Philosophy of Existentialism – An Introduction


Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Former Principal

K.L.D.A.V(P.G) College, Roorkee, India.

In short, Existentialism is an attitude and outlook that emphasizes human existence, the qualities of individual persons rather than man in abstract of nature and the world in general. Education, therefore, must edify and enrich man’s mind so that it may be respectable in his own eyes and in the eyes of the, others. It should help him to make him human.

Existentialism is the most individualistic of all modern philosophies. Its overriding concern is with the individual and its primary value is the absolute freedom of the person, who is only what he, makes himself to be, and who is the final and exclusive arbiter of the values he freely determines for himself. Great emphasis is placed on art, on literature, and the humanistic studies, for it is in these areas that man finds himself and discovers what values he will seek to attain.

The term “existentialism” seems to have been coined by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel  and adopted by Jean-Paul Sartre, Etymological meaning of ‘existence’ from two German words -: ‘ex-sistent’ meaning that which stands out, that which ‘emerges’ suggests that existentialism is a philosophy that emerges out of problems of life.

Existentialism in the broader sense is a 20th century philosophy that is centered upon the analysis of existence and of the way humans find themselves existing in the world. The notion is that humans exist first and then each individual spends a lifetime changing their essence or nature.

In simpler terms, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.

Initially Existentialism may appear to be a morbid philosophy because it deals with depressing themes such as alienation, anxiety, death and crises. To conclude this however, would be to misunderstand it. An expressed purpose of so many of the philosophers, who have contributed to this school of thought, is to allow people to experience a greater richness and happiness in their lives and to feel at ‘home’ in their world. In order to achieve a richer and more valuable existence however, the philosophy often refers to some ‘uncomfortable’ suggestions

Just as the whole of Indian philosophy is an extension, interpretation, criticism and corroboration of the Vedas and in it the Upanishads or an outright revolt against them, similarly it may be remarked of western philosophy as either a clarification of Socrates or his rejection. One would be still right in saying that the whole of western philosophy is an appendix on Socrates. So it is even true with existentialism that Socrates has been considered to be the first existentialist. Socrates statement: “I am and always have been a man to obey nothing in my nature except the reasoning which upon reflection, appears to be the best.” Right from Plato down to Descartes, the majority of western thinkers have believed in the immutability of ideas and the rest of the thinkers have been suggesting correctives to it. Anyhow their frame of reference has always been ‘Essence Precedes Existence’, essence being referred to ideas, values, ideals, thoughts, etc. and existence being referred to our lives.

Emergence of Existentialism as a movement

Modern existentialism reproduced such ideas and combined them in more or less coherent ways. Human existence is, for all the forms of existentialism, the projection of the future on the basis of the possibilities that constitute it. For some existentialists , the existential possibilities, inasmuch as they are rooted in the past, merely lead every project for the future back to the past, so that only what has already been chosen can be chosen . For others , the possibilities that are offered to existential choice are infinite and equivalent, such that the choice between them is indifferent; and for still others , the existential possibilities are limited by the situation, but they neither determine the choice nor render it indifferent. The issue is one of individuating, in every concrete situation and by means of a specific inquiry, the real possibilities offered to humans. For all the existentialists, however, the choice among possibilities—i.e., the projection of existence—implies risks, renunciation, and limitation. Among the risks, the most serious is the descent into inauthenticity or alienation, the degradation from being a person into being a thing. Against that risk, for the theological forms of existentialism , there is the guarantee of transcendent help from God, which in its turn is guaranteed by faith.

Existentialism, consequently, by insisting on the individuality and nonrepeatability of existence , is sometimes led to regard one’s coexistence with other humans (held to be, however, an ineluctable fact of the human situation) as a condemnation or alienation of humanity. Marcel said that all that exists in society beyond the individual is “expressible by a minus sign,” and Sartre affirmed, in his major work , that “the Other is the hidden death of my possibilities.” For other forms of existentialism, however, a coexistence that is not anonymous  but grounded on personal communication is the condition of authentic existence.

Existentialism has had ramifications in various areas of contemporary culture. In literature, Franz Kafka, author of haunting novels, walking in Kierkegaard’s footsteps, described human existence as the quest for a stable, secure, and radiant reality that continually eludes it  or as threatened by a guilty verdict about which it knows neither the reason nor the circumstances but against which it can do nothing—a verdict that ends with death .

The theses of contemporary existentialism were then diffused and popularized by the novels and plays of Sartre and by the writings of the French novelists and dramatists Simone de Beauvoir—an important philosopher of existentialism in her own right—and Albert Camus.

