Source: Encarta Concise Encyclopedia

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Source: Encarta Concise Encyclopedia

Existentialism, philosophical movement or tendency of the 19th and 20th 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.

Most philosophers since ancient Greek thinker have held that the highest ethical good is universal. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher 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.

Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates his or her own nature, is a primary theme. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, 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. Relatedly, 20th-century German philosopher felt that anxiety leads to the individual's confrontation with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for his or her choices.

The first to anticipate existentialism's major concerns was 17th-century French philosopher , 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 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 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." Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing freedom and responsibility.

Although it encompasses atheism and agnosticism, existentialist thought has had a profound influence on 20th-century theology, addressing such issues as transcendence and the limits of human experience, as well as a personal sense of authenticity and commitment. Existentialism has been a vital movement in literature, particularly in the works of Russian novelist , Austrian writer , and French writer . It is also prominent in the theater of the absurd, notably in the plays of Irish-born writer and Romanian-born French writer .

--Encarta Concise Encyclopedia


Plato, one of the most famous philosophers of ancient Greece, was the first to use the term philosophy, which means "love of knowledge." Born around 428 bc, Plato investigated a wide range of topics. Chief among his ideas was the theory of forms, which proposed that objects in the physical world merely resemble perfect forms in the ideal world, and that only these perfect forms can be the object of true knowledge. The goal of the philosopher, according to Plato, is to know the perfect forms and to instruct others in that knowledge.


Plato (428?-347? BC), Greek philosopher, one of the most creative and influential thinkers in Western philosophy. Born in Athens, he became a student of Socrates, accepting his basic philosophy and style of debate. In 387 BC Plato founded the Academy of Athens, often described as the first European university. Aristotle was the university's most prominent student.

Plato's psychology, ethical theory, and concept of the state are all understood in terms of his theory of Forms. The theory proposes that objects in the physical world merely resemble perfect Forms in the ideal world, and that these perfect Forms are the object of true knowledge. Everything in the world of space and time is what it is by virtue of its resemblance to its universal Form. The supreme Form is the Form of the Good, which illuminates all other Forms. Knowledge of this Form is the source of guidance in moral decision making.

Plato's political theory is captured most clearly in the Republic, a detailed discussion on the nature of justice. The ideal state, according to Plato, is composed of three classes. The economic structure of the state is maintained by the merchant class, security is guaranteed by the military class, and political leadership is provided by the philosopher-kings. The just state is one in which each class performs its own function well without infringing on the activities of the other classes.

The theory extends to an individual level, resting on Plato's division of the human soul into three parts: the rational part, the will, and the appetites. The just person is one in whom the rational element, supported by the will, controls the appetite. The division is analogous to his threefold class structure of the state, in which the enlightened philosopher-kings, supported by the soldiers, govern the rest of society.

Plato distinguished between two levels of awareness: opinion and knowledge. Claims or assertions about the physical world, including scientific propositions, are opinions only. He soundly rejected empiricism, which claims that knowledge is derived from sense experience. According to Plato, the higher level of awareness is knowledge because it involves reason rather than sense experience. Reason, properly used, results in intellectual insights that are certain. Plato also argued that to know the good is to do the good. The corollary of this is that anyone who behaves immorally does so out of ignorance.

Plato's writings were in dialogue form; philosophical ideas were discussed and criticized in the context of conversations or debates. The dialogues may be divided into early, middle, and later periods of composition. The earliest represent Plato's communication of Socrates' style and philosophy. The middle and later periods reflect Plato's own philosophical development. His writings (in addition to the Republic) include the Apology, Socrates' defense of himself at his trial against the charges of atheism and corrupting Athenian youth; Phaedo, the death scene of Socrates, in which he discusses the theory of Forms, the nature of the soul, and the question of immortality; and the Symposium, Plato's outstanding dramatic achievement, which contains several speeches on beauty and love.

Plato's influence throughout the history of philosophy has been monumental. The Academy continued in existence until AD 529, when it was closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who objected to its pagan teachings. Plato's impact on Jewish thought is apparent in the work of 1st-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. Neoplatonism, founded by 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus, was an important later development of Platonism. Theologians Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Saint Augustine were early Christian exponents of a Platonic perspective. Platonic ideas have also had a crucial role in the development of medieval Islamic thought (See Islam).

