Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), one of the leading existentialist philosophers

Existentialism is a philosophical way of talking. It sees humans, with will and consciousness, as being in a world of objects which do not have those qualities. The fact that humans are conscious of their mortality, and must make decisions about their life is what existentialism is all about.[1]

It was started by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855).[1]As it developed in the 20th century, it was an atheistic philosophy (even though Kierkegaard was a deeply religious man).[1] Most of its main thinkers and writers were in Europe. Sartre, for example, spent most of the Second World War in a German prison camp, reading the philosophy of Heidegger.[2] When he came out he gave a lecture called Existentialism and humanism. This early lecture may be easier to read than his later work.[3]

Many religions and philosophies (ways of thinking about the world) say that human life has a meaning (or a purpose). But people who believe in existentialism think that the world and human life have no meaning unless people give them meaning: ‘existence precedes [is before] essence’. This means that we find ourselves existing in the world, and then we give ourselves meaning, or 'essence'. As Sartre said, "We are condemned to be free".[2] This means that we have no choice but to choose, and that we have full responsibility for our choices.

Existentialists believe that our human 'essence' or 'nature' (way of being in the world) is simply our 'existence' (being in the world). More simply put, the 'essence' of a human, or what makes a human a 'human', is not due to nature or uncontrollable circumstances; rather, human essence is really just what we choose to make it. This means that the only nature we as humans have is the nature we make for ourselves. As a result of this, existentialists think that the actions or choices that a person makes are very important. They believe that every person has to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and what is good and bad.

People who believe in existentialism ask questions like ’what is it like to be a human (a person) in the world?’ and ’how can we understand human freedom (what it means for a person to be free)?’ Existentialism is often connected with negative emotions, such as anxiety (worrying), dread (a very strong fear), and mortality (awareness of our own death).

Existentialism is sometimes confused with nihilism. It is different from nihilism, but there is a similarity. Nihilists believe that human life does not have a meaning (or a purpose) at all; existentialism says that people must choose their own purpose.

Existentialism in books

Many of the main sources for existentialism were written in other languages and only later translated, mostly after the 1950s.

  • The Outsider, by Colin Wilson (1956), examined the idea of the social outsider in modern society. It was one of the few books in English to give a readable explanation of the ideas and writings of Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Camus, especially the idea of alienation.
  • Irrational Man: a study in existential philosophy, by William Barratt (1958), Anchor Books ISBN 0-385-03138-6. This is a more direct study of existentialism by a professional philosopher. It introduced the idea of existentialism as a philosophy.
  • Franz Kafka wrote books about people who feel hopeless because they are trapped in absurd (meaningless or senseless) situations that they do not understand.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian writer, wrote novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky also wrote Notes from Underground, which is the story of a man who cannot fit into society and who feels alienated.
  • Hermann Hesse is a writer who wrote the book Steppenwolf in 1928. Hesse used an existentialist idea from Kierkegaard to write this book.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre wrote novels such as Iron in the Soul that have existential themes. The people in Jean-Paul Sartre's stories often faced death, and had to make hard choices.
  • Albert Camus wrote novels such as The Stranger that had stories about existentialism. The Stranger tells the story about a man who does not have feelings (emotions) after his mother dies. The man does not believe in God. The man does not have feelings (emotions) after he murders (kills) an Arab man.
Other Languages
Afrikaans: Eksistensialisme
Alemannisch: Existenzialismus
አማርኛ: ኅልውነት
العربية: وجودية
asturianu: Esistencialismu
Avañe'ẽ: Jeikogua reko
azərbaycanca: Ekzistensializm
Bân-lâm-gú: Chûn-chāi-chú-gī
башҡортса: Экзистенциализм
беларуская: Экзістэнцыялізм
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Экзыстэнцыялізм
čeština: Existencialismus
Cymraeg: Dirfodaeth
Ελληνικά: Υπαρξισμός
español: Existencialismo
Esperanto: Ekzistadismo
français: Existentialisme
Gaeilge: Eiseachas
贛語: 存在主義
한국어: 실존주의
Bahasa Indonesia: Eksistensialisme
interlingua: Existentialismo
íslenska: Tilvistarstefna
italiano: Esistenzialismo
Lingua Franca Nova: Esistentialisme
la .lojban.: zatsi'o
مصرى: وجوديه
Bahasa Melayu: Eksistensialisme
Nederlands: Existentialisme
日本語: 実存主義
norsk nynorsk: Eksistensialisme
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Ekzistensializm
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਅਸਤਿਤਵਵਾਦ
português: Existencialismo
română: Existențialism
slovenčina: Existencializmus
slovenščina: Eksistencializem
српски / srpski: Egzistencijalizam
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Egzistencijalizam
Türkçe: Varoluşçuluk
українська: Екзистенціалізм
اردو: وجودیت
Tiếng Việt: Chủ nghĩa hiện sinh
粵語: 存在主義
Zazaki: Estbiyayenı
中文: 存在主义