Louise Mabille

Existentialism: A Beginner’s Introduction

Louise Mabille | 17 April 2020 | 8 min read

When stereotypical philosophers – not always even French – are depicted, it is usually the existentialists who come to mind. Clad in black, smoking and deliberating cynically over wine or black coffee on the terrors of existence. Now that is existentialism, isn’t it? In even the crudest generalization, there is at least a tiny glimmer of truth, and the stereotypical picture of the French existentialists exists for a good reason: French philosophy has always been the most publicly visible branch of European philosophy. Because of their post-war social activism, savvy media interaction and generally accessible texts, the existentialists dominated the public philosophical imagination between 1945 and 1980, even when their academic position was eclipsed by the post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Michel Foucault (1926-1986). When considering formal philosophy, the word existentialism immediately calls up the anti-establishment figures of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), and to a lesser extent Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).

While the existentialist movement began to lose steam after the deaths of Sartre and de Beauvoir, the concept simply refers to the tradition of philosophical inquiry which takes as its starting point the experience of the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual, situated in time. If the envelope is pushed, it would no be entirely wrong to say that all philosophy and all literature possesses an existential element. Likewise, such a description would imply that most people experience existentialism at some point in their lives – especially during their teenage years! However, what makes existentialism significant is that it privileges the subjective experience of the situated individual over and against anonymous objective schemes of system-builders and scientists. The word itself (l‘existentialisme) was coined by a Christian, and as you will see below, he was not the only Christian-existentialist connection.[1] The French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel first used it shortly after WWII. At first, when Marcel applied the term to Jean-Paul Sartre at a colloquium in 1945, Sartre rejected it. He later changed his mind and, on October 29, 1945, publicly adopted the existentialist label in a lecture to the Club Maintenant in Paris.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

While freedom plays an important role, the primary virtue of existentialism is authenticity. You must be authentic! Furthermore, for the existentialist, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has famously been called “existential angst” (or variably, existential attitude, dread, etc.), or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.

This does not, however, imply that existentialism subscribes to relativism. Unlike certain postmodern philosophers like Richard Rorty (1931-2007), existentialists, in general, do not dispute the objectivity of empirical facts or provable theorems. Rather, they argue that the facticity of something is not always the most important aspect to an experience, and sometimes a great gulf opens between objective facts and the lonely, vulnerable individual who is subject to them. It may, for example, be an objective fact that a person has cancer. Scientific scans and blood tests may confirm this without a doubt. But the individual’s horror at being confronted with this terrible news is entirely his or her own: no amount of neutrality can hope to make complete sense of this experience for the individual concerned. While philosophy has traditionally been founded on metaphysical investigation and epistemological activity (i.e. Plato’s claim of the Forms as the foundation of reality), existentialism’s emphasis falls on the experience of the individual subject in the world beyond the experience of knowing. An existentialist looking at Plato, would choose to emphasize Socrates’ experience of being condemned to death by the people he had known and loved all his life. As we shall see below, many literary existentialists have indeed taken historical figures and described commonly known historical facts in a subjective voice to highlight the individual’s sense of isolated existence. One such example is Albert Camus’ version of events regarding Caligula, the third Caesar of Rome, whose growing insanity and cruelty are depicted as efforts to make sense of an absurd world.

It is no accident that the fact of death – mortality – plays such an important part in existentialist thinking. To a significant extent, existentialism is a response to the senseless terrors of World War II (WWII). Sartre for example, was captured by German troops in 1940 in Padoux. He spent nine months as a prisoner of war in Nancy and finally in Stalag XIII-D, Trier. There he wrote his first theatrical piece, Barionà, fils du tonnerre, a drama concerning Christmas. It was also here that he first read Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time[2], a massive work which goes beyond mere existentialism, and steered Continental philosophy into a phenomenological direction.[3] Whereas Sartre still clung to the Cartesian notion[4], Heidegger “decentered” the self, and demonstrated that meaning forms against a complex background of given phenomena. These phenomena are “given” long before the rational self begins to form its attempts at foundations. Heidegger himself dismissed Sartre’s Being and Nothingness as “dreck,” and today Heidegger’s works are far more frequently studied in philosophy departments, whereas Sartre is more popular in literature departments. Sartre’s autobiography, Les Mots (The Words), is studied as an example of the first-person experience. His play, No Exit, which is set in hell, and contains the famous phrase “Hell is other people,” is also frequently performed, especially on the Continent.[5] For Sartre – as also pointed out by Hannah Arendt[6] – it was the absolute normality that coexisted with the unspeakable horrors of WWII which led to a sense of the absolute absurdity of life. In his essay Paris under the Occupation, Sartre wrote that the “correct” behavior of the Germans had entrapped too many Parisians into complicity with the occupation, accepting what was unnatural as natural:

