Existentialism: An Introduction


Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.

Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary. In this existence...

The Individual Defines Everything.


I am not an existentialist. What I am is a curious person fascinated by the individuals profiled within these pages. Do not confuse my curiosity with anything greater than what it is.
  1. Introduction to the Site
  2. Basic Existentialism
  3. Existential Ethics
    • Shared Values
    • Religion & Faith
    • The Individual
  4. Divisions in Thought
    • Metaphysicians
    • Politicians
  5. Existentialism In Context
    • Philosophical Evolution
    • World History
  6. Resources Cited

Introduction

Life is meaningless -- until one defines his or her life. Without any greater purpose or meaning, I decided to utilize a great portion of my time pondering the meaningless nature of the cosmos. I understand this pursuit has no value, other than that of a distraction. I understand that few individuals consider pondering philosophy a hobby, but it is one of mine. Within my bedroom is a filing cabinet filled with articles and notes on literature and philosophy. There is a somewhat reasonable explanation for this obsession with the human condition.

I was fortunate to have a French-born gentleman with a Ph.D as a high school literature instructor. Before teaching literature, he had taught French, world history, and Western civilization classes. In 1985 or 86, I endured my first lecture on existentialism and the French Resistance. In 1987, he taught the Advanced Placement literature course, which again focused upon existentialism. No college professor I encountered at the University of Southern California could match his knowledge or experience.

During my college years, I enrolled in every existential literature course offered. In late 1996, I reviewed my college papers. To my dismay, I finally realized how condescending the graders had been. One paper caught my eye because the grader wrote, "I doubt you have read Camus' biographies." I guess professors and their assistants have a difficult time believing students read. This comment illustrates why someone would agree with Camus that life is absurd. The few students truly passionate about understanding the condition of mankind are the ones least likely to be taken seriously.

Not a Study Guide...

The World Wide Web offers a great deal of information -- some valuable, most not. I created this site to encourage further research into existential and phenomenological philosophies, hopefully providing a useful amount of information and references to external sources. I expect those interested in the writers and thinkers mentioned within these pages to locate the books and articles cited. My writing is not in textbook form, nor is it even in a form suitable as a high school term paper. I ask questions without offering answers. The paragraphs are short, in a journalistic style not suited to academic research. Trying to use this site for any serious purpose might prove fatal to a student's grade.

The biographies and commentaries are brief, limited by available server space, my free time, and my belief my opinions are not important. I attempt to cite the views of others as frequently as possible. Opinions exist to be debated then, in many cases, dismissed. At best, opinions are starting points for new perspectives. If you have a question please ask, but I encourage students of philosophy to develop their own understandings. Maybe in the years to come I will assemble a series of original texts, but I do not want to see the Internet replace original work. More than one student has requested a bit more information than I was willing to provide, so I gave them the titles of books to read. (I do wish I could refer them to my own non-existent books. Anyone care to publish a series of books on existentialism?)

I'm in Charge Here!

One of the great pleasures in composing a series of documents on existentialism is that I and I alone get to select the individuals profiled. While I am maintaining a list of suggested additions to the site, I have selected those people about whom I wish to write first. In selecting these writers, I am obviously considering their influence upon existentialism to be greater than those of others. I truly do intend to add information about more individuals to my collection of biographies and commentaries, but this is a slow process.

No, I am not completely ignorant of the topic: some non-existentialists are on this site. I could not write about existentialism and not mention Dostoevsky, Hegel, or even Marx. It is the influence of these men upon The Existentialists that I weighed before dedicating space to commentaries upon their works. Don't complain -- I'm in charge here.


Basic Existentialism

Mankind is the only known animal, according to earth-bound existentialists, that defines itself through the act of living. In other words, first a man or woman exists, then the individual spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self... which is why there is existential psychotherapy. (Imagine a therapist telling people life has no meaning!) In other words, we define ourselves by living; suicide would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning.

Existentialists believe in living -- and in fact fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and even Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they believed so passionately in fighting for the survival of their nations and peoples.

All too often people link a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential ideals. Existentialism has little to do with faith or the lack thereof. To quote Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars:

Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists -- Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre -- are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 11

In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of three political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term existential after World War II. The term was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.

Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple:

Beyond this short list of concepts, the label existentialist is applied broadly. Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist works, or at least the writings of people groups as the existentialists. Blaise Pascal, for example, spent the last years of his life writing in support of predetermination, the theory men only think they have free will, making the decision-making process that much more depressing.

There is no one or two sentence statement summarizing what more than a dozen famous and infamous people pondered. The only common factor seems to be despair. The accompanying grid illustrates the range of ideals expressed by the major existentialists. Not every existentialist follows a perfect row in the grid. In particular, their political theories are more varied than the three categories listed.

