Category: 

What Is Existentialism?

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the well-known philosophers who explored existentialism.
The main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment" experiences an existential crisis.
Jean-Paul Sartre popularized the phrase existentialism.
Article Details
  • Written By: G. Melanson
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: Juulijs, Pavel Parmenov, n/a
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article
Free Widgets for your Site/Blog
Bill Clinton met John F. Kennedy when he was 16.  more...

September 2 ,  1666 :  The "Great Fire of London" burned down more than 13,000 buildings, including St. Paul's   more...

Existentialism is the philosophy of human existence as it relates to one’s pursuit of the meaning of life. The term was originally coined by French philosopher and dramatist, Gabriel Marcel, in 1943. Jean-Paul Sartre, a leader in 20th century French philosophy, later popularized the term in his book L'existentialisme est un humanisme. Philosophers such as Marcel and Sartre, who focused on human existence, are referred to as existentialists. This particular philosophical movement really grew following the Second World War.

Many of the issues inherent in existentialism, such as the meaning of life and the subjectivity of one’s own experience, were studied long before it was first defined as a term. Popular philosophers associated with the movement, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard were interested in the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and an individual’s freedom and responsibility to define his or her own values.

The study of existentialism has also been integrated into other theories, such as feminism. French author and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, was considered the first philosopher to seriously consider gender and ethics alongside existentialism, such as in her work, The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich applied existentialism to Christian theology in his writings, including The Courage to Be, which theorizes that man requires God to relieve his crisis of identity and purpose in a seemingly random world.

Ad

In addition to philosophical works, existentialism has been raised in literary works such as Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, in which the main character goes through an existential crisis. In Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, the main character faces the dilemma of struggling between his animal instincts and his higher spirit. One of the 20th century’s leading fiction writers, Frank Kafka is another author who tackles existentialism through literature. In his novella The Metamorphosis, characters are confronted with a bleak sense of hopelessness and absurdity in the apparent meaninglessness of human existence.

In the late 20th century, existentialism became a popular theme in film. Modern movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, and I Heart Huckabees all deal with the search for meaning behind one’s own existence. In television, shows such as Monty Python have also incorporated existentialism into their themes by parodying the absurd and seemingly random nature of the human experience.

Ad

More from Wisegeek

You might also Like

Discuss this Article

anon220574
Post 8

I have started this topic in my philosophy class and if there is one thing I know about existentialism and that is there are more strings attached to it. It isn't as simple as it sounds.

Freedom is a very important branch of existentialism and it basically explains that you are created by the choices you make. Like for example, building a house, every choice is a brick and depending on the "material" or "quality" of your brick will the house stand more resistant to storms and extreme whether. How much stronger the foundation, how much more resistant to external factors.

turquoise
Post 7

I don't know why but talks of existence always remind me of death. I feel like this whole concept is a way to figure out how best to use the time we've got since it all ends with death.

It's actually a stressful thing to think about. I don't think I could be a theologian of existentialism. It would make me very depressed. Why would I want to think about the meaning of life everyday? Especially since I know I don't have forever to live it.

burcidi
Post 6

I think existentialism came about as people did not have to worry about survival as much because of industrialization and development.

But that also led to a feeling of being lost and feeling unimportant in the world, in the universe. So existentialism came about as a philosophy where like-minded people can talk about this problem.

I think we need existentialism more now then ever. I feel that there is an abundance of materialism in the world today, and not enough thought, emotion, philosophy and spirituality.

Maybe we can fill in some of the emptiness with the help of existentialism by going deeper and rediscovering ourselves.

fify
Post 5

I have also passed through a stage where I felt completely confused about my existence. I wanted to find some meaning for everything. I read a lot about spirituality and philosophy, but at the end, it was religious theology that helped me make sense of it all.

I think many people pass through such a stage once in their lives. I agree with Paul Tillich about needing religion and God to figure out why we exist. But I also understand that different ways of thinking about existentialism might work for different people.

I would be interested to know what other people think about existence. Have you gone through a similar stage? What helped you get through it or make sense of it?

robert13
Post 4

I think existentialism is becoming a more popular theme in acclaimed television shows now than it once was, also. In shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men or (perhaps the best example) The Sopranos, characters are often faced with moral decisions which force them to confront the meaning they ascribe to life. Essentially, if life is meaningless, then it is up to the individual to decide for themselves what is right or wrong.

Post your comments

Post Anonymously

Login

username
password
forgot password?

Register

username
password
confirm
email