Søren Kierkegaard

Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard played a major role in the development of existentialist thought. Kierkegaard criticized the popular systematic method of rational philosophy advocated by German G. W. F. Hegel. He emphasized the absurdity inherent in human life and questioned how any systematic philosophy could apply to the ambiguous human condition. In Kierkegaard's deliberately unsystematic works, he explained that each individual should attempt an intense examination of his or her own existence.

--Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813-1855), Danish religious philosopher, who profoundly influenced modern theology and philosophy, especially existentialism.

Born in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard studied theology and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, where he led an extravagant social life. In 1840 he became engaged, but broke off the engagement a year later. The episode took on great significance for him, and he repeatedly alluded to it in his books. An inheritance from his father allowed him to devote himself entirely to writing, and he produced more than 20 books.

Kierkegaard's work is deliberately unsystematic and consists of essays, aphorisms, parables, fictional letters, and diaries. He applied the term existential to his philosophy because he regarded philosophy as the expression of an intensely examined individual life. Kierkegaard stressed the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of the human situation. The fundamental problems of life, he contended, defy rational, objective explanation; the highest truth is subjective.

Kierkegaard believed systematic philosophy imposes a false perspective on human existence and becomes a means of avoiding choice and responsibility. Individuals, he believed, create their own natures through their choices. The validity of a choice can only be determined subjectively.

In his first major work, Either/Or (1843), Kierkegaard described two spheres, or stages of existence: the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic sphere is a refined hedonism, consisting of a search for pleasure. The ethical sphere involves an intense commitment to duty, to unconditional social and religious obligations. In his later works, such as Stages on Life's Way (1845), Kierkegaard proposed a third stage, the religious, in which one submits to the will of God and finds authentic freedom. In Fear and Trembling (1846) Kierkegaard proposed that individuals make a "leap of faith" into a religious life, which is inherently paradoxical, mysterious, and full of risk.

Toward the end of his life Kierkegaard was highly critical of the Danish Lutheran church and modern European society. The stress of his prolific writing and the controversies surrounding his works undermined his health; he died in Copenhagen in 1855.

Heidegger, Martin

The modern philosophy movements of phenomenology and existentialism have been greatly influenced by the thought of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. According to Heidegger, mankind has fallen into a crisis by taking a narrow, technological approach to the world and by ignoring the larger question of existence. People, if they wish to live authentically, must broaden their perspectives. Instead of taking their existence for granted, people should view themselves as part of Being (Heidegger's term for that which underlies all existence).


Heidegger, Martin (1889-1976), German philosopher, who developed existential phenomenology. He is widely regarded as the most original and influential 20th-century philosopher.

Heidegger was born in Messkirch, Baden, and studied at the University of Freiburg, where he was an assistant to Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. In developing his theories, Heidegger applied original meanings and etymologies to individual words and expressions, coining hundreds of new, complex words. His most influential work, Being and Time (1927), dealt with the philosophical question, "What is it, to be?" He posited a fundamental relation between the mode of being of objects, of humanity, and of the structure of time. In his view, the individual is always in danger of being submerged in the world of objects, everyday routine, and the conventional crowd. He felt that modern technological society has deprived human life of meaning, a condition he called nihilism.

Heidegger's ideas led many to associate him with existentialism, although he eventually repudiated existentialist interpretations of his work. His work nevertheless had a crucial influence on French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre and on French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

-- Encarta Concise Encyclopedia

Pascal, Blaise

Noted primarily as a mathematician, scientist, and author, Blaise Pascal focused on religion late in his short life. Pascal argued that faith in God is reasonable. He reasoned that, although no one can prove God's existence or nonexistence, the potentially infinite benefits of believing God exists far outweigh any finite benefits that might be gained by believing God does not exist.

--Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Pascal, Blaise (1623-1662), French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, born in Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal was a mathematical prodigy, who at the age of 16 formulated a basic theorem of projective geometry, known as Pascal's theorem. With French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, Pascal formulated the mathematical theory of probability, later important in statistics and in physics. He invented the first mechanical adding machine, and he proved experimentally that the level of the mercury column in a barometer is determined by changing atmospheric pressure rather than by a vacuum, as previously believed. He also derived a principle, called Pascal's law, which states that fluids transmit pressure equally in all directions. Pascal believed that human progress results from the accumulation of scientific discoveries resulting from empirical experimentation.