“The Germans did not stride, revolver in hand, through the streets. They did not force civilians to make way for them on the pavement. They would offer seats to old ladies on the Metro. They showed great fondness for children and would pat them on the cheek. They had been told to behave correctly and being well-disciplined, they tried shyly and conscientiously to do so. Some of them even displayed a naive kindness which could find no practical expression.”[7]

Sartre distinguished between the “for-itself” – pure consciousness – which gives meaning to the “in itself” – the objective world. Arguably his primary idea is that people, as humans, are “condemned to be free.” To be sure, this implies the position that there is no Creator. He uses an interesting example of a paper cutter. Sartre says that if one considered a paper cutter, one would assume that the creator would have had a plan for it: an essence. Sartre said that human beings have no essence before their existence because there is no Creator. Thus: “existence precedes essence.” This forms the basis for his assertion that because one cannot explain one’s own actions and behavior by referring to any specific human nature, they are necessarily fully responsible for those actions. Note, however, that Sartre is not engaging in the teleological argument: he bases his atheism rather on the notion of the radical loneliness and absurdity of human existence, where God does not simply not exist, but fails to make sense. Sartre is a radical humanist who believes that one is at once obliged to make sense of the world, and is at the same time condemned to do so. The self or subject is the foundation of all things.

De Beauvoir’s take on this was that human essence was not given, which meant that the nature and roles of women were not given, but could be open to reconsideration and reconstruction. It should be noted here that de Beauvoir did not refer to biological refashioning as in our latter-day experience, but rather to autonomous moral choice, such as those her characters in novels like The Blood of Others (1945), are obliged to make during the Occupation of Paris. Her book, The Second Sex (1949), is a phenomenological analysis of the question “What is Woman?” It is argued that there is no reason to consider masculinity the default position and the feminine the mere “other.”

Even a Christian Variant

Existentialism is much broader than just Sartre’s clique. Its roots stretch back to the nineteenth century, and it is of particular importance to note that the first “official” figure in the history of existentialism was the Danish philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855). He was not only a Christian but a theologian! Many of his ideas have become part of latter-day Protestant theology, but is today rather underrated. Kierkegaard’s early work was written under various pseudonyms that he used to present distinctive viewpoints and to interact with each other in complex dialogue. He wrote a number of essays titled, Upbuilding Discourses, under his own name and dedicated them to the “single individual” who might want to discover the meaning of his works.

If De Beauvoir said, “one is not born a woman, one becomes one” (i.e. one is not born with the demands of womanhood, one gradually becomes aware of them), one may summarize Kierkegaard’s position as “one is not born a Christian, one becomes one.” That is, simply being born into a Christian culture does not make one a Christian. While faith deals in objective truth, it is also a profoundly personal experience: no one can choose Jesus for another person. Christianity is unique in that it is not only about discovering truth, it also involves standing in a relationship with it. Before Sartre’s “rebellion against life,” – he refused to accept the rules of society as an unchangeable given – Kierkegaard considered the great philosophical schemes built by philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)[8] to be highly problematic. Hegel may have explained the totality of reality in terms of a grand dialectical movement, which explains everything, from formal logic to politics. But he ignored the actual experience of the individual subject in the flow of history.

