulation of moral prescriptions by itself. It nevertheless allows one to imagine what an ethics will be that rethinks responsibility in light of human reality in situation. … But we will return to these problems in a future work" (L'être et le néant: Essai d'ontologie phénoménologique [Paris, 1943], pp. 690–692; author's translation). In spite of writing many pages of "notebooks" for a prospective work on ethics, no sequel to Being and Nothingness ever appeared in Sartre's lifetime.


Existentialists often claimed that the lineage of their movement stretched far back in the annals of philosophy. Its history, they said, ran through the decisive nineteenth-century figures of Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), thinkers who were, however, ciphers in their own time and owe their present renown to existentialism itself. But by common consent, the founder of existentialism is the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). In his masterpiece, Being and Time (1927), Heidegger embarked on a clarification of the "question of being," a philosophical subject he thought had been recognized by the ancients but since forgotten. But this investigation, Heidegger said, admitted of a strategy that placed humanity at the center, since the problem of being in general could be addressed through an "existential" analysis of human being in particular. The most famous parts of the book gave memorable analyses of various "existential" states and created, almost overnight, a new style of philosophical inquiry. What emerges from Being and Time is the groundlessness and relativity of human beings' inherited systems of value and purpose, leading to an abyss of meaning, a frightening situation to be remedied, if at all, only by a decisive or "resolute" affiliation with reactivated elements of the past. Scandalously, when Heidegger chose to affiliate himself with the Nazi Party six years later, in 1933, he claimed that the Germans were doing exactly what his text dictated.


Sartre, who drank deep at Heidegger's well and anticipated his existential philosophy in brilliant pieces of fiction such as his famous Nausea (1938), separated Heidegger's focus on human being from its larger justifying framework. Sartre's analyses were intended to illustrate the truth that there are no safe or certain values and that the anguished fate of humans is to make choices without any self-evident criteria for doing so. Unlike Heidegger, Sartre was a gifted prose stylist. In his conclusion to Being and Nothingness, he bitterly suggested that "it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or leads nations." The emotionally numb hero of The Stranger (1942)—by Albert Camus (1913–1960), the other star French existentialist, and, like Sartre, a Nobel Prize winner for literature—draws the implication that if there is no authority governing action in the world, then none exists to enforce traditional prohibitions either, and therefore he shoots an Arab for no reason at all. Of particular interest in existentialism, not surprisingly, was its internal debate about the status of other people, the relation of the wayward human being to his fellows. For Heidegger, community seemed both the disease—the source of false reassurance about the existence of stable values—but also potentially the cure. For Sartre, other people appeared only as threats, lures. The act of submitting to them or of loving them might provide comfort, but it would be an inauthentic escape from freedom. As he put it in his drama No Exit (1944), "hell is other people" (p. 45).

The freedom depicted in existentialism, then, is not triumphant but anguished. No doubt it was Sartre's friend Camus who most vividly illustrated the "absurd" predicament of freedom. The two alternatives for human beings, he declared, were clarity and escape. Camus advocated staring unflinchingly at the painful truth—embracing "a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a conscious dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest)" (p. 31). Escape, Camus argued in his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), amounted to metaphorical suicide. Existentialists had to be strong enough to surf on a "dizzying crest" (p. 31) from which others might take the leap of faith to a suicidal end; they must embrace meaninglessness because of "the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation" (p. 60). The title of Camus's essay refers to the figure from Greek mythology, condemned in hell to the eternal task of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom again and again. Sisyphus thus serves as the very symbol for the correct approach to an agonizingly meaningless existence. "I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone," Camus wrote (p. 40).


Existentialism appeared in a riot of conflicting forms. In a development that might at first seem surprising, an important school of religious existentialism arose, with Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) as perhaps its most important representative. Its members were right to point out that existentialism had historically emerged out of the thought of a religious figure, Kierkegaard, and concluded that the obsolescence of tradition and the new emphasis on the individual did not mean God had died, as Nietzsche famously claimed. Rather, existentialism provided a new confirmation of the old religious theme of human neediness. Other existentialists, such as Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) and Ludwig Binswanger (1881–1966), tried to ally Heidegger's philosophy with Sigmund Freud's thought, arguing that existentialism in effect provided a new foundation for psychoanalysis by showing that symptoms were not biologically caused but freely chosen by an escapist self. Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Sartre's companion and lover, influentially applied the insights of existentialism to gender relations, suggesting in The Second Sex (1949) that the discovery of the obsolescence of tradition and the relativity of values spelled the end of the validity of sexual hierarchies as well.


