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Existentialism is a philosophical movement that views human existence as having a set of underlying themes and characteristics, such as anxiety, dread, freedom, awareness of death, and consciousness of existing, that are primary. That is, they cannot be reduced to or explained by a natural-scientific approach or any approach that attempts to detach itself from or rise above these themes. Human beings are exposed to or, to use the philosopher Martin Heidegger's phrase, "thrown" into, existence. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as prior to, and the horizon or context of, any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create. This is part of the meaning of the assertion of the philosopher Sartre, one of the founders of existentialism, "existence is prior to essence". Existentialism conceives of Being itself as something that can only be understood through and in relation to these basic characteristics of human existence. For existentialism, human beings can be understood only from the inside, in terms of their lived and experienced reality and dilemmas, not from the outside, in terms of a biological, psychological, or other scientific theory of human nature. It emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence and is fundamentally opposed to the rationalist tradition and to positivism. That is, it argues against definitions of human beings either as primarily rational, knowing beings who relate to reality primarily as an object of knowledge or whose action can or ought to be regulated by rational principles, or as beings who can be defined in terms of their behavior as it looks to or is studied by others. More generally it rejects all of the Western rationalist definitions of Being in terms of a rational principle or essence or as the most general feature that all existing things share in common. Existentialism tends to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, and "absurd" universe in which meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings' actions and interpretations.

In terms of the existence and relevance of God, there are three schools of existentialist thought: Atheistic Existentialism (Sartre), Christian Existentialism (Kierkegaard) and a third school that proposes that whether God exists or not is irrelevent to the issue of human existence- God may or may not exist (Heidegger.)

Although there are certain common tendencies among existentialist thinkers, there are major differences and disagreements among them, and not all of them even affiliate themselves with or accept the validity of the term "existentialism", which was popularized especially by Sartre. In German the phrase Existenzphilosophie (philosophy of existence) is also used.



Existentialism was inspired by the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Heidegger. It became popular in the mid-20th century through the works of the French writer-philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir whose version of existentialism are set out in a popular form in Sartre's 1946 L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism is a Humanism.

Although many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. Moreover, one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II.

Major concepts in existentialism

Existentialism differentiates itself from the modern Western rationalist tradition extending from Descartes to Husserl by rejecting the idea that the most certain and primary reality is rational consciousness. Descartes argued that we could think away everything that exists and doubt its reality but that we could not think away or doubt the thinking consciousness, whose reality is therefore more certain than any other reality. Existentialism decisively rejects this argument, asserting instead that as conscious beings we always find ourselves already in a world, a prior context and history that is given to consciousness and in which it is situated, and that we cannot think away that world. It is inherent and indubitably linked to consciousness. In other words, the ultimate, certain, indubitable reality is not thinking consciousness but, according to Heidegger, "being in the world". This is a radicalization of the notion of intentionality that comes from Brentano and Husserl, which asserts that, even in its barest form, consciousness is always conscious of something.

Sartre's dictum, "Existence precedes and rules essence," is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined essence to humanity, except that which we make for ourselves. Since Sartrean existentialism does not acknowledge the existence of a god, or of any other determining principle, human beings are free to act as they choose; his abovementioned essay is the most programmatic and straightforward statement of this principle. Even if an individual believes that he has an essence -- such as a soul or rationality or a psychological type -- that essence is a choice that he is making rather than something pre-existing that is imposed on him.

Since there is no predefined human nature or ultimate evaluation beyond that which humans project onto the world; people may only be judged, or defined, by their actions and choices. Choice is the ultimate evaluator.

Existentialism before 1970

Arguably the first existentialist was Blaise Pascal. In 1670, he published the Pensees, in which he described many fundamental themes of existentialism. Pascal argued that without a god, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, since we would eventually die. This was good enough reason not to choose to become an atheist according to Pascal. Sartre takes this idea of avoiding the inevitable death as bad faith. Camus embraces the idea that without a god ultimately everything is meaningless, and tries to find meaning within it.

