Existentialism: main features


Existentialism is an intellectual mood or atmosphere than a coherent body of doctrine; more of a outlook or mind-set. More of a method or approach than a school of thought. It was a product of the devastation caused by the world wars.

A philosophy of man instead of a philosophy of ideas or philosophy of things.

There are problems that each individual faces in their lifes. Existentialism focuses on these issues. Traditionally philosophy don't delve into such things.

Acc. to Plato, what was important was the essence - the idea of man. Individuals are not important - they are an imperfect copy of the ideal man.

Emphasis is to live your own life - don't imitate others.

Two types of Existentialism...

  • Theistic
  • Atheistic
    • Jean-Paul Sartre
    • Simon de Beauvoir
    • Heidegger
    • Fredrich Nietzsche
    • God does not exist
    • No values or meaning
    • Absurdity

Existentialism was not a rational philosophical system - it was popularized through art and literature. Eg. Sartre, Kafka and Camus's stories.

Existentialism begins from man as an existent subject(you are living in this world - a lived reality) - and not just a thinking subject(Decartes model).

Historical Factors

  • Loss of faith - religion losing its power. Eg. Death of God
  • World wars - needed to find meaning in so much suffering. And rejection of existing social and moral order.
  • Rise of Totalitarian ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, Communism - no importance for the individual.
  • Industrialization and Urbanization - Man as a tool idea.

Human Existence in traditional philosophy...

  • Thinking substance
  • Rational Being
  • Epistemological subject
  • Mind Body Union
  • Essentially physical

This is not the actual reality of a living man.


Acc. to him, genuine philosophical experience is a lived, subjective experience. Not just theory. He opposed the rational explanation to justify God's existence. He said it is something that has to be experienced. Emphasis was on subjective and personal choices - it was more important than objective and universal realities.

Three spheres of existence..

  • Aesthetic
    • Live for physical or intellectual pleasure
    • Seeks the most immediately pleasing
  • Ethical
    • Recognition of a binding moral law.
    • Accept moral responsibility
    • Lead a life of duty to moral law
  • Religious
    • Life devoted to God
    • Give up everything: ethical standards and the universal good.

Each sphere has its own system of values. To move from one to another is a personal choice. Its an a-rational leap.


  • Thought about the problem of human limitations, agonies, anxieties and helplessness.

Franz Kafka

  • Isolation of the individual
  • Individual's place in the world
  • Anxiety and guilt experienced by individuals.


  • Truth is Perspectival
  • Death of god - nihilism of morals.
  • Everything is permitted.
  • Knowledge and truth are provisional and change over time and with the ruling class.

"Truth is an edifying name for what are really vital lies" Nietzsche "Objective truth is existentially irrelevant" Kierkegaard No universal truth: Sartre


Freedom: we are condemned to be free Responsibility: We are responsible for the people we become Emphasizing Individuality: Search for authentic self-hood is a major issue. Ideas of self creation and authentic existence. Angst/Dread/Anxiety: When we reflect on our freedom we experience anxiety. Inauthentic existence/Bad Faith: People who refuse to take responsibility for themselves. Tragic Elements of Human Existence: Absurdity, Death, etc.

Existence precedes essence

Everyone creates their own essence.

Nietzsche: will to power Kierkegaard: Passion to exist Heidegger: Dasein is mine and is Being in the world Sartre: Being-in-itself and for-itself

In order: Mod-01 Lec-01 Greek Philosophy: Ionians, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Democritus