Having spawned existentialism, which was already multiplying into many variants, Heidegger vehemently disavowed it at the moment of its triumph. He claimed that in Being and Time he had only introduced the focus on human existence as a means of addressing the far more important question of being in general; and in his "Letter on Humanism" (1947), addressed to his French enthusiasts, he indicted his legacy and his own earlier text as "anthropocentric." By then, however, existentialism had grown too fashionable for its repudiation by its founder to matter.

Since the fall of communism, the ethical ambiguity of existentialism—its challenge to all inherited systems of moral certitude—along with the political choices of its most famous exponents led scholars to lose interest in its intellectual content in order to focus on its putatively disastrous real-world consequences. Heidegger became a National Socialist and Sartre, shortly after World War II, broke with the apparent relativism and quietism of Being and Nothingness and, in an atmosphere of intellectual leftism, began a long campaign to combine his existentialism with Marxist theory and practice. How exactly to make existentialism compatible with Marxism, a deterministic science of history that would seem to be wholly at variance with existentialism's emphasis on human freedom, remained problematic and obscure in Sartre's work, even in his second major book of theoretical philosophy, The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). In any event, Sartre's turn to radicalism led, scandalously for many post–Cold War observers, to his apology for the communist Soviet Union, including the excesses of Joseph Stalin's violent reign. Sartre's one-time school friend and lifelong rival, the liberal thinker Raymond Aron (1905–1983), found it curious that a philosophy of freedom could lend its support to repression, and pilloried Marxism as a dangerous myth in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) and other writings. But other existentialists, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty—probably the most philosophically enduring of the French band of thinkers, important notably for his attempt to ground the existentialist analysis of consciousness in the corporeal nature of human being—joined Sartre's campaign. In his Humanism and Terror (1947), Merleau-Ponty, who for a time coedited the main existentialist organ Les temps modernes with Sartre, defended violence as a morally plausible response to the deficiencies of liberal societies, since, he said, bourgeois rule also involved terror and, unlike the Soviet Union, did not promise a world beyond it. Merleau-Ponty later broke with both Sartre and Marxist politics. For his part, Camus, who could never bring himself to join Sartre's Marxist reinvention of existentialism, dissented from the Parisian intellectuals' sympathy for communism in The Rebel, whose publication in 1951 led to a bitter public quarrel between the two leading lights of the movement. For Camus, a dreamy utopian future did not justify immorality now; Sartre replied that not to resort to violence in effect ratified existing immorality, and he supported the insurrectionary struggle of Algerians against French rule. Camus, who came from a French family in the Algerian colony, revealingly admitted preferring "[his] mother to justice."

In fact, there was little connection between philosophical existentialism and political extremism, and its founders were wrong to posit a necessary one. After all, their discovery of the relativity of values precluded all attempts at the commitment they desired, and in retrospect the popularity of existentialism may well have served liberal capitalism better than it did its rivals. Undermining all traditions and emancipating the individual from inherited obligations, even religion and community, existentialism forced the human beings it influenced to embark on pained quests for meaning, aware in advance that little lasting satisfaction might follow but condemned to the search nevertheless. As modern life has continued to provide human beings with a way to cultivate ever-new and always-transitory tastes, to engage in experiments in living for every season, and to purchase products with planned obsolescence, it has allowed increasing numbers of people to embrace absurdity without regret, as Camus would have wanted. Narcissism and consumerism, rather than illiberal extremism, were perhaps in the end the main historical legacy of the existentialist movement.

See alsoAron, Raymond; Camus, Albert; Cold War; Communism; Jaspers, Karl; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Primary Sources

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York, 1955.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York, 1966.

——. No Exit and Other Plays. New York, 1989.

Secondary Sources

Aronson, Ronald. Sartre's Second Critique. Chicago, 1987.

Carman, Taylor, and Mark B. N. Hansen. The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore, Md., 2003.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's "Being and Time," Division I. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Izenberg, Gerald N. The Existentialist Critique of Freud: The Crisis of Autonomy. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

Judt, Tony. Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

——. The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1998.

Sprintzen, David A., and Adrian van den Hoven, eds. and trans. Sartre and Camus: A Historic Confrontation. Amherst, N.Y., 2001.

Todd, Olivier. Albert Camus: A Life. Translated by Benjamin Ivry. New York, 1997.

Wahl, Jean. A Short History of Existentialism. Translated by Forrest Williams and Stanley Maron. New York, 1949.

