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(ĕgzĭstĕn`shəlĭzəm, ĕksĭ–), any of several philosophic systems, all centered on the individual and his relationship to the universe or to God. Important existentialists of varying and conflicting thought are Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Jean-Paul Sartre. All revolt against the traditional metaphysical approaches to man and his place in the universe. Thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, and Friedrich Nietzsche have been called existentialists, but it is more accurate to place the beginnings of the movement with Kierkegaard. In his concern with the problem of the individual's relationship to God, Kierkegaard bitterly attacked the abstract metaphysics of the Hegelians and the worldly complacency of the Danish church. Kierkegaard's fundamental insight was the recognition of the concrete ethical and religious demands confronting the individual. He saw that these demands could not be met by a merely intellectual decision but required the subjective commitment of the individual. The necessity and seriousness of these ethical decisions facing man was for Kierkegaard the source of his dread and despair. Kierkegaard's analysis of the human situation provides the central theme of contemporary existentialism. Following him, Heidegger and Sartre were the major thinkers connected with this movement. Both were influenced by the work of Edmund Husserl and developed a phenomenological method that they used in developing their own existential analyses. Heidegger rejected the label of "existentialist" and described his own philosophy as an investigation of the nature of being in which the analysis of human existence is only the first step. Sartre was the only self-declared existentialist among the major thinkers. For him the central idea of all existential thought is that existence precedes essence. For Sartre there is no God and therefore no fixed human nature that forces one to act. Man is totally free and entirely responsible for what he makes of himself. It is this freedom and responsibility that, as for Kierkegaard, is the source of man's dread. Sartre's thought, as expressed in his novels and plays as well as in his more formal philosophical writings, strongly influenced a current in French literature, best represented by Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. In France the most prominent exponent of a Christian existentialism was Gabriel MarcelMarcel, Gabriel
1889–1973, French philosopher, dramatist, and critic, b. Paris. A leading Christian existentialist, he became a Roman Catholic in 1929. He called himself a "concrete philosopher," indicating a reaction to his early idealism.
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, who developed his philosophy within the framework of the Roman Catholic Church. Aside from Heidegger, the leading German existentialist was Karl Jaspers, who developed the central Kierkegaardian insight along less theological lines. Various other theologians and religious thinkers such as Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr are often included within the orbit of existentialism.


See J.-P. Sartre, Existentialism (1947); J. Macquarrie, Studies in Christian Existentialism (1966); R. C. Solomon, ed., Existentialism (1974); D. E. Cooper, Existentialism: A Reconstruction (1990); D. B. Raymond, ed., Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition (1991).


a philosophical movement stressing personal responsibility and choice. Drawing on the works of KIERKEGAARD and NIETZSCHE, it was developed in the 20th century by HEIDEGGER, SARTRE and MERLEAU-PONTY. Heidegger elaborated his ideas against the phenomenological philosophy of HUSSERL., asserting human embedment in social life and our inability to theorize from outside it. The first section of Being and Time (1929) formulates the concept of DASEIN (being-in-the-world) and the primacy of language as a means of ordering experience. From this foundation, Heidegger then moves to establish the distinction between authentic and inauthentic action – the two being distinguished by the degree of self-awareness and commitment associated with particular choices. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty extended and elaborated on these foundations (to Heidegger's disgust) to make existentialism a dominant intellectual current in postwar Europe. Their journal, Les Temps Modernes, and Sartre's many literary and philosophical works, synthesized existential and Marxist themes in a search for a foundation for action that was not in ‘bad faith’. Sartre's many plays and novels explored the nature of individual consciousness and freedom, and he came to be seen by some as the conscience of a generation. Existential thought has had an important influence on social scientific thinking, from LAING's radical psychiatry and phenomenological Marxism to a poststructuralist interest in the early Heidegger's stress on language. Though often dismissed as purely a moral philosophy, it also provides much in terms of exploring the nature of social life for the individual.



or existential philosophy, an irrationalist current in contemporary bourgeois philosophy that emerged on the eve of World War I in Russia (L. Shestov and N. A. Berdiaev), after World War I in Germany (M. Heidegger, K. Jaspers, and M. Buber), and during World War II in France (J.-P. Sartre, G. Marcel, M. Merleau-Ponty, A. Camus, and S. de Beauvoir). Existentialism gained further currency throughout Europe during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and in the USA during the 1960’s.