The thought of the major existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger and Sartre, grew out of the phenomenology of Husserl, which attempted to critique positivism and psychologism by grounding all perception, experience, and knowledge in structures of human consciousness. Husserl stressed that all Being is always being for a consciousness. Heidegger transformed this into the core existentialist notion that Being is always being, not for a pure consciousness, but rather for a concrete existence, that is that consciousness is a property of a (human) existence (Dasein) that has "being-in-the-world", and exists in a concete historical context. Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and Heidegger.

In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a resurgence of interest in popular artforms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), sold well in the West, and "arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers. Simultaneously, in Sartre, Paris university students found a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, and others were appropriating the thematic pessimism found in Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the despair of the unknowing self featured prominently (often in pidgin form) in cinema and novels.

Existentialism since 1970

Although postmodernist thought became the focus of intellectuals in the 1970s and thereafter (whether or not the movement is strong today, and what, if anything, has replaced it, still is debated), much postmodern writing is existential--unsurprising, since postmodernism evolved from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger (two of the greatest existential philosophers), despite Heidegger's rejecting the existentialist label.

One should, however, not confuse postmodernism with existentialism. Thematically postmodern films such as The Matrix posit the idea of simulacrum, dealing with reality and appearance, and of how the latter renders the former indistinguishable, if the artificial can sufficiently mimic the real. Alternatively, existential cinema deals more with the themes of:

  1. Retaining authenticity in an apathetic, mechanical world, something post-modernism would staunchly reject--as authenticity is related to a non-existent "reality".
  2. The consciousness of death; e.g. Heidegger's 'being towards death'--exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" (1957).
  3. The feelings of alienation and loneliness consequent to being unique in a world of many, or, in Nietzsche's phrase, "herd-animals".
  4. The concept Alltägliche selbstsein (Everyday-ness) which Heidegger explicated in his book Sein und Zeit (1927), (English translation Being and Time).

Since 1970, much cultural activity in art, cinema, and literature contains postmodern and existential elements, which, ironically, would support the postmodern thesis of "borderlessness between concepts". Films such as Fight Club, based on the book by Palahniuk, and books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Dick, and Toilet: The Novel, by Michael Szymczyk all distort the line between reality and appearance while simultaneously espousing strong existential themes.

In cinema, postmodern editing techniques (showing the displacement, discontinuity, and temporal perspective of postmodernism) can go hand-in-hand with a purely existential story, thus synthesizing technique and function to give meaning. Moreover, this has created the neologism "Neo-Existentialism"--combining postmodernism's epistemology with the reflective ontological belief of existentialism.

Criticisms of existentialism

Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism, especially in Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting certain features, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, of the modern experience of living in an oppressive society, onto the nature of existence itself: "In so far as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory". (Herbert Marcuse, "Sartre's Existentialism", p. 161)

Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heideggers's philosophy, with special attention to his use of language, as a mystified and mystifying ideology of advanced industrial society and its power structure.

Roger Scruton claimed, in his book "From Descartes to Wittgenstein", that both Heidegger's concept of "Inauthenticity" and Sartre's concept of "Bad Faith" were incoherent; both deny any universal moral creed, yet speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide them. In chapter 18, he writes,"In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force." Familiar with this sort of argument, Sartre claimed that bad and good faith do not represent moral ideas, rather, they are ways of being.

Existentialism in psychotherapy

With complete freedom to decide and being responsible for the outcome of said decisions comes anxiety--or angst--about the choices made. Anxiety's importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the patient's anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that the patient can harness his or her anxiety and use it constructively. Instead of suppressing anxiety, patients are advised to use it as grounds for change. By embracing anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve his or her full potential in life.

Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement

Film directors

Novelists and playwrights

Existentialist novelists were generally seen as a mid-1950s phenomenon that continued until the mid- to late 1970s. Most of the major writers were either French or from French African colonies. Small circles of other Europeans were seen as literary existential precursors by the existentialists, themselves, however, literary history increasingly has questioned the accuracy of this idealism for earlier models.

