Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in Europe, and is predicated on the concept of free will and personal responsibility.
It espouses the belief that human beings define their own meaning in life, and strive to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.
This philosophy rejects the idea that the universe itself holds any inherent truth or meaning, positing instead that meaning arises from individual action and interpretation.
At its core, existentialism posits that life is fundamentally meaningless and devoid of purpose, thus forcing each individual to imbue it with their own personal significance.
This belief underscores the existentialist emphasis on individuality, freedom, choice, and subjective experience over objective truth.
The philosophy also stresses that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves, which can often lead to feelings of existential dread or anxiety.
What is the Main Idea of Existentialism?
The central tenet of existentialism is that existence precedes essence.
In simple terms, this means that individuals first exist, encounter themselves, and subsequently, through their actions and choices, define their essence or nature.
This stands in contrast to other philosophical perspectives that assert an individual’s essence or nature is predetermined.
The Five Tenets of Existentialism
There are five key tenets or principles typically associated with existentialism.
- Existence Precedes Essence: The idea that we exist first and then each person spends a lifetime changing their essence or nature.
- Time is of the Essence: The belief in the importance of personal freedom and the need to make our lives count in a universe where time is finite.
- Human Nature is Chosen Through Life Choices: Each person has the freedom to determine their own development through their actions, and they are therefore responsible for these decisions.
- Humans are Completely Free and Responsible for Their Own Actions: This tenet underscores the concept of personal accountability and self-determination.
- Life is Absurd: There is no universal or objective meaning in life, leading to feelings of absurdity and alienation.
Existentialism Beliefs & Principles
The fundamental beliefs and principles of existentialism revolve around the idea of individual freedom and responsibility.
Existentialists assert that individuals are free to create and determine their own values and meaning, rather than these being predetermined by religious, societal, or moral conventions.
This emphasis on freedom and responsibility often leads to a confrontation with the Absurd — the existentialist term for the clash between our desire for meaning and the indifferent, chaotic universe.
Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy
Existentialist philosophy emphasizes the personal, subjective nature of existence.
Rather than a universal human nature, existentialism posits that each individual is unique and alone in the universe.
This philosophical viewpoint is often associated with a variety of other themes, including the freedom of choice, the importance of personal authenticity and sincerity, the significance of death and the “in-itself,” the negativity of existence, and the rejection of rationality and science as adequate interpreters of human living.
Existentialism vs Nihilism
While existentialism and nihilism are philosophically intertwined, they do represent different viewpoints.
Nihilism asserts that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.
Existentialism, on the other hand, posits that life’s meaning isn’t predetermined — that individuals must create their own meaning.
Existentialists believe in the potential for individual freedom and authenticity, while nihilists reject any basis for life’s value, purpose, or meaning.
Existentialism vs Absurdism
Absurdism, like existentialism and nihilism, is a philosophical response to the apparent meaninglessness of life.
However, while existentialists assert that individuals can create their own meaning, absurdists argue that life is inherently absurd, and any attempt to find meaning is futile.
According to absurdism, individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while continuing to explore and search for meaning.
Existentialism in Literature
Existentialism has had a significant influence on literature, often dealing with themes of isolation, dread, and freedom.
Works of existentialist literature strive to illuminate the human condition in a universe that is indifferent or even hostile.
Authors such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Fyodor Dostoevsky are notable figures in existentialist literature.
Their works often portray characters grappling with the fundamental themes of existentialism: choice, freedom, and the inherent absurdity of life.
Existentialism in Education
In the field of education, existentialist principles emphasize the individuality of students and prioritize personal development and self-understanding above rote learning.
An existentialist teacher might promote an environment where students are encouraged to ask profound questions about their existence, and they might stress the importance of personal choice and the impact these choices have on an individual’s identity.
Leading Figures in Existentialism
Prominent figures in existentialism include Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.
- Søren Kierkegaard, often regarded as the father of existentialism, emphasized the individual’s subjective experience and the importance of personal choice and commitment.
- Friedrich Nietzsche is known for his critique of traditional moral values and his assertion of will to power and the concept of eternal recurrence.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, author of “Existentialism is a Humanism,” focused on the idea of human freedom and the responsibility that comes with it.
- Albert Camus, although he rejected the label of “existentialist,” grappled with existential themes in his works, focusing on the absurdity of life.