In Italy, the best-known existential thinkers are E. Castelli, N. Abbagnano, and E. Paci; in Spain, J. Ortega y Gasset was close to existentialism; and in the USA, the existential philosophy was popularized by W. Lowrie, W. Barrett, and J. Edie. Certain religious-philosophical currents are closely related to existentialism—specifically, French personalism, as represented by E. Mounier, M. Nédoncelle, and J. Lacroix, and the dialectical theology of K. Barth, P. Tillich, and R. Bultmann. B. Pascal, S. Kierkegaard, M. de Unamuno, F. M. Dostoevsky, and F. Nietzsche are regarded as the precursors of existentialism by its adherents. The philosophy of life and the phenomenology of E. Husserl were influential in the development of existentialism.

Diverging from traditional rationalist philosophy and science, in which mediation is considered the basic principle of thought, existentialism seeks to comprehend being as a kind of unmediated and undivided unity of subject and object. Primordial and authentic being is identified with experience, which is interpreted in existentialism as the subjective experience of “being-in-the-world.” The existentialist regards being as an unmediated given, or as human existence—which, in his judgment, cannot be known by scientific or even by philosophical means.

In order to describe the structure of existence, many of the existentialists, such as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, resort to the phenomenological method of Husserl; they consider the structure of consciousness to be constituted of its orientation toward the other—that is, its intentionality. Existence is “open”; it is directed toward the other, which becomes its center of attraction. According to Heidegger and Sartre, existence is being, which is directed toward nothing and is aware of its own finite-ness. Thus, Heidegger’s description of the structure of existence amounts to a description of the various modes of human existence—such as concern, dread, resolution, and conscience— which are defined by death and which represent various means of contact with nothingness, movement toward or flight from nothingness, or other type of relation to it. Thus, too, it is at moments of extreme shock, which Jaspers calls boundary situations, that existence reveals itself to man as the root of his being.

Existentialism defines existence by its finiteness; the latter is interpreted as temporality, whose reference point is represented by death. In contrast to physical time, which is pure quantity, or an endless series of passing moments, existential time is qualitative, finite, and nonrepeatable; for Heidegger and Jaspers, it represents fate. Existential time is inseparable from that which constitutes the essence of existence, including birth, love, repentance, and death. What the existentialists emphasize in the phenomenon of time is the decisive significance of the future; viewing the future in conjunction with such existential concepts as “resolution,” “project,” and “hope,” they stress the personal-historical (rather than the impersonal-cosmic) nature of time and affirm its connection to human activity and to men’s strivings, efforts, and expectations.

In existentialism, the historicity of human existence is reflected in its always being in a given situation—a situation into which it is “thrown” and with which it is forced to reckon. The individual’s membership in a particular nation or caste and his being endowed with such specific qualities as biological and psychological traits—all these circumstances are empirical manifestations of the fundamentally situational nature of existence, or of its “being-in-the-world.” The temporality, historicity, and situational nature of existence are modes of its finiteness.

Another important existential concept is transcendence, or “being beyond.” The different types of philosophical reasoning that distinguish the various exponents of existentialism depend on the particular interpretation of the transcendent and of the very act of transcending. Jaspers, Marcel, and the late Heidegger acknowledge the reality of the transcendent; the predominant element in their philosophy is the symbolic, or even (in Heidegger) the mythic-poetic—in that the transcendent is unknowable and can only be “alluded to.” This may be contrasted to the critical doctrine of Sartre and Camus, who set themselves the goal of demonstrating the illusory nature of transcendence.

Existentialism rejects both the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, which reduces freedom to the recognition of necessity, and the humanist-naturalist tradition, for which freedom consists in discovering man’s natural inclinations and liberating his “essential” forces. For the existentialist, freedom is existence itself, and existence is freedom. Inasmuch as the structure of existence is expressed in “movement-toward” (that is, movement toward something that is not one’s own existence), or transcendence, the existentialist’s definition of freedom depends on his interpretation of transcendence. For Marcel and Jaspers, this means that freedom can be found in god alone. For Sartre, on the other hand, inasmuch as to be free means to be oneself, “man is doomed to be free.” In existentialism, freedom represents a heavy burden; man, insofar as he is an individual being, must bear that burden. He can renounce his freedom, can cease being himself, and can become “like all,” but only at the cost of repudiating himself as a person.

