Existentialism 101 What Existentialism Does Claim

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What Existentialism Does Claim:

  • Mankind has free will

  • Life is a series of choices, which creates stress

  • Few decisions are without any negative consequences

  • Some things are irrational and absurd, without explanation

  • If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through

Definition (Sort of): Existentialism broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us—and made without an objective form of truth. There are no “universal” guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe.
The existentialists conclude that human choice is subjective, because individuals finally must make their own choices without help from such external standards as laws, ethical rules, or traditions. Because individuals make their own choices, they are free; but because they freely choose, they are completely responsible for their choices. The existentialists emphasize that freedom is necessarily accompanied by responsibility. Furthermore, since individuals are forced to choose for themselves, they have their freedom—and therefore their responsibility—thrust upon them. They are “condemned to be free.”
For existentialism, responsibility is the dark side of freedom. When individuals realize that they are completely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, they are overcome by anxiety. They try to escape from this anxiety by ignoring or denying their freedom and their responsibility. But because this amounts to ignoring or denying their actual situation, they succeed only in deceiving themselves. The existentialists criticize this flight from freedom and responsibility into self-deception. They insist that individuals must accept full responsibility for their behavior, no matter how difficult. If an individual is to live meaningfully and authentically, he or she must become fully aware of the true character of the human situation and bravely accept it.
Ivan Soll, PhD, Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison

from World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia

Basic Existentialism

  1. Think, Express, and Act

Existentialism is an active philosophy, based on the quest for individual authenticity. As in most religions, perfect authenticity is not attainable, but it is the goal of existentialist. It is the pursuit of authenticity that matters most.

  1. Personal Responsibility

Taking action requires accepting the consequences of that act. An individual’s decisions belong exclusively to that being—no matter the external circumstances. It is not ethical to avoid consequences. Existentialists accept risks, knowing some actions can result in personal suffering.

  1. Importance, Scope

If it were possible to live alone on an island with no contact with other beings, your decisions would have less value, according to some existentialists. Such a situation would be known as “minimal scope”—the scope of any decision is limited to one being.

  1. Good (Freedom) of the Many

Freedom, the right to exercise free will, is a universal truth in existential philosophy and existentialists actively promote the freedom of individuals. The problem confronting existentialists is the realization that most decisions have a negative effect on someone. Although that negative effect runs counter to the goals of existentialists, it is inescapable.

  1. Few Restrictions

Social structures, by nature, limit personal freedoms. Existentialists prefer situations that allow the greatest amount of personal choice, but they recognize some compromises are necessary. In terms of ethical standards, this is reflected by existentialists fighting laws and moral edicts they view as restrictive—they want as much freedom as possible without leading to the downfall of society.

  1. Ultimate Free Will

According to existentialism, the ultimate choice is death. Usually death is an absurd choice, but sometimes it might be the only ethical choice. An existentialist would be willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice” if doing so would protect the existence and freedom of many others.
Major Themes
Moral Individualism

Against the traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right, one must choose one’s own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the first writer to call himself existential, said, “I must find a truth that is true for me…the idea for which I can live or die.” The individual must determine what is right and wrong in a world of moral chaos, where the concept of purpose has become obscure.


Existentialists stress the importance of personal perspective, passionate individual action, and acting on one’s own convictions in order to arrive at truth. They are suspicious of systematic reasoning. They hold that rational clarity is desirable whenever possible, but the most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science. We cannot appeal to systems of law or convention or tradition to furnish guidance for making life choices; every choice must be a personal one.

Choice and Commitment

Humanity’s primary distinction is the freedom to choose. Existentialists hold that human beings do not have a fixed nature, as other animals do, but create his or her own nature through making choices. Choice is inescapable. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment.

Dread and Anxiety (Angst in German)

Being human is to be thrown into a world with no clear logical, ontological, or moral structure. Without those structures to give us meaning, all that is left us is the freedom to choose, but the responsibility for making those choices creates feelings of dread and anxiety. Kierkegaard said dread is God’s way of calling each individual to making a commitment to a personally valid way of life. Martin Heidegger said anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with nothingness (death being the ultimate nothingness), and with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for the choices he or she must make. Sartre uses the word nausea for the individual’s recognition that the universe is indifferent and the word anguish for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts us at every moment.

Meaning and Absurdity

We are forced to ask ultimate questions by the very nature of our lives and our yearnings for orientation and purpose, yet decisive answers prove unachievable. Meaning must therefore be constructed through courageous choice in the face of this absurd situation. This kind of choice cannot be understood as achieving moral certainty; rather it is moral heroism within an essentially morally vague and chaotic world.


We need to face up to our situation rather than making things worse with self-deceptive approaches to religion, metaphysics, morality, or science. We need to make decisions courageously; the key is to accept our own limitations and realize we cannot achieve certainty when making decisions. We need to be honest with ourselves and each other and not settle for less than the actual anxiety due us!

Major Proponants
Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Regarded as the founder of modern existentialism, Kierkegaard reacted against the systematic absolute idealism of the 19th century. He stressed the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation. The only meaningful response to that absurdity is to live a totally committed life, which can be understood ONLY by the individual who makes it. He ultimately advocated the Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible and full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual from despair

Nietzsche (1844-

In contrast, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and rejected the entire Judeo-Christian moral tradition in favor of a heroic pagan ideal. He espoused a tragic pessimism and the life-affirming individual will that opposes conforming to the morality of the majority.

Heidegger (1889-1976)

Heidegger argued that humanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. 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.

Sartre (1905-1980)

Sartre’s philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one.

Existentialism and Literature
Fyodor Dostoyevski (especially Notes from the Underground): Human nature is unpredictable and perversely self-destructive; only Christian love can save humanity from itself, but such love cannot be understood philosophically. As the character Alyosha says in The Brothers Karamazov, “We must love life more than the meaning of it.”
Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle): Kafka presents isolated men confronting vast, elusive, menacing bureaucracies. His themes of anxiety, guilt, alienation, and solitude reflect the influence of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche.
Albert Camus (The Stranger): Camus is usually associated with existentialism because of themes such as the apparent absurdity and futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity of engagement in a just cause.
Theater of the Absurd
The playwrights loosely grouped under the label of Theater of the Absurd try to convey their sense of bewilderment, anxiety, and wonder in the face of an inexplicable universe. They rely heavily on poetic metaphor as means of projecting outward their innermost states of mind. Hence, the images of the theater of the absurd tend to assume the quality of fantasy, dream, and nightmare; they do not so much portray the outward appearance of reality as the playwright’s emotional perception of an inner reality. (Martin Esslin, Theater of the Absurd, 1968)
Characteristics of the Theatre of the Absurd

  • The extravagant humor masks the horror of meaninglessness

  • Absolute opposition (i.e. nihilism) ultimately leads to devastation and lack of will

  • Anti-heroes take the place of the traditional “great fallen man” of Aristotle’s Poetics

  • Portrays a pattern of images presenting people as bewildered beings in an incomprehensible universe.

Common Elements of Structure in TOTA

  • Sense of repetition

  • Circular structure

  • Lack of apparent progression

  • Static quality

  • Lack of cause and effect

Common Subjects of Theme in TOTA

  • The sterility and lack of values in the modern world

  • The absurdity of man’s position in the universe through a series of ridiculous situations that render man’s position more absurd

  • Breakdown of communication

  • Destruction of individualism

  • A world where no action is meaningful

  • Man is reminded of his position in an absurd world

  • Civilized people acting in uncivilized and barbaric ways

Examples of TOTA

  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

  • No Exit by Jean Paul Satre

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

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