Religious Predetermination Elitist Moralistic Intentions
Agnostic Chance Communist Relativistic Actions
Atheistic Free Will Anarchist Amoralistic Results

The first row might represent the writings of Blaise Pascal, especially late in his life when he tried desperately to defend his religious beliefs, including their inherent contradictions. The last row is representative of Jean-Paul Sartre's writings, if not his own beliefs.

As previously stated, uniting the men and women behind this matrix of concepts is despair. Their thoughts are linked by a belief that this life is a near-futile struggle against forces aligned in opposition to the individual.

The Existentialists

The individuals listed represent major contributors to existentialism and related philosophies. This chart is in philosophical order, not in the order of publication or life. Following the chart is further information on other existentialists or contributors to the philosophy. I would like to thank site visitor Eduardo Tenenbaum for his suggestions for this chart. I have made some minor changes, reflecting the input of visitors.

Name Philosophy / Faith Contribution Kaufmann's Comments
Fyodor Dostoevsky Eastern Orthodox Studied individual will, freedom, and anguish. I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written.
Søren Kierkegaard Existentialist, Protestant Theist Considered the first existentialist, his works were popularized by Heidegger.
E.T.: Formulated the aesthetic, ethical and religious as modes of existence.  Perfected the Socratic technique of indirect communication
Here lies Kierkegaard's importance for a vast segment of modern thought: he attacks received conceptions of Christianity, suggests a radical revision of the popular idea of the self, and focuses attention on decision.
Friedrich Nietzsche Individualist, Anti-Christian Ideas influenced Heidegger and Sartre. 
E.T.: Developed concepts of Will-to-Power, Eternal Recurrence and Overman.
The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, the opposition to philosophic systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life -- all this is eminently characteristic of Nietzsche.
Georg W. F. Hegel German Idealism, Protestant Influenced Marx, Husserl, Sartre, and many others. Hegel's "followers" broke into "left" and "right" wings. First to promote the concept of phenomenology.  
Edmund Husserl Phenomenologist Developed concept of essences and being.
E.T.: Developed the concept of the Lifeworld
 
Martin Heidegger Phenomenologist, Existentialist, Theist Assistant to Husserl, wrote about Kierkegaard's works.
E.T. Student of Husserl's phenomenology, proclaimed the end of metaphysics.
An early disciple... would sum up Heidegger's importance by asserting that he introduced Nietzsche into philosophy. {Note: Kaufmann disagrees with the preceding observation} He made it possible for professors to discuss with a good conscience matters previously considered literary, if that.
Franz Kafka Absurdist, Jewish Similar to Camus, Sartre, in depictions of cruel fate. Kafka stands between Nietzsche and the existentialists: he pictures the world into which Heidegger's man, in Sein und Zeit, is "thrown," the godless world of Sartre, the "absurd" world of Camus.
Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialist, Atheist Student of Heidegger, colleague and lover of de Beauvoir. It is mainly through the work of Jean-Paul Sartre that existentialism has come to the attention of a wide international audience. Sartre is a philosopher in the French tradition... at the borderline of philosophy and literature.
Simone de Beauvoir Existentialist, Feminist Best known as a "feminist" writer, she was the editor of many of Sartre's works. Lover of Sartre, friend to Camus and Merleau-Ponty.  
Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenologist, Existentialist One-time friend of Sartre, Camus. Supporter of Husserlian Phenomenology.  
Albert Camus Existentialist / Absurdist, Atheist French Resistance member during WWII with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir. Brought "humanism" to his existentialism. {Paraphrase of Kaufmann} Camus marks the finale of existentialism... an attempt to move beyond what Sartre had defined. Camus cannot be called an existentialist, but his ideas evolved alongside those of Sartre and others.
Karl Jaspers Existentialist, Agnostic Contemporary of Sartre, Camus, et al. Jaspers sought to make philosophy more open for the general public... more relevant. It is in the work of Jaspers that the seeds sown by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first grew into existentialism or, as he prefers to say, Existenzphilosophie.

Other Thinkers of Note

Other existentialists worthy of mention include:

Influential philosophers and writers, with existential concepts reflected in their works include:


Resources

Durant, Will; The Story of Philosophy, (New York: Pocket Books / Simon & Schuster, 1961)
ISBN: 0-67173916-6 [Buy it online at Amazon.com]

Kaufmann, Walter; Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, (New York: Meridian Penguin, 1989)
ISBN: 0-452-00930-8 [Buy it online at Amazon.com]

Olson, Robert G.; An Introduction to Existentialism, (New York: Dover Publications, 1962)
ISBN: 0-486-20055-8 [Buy it online at Amazon.com]

Shirer, Wm. L.; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960)
ISBN: 0-44921977-1 [Buy it online at Amazon.com]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.