Wolin, Richard, ed. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. New ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Samuel Moyn


views updated Jun 27 2018


EXISTENTIALISM, a philosophical and literary movement identified largely with the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre, gained influence after World War I. The roots of existentialism are varied, found in the work of the Danish religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Sartre's philosophy was influenced by the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and philosopher Martin Heidegger. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to define. It is as much a mood or temper as it is a philosophical system. The religious existentialism of Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel differs from the resolute atheism of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Nonetheless, certain essential assumptions are shared.

In existentialism, existence is both freedom and despair. In a world without apparent meaning or direction, the individual is radically free to act. Most individuals are afraid to confront the responsibility entailed by radical freedom. In Sartrean terms, bad faith and inauthenticity allow individuals to consider themselves as an essence, a fixed entity; they playact in life. In contrast, the existential individual refuses illusions. Death looms as a boundary situation, defining the limits of existence. The recognition of such limits and the responsibility for one's actions lead to an existential despair that can overwhelm the individual.

However, Sartre, Beauvoir, and religious existentialists consider despair a painful but necessary stop on the road to freedom. Since existence is prior to essence, the existential individual at every moment confronts the nothingness of existence. Transcendence occurs when the individual undertakes a project that will give meaning to his or her life. While such acts are individually subjective, they are intertwined with everyone else's reality. No act, or failure to act, is without larger meaning and context. Existentialism, initiated with the subjective despair of the individual, ends with an ethic founded upon the shared goal of human solidarity.

Religious existentialism also begins with individual anguish and despair. Men and women are radically alone, adrift in a world without apparent meaning. Religious existentialists, however, confront meaning through faith. Since existentialism is concerned with the individual and concrete experience, religious faith must be subjective and deep. Faith is less a function of religious observance than of inner transformation. But, as Kierkegaard elucidated, because of the enormous distance between the profane and the sacred, existential religious faith can never be complacent or confident. For existential men and women, whether religious or secular, life is a difficult process of becoming, of choosing to make themselves under the sign of their own demise. Life is lived on the edge.

Sartre and Beauvoir believed that existentialism would fail to catch hold in the United States, because it was a nation marked by optimism, confidence, and faith in progress. They were mistaken. Existentialism not only became significant in the postwar years, but it had been an important theme earlier. This is hardly surprising, because an existential perspective transcends national or historical boundaries. It is, as many existentialists have argued, part of the human condition.

American Existentialism: Before the Fact

An existential mood or perspective has long been important in America. Kierkegaard's theology of despair was anticipated in the Puritan's anguished religious sensibility. The distance between the individual and God that defined Puritanism has existential echoes, as the historian Perry Miller noted in his study of Jonathan Edwards's theology. Herman Melville's character Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851) personifies the existential individual battling to create meaning in a universe abandoned by God. Radical alienation and the search for meaning in an absurd world are common themes in the work of the late-nineteenth-century writer Stephen Crane. William James, professor of philosophy at Harvard University, posited a pluralistic and wild universe. His vision promoted both radical freedom and anguish of responsibility. For James, much like Sartre later, consciousness is an active agent rather than an essence. Therefore, the individual must impose order on the universe or confront a life without depth or meaning. Similarly, turn-of-the-century dissenters from American optimism and progress, such as James, Henry Adams, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., developed an existential perspective that appreciated the tragic elements in modern life and that upheld a heroically skeptical stance in the face of the absurd nature of existence. In the 1920s, novelists from the Lost Generation, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, spiritually wounded survivors of World War I, presented characters adrift, searching for existential meaning in their lives.

Kierkegaard in America

Beginning in the late 1920s, largely through the efforts of the retired minister Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard's existential theology entered into American intellectual life. By the late 1940s, most of Kierkegaard's writings had been translated by Lowrie. For Lowrie and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaard's impassioned Christian perspective, with its emphasis on how the reality of death granted meaning to life, questioned the complacency of mainstream Protestantism. Kierkegaard offered a tragic vision of life based on faith rather than church dogma. The Kierkegaardian focus on the inner life, on the individual wrestling with God, fit well with the perspective of many intellectuals and artists in America who were filled with anxiety and in search of transcendence. By the 1940s, and well into the 1960s, Kierkegaardian ideas appeared in the Pulitzer Prize–winning poem The Age of Anxiety (1947) by W. H. Auden, in a symphony based on that work by Leonard Bernstein, in the paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and in the novels of Walker Percy. The political implications of Kierkegaardian existentialism were generally conservative. The former communist agent Whittaker Chambers found a refuge from radical politics in Kierkegaard; others discovered that Kierkegaardian concerns about anxiety and salvation led them away from political engagement and toward an inward despair or religious sanctuary.