There is overlapping between the American beat generation writers who lived in Paris, and felt it their spiritual home, and writers of road novels; as well as the delayed action of the French discovery of American film noir, in the 1950s, after a decade of Nazi-Fascist censorship, which, as Truffaut and others in the Cahiers du Cinema indicated, influenced novels and plays; to some extent, as well, the surrealist movement of Andre Breton and others, which questioned the established reality, made possible the isolation of non-academic novels protagonised by amoral anti-heroes.

The Belmondo school of existentialism, inspired by Genet, the criminal world, and French society's underclasses are seen now as a detective fiction sub-genre.

The Excrement school of existentialism, a worldwide movement that uses excrement as metaphor to criticize life, society, and politics, came into vogue in the early 1990s in the avant-garde of Russian literature. It has retained cultural interest in the U.S. through such existential works as the Kafkaesque Toilet: The Novel, which increasingly show that the universal themes of loneliness, alienation, and death in Excrement Literature are characteristic of the Existential movement.

This is a general list of existentialist writers:




Existentialism in popular culture

The burlesque existentialist is a stock character of the popular imagination, dressed in black and uttering gnomic assertions about life and the universe. Existentialism is also talked about in a song by Straylight Run. The song is entitled: "Existentialism on prom night."


Existentialist films deal with the concepts of existentialism that are familiar to the average person, such as free will, personal identity, individualism, responsibility, mind vs reality, and what really matters.

The 2004 film I ♥ Huckabees (directed by David O. Russell) prominently features existentialism in its storyline. Though the philosophical conflict is between the so-called existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and the French nihilist detective (Isabelle Huppert), the film's resolution, focusing on the interplay between different aspects of existence, resembles the existentialism described by Sartre and others.

Richard Kelly's 2001 film Donnie Darko displays an existential tone throughout, beginning with the search for meaning in a teenager's life after learning that his days are numbered.

Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001) is a surreal exploration of existential questions. The protagonist wanders through levels of his subconscious, searching for meaning within Life, Death and dreams, collecting along his way many different perspectives. Existential Philosophy is explicitly addressed, and is connected with scientific fields such as quantum physics, psychology, and evolutionary theory.

The 1999 film American Beauty contains the primary themes of existentialism. Kevin Spacey's protagonist experiences the heightened anxiety and alienation consequent to sudden self-awareness. Meanwhile, his wife 'plays the game,' tries to do what's 'expected'--but the world is indifferent to her game. Spacey begins following his passions, instead of the morality and duties of the herd, but, after almost doing something completely socially unacceptable; (paraphrasing Nietzsche) he retreats to the cage he escaped. The film concludes violently, an example of Camus's "Absurd".

The movie City Slickers (1991) has a profound existential moment: Jack Palance's character, Curly, says Life is about this: One Thing. This is Kierkegaard's idea that I could live and die for, in a simple leather-gloved finger. It's for each of us to find our passion, our One Thing. Billy Crystal's character, Mitch, finds his as he nearly drowns in a rain-swollen river. He is saved, returns to his family, and embarks on a more meaningful, purposeful life.

Tony Hancock's 1961 film The Rebel mocks Parisian intellectual society in general and the pretensions of the English lower middle class in particular.

Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, depicts an existentialist way of perceiving our daily lives in a clever and humorous way, cf. Camus's essay The Myth of Sisyphus.

Harold and Maude (1971), with Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, et al.

The Graduate (1967), with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, et al.

Cube, Vincenzo Natali's 1997 independent film sets its cast in a mysterious cube, which goes unaccounted in its genesis, and their subsequent placement therein.

Suna no onna, Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1964 film in which a couple lives in a sand dune, which is perpetually caving in, as they continue to expel the loose grains.

John Patrick Shanley's Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, is a story about a man waking up from a sleepy dogmatic life (absurd) whereby he slowly comes to take control of his actions and ultimately reinvents himself (though you could argue that his 'leap of faith' at the end is somewhat religously apologetic). Classic theme of reducing (stripping away) ones self and rebuilding identity.

The Stranger by Luchino Visconti is an adaptation of the Albert Camus novel of the same name.


Existentialism was parodied in Paul Jennings's theory of resistentialism.


  • Herbert Marcuse, "Sartre's Existentialism", in Studies in Critical Philosophy, translated by Joris De Bres (London: NLB, 1972)

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