Pascal espoused Jansenism and in 1654 entered the Jansenist community at Port Royal. He wrote a number of religious works, of which the most famous were the Provincial Letters (1656). In his writings urging acceptance of the Christian life, Pascal used arguments from probability. He reasoned that the value of eternal happiness is infinite; although the probability of gaining such happiness by religion may be small, it is infinitely greater than by any other course of human conduct or belief.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche founded his morality on what he saw as the most basic human drive, the will to power. Nietzsche criticized Christianity and other philosophers' moral systems as "slave moralities" because, in his view, they chained all members of society with universal rules of ethics. Nietzsche offered, in contrast, a "master morality" that prized the creative influence of powerful individuals who transcended the common rules of society.

--The New York Public Library

Nietzsche, Friedrich (Wilhelm)

Nietzsche, Friedrich (Wilhelm) (1844-1900), German philosopher, poet, and classical philologist, who was one of the most provocative and influential thinkers of the 19th century. Born in Röcken, Prussia, Nietzsche studied at the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig and was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Basel. Plagued by ill health, he suffered a mental breakdown in 1889 and never recovered.

Nietzsche's contention that traditional values had lost their influence over individuals was expressed in his proclamation "God is dead." His claim that new values could be created to replace traditional ones led to his concept of the overman, or superman. According to Nietzsche, the masses conform to tradition, whereas the overman is secure, independent, and individualistic. The overman feels deeply, but his passions are rationally controlled. The overman creates a "master morality" that reflects the strength and independence of one who is liberated from all values, except those he deems valid.

Nietzsche denied that any overmen had yet arisen, but he mentioned individuals who could serve as models, including Greek philosopher Socrates, Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, English playwright William Shakespeare, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Roman statesman Julius Caesar, French emperor Napoleon I, and Jesus Christ.

Nietzsche's major works include The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), The Antichrist (1888), Ecce Homo (1889), and The Will to Power (1901).

Jean Paul Sartre

Twentieth-century French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre helped to develop existential philosophy through his writings, novels, and plays. Much of Sartre's work focuses on the dilemma of choice faced by free individuals and on the challenge of creating meaning by acting responsibly in an indifferent world. In stating that "man is condemned to be free," Sartre reminds us of the responsibility that accompanies human decisions.

--Archive Photos

Sartre, Jean Paul (1905-1980), French philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and political journalist. He combined phenomenology, metaphysics, and social theory into a single view called existentialism, which relates philosophical theory to life, literature, psychology, and politics.

Born in Paris, Sartre taught philosophy until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when he was called into military service. In 1940 and 1941 he was imprisoned by the Germans; after his release he returned to teaching and was active in the French Resistance. Sartre later founded and headed the political and literary magazine Les Temps Modernes. Most of his writing of the 1950s deals with literary and political problems. He rejected the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, explaining that accepting such an award would compromise his integrity as a writer.

In his major philosophic work, Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre conceived of humans as beings who create their own world by rebelling against authority and by accepting personal responsibility for their actions. He viewed absolute freedom of choice as the necessary condition for authentic human existence. His plays and novels express the belief that freedom and acceptance of personal responsibility are the main values in life. Later Sartre argued that modern society's strong influence over the individual produces serialization (loss of self), remedied only through group revolutionary action.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhaylovich (1821-1881), Russian novelist, one of the greatest of all novelists, whose fiction has had profound influence on the modern intellectual climate. He was born in Moscow.

In his early works, Dostoyevsky explored the humiliations and consequent behavior of the underprivileged, but in 1849 his literary career was disastrously interrupted. He had joined a group of young intellectuals who read and debated French socialist theories forbidden to be openly discussed in czarist Russia. A police informer slipped into their secret meetings, and the entire group was arrested and taken to a place of execution, presumably to be shot. At the last minute they were reprieved, and the punishment was changed to penal exile. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia and to serve afterward as a common soldier. In The House of the Dead (1861-1862) Dostoyevsky described the sadistic beatings, the filthy conditions, and the total lack of privacy among the convicts. Released from prison in 1854, he was sent to a garrison town near Mongolia.

Later, in collaboration with his brother, Mikhayl, Dostoyevsky launched a monthly periodical called Time. When it was suppressed because of a supposedly subversive article, the brothers started The Epoch, another short-lived review, in 1864. The beginning of Dostoyevsky's philosophical novel Notes from the Underground (1864) was published in the first issue. In the monologue of the nameless narrator of Notes, Dostoyevsky presented, for the first time in the history of modern literature, the alienated antihero.

The following years, spent abroad to escape creditors after Dostoyevsky inherited his brother's debts, were marked by physical hardship and poverty but great productivity. He completed the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869), and The Possessed (1871-1872) and returned to Russia in 1873 a world-renowned writer. His last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), was completed not long before his death.