French Existentialism in America

In the wake of the economic and physical destruction caused by World War II in Europe and the dawning of the Cold War and nuclear age, French existentialism became a worldwide vogue. It seemed to be a philosophy appropriate for the postwar world. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus triumphantly visited the United States in the late 1940s. Their writings were quickly translated and reached wide audiences. Sartre's philosophical opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), was translated by Hazel E. Barnes in 1956. In that same year, the Princeton University professor Walter Kaufmann's important anthology of existentialist writings appeared. In this work, and in many other popularizations and collections of existentialism, the existential canon was narrowly presumed to be thoroughly European, in origin and current expression.

By the 1950s, existentialism fit neatly into the general sense of alienation and tragedy popular among American intellectuals. Existentialism's emphasis on the sanctity of the individual, his or her rejection of absolutes, and comprehension of the alienating nature of modern existence fed into postwar examinations of the totalitarian temper. For the African American writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, existential ideals allowed them to critique both Marxism and American racism. Each of them sought in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the help of existentialism, to ground their characters within the concrete experiences of racism while relating problems to the human condition. The novelist Norman Mailer's existentialism presented the battle between good and evil as at the heart of the human condition. The art critic Harold Rosenberg's concept of action art defined abstract expressionist painting with the vocabulary of existentialism. Although many intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review rejected existentialism because of Sartre and Beauvoir's radical politics, they nevertheless shared basic assumptions about the tragic responsibility that came with freedom.

Existentialism in the 1960s

For a younger generation, coming of age in the 1960s, the left-wing political associations of Sartrean existentialism were celebrated rather than rejected. Existentialism had become entrenched in the university curriculum by the early 1960s. Student radicals embraced existential commitment and rejected inauthenticity. Existentialism gave students a language to question the complacent assumptions of American society. It placed all questions in the realm of choice; passivity was a choice not to act. For Robert Moses, the decision to go to Mississippi in the early 1960s to organize voting campaigns for disfranchised blacks was an existential commitment. The repression that he faced was part of the absurd nature of existence. His ability to continue, despite the violence, was testimony to his existential beliefs. The ideas of Beauvoir in her The Second Sex (U.S. translation, 1953) influenced the American women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Employing the terminology that she and Sartre had developed, Beauvoir's famous words that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" signaled the existential fact that woman existed not as an essence but as a being with the choice to create her own existence. Betty Friedan, most famously, used many of Beauvoir's concepts in her own influential book, The Feminine Mystique (1963).

The Fate of Existentialism

In the late 1970s, existentialism's popularity waned for a host of reasons. The existential imperative for the individual to choose, in the hands of pop psychologists, was stripped of its anguish and despair and corrupted into a rather facile expression of unlimited human potential. In academic culture, universalist ideals of the human condition and freedom conflicted with poststructural and postmodernist thought. But existentialism, like postmodernism, viewed identity as something created, albeit with a greater sense of anguish. Today, existentialism remains a symbol of alienation and a critique of confident individualism.


Barnes, Hazel E. An Existentialist Ethics. New York: Knopf, 1967.

———. The Story I Tell Myself: A Venture into Existentialist Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1958.

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Fulton, Ann. Apostles of Sartre: Existentialism in America, 1945– 1963. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

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

May, Rollo. The Meaning of Anxiety. New York: Ronald Press, 1950.


See alsoFeminine Mystique, The ; Individualism ; Moby-Dick ; Philosophy .


views updated Jun 11 2018


EXISTENTIALISM , a modern philosophical movement, which intends to elucidate concrete human existence. To the movement belong such people as S. Kierkegaard, A. Schopenhauer, M. Heidegger, J.-P. Sartre, G. Marcel, M. Buber, F. Rosenzweig, and J.B. Soloveitchik.

Embracing a number of disparate philosophical positions, existentialism can be described as a reaction to traditional philosophy with its emphasis on the static, the abstract, the objective, and the purely rational. In its reaction, existentialism emphasizes the dynamic, the concrete, the subjective, and the personal. More specifically, existentialism opposes Idealism, which gave priority to the idea over factuality and largely neglected the part of the philosopher himself in the construction of his philosophy. Existentialism stresses personal involvement and "engagement," action, choice, and commitment, and regards the actual situation of the existential subject as the starting point of thought. Revolting against the Cartesian view of the self as a thinking entity, existentialism is concerned with the existential subject in his wholeness and concreteness – the willing, feeling, thinking person, who decides and acts from the perspective of his particular life situation rather than from some universal vantage point provided by reason or history. One of the important influences on existentialism was phenomenology, which attempts to understand the world and man not through causal formulae and analysis, but through openness to the whole range of phenomena that are manifest, without asking whether they are "real" in some metaphysical sense. Yet, whereas E. Husserl's phenomenology investigated human consciousness and its intentionality, existentialists themselves were rather interested in existential situations as insecurity, anguish, depression, shame, tragedy, hope, solidarity, and love. Both Husserl's phenomenology and existentialism did not relate to the Kantian Ding an sich, reality in itself, but in the way reality appears to the subject that is open to it: they do not explain phenomena, they rather describe them.

