The dictionary defines Existentialism as "a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will."
Does that sound vague and open-ended? Well, in true philosophical form, that's because it is.
Our hope is that by the end of this page, you will have an understanding of existentialism that is both wide and narrow, equal parts open and precise. We will pinpoint what existentialism is, in its usage and history, and we will discuss what it is not. Perhaps by the end you will consider yourself an existentialist. Certainly by the end you will understand what existentialism means.
Existentialists share the attitude of a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. (1)
The highest virtue of the existentialist is authenticity, with this absurd state of existence taken as granted in one's thoughts and actions. Many existentialists also regard traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience. (2)
Historically speaking, Existentialism refers broadly to the work of some philosophers between the mid 1800's and 1900's who share a common belief of thinking that all life, thought, experience, and most importantly action, begins with the individual.
Though he never used the term himself, Kierkegaard
is generally considered as the first existentialist philosopher. He denounced the established church and rejected the then-popular German idealism as too derived from thought and ideas...constructs, as opposed to something perceived by the senses. To Kierkegaard, an individual's most basic experiential sensations were closer to truth, and social ideals were more like deviations from the real.
In true resonance with this website's core assumption, Kierkegaard asserted that each individual, not society or religion, is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it authentically. (3)
Then, in the late 1800's, came Friedrich Nietzsche, who idealized the individual who invents their own values and creates the very terms they excel under. Nietzsche was particularly critical of religion, especially his culturally relevant Christianity, and claimed that the "Death of God" (the death of the concept of God) would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective or objective truth. (4)
Nietzsche was a strong proponent of perspectivism
, an idea that rejects an objective reality in lieu of "reality" being amorphous, subject to the individual's perspective and interests. Because of this, he believed rules (outspoken and implied, religious and scientific, even philosophical) are in constant need of reassessment. Nietzsche believed that no human value-system was greater than any other. Rather, he believe the value was in the willing itself
of those systems. The values of a person or community are not as important as the individual collective will to see those values come to pass.
Nietzsche is largely considered the figurehead of Nihilism.
Nihilism (sometimes used vaguely) or "Existential Nihilism" (more concrete in its meaning), asserts that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Unlike Existentialism, where one can potentially create their own subjective "meaning" or "purpose" through their free will, Existential Nihilism posits that even though we are compelled to invent meaning we are barred from knowing "why". We as individuals are born into the universe isolated, and all notions of "meaning" and "purpose" are futile.
This may sound Pessimistic
, and that's because it is. While Nietzsche spoke often of Nihilism, he might not have considered himself as an actual Nihilist, as he found pessimism to be not an ends but a solace, and a means to "good health" as a "remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life". (5)
I think Nietzsche could most reliably be considered an Absurdist
, living defiantly and authentically in spite
of the paradox of the Absurd.
Viewed in loosest terms, Existentialism is a removal of the thought that truth and meaning are inherent in the world. So many people throughout history were raised under strict religious dogmas, or heavily involved church occupation in their personal lives. We see this less so now, and so many people consider existentialism to be a characteristic philosophical move of society into the modern age. Most Atheists and Agnostics would consider themselves to be a form of existentialist. However, an existentialist is not necessarily an Atheist or Agnostic (take some SBNR
Many see existentialism's role in society as freeing. While happiness and satisfaction may be another point for debate, this seems accurate. Existentialism places a lot of emphasis on the freedom of the individual. The goal in existentialism of living "authentically" comes down to how one responds in their attitude and actions to the freedom from constructs and norms, myths around value and meaning. Rather that search relentlessly for meaning or choose by faith a doctrine of meaning, one could say existentialism is a tool for opening the human mind to instead create meaning for itself.