Dostoyevsky's later novels are endowed with symbolic worlds where heroes, pervaded by the tragic sense of life, search for truth and self-fulfillment. Dostoyevsky anticipated modern psychology by his exploration of hidden motives and intuitive understanding of the unconscious, manifested in his characters' irrational behavior, psychic suffering, dreams, and lapses into insanity. He also prepared the way for the subjective approach of much 20th-century literature and for existentialism and surrealism.

-- Encarta Concise Encyclopedia

Kafka, Franz

Franz Kafka

These lines (read by an actor), reminiscent of a nightmare, begin the famous short story by Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis" (1915; translated 1937), in which the main character turns into a bug. "The Metamorphosis" illustrates Kafka's characteristic juxtaposition of fantastic situations with descriptions in meticulous, realistic, and almost credible detail. Kafka's writings evoke a world in which lonely and desperate characters find themselves trapped by unknown forces in an inescapable destiny. These situations function as metaphors for the frustration and alienation experienced by those living in the 20th century.

--Archive Photos

Kafka, Franz (1883-1924), Austrian (Czech) novelist and short-story writer, known for his symbolic fiction. Kafka was born in Prague (then in Austria-Hungary). Although he had studied law at the University of Prague, Kafka took a civil service post and wrote in his spare time. The themes of his work are the loneliness, frustration, and oppressive guilt of an individual threatened by anonymous forces beyond his comprehension or control. Kafka's lucid style, blending reality with fantasy and tinged with ironic humor, contributes to the nightmarish, claustrophobic effect of his work. In his famous short story "The Metamorphosis" (1915), the hero awakens to find that he has turned into an enormous insect; rejected by his family, he is left to die alone. Contrary to Kafka's wish that his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed after his death, his friend and biographer, Austrian writer Max Brod, published them posthumously. Among these works are the three novels for which Kafka is best known: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927).

Beckett, Samuel

Scene from Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot is one of the best-known plays by the Irish-born writer Samuel Beckett. This scene features Stefan Wigger and Horst Bollmann playing the tramps Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters who wait for M. Godot who never arrives. Beckett's play addresses the absurdity of, and the human need for, hope. This performance was in February, 1965, at the Schiller Theater in Berlin.


Beckett, Samuel (1906-1989), Irish-born poet, novelist, and leading dramatist of the theater of the absurd. In his novels and plays, Beckett focused on the wretchedness of living in an attempt to expose the essence of the human condition, which he ultimately reduced to the solitary self, or to nothingness.

Beckett was born in Foxrock, near Dublin. His early critical essay, Proust (1931), laid the philosophical foundation for his life and literary work. Significantly, he also became acquainted with Irish novelist and poet James Joyce. Settled in Paris after World War II (1939-1945), Beckett created four major works: his trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953), novels that Beckett considered his greatest achievements; and the play Waiting for Godot (1952), which most critics regard as his masterpiece. Other major works include the plays Endgame (1957) and Krapp's Last Tape (1959). Beckett won the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature.

Ionesco, Eugène

Ionesco, Eugène (1909-1994), Romanian-born French playwright, one of the chief exponents of the theater of the absurd, a movement in French and English theater that lamented the senselessness of the human condition. He was born in Slatina. Ionesco's plays depict the ridiculous, futile existence of humans in an unpredictable universe, who, because of their innate limitations, cannot communicate with one another. Although Ionesco's intent was serious, his plays are rich in humor.

The Bald Soprano (1950) is a satire that exaggerates aspects of routine living to demonstrate the pointlessness of mediocrity. In The Chairs (1952), two old people chat with nonexistent guests. In Rhinocéros (1959), perhaps his best-known work, the people of a small town are transformed into rhinoceroses. The main character, initially an average-man prototype, becomes isolated from the town's citizens as he struggles against their conformity. In addition to many other plays, Ionesco also wrote commentary on the theater, and a novel, The Hermit (1973).

Eugène Ionesco

The works of 20th-century French playwright Eugène Ionesco employ humor and comic invention to point out the limitations of human communication and the senselessness of the human condition. Considered a master of the theater of the absurd, Ionesco created illogical situations and incomprehensible language in his plays to elicit a sense of the futility of human action. Although hard on their human subjects, Ionesco's plays express a reserved sympathy for even the most futile attempts at social interaction and love.

--Jose They//Rapho/Photo Researchers, Inc.

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