The word was officially coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in 1943 and then it was quickly adopted by others. It refers to a philosophical movement that emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent. It emerged towards the end of the 19th century, but it is really the expression of a sensitivity for the concerns and the fate of the individual person that runs throughout the history of European thinking, from Augustine to Pascal and Dostoevsky. It formed into a more coherent movement when the process of industrialization and the emergence of capitalism created a mass culture that began to destroy the old order of Europe. The focus on the concrete existence and the lives of real people can be interpreted as an attempt to defend them against theories, social structures, and political movements (like Marxism or Fascism) that try to determine who and what a person is.

Existentialism is not a homogeneous movement. The roots of the existentialist movement can be traced back to Søren Kierkegaard, who lived in 19th Century Denmark. Existentialism peaked in the 1940’s with the publication of many philosophical essays, plays, novels, and short stories. It can also be seen as a literary movement, and it influenced the emerging field of psychotherapy.

In the field of philosophy, existentialism mostly draws from the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre. In literature, it includes the works of Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Rilke, and others. The ideas and positions of these philosophers and writers vary widely. There are existentialists who claim that we are radically free and morally responsible for our actions. Others, like Nietzsche, contend that the idea of free will is a fiction. Kierkegaard, Beauvoir, or Sartre would argue that existentialism is a form of subjectivism. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty would reject this position and emphasize the centrality of intersubjectivity or being-in-the-world. Kierkegaard or Nietzsche did not even know that they were existentialists. Kierkegaard considered himself to be a Christian, and Nietzsche, on the other hand, proclaimed that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were not political in a narrow sense, but they developed fundamental critiques of 19th Century Europe and its Christian culture. Sartre was a Marxist, and Heidegger was a supporter of Hitler, and sympathetic to the fascist ideology. 

Because the major figures vary so widely in their views, existentialism cannot be reduced to a unified school of thought. Nevertheless, there are some common threads and themes that tie them together. There is an emphasis on the human situation as it is experienced – it has to be lived through. The starting point for existentialist thinking is the existence of the human being in its naked exposure to the world. One of the forerunners of modern existentialism, Blaise Pascal, writes in the Pensées:

Let man, returning to himself, consider what he is in comparison with what exists; let him regard himself as lost, and from this little dungeon, in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to take the earth, its realms, its cities, its houses and himself at their proper value. … Anyone who considers himself in this way will be terrified at himself.

The task of facing one’s life cannot be met by reasoning alone; it cannot be captured in an abstract system. It requires concrete choices and actions of existing individuals in order to make it meaningful. Existentialism is a philosophical approach aimed at understanding human existence from the point of view of the experiencing subject, not from an academic distance. It is based on the assumption that individuals are free and responsible for their own choices and actions. In Sartre’s view, freedom is synonymous with consciousness itself, and consciousness is outside of the causal relations of this world. Therefore, human beings are not victims of circumstances, they always have a choice because they are self-aware, even if they realize that their lives are meaningless.

The following themes characterize the existential movement. This list, of course, is very subjective.

  1. Existence precedes Essence: This phrase from Sartre expresses the conviction that humans exist in a way that is different from other things – such as trees, cultural artifacts, or animals. We cannot be understood as mere things that are objectively present because we exist, because we make choices and take action throughout our lives, and this changes who we are in an unpredictable way. Therefore, there is no pre-given ‘essence’ that determines who and what we are. We are self-making beings that become who we are on the basis of the choices we make as our lives unfold.
  2. The Self as a Tension: If the human existence is a process of self-creation rather than object- or thing-like, then the structure of the self involves a tension or struggle between what can be called ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence,’ or between what it is now and what it could be.
  3.  Freedom and Anxiety: As beings that can relate to their own facticity, existentialists generally agree that humans are free and responsible for who they are and what they do. But this realization is often accompanied by anguish because it implies that  we alone are responsible for the choices and actions we make. This combination of freedom and anxiety is at the same time our ethical condition: Existentialists reject the idea that there are moral absolutes that exist independent from us, or that we can solve this tension through utilitarian calculations. They emphasize the choice-character of human action; natural or moral laws can not explain or justify our actions.
  4. Insider’s Perspective: Because human existence is not thing-like and can therefore not be studied from a perspective of detached objectivity, existentialists believe that we can understand ourselves only by taking something like an ‘insider’s perspective.’ That is, prior to any abstract theorizing about who or what we are, we must first come to terms with the experience of being human as it is lived within the context of our own situation. For this reason, existentialists reject the idea that there can be objectivity when it comes to giving an account of human existence.
  5. Emotions are revealing: Existentialists believe that we do not gain knowledge of the human situation through detached thought or rational demonstration, but through the affective experiences of the individual. We understand what matters in our lives through emotions and moods, they ground and orient individual life, and thus they have the potential to reveal the truth of our existence.
  6. The Possibility for Authenticity: Because we have a tendency to conform to the social roles and pre-configured identities of the public sphere, existentialists countered this with a strong emphasis on individual existence and the way it gets actualized. Heidegger suggested the term “Eigentlichkeit,” which can be translated as “authenticity.” The question of how to live a life of authentic existence, how to be true to oneself, is central to the existentialists.
  7. Ethics and Responsibility: Existentialism does not require adherence to a normative moral principle. This does not mean that existentialism is an amoral philosophy. The centerpiece of existential thinking is moral in character, because it relentlessly pursues fundamental of moral questions: ‘What should I do?’ and ‘How should I live?’