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Existentialism refers to the philosophical movement or tendency of the

nineteenth and twentyth centuries. Because of the diversity of positions associated

with existentialism, a precise definition is impossible; however, it suggests one major

theme: a stress on individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individual

freedom, and choice {3}. Existentialism also refers to a family of philosophies

devoted to an interpretation of human existence in the world that stresses its

concreteness and its problematic character. Existentialism is often seen as an

irrationlist revolt against tradiational phylosphy. Although this may be true to a

certain point, existentialism has played a key role in the way people look at the world.

Existentialism, for several reasons, rejects epistemology and the attempt to

ground human knowledge. First of all,existenalist believe, human beings are not

solely or even primarily knowers. They also care, desire, manipulate, and, above all,

choose and act. Secondly, the self or ego, required by some if not all epistemological

doctrines, is not a basic feature of the prereflective experience. It emerges from one’s

experience of other people. The cognizing ego presupposes rather than infers or

constitutes the existence of external objects. In other words, you are not born with an

ego, or thought of ones self, but it is created through experiences with other people.

Finally, man is not a detached observer of the world, but in the world. He exists in a

special sense in which objects suck as stones and trees do not; he is open to the world

and to objects in it. There is no distinct realm of consciousness, on the basis of which

a person might infer, reason why project, or doubt the existence of external objects


Most philosophers since ancient Greek thinker Plato have held that the highest

ethical good is universal. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard

{4, 333} reacted against this tradition, insisting that the individual’s highest good is to

find his or her own unique vocation. In terms of moral choice, existentialists have

argued that there is no objective, rational basis for decisions; they stress the

importance of individualism in deciding questions of morality and truth. Most

existentialists have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible but that

life’s most important questions are not accessible to reason or science.

The first to anticipate existentialism’s major concerns was seventeenth-century

French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who denounced a systematic philosophy that

presumes to explain God and humanity. He saw life in terms of paradoxes: The

human self, combining mind and body, is itself a contradiction. Later, Kierkegaard

rejected a total rational understanding of humanity and history, stressing the

ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche espoused tragic

pessimism and life-affirming individual will. Heidegger argued that human beings can

never hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual must choose a

goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty of death and the

ultimate meaninglessness of one’s life. Twentieth-century French philosopher Jean

Paul Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own

philosophy. Explicitly atheistic and pessimistic, his philosophy declared that human

life requires a rational basis but the attempt is a “futile passion” {2, 99-106}.

Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing freedom

and responsibility.

Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates his own nature, is a

primary theme. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, they must accept

the risk and responsibility of their actions. Kierkegaard held that a feeling of general

apprehension, which he called dread, is God’s way of calling each individual to commit to

a personally valid way of life{1}. The twentyth-century German philosopher Martin

Heidegger {3} felt that anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with the

impossibility of finding ultimate justification for his or her choices. There are many other

themes in existentialism, here are just a few. First, there is the basic existentialist

standpoint, that existence precedes essence, has primacy over essence. “Man is a

conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as a

conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, or

system. Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence.”

{4,21-22}. A second existentialist theme is that anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a

generalized uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed to any specific object.

Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of human existence. This theme is as old as

Kierkegaard {5} within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying,

all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain

streams of thought in Judaism and Christianity which see human existence as fallen, and

human life as lived in suffering and sin, guilt and anxiety. This dark picture of human life

leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of

well-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and

foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence. A third

existentialist theme is that of absurdity. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and

wholly absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place—but why now?

Why here {5}? All existentialist have pondered these very questions. Blaise Pascal, a

French mathematician and philosopher of Descartes time, once said, “When I consider

the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and the little

space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am

ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here

rather than there, why now rather than then {6}.”

In the 20th century, the novels of the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Kafka,

such as The Trial and The Castle, present isolated men confronting vast, elusive,

menacing bureaucracies{1}. Kafka’s themes of anxiety, guilt, and solitude reflect the

influence of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche. The influence of Nietzsche is

also discernible in the novels of the French writers Andr? Malraux and in the plays of

Sartre. The work of the French writer Albert Camus is usually associated with

existentialism because of the prominence in it of such themes as the apparent

absurdity and futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity of

engagement in a just cause{1}. Existentialist themes are also reflected in the theater

of the absurd {1}, notably in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eug?ne Ionesco. In the

United States, the thought can be found in the novels of Walker Percy and John

Updike, and vainfluence of existentialism on literature has been more indirect and

diffuse, but traces of Kierkegaard’s existentialist themes are apparent in the work of

such diverse writers as Mailer Norman , John Barth, and Arthur Miller{3}.

Ever since the introduction of existentialism it has played a very important role

in the way people think. It may seem depressing and almost pointless at times, but that is

what makes it so inturging. Existentalism can been seen in books, plays, and movies

alike. Some of the greatest minds in history were existentialist.

1) Existentialism. 3 May 2000. 2 April 2001

2) Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Satre. Cleveland: The

World Publishing Company, 1956.

3) Kolumbus. 21 Jan. 1999. Kolumbus. 2 April 2001

4) Lavine, T.Z. From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. New York: Bantam

Books, 1984.

5) Neo-Tech. 15 June 2000. Neo-Tech. 2 April 2001

6) University of Florida. 9 March 2001. University of Florida. 2 April 2001

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