Existentialism in Jewish Thought

Existentialist motifs are central to the writings of many modern Jewish thinkers. One may for instance find existential motifs in the thinking of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav (Meir, 37–54).

According to F. Rosenzweig, Hermann Cohen's thought prepared his own existential thinking (F. Rosenzweig and S.H. Bergman highlighted the dichotomy between the neo-Kantian Cohen of Marburg and the neo-Cohen of Berlin, whereas A. Altmann thought that there was one great continuity in Cohen's neo-Kantian thinking). It was the concern for the individual which led Cohen to accord religion an independent place in his philosophic system. He argued that religion is necessary insofar as it posits the categories of sin, repentance, and salvation to deal with the problems of the individual, which Kantian ethics overlooks in its concern with man in general. Cohen emphasizes the relation between God and man, rather than theoretical speculation concerning God. With his notion of "correlation" Cohen maintains that the relationship between God and man is characterized by the holy spirit. Through his relation to God and his acknowledging God as the model and source of holiness, man strives to attain holiness for himself. Man and God are partners in bringing the work of creation to completion, i.e., in bringing about the messianic era. Both the deeds of man and the divine grace are necessary for the salvation of mankind.

Jewish existentialism proper begins with Franz Rosenzweig. Following Cohen, Rosenzweig attaches a great importance to the individual. In Das neue Denken ("The New Thinking," 1925) he criticizes traditional philosophical categories, instead making the personal experience of the individual the starting point of philosophy. Because God, the world, and man are experienced as three distinct entities, Rosenzweig rejects the approach of philosophy from the pre-Socratics until Hegel which reduced in a monistic manner these three "substances" to one basic essence, to God (in pantheism), to man (in anthropology), or to the world (in materialism). The separation and interrelationship of God, man, and the world is central to his New Thinking. He explains that the relation between God and the world is cognized as creation; between God and man, as revelation; and between man and the world, as redemption. As a result, the I is less a Cartesian cogito than a relating being, called upon to respond.

All of Martin Buber's mature thought bears the stamp of a closely similar existentialism of dialogue reflected in his notion of the I-you relationship, and his insistence on the concrete, on the unique, on the everyday, on the situation rather than the "-ism," on response with one's whole being and the personal wholeness that comes into being in that response. At the center of Buber's existentialism stands "holy insecurity" or the "narrow ridge" – the trust that meaning is open and accessible in the lived concrete, that transcendence addresses us in the events of everyday life, that man's true concern is not unraveling the divine mysteries, but the way of man in partnership with God. The partnership with "the eternal You" comes into expression in the meeting and encounter with a you. The living presence of God is felt when one is present to the other and makes the other present.

For Abraham Joshua Heschel religious reality does not begin with the essence of God but with His presence, not with dogma or metaphysics but with that sense of wonder and the ineffable which is experienced by every man. Through this sense of wonder man is led toward that transcendent reality to which each finite thing alludes through its own unique reality. Heschel approaches philosophy of religion as "situational thinking" and "depth theology" which endeavor to "rediscover the questions to which religion is an answer" (A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man [1955], 3).

Basic existentialist themes are also found in the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. His thinking is pervaded by such themes as loneliness and alienation, but also heroic readiness of obeying the divine commandments. Soloveitchik's halakhic hero lives through the normative prism of halakhah. He is the ideal type who orients his life to halakhic discipline and develops an indifference toward the chaotic, death, and the absurd.

Although the existential Jewish writer F. Kafka has his own anti-hero, who is the object of circumstances, of misunderstandings, and alienation and who possesses a total lack of communication, one may sense Kafka's longing for a fuller life in his description of alienated modern man (Meir, 129–145). In their various writings, all Jewish existentialists proposed that their readers adopt an "authentic" lifestyle, the content of which differed from author to author.


E.B. Borowitz, A Layman's Introduction to Religious Existentialism (1965); M. Friedman, The Worlds of Existentialism; A Critical Reader (1964); idem, To Deny Our Nothingness: Contemporary Images of Man (1967). add. bibliography: D. Hartman, "The Halakhic Hero: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man," in: Judaism, 9 (1989), 249–73; E. Meir, Jewish Existential Philosophers in Dialogue (Hebrew; 2004).

[Maurice Friedman /

Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]