Søren A. Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

For Kierkegaard, European Christianity was therefore too abstract, too Hegelian, too anonymous and mostly a question of “going through the motions.” His theological work focuses on Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity, the infinite qualitative distinction between man and God, and the individual’s subjective relationship to the God-Man, Jesus the Christ, which came through faith. Much of his work also deals with Christian love. He was extremely critical of the practice of Christianity as a state religion and opposed any link between religion and the state. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. While more interested in ethics and aesthetics than pure theology, there is an undeniable fideistic[9] element to Kierkegaard. He notably wrote that “science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way. Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, to become a subject.”[10] While scientists can learn about the world by observation, Kierkegaard emphatically denied that this kind of observation could reveal the inner workings of the world of the spirit.[11]

Albert Camus, disheartened by the failure of communism and reading Kierkegaard, reconsidered his stance on faith. He is one of the rare figures in philosophical history who constantly re-evaluated his position. At the heart of his philosophy lies a deep commitment to authenticity: he by no means rejected the notion of objective truth, but believed that it only has value if one finds it for oneself. In a famous confrontation with Sartre, he rejected the Marxist element in existentialism. He joined a church and studied the Bible for two years, before making formal inquiries about being baptized again. A week after doing so, he was killed in a car accident.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Existentialism is a feature of a significant number of great writers of the early twentieth century. Examples include T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett (who also said that Hamlet was the most existential text ever written, making it a fairly timeless phenomenon), Herman Hesse, Ralph Ellison, Tom Stoppard, John Updike. Even films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, High Noon, A Clockwork Orange, and closer to our own time, The Matrix and the Dogme project existentialist ideas. Stanley Kubrik and Ingmar Bergman are well-known for the existentialist element in their work, and it could be argued that it even crept into television shows like Seinfeld. A recent existentialist film is The Joker (2019), where the main character attempts to respond to the absurdity of his existence with laughter.

Suggested Readings

Camus, Albert. The Plague, translated by Robin Buss. London: Allen Lane, 2001.

Kierkegaard, S. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Alisdair Hannay. London: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Polt, R. An Introduction to Heidegger. New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Oneworld Publishers, 2017.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] The argument is sometimes made that the term goes back to nineteenth century Danish literature, but this is still controversial.

[2] Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a prominent German philosopher, whose book titled Being and Time of 1927 revived the Aristotelian (also Thomasine) question of the meaning of being. The big question behind this book is, what is common to all entities that makes them entities, and also, what is the creature who asks this question really like?

[3] Phenomenology refers to the study of essences or concepts. You may find yourself growing tired during a hike in the wilderness. Obviously, you are not going to find a chair or couch there. But it may be possible to use a fallen tree stump or flat stone as a chair instead. In this case, you have taken a object or phenomenon as a suitable seat, while it is technically something else. Phenomenology inquires into what makes you take a bundle of physical sensations as a meaningful concept.

[4] Cartesian is a term that is derived from Rene Descartes’s (1596-1650) surname. He had understood human existence first and foremost in terms of thinking. He is famous for formulating this position as Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). Heidegger’s point in this regard is that there is a large number of factors involved in human existence before we even get to the thinking aspect.

[5] Continent refers here to Europe, as opposed to the United Kingdom, or British philosophy.

[6] Hannah Arendt (1905-1975) was a German political thinker famous for her coverage of the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichman at Nüremberg in 1945. She defends freedom as a value in its own right, not as a means for social justice.

[7] Ian Ousby. Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940–1944 (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 225.

[8] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel  (1770–1831) was another influential German philosopher who attempted to explain the totality of human development as the playing out of Reason itself. His work, often called German idealism, integrates psychology, politics, history, art, science, theology and logic in a grand philosophical scheme.

[9] Religious fideism argues that matters of faith and religious belief are not supported by reason. One must rather be able to take a “blind leap of faith” into absurdity and embrace it as such.

[10] Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s Writings Vol I: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Edward V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 131.

[11] Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s Writings Vol I: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Edward V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 499.

George Pattison. Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses: Philosophy, theology, literature (London: Routledge, 2002).

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