Existentialism made its entrance into psychopathology through Jaspers’s Allgemeine Psychopathologie (1913; General Psychopathology), which was inspired by the need to understand the world in which the mental patient lives by means of a sympathetic participation in his experience. Later, the Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, in one of his celebrated works), inspired by Heidegger’s thought, viewed the origin of mental illness as a failure in the existential possibilities that constitute human existence. From Jaspers and Binswanger, the existentialist current became diffused and variously stated in contemporary psychiatry.

In theology, Barth started the “Kierkegaard revival,” the emblem of which was expressed by Barth himself; it is “the relation of this God with this man; the relation of this man with this God—this is the only theme of the Bible and of philosophy.” Within the bounds of that current, on the one hand, there was an insistence upon the absolute transcendence of God with respect to the individual, who could place himself in relationship with God only by denying himself and by abandoning himself to a gratuitously granted faith. On the other hand, there was the requirement to demythologize the religious content of faith, particularly of the Christian faith, in order to allow the message of the eschatological event (of salvation) to emerge from among human existential possibilities.

Theoretical Rationale of Existentialism

Rather than attempt to define existentialism (which existentialists themselves maintain is futile it might to be better to determine what the task of philosophy is according to the proponents of this school of thought. First of all, the existentialist does not concern himself with problems concerning the nature, origin, and destiny of the physical universe. The philosopher should not even concern himself with the basic assumptions of the physical or biological sciences.

Metaphysical Position

Concept of God

Frederic Nietzsche’s statement, “God is dead,” succinctly expresses the atheistic existentialist’s view on the issue of the existence of a supernatural realm. Nietzsche says: Where is God gone? I mean to tell you! We have killed him – you and I! Do we not here the noise of the grave – diggers who are burying God? God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed! …. The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed had bled to death under our knife – …. What are our churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?

Assume that God exists and is all-powerful & all-knowing & all-good. Then also assume that evil exists in the world. Then God is either responsible for the existence of evil, in which case God is Himself evil & not all-good; or else God is not responsible for the existence of evil & yet knew that it was going to happen & couldn’t prevent it–so God is not all-powerful; or else God would have prevented evil but didn’t know it was going to happen, and is therefore not all-knowing. So given evil, God is either not all-good, not all-powerful, not all-knowing, or does not exist.

Concept of Self

Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.” Jean Paul Sartre

The very question of the nature of man is a meaningless one for the existentialist. In both of the sections above it was emphasized that man has no “nature” as such but rather that he must create his own essence. The uniqueness of man comes from his emotions, feelings, perception and thinking. The philosophy of existentialism stresses meaning, only through development of meaning in his life; man can make something of the absurdity which surrounds him. Man is the maker, and, therefore, the master of culture. It is man who imposes a meaning on his universe, although that universe may well function without him. Man cannot be ‘taught’ what the world is about. He must create this for himself.

Man is not alone in the world. He is connected to other men; he communicates with others; therefore, he cannot live in a state of anarchy. Life is seen as a gift, which, in part is a mystery. Man is free to choose commitments in life, in his choice, he becomes himself. He is the product of his choices. He is, therefore, an individual who is different from other persons.

Second, individual man is not bound to other men by any predetermined notion of brotherhood or by allegiance to a certain group. On the contrary, each man should express his freedom in the creation of his own selfhood, first by “withdrawing from the crowd,” and then by communicating only with those whom he personally chooses . Sartre feels that the entire network of social life is anti-individual. Churches, schools, political parties, and even the family tend to militate against man’s absolute freedom.

Epistemological position

The existentialist approach  to knowledge is known as the phenomenological method. The atheistic existentialists inherited this method from Husserl. It was adapted further by Heidegger and Sartre to suit their philosophy of “will and action,” especially as it concerns the individual… The phenomenological method consists in the expression of the experiences of consciousness through the media of ordinary language

Existentialists have given little attention to inductive reasoning. Science, they believe, has been one of the major dehumanizing forces in the modern world

In opposition to this cold impersonal approach to knowledge, the existentialist argues that true knowledge is “choosing, actions, living, and dying.”

Axiological position

Existential ethics

Kierkegaard reacted to this way of thinking by saying that it was up to the individual to find his or her own moral perfection and his or her own way there. “I must find the truth that is the truth for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die” he wrote.

Authenticity & human freedom

Existentialists have a special connotation of the Authentic man According to the existentialists, becoming authentic allows one to determine how things are to count towards one’s situation and how one is to act in relation to them.