For Heidegger, the world in which man is immersed is called “they” (in German, man); it is an impersonal world where everything is anonymous, where there are no subjects of actions but only objects of actions, and where everyone, including man in relation to himself, is “other”; it is a world in which no one decides anything and therefore no one is responsible for anything. For Berdiaev, this world is called “the world of objedification,” and its attributes are “(1) the alienation of the object from the subject; (2) the absorption of the uniquely individual and personal by the general, impersonal, and universal; (3) the dominant role of necessity and of determinability from without, entailing the suppression and shutting out of freedom; and (4) the adjustment to the massive scale of the world and history, accommodation to the average man, and socialization of man and of man’s opinions, resulting in the destruction of originality” (Opyt eskhatologicheskoi metafisiki, Paris, 1949, p. 63).

Contacts between individuals in this objectified world are not genuine; they merely underscore each person’s isolation. According to Camus, we are confronted with nothingness, which makes human life senseless and absurd; the gap between individuals cannot be bridged, and genuine intercourse between them is impossible. Both Sartre and Camus see falsity and hypocrisy in all forms of personal intercourse—such as love and friendship— sanctified by traditional religion and morality. Sartre’s characteristic passion for exposing distorted and transmuted forms of consciousness, or “bad faith,” turns in essence into the demand for acceptance of the reality of consciousness as detached from others and from itself. Camus acknowledges only one mode of genuine intercourse—namely, the unity of individuals in revolt against the “absurd” world and against the finiteness, mortality, imperfection, and senselessness of human existence. Ecstasy may unite one individual with another, but in essence this is the ecstasy of destruction, or rebellion, engendered in “absurd” man by despair.

Marcel proposes a different solution to the problem of human intercourse. In his view, the disconnectedness of individuals is due to the fact that the being of objects is taken to be the only possible being. But genuine being, or transcendence, is not the being of objects; rather, it is personal being, and consequently the authentic relationship to being is dialogue. Being, according to Marcel, is not “it” but “thou”; therefore the prototype of man’s relation to being is his relation to another person, as witnessed by god. Transcendence is the act by means of which man goes beyond the limits of his locked-in egoistic self. Love is transcendence—breaking through to the other, be the other human or divine; insofar as this breakthrough cannot be understood by means of reason, Marcel assigns it to the sphere of “mystery.”

Genuine human intercourse is not the only way of breaking through the objectified world, or the world of the “they”; according to the existentialists, such breakthroughs also take place in the sphere of artistic and philosophical creativity. Both genuine communication and creativity, however, carry within themselves a tragic flaw: the world of objectivity constantly threatens to destroy existential communication. For this reason, according to Jaspers, everything in the world is ultimately subject to destruction by virtue of the very finiteness of existence, and man must therefore learn to live and love with the constant awareness that everything he loves is fragile and finite, not excluding love itself. But the deeply hidden pain resulting from such awareness imparts a particular purity and spirituality to man’s affections. Berdiaev’s eschatological doctrine is based on this awareness of the fragility of any form of authentic existence.

The predominant mood in existentialism is one of dissatisfaction and searching; the existentialist seeks to negate and go beyond what has been attained. The tragic and generally pessimistic slant of this philosophy testifies to the state of crisis of contemporary bourgeois society and the extreme forms of alienation prevailing therein; existentialism may therefore be called the philosophy of crisis.

The various exponents of existentialism differ in their sociopolitical positions. Thus, Sartre and Camus were members of the resistance movement; beginning in the late 1960’s, Sartre’s position was marked by extreme left radicalism and extremism. Camus’s and Sartre’s ideas were particularly influential in shaping the sociopolitical program of the new left movement. Jaspers and Marcel were liberals in their political orientation, while the sociopolitical views of Heidegger—in his time a Nazi collaborator—are markedly conservative in nature.

Existentialism reflected the spiritual state of bourgeois society and laid bare its ills and contradictions; it was unable, however, to propose a way out of the situation.

The ideas and themes of existentialism have been treated in Western European, American, and Japanese contemporary literature; their influence can be traced not only in the literary works of the existentialist philosophers themselves—Sartre, Camus, Marcel, and de Beauvoir—but also in the work of such writers as A. Malraux, J. Anouilh, E. Hemingway, N. Mailer, J. Baldwin, I. Murdoch, W. Golding, and Abe Kobo.


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a modern philosophical movement stressing the importance of personal experience and responsibility and the demands that they make on the individual, who is seen as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe