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Cartoon of Jean Paul Sartre Existentialism is a term applied to the work of a number of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, generally held that the focus of philosophical thought should be to deal with the conditions of existence of the individual person and his or her emotions, actions, responsibilities and thoughts. The early 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, posthumously regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his own life meaning and living that life passionately and sincerely in spite of many obstacles including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation and boredom.

Subsequent existential philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God.

Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophy, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.

Ironically, none of the great existentialist writings contains the word 'existentialism'. Accounts of the origin of the term differ but it seems to have been coined towards the end of World War II by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel as a label for the then emerging ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and his close friend Simone de Beauvoir. According to de Beauvoir, neither of them initially embraced the term.

Existentialism is more of a philosophical approach or attitude than a school of thought. It rejects the idea that the universe offers us any clues about how humanity should live. A simplified statement of this idea can be found in Jean-Paul Sartreís often-repeated dictum “Existence precedes essence”. What this means is that the identity of any one person – their essence – cannot be found by examining what people are like in general, but only in what that particular person has done. Because no one can claim that his or her actions are “caused” by anyone else, existentialist literature focuses on freedom and responsibility.

Existentialism attained the height of its popularity in France during World War II. While the German army occupied the country, the cluster of philosophers and writers who gathered together to discuss and argue their ideas at the cafes of Paris captured the attention of intellectuals around the world. The oppressive political climate under the Nazis and the need for underground resistance to the invading political force provided the ideal background for Existentialism's focus on individual action and responsibility.

Although the French war-era writers are most frequently associated with Existentialism, its roots began much earlier. Existentialism can be seen as humanity's response to the frightening loneliness that prompted Friedrich Nietzsche to pronounce in the 1880s that “God is dead”. Civilizationís loss of faith in religious and social order created an understanding of personal responsibility. This led to literary works that reflect the existentialistís loneliness, isolation, and fear of an uncaring universe. Fyodor Dostoevskyís novels, written in the 1860s and 1870s display existential themes as do twentieth-century works by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and Nathaniel West.

Prominent existentialist philosophers include Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Not all Existentialists have been atheists. Kierkegaard, notably, was Christian, although by no means an orthodox one. Christian existentialists include American theologian Lincoln Swain, German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Bath; British Anglican theologian John Macquarrie; European philosophers, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Miguel de Unamuno and Pierre Boutang; and Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev.

In addition to influencing literature, Existentialist philosophy has affected psychotherapy, in particular the 'Logotherapy' of Viktor Frankl.

Some reading on the topic

On-line video and audio

Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism

In 1946 Sartre wrote a short book entitled L'existentialisme est un humanisme which is seen by many as one of the defining texts of the Existentialist movement. This short introduction is by Nigel Walburton. (Duration: 14 minutes).

Mary Warnock on Sartre

A short interview with Mary Warnock on J P Sartre. (Duration: 11 minutes).

What is Existentialism?

An audio lecture by Professor Robert Solomon. (Duration: 25 minutes).

The lecture is on You-tube and is in four parts. For some reason people who post to You-Tube split all their videos into little bits less than 10 minutes each. However, if you can overcome the irritation this is a good introduction to Existentialism.


An excellent TV programme on J P Sartre published in seven parts on You-Tube. (Duration: 50 minutes)

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