Existentialism is a twentieth-century philosophy more than a movement. It is the study of existence. In the nineteenth century, following World War II and the Great Depression, the Industrial Revolution peaked, and society turned to a way of thinking that focused on the role of the individual in control of leading a full and authentic life. As societal conditions changed, societies' ways of thinking changed, too.
Existential philosophy existed because of nineteenth-century philosophers and writers including Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Søren Kierkegaard. Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre is notable for being the twentieth century's greatest existential thinker and literary contributor. Other existential writers include Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Marcel, and Karl Jaspers. Existentialism also was evident in the theater—Samuel Beckett is most notable for his contributions, as are Chuck Palahniuk, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch. Many authors still cite existentialism as an influence. Post-modern beliefs have since pushed the philosophy aside in literature and the theater. Though existential inquiry continues today, as a cultural movement it is largely in the past.
History of Existentialism
Existential beliefs can be traced back to William Shakespeare. The popularity of the philosophy grew in the centuries following the famed writer, reaching its pinnacle in the twentieth century, after the period of romanticism. Existentialism grew from the catastrophic effects of wars and genocide. Between the first and second world wars, society needed help coping with feelings of nothingness and despair. Philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are credited as the first philosophers to write about existentialism before it became popular in the twentieth century. In fact, Kierkegaard is known as the father of existentialism.
The twentieth-century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is credited with moving the existential movement to the forefront when he published the philosophic work Being and Nothingness in 1943. He also wrote fiction that advanced the philosophy, including Nausea and No Exit. Sartre's friend, Albert Camus, coedited the left-wing newspaper Combat until 1948. He, too, contributed to the existential movement through his writings. The philosophy was widely evident during the postwar years in literature and art, including the works of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and the films of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard.
Overall, existentialism is the search for the meaning of life; what is it to exist as a unique person? Existentialists believe that the meaning of life is sought through individual choices, free will, and personal freedom. Neither scientific thinking—including psychology—nor moral thinking can fully explain what it is to be human. Existentialists unite under several common themes:
- Absurdity—Existentialists believe that life is absurd and has no meaning. Existentialists, therefore, seek meaning in an absurd world, trying to define their place and the reason they are here. Once an existentialist realizes that the world is an absurd place, this causes anxiety. An existentialist does not believe in the explanations offered by religion, science, or society about the reasons for human existence.
- Alienation—Existentialists feel as if they have no place in the world; they feel like strangers in their own lives. Many existentialists feel a sense of depression because they realize that no one can help make sense of their existence; it is completely an individual quest.
- Responsibility—Existentialists believe that it is a person's sole responsibility to find the meaning in his or her own life, to make choices about his or her life, and to accept responsibility for the decisions he or she makes in trying to find meaning.
- Authenticity and individuality—A person must live as an individual and become his or her authentic self. Existentialists believe that reason, science, and religion deny individuality by forming guidelines and rules for living. A person may make the decision to live morally, however, thus successfully being one's self rather than fulfilling a role imposed by society.
- Engagement—To find authenticity and true individuality, existentialists believe that an individual must be engaged in life; a person must exist and be part of the world around him or her.
- Death—Existentialists believe death adds to the absurdity of life. A person spends his or her life trying to understand life's meaning and his or her place in the world, when in the end, the meaning does not matter because death is inevitable. This belief adds to the conviction that life is absurd.
Criticisms of Existentialism
For all the support and following existentialism generated, it also drew criticism. Overall, Christians offered the most condemnation, saying the philosophy negated the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God. They claimed that existentialism went as far as to negate the existence of God. Christians also believed existentialism denied a person's ethical responsibilities, and that existentialists denied humans must live by God's commandments.
Dane Søren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of existentialism for his philosophical writings. One of his most notable works, Fear and Trembling, explores many of the themes found in existentialism, among them loneliness, doubt, and human choice. Although Kierkegaard's book is based on religious beliefs and faith, many later existentialist thinkers used his work as the basis for their own existential writings.
Franz Kafka is most notable for The Metamorphosis, in which a man wakes one morning to find he has been transformed into a hideous insect. Kafka lived through World War I, and his novella embraces some of the central themes associated with existentialism, most notably the absurdity of life.
Although Sartre did not compose many works of literature, he is synonymous with existential philosophy. He drew ideas from the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger to create his own popular version of twentieth-century existentialism. According to nobelprize.org, "Sartre's theoretical writings as well as his novels and plays constitute one of the main inspirational sources of modern literature." Sartre published his first novel, The Nausea, in 1938. He also composed several existential plays, including The Flies (1943). Many of his other works, including Truth and Existence, Existentialism and Humanism, and Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, were important vehicles in spreading his philosophies.
Camus and his friend Sartre coedited the left-wing underground newspaper Combat from 1943 until 1947. Camus was an existential nihilist—according to this philosophy, life and the world itself are meaningless. In 1942 he wrote The Stranger, a story about Meursault, a man who seems to have no feelings about the misfortunes that occur in his life, including murder and the death of his mother. Camus also produced The Plague (1948), The Rebel (1951), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942), and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961) before his death in 1960 in a car crash. Camus's novels focus on the central theme that humans are unimportant and insignificant in society and on the isolation that accompanies this realization.
Beckett is an author and playwright most notable for his plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Although Beckett's works pull from many literary and historical periods, his characters seem lost and lacking purpose, an existential theme. Beckett's plays themselves are existential in nature in that they lack purpose and are often described by audiences as plays about nothing. His plays do not follow the typical blueprint of other dramas; Beckett's works lack plot, characterization, and conclusiveness.
It is difficult to say how existentialism fares in the twenty-first century because it is a philosophy rather than a movement. Therefore, many twenty-first century writers, playwrights, artists, and philosophers still draw upon important existential ideals in their work. Existentialism, therefore, can be viewed as a bell curve on a graph: elements of existentialism can be found in Shakespeare's works, these elements are more prevalent in other authors' later works, the philosophy reached its peak during the twentieth century thanks to the work of Sartre and others, and existentialism continues to influence writers.