Existentialists believe that man’s own individual experience or “existing” comes before anything such as a general purpose, goodness or “truth,” or any other Absolute that may be felt to exist.  Man creates himself through his own thoughts and actions, since the only reality for an individual is that of his own personal existence and nothing else.  This responsibility of creating something out of “nothingness” often brings with it a mood of “angst,” anguish or dread.

The following statements espouse Existentialism ─ a term applied to a group of attitudes current in philosophical, religious and artistic thought during and after World War II which emphasises existence rather than essence, and recognises the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as a basic philosophical question. Though the term is so broadly and loosely used that an exact definition is not possible, existentialists assume as a significant fact that people and things in general exist, but that things have no meaning for us except as individuals, through acting upon them, can create meaning.

“Existence precedes essence.”  ─ Jean-Paul Sartrejean-paul-sartre-picture

“Man is condemned to be free.” ─ Jean-Paul Sartre

“In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger.  His is an irremediable exile … This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his stage, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity.”

─ Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

“Cut off from his religious, metaphysical and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.”

─ Ionesco

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

─ Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot


6 general characteristics of Existentialism:

1. EXISTENCE BEFORE ESSENCE:  Existentialism gets its name from an insistence that life is only understandable in terms of an individual’s existence, his particular life experience.  It says a person lives (has existence) rather than is (has being or essence), that every person’s experience of life is different from another’s, and that individuals’ lives can be understood only in terms of their commitment to living responsibly.  The question existentialists ask is, “Who am I?” with its suggestion of the uniqueness and mystery of each life and an emphasis upon the personal rather than the impersonal.  To the existentialist, man is the centre of the universe, the centre of infinity, and from this view comes much of the rest of existentialism.  Among the leading atheistic existentialist philosophers are Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus.

2. REASON IS UNABLE TO DEAL WITH THE DEPTHS OF LIFE:  There are two parts to this idea: first, that reason is relatively weak and imperfect, (people often do not do the “right” thing), and second, that there are dark places in life which are “non-reason,” to which reason scarcely penetrates, (meaning we often commit acts which seem to defy reason, to make no sense).  Existentialism unites reason with the irrational portions of the psyche, insisting that people must be taken in their wholeness and not in some divided state; that the whole of a person contains not only intellect, but also anxiety, guilt and the will to power, which can change and sometimes overwhelm reason.  If humanity is seen in this light, we are very ambiguous and full of contradictions and tensions.  The emphasis of the existentialist is not on idea, but upon the thinker who has the idea.  Existentialism accepts not only people’s power of thought, but their fallibility, frailty, body, etc. and above all, their death.  People are felt to find their true selves not in the detachment of thought but in the involvement and agony of choice and in the pathos of commitment to choice.

3. ALIENATION:  Existentialism holds that, since the Renaissance, people have slowly been separated from concrete earthly existence.  Individuals have been forced to live at ever higher levels of abstraction, have been collectivised out of existence, and have driven God from the heavens, (or, what is the same thing to the existentialist), from the hearts of men.  It is believed that individuals live in a fourfold condition of alienation: from God, from nature, from other people, and from our own “true” selves.  People have become hollow, powerless, faceless.  At a time in our history when mankind’s command over the forces of nature seems to be unlimited, existentialism depicts human beings as weakened, ridden with nameless dread.

4. FEAR AND TREMBLING and ANXIETY:  The optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries gives way, after WW I, to the Great Depression, WW II and the Holocaust, to a feeling of pessimism, fear and anxiety.  Another kind of anxiety facing individuals in the 20thC when the philosophy of existentialism develops is “the anguish of Abraham,” the necessity which is laid upon people to make “moral” choices on their own sense of responsibility.  The existentialists claim that each of us must make moral decisions in our own lives which involve the same anguish that faced Abraham.  In this parable, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham thus becomes the paradigm of one who must make a harrowing choice, in this case between his love for his son and his love for God, between the universal law which states, “thou shalt not kill,” and the unique inner demand for his religious faith.  Abraham’s decision, which violates the abstract and collective law of man, is not made in arrogance, but in “fear and trembling,” one of the inferences being that sometimes, one must take an exception to the general law because he is (existentially) an exception; an individual whose existence can never be completely controlled by any universal law.

5. THE ENCOUNTER WITH NOTHINGNESS:  According to the existentialists, for individuals alienated from God, from nature, from other people and even from themselves, what is left at last but Nothingness?  This is, simply stated, how existentialists see humanity: on the brink of a catastrophic precipice, below which yawns the absolute void, black Nothingness, asking ourselves, “Does existence ultimately have any purpose?”

6. FREEDOM:  Sooner or later, as a theme that includes all the others mentioned above, existentialist writings bear upon freedom.  All of these ideas either describe some loss of individuals’ freedom or some threat to it, and all existentialists of whatever sort are considered to enlarge the range of human freedom.

From the characteristics of existentialism that have been outlined above, one might be led to believe that this is a philosophy predicated upon an acute sense of hopelessness.  The cause may well be one of despair for people, but the effect ─ as can readily be seen in the existential literature of Albert Camus ─ asserts the possibility for improvement, if not hope.

Most pessimistic belief systems find the source of their despair in the fixed imperfection of human nature or of the human context; however, the existentialist, denies all absolute principles and holds that human nature is fixed only in that we have agreed to recognise certain attributes.  It is therefore subject to change by a single individual if he acts bravely in contradiction to the accepted principles. **Therefore, for the existentialist, the possibilities of altering human nature and society are unlimited, but at the same time, individuals can hope for help in making such alterations only from within themselves.**

Terms frequently used in discussions of Existentialism:

The Absurd:  The absurd can occur only when two elements are present:  our desire to explain “reality,” and the recognition that the world is not thus explicable, but that it exists without apparent justification, foundation or purpose.

Nausea:  Nausea is the feeling of repulsion that overtakes us when we become aware of the absurdity of existence, the “meaninglessness” of life.

Anguish:  Anguish is the normal condition of those who become aware of their total liberty, and of the fact that there are no universal values to justify the choices they have made.

Authentic:  Individuals who have grasped and accepted the fact that they are free, who have realised what their situation is, and who have, within that situation, chosen to engage themselves responsibly in the world around them so as to affirm their liberty.

Choice:  Individuals are condemned, because they are free, to choose what they are going to be through their daily actions.  The choice also implies the attitude of others and hence is another source of anguish.

Bad Faith:  Bad faith, or self-deception, is the attitude of those who seek to escape from the anguish and the nausea that inevitably follow the realisation that individuals are free and the world is ultimately absurd.

Freedom:  To be free is to recognise one’s complete independence;  to make one’s own life through one’s own initiative;  to reject any idea of absolute good or absolute evil and to accept no judge or mentor except one’s own conscience.

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Oni Michael

i found this article helpful in my understanding of existentialist philosophy,most importantly as a researcher on Sartre at the University of Lagos