Generally the existentialists consider authentic individuals to take responsibility for determining and choosing possibilities and not to simply become a determined product of a cultural moment. One can choose one’s own identity and possibilities rather than have these dictated by the crowd.

According to existential ethics the highest good for humans is “becoming an individual or “authenticity” = psychological coherence + integrity = not merely being alive but having a real life by being true to yourself

In authenticity & human unfreedom the failure to choose in this way, or the failure to take full responsibility for one’s choices, is “inauthenticity” = psychic incoherence + lack of integrity. Accordingly, the worst thing of all is in authenticity & unfreedom, so it is morally impermissible.

The very essence of good is choosing.It seems them, that man never chooses evil. A man “becomes a man” when he makes choice. When he makes choices he creates his own values. When he creates his own values, he creates his own being or essence.


Another distinctive feature of the aesthetical views of existentialists lies in their use of the art forms, especially literature, drama, and painting, as media for communicating philosophical doctrines.

Problems of existentialist philosophy

The key problems for existentialism are those of the individual himself, of his situation in the world, and of his more ultimate significance.

Humanity and human relationships

Existentialist anthropology is strictly connected with its ontology. The traditional distinction between mind and body (or soul and body) is completely eliminated; thus, the body is a lived-through experience that is an integral part of human existence in its relationship with the world. According to Sartre, “In each project of the For-itself, in each perception the body is there; it is the immediate Past in so far as it still touches on the Present which flees it.” As such, however, the body is not reduced to a datum of consciousness, to subjective representation. Consciousness, according to Sartre, is constant openness toward the world, a transcendent relationship with other beings and thereby with the in-itself. Consciousness is existence itself, or, as Jaspers says, it is “the manifestation of being.” In order to avoid any subjectivistic equivocation, Heidegger went so far as to renounce the use of the term consciousness, preferring the term Dasein, which is more appropriate for designating human reality in its totality. For the same reasons, the traditional opposition between subject and object, or between the self and the nonself, loses all sense. Dasein is always particular and individual. It is always a self; but it is also always a project of the world that includes the self, determining or conditioning its modes of being.

All of the existentialists are in agreement on the difficulty of communication—i.e., of well-grounded intersubjective relationships. Jaspers is perhaps the one to insist most on the relationship between truth and communication. Truths are and can be different from existence. But if fanaticism and dogmatism are avoided on the one hand while relativism and skepticism are avoided on the other, then the only other way is a constant confrontation between the different truths through an always more extended and deepened intersubjective communication.

Sartre, however, denied that there is authentic communication. According to him, consciousness is not only the nullification of things but also the nullification of the other person as other. To look at another person is to make of him a thing.

The human situation in the world

Heidegger pointed to the foundation of the intersubjective relationship in dread. When a person decides to escape from the banality of anonymous existence—which hides the nothingness of existence, or the nonreality of its possibilities, behind the mask of daily concerns—his understanding of that nothingness leads him to choose the only unconditioned and insurmountable possibility that belongs to him: death. The possibility of death, unlike the possibilities that relate him to other things and to other humans, isolates him. It is a certain possibility, not through its apodictic evidence but because it continuously weighs upon existence. To understand that possibility means to decide for it, to acknowledge “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all” and to live for death. The emotive tonality that accompanies such understanding is dread, through which the individual feels himself to be “face to face with the ‘nothing’ of the possible impossibility of [his] existence.”

But neither the understanding of death nor its emotive accompaniment opens up a specific task, a way to transform one’s own situation in the world. They enable one only to perceive the common destiny to which all humans are subject; and they offer, therefore, the possibility of remaining faithful to that destiny and of freely accepting the necessity that all humans have in common. In that fidelity consists the historicity of existence, which is the repetition of tradition, the return to the possibilities from which existence had earlier been constituted, the wanting for the future what has been in the past.

It has been said that a coherent existentialism should avoid the constant mortal leap between Being and Nothingness; should not confuse the problematic character of existence with the fall into factuality; should not confuse the finitude of possibilities with resignation to the situation, choice with determinism, freedom conditioned by the limits of the situation with the acknowledgment of the omnipresent necessity of the Whole. In that inquiry, it is held, existentialism could well benefit from a more attentive consideration of science, which it has viewed only as a preparatory, imperfect, and objectifying knowledge in comparison with the authentic understanding of Being, which it considers to be a more fundamental mode of the being of humans in the world. 

From that point of view, there is always a certain freedom in situations, although its degree varies from situation to situation.