There are many insightful quotes that encapsulate existentialist thought. A few examples include:
- “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
- “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Christian existentialism is a school of thought that combines the existentialist philosophy with Christian theology.
It posits that each individual must wrestle with despair and the condition of sin to find God and their own individual identity.
Key figures include Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Summary of Literature
The literature of existentialism, as represented by figures such as Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, and Kafka, explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and the often-painful reality of human existence.
These works are characterized by characters facing crises that force them to confront their freedom and responsibility, and they often depict life as absurd, devoid of rational meaning or purpose.
Existentialism is a Humanism
“Existentialism is a Humanism” is a significant work by Jean-Paul Sartre, where he defends existentialism against various criticisms.
He emphasizes that the philosophy insists on human freedom and responsibility and asserts that we are “condemned to be free,” as we have no choice but to choose and define our essence through our actions.
Conclusion: The Impact of Existentialism
Existentialism, as a philosophical movement, has left a profound mark on various aspects of society, influencing literature, education, psychology, and more.
It has fostered a deep understanding of the human condition, emphasizing the need for personal responsibility, authenticity, and the pursuit of individual meaning in an indifferent and often absurd universe.
FAQs – Existentialism – Beliefs, Principles, Quotes & Leading Figures
1. What is existentialism?
Existentialism is a philosophical movement or perspective that emphasizes the individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices.
It focuses on the subjective experiences and the individual’s personal freedom, and it posits that the primary purpose of human life is to create one’s own meaning, rather than discovering pre-determined values.
2. Who are some prominent existentialist philosophers?
Several philosophers have significantly contributed to the development and propagation of existentialist thought.
Some of the most influential existentialist philosophers include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.
3. What does it mean to “exist before essence” in existentialist thought?
The phrase “existence precedes essence” is a central proposition in existentialism.
It means that, for human beings, who they are (their essence) is not predetermined or defined by external factors. Instead, each person exists first, encounters themselves, and defines their essence or nature through their actions and choices.
4. How does existentialism view freedom and responsibility?
Existentialism posits that every individual has absolute freedom to shape their own life through the choices they make.
However, this freedom is inextricably tied to responsibility, as individuals are fully accountable for the outcomes of their choices.
Existentialists argue that we cannot escape this freedom and responsibility, even if we try to deny or avoid it.
5. What is the role of authenticity in existentialist philosophy?
Authenticity, in existentialist thought, refers to living in accordance with one’s true self, beliefs, and values, rather than conforming to societal norms or expectations.
An authentic existence involves embracing one’s freedom, accepting responsibility for one’s choices, and continuously seeking and defining one’s personal meaning in life.
6. What is ‘the absurd’ as described by existentialists?
‘The absurd’ is a concept primarily associated with existentialists like Albert Camus.
It refers to the search for meaning in an indifferent, chaotic, and seemingly meaningless universe.
Despite our human desire for order and meaning, the universe does not inherently provide any, resulting in a sense of ‘the absurd’.
7. How does existentialism approach the issue of death?
Existentialism views death as an undeniable and ultimate limit of human existence.
It emphasizes the individual’s confrontation with the inevitability of death as a crucial factor that illuminates the value and urgency of life, nudging individuals to seek meaning and authenticity in their finite existence.
8. How does existentialism differ from other philosophies?
Unlike many other philosophical systems, existentialism rejects the idea that the universe or human existence has an inherent, objective meaning or purpose.
It stresses on individual freedom, responsibility, and subjective experience.
While other philosophies often propose answers, existentialism encourages ongoing questioning and interpretation of life.
9. Is existentialism pessimistic or nihilistic?
While existentialism acknowledges the harsh realities of life, such as meaninglessness, isolation, and death, it is not inherently pessimistic or nihilistic.
Instead, existentialism asserts that these challenges push individuals towards authenticity, freedom, and personal meaning-making.
It empowers individuals to create their own purpose in an indifferent universe.
10. How has existentialism influenced other fields?
Existentialism has had a profound influence on many other fields beyond philosophy, including literature, psychology, theology, and the arts.
It has shaped the themes of many literary works, inspired the development of existential psychology and psychotherapy, and it has contributed to various theological discussions and existential interpretations of religious texts.