Significance of Being and transcendence

Heidegger came more and more to insist on the massive presence of Being in the face of human existence, by attributing to Being all initiative and to humans only the possibility of abandoning themselves to Being and to the things that are the modes of the language of Being. For Heidegger, Being is interpreted better through the etymology of those words that designate the most common things of daily life than through the analysis of existential possibilities.

Problems of existentialist theology

Existentialism has a theological dimension. Jaspers, in his last writings, emphasized more and more the religious character of faith in transcendence. Faith is the way to withdraw from the world and to resume contact with the Being that is beyond the world. Faith is life itself, in that it returns to the encompassing Whole and allows itself to be guided and fulfilled by it. Jaspers even developed a theology of history. He spoke of an axial age, which he placed between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE, the age in which the great religions and the great philosophers of the Orient arose—Confucius and Laozi, the Upanishads, Buddha, Zoroaster, the great prophets of Israel—and in Greece the age of Homer and of Classical philosophy as well as Thucydides and Archimedes. In that age, for the first time, humans became aware of Being in general, of themselves, and of their limits. The age in which humans now live, that of science and technology, is perhaps the beginning of a new axial age that is the authentic destiny of humans but a destiny that is far off and unimaginable.

For Bultmann, the theologian of the demythologization of Christianity, inauthentic existence is tied to the past, to fact, to the world, while authentic existence is open to the future, to the nonfact, to the nonworld—i.e., to the end of the world and to God. Thus, authentic existence is not the self-projection of humans in the world but, rather, the self-projection of humans in the love of and obedience to God. But that self-projection is no longer the work of human freedom; it is the saving event that enters miraculously through faith into the future possibilities of humans.

In such theological speculations and in others that are comparable, the common presupposition of the existentialists is recognized.

Kierkegaard had earlier distinguished three stages of existence between which there is neither development nor continuity but gaps and jumps: the aesthetic stage is the one in which one lives for the pleasure of the moment; the ethical stage is the one based on the stability and continuity of life in work and in matrimony; and the religious stage is the one characterized by faith, which is always a “dreadful certainty”—i.e., a dread that becomes certain of a hidden relationship with God.

The ethical and religious stages correspond roughly to what Heideggerand Jaspers called, respectively, the inauthenticity and the authenticity of existence. Art was not as a rule recognized by modern existentialists as an autonomous stage; it was almost always for them an essential manifestation of existence itself

From that point of view, art would be a way of reshaping the world beyond its factual forms, in order that it might show their negative and troublesome characteristics. The directions of contemporary art that have deliberately forsaken the imitation of reality find their justification in that point of view.

Methodological Issues In Existentialism

The methods that existentialists employ in their interpretations have a presupposition in common: the immediacy of the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted, between the interrogator and the interrogated, between the problem of being and Being itself..

Each existentialist thinker has defended and worked out his own method for the interpretation of existence. Heidegger, an existentialist with ontological concerns, availed himself of the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, The phenomenon is, from Heidegger’s point of view, not mere appearance, but the manifestation or disclosure of Being in itself. Phenomenology is thus capable of disclosing the structure of Being and hence is an ontologyof which the point of departure is the being of the one who poses the question about Being, namely, the human being.

Jaspers, an authority in psychopathology as well as in the philosophy of human existence, employed the method of the rational clarification of existence; he maintained that existence, as the quest for Being, is humanity’s effort of rational self-understanding, or universalizing, and of communicating—a method that presupposes that existence and reason are the two poles of the being of humans.

According to Sartre, the foremost philosopher of mid-20th-century France, the method of philosophy is existential psychoanalysis—i.e., the analysis of the “fundamental project” in which human existence consists. In contrast to the precepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, which stop short at the irreducibility of the libido, or primitive psychic drive, existential psychoanalysis tries to determine the “original choice” through which humans construct their world and decide in a preliminary way upon particular choices .

According to Marcel, the method of philosophy depends upon a recognition of the mystery of Being ; The Mystery of Being)—i.e., of the impossibility of discovering Being through objective or rational analyses or demonstrations. Philosophy should lead humanity up, however, to the point of making possible “the productive illumination of Revelation.”

According to humanistic existentialism, as represented by Abbagnano and Merleau-Ponty, the method of philosophy consists of the analysis and the determination—by employing all available techniques, including those of science—of the structures that constitute existence—i.e., of the relations that connect the individual with other beings and that figure, therefore, not only in the constitution of the individual but in the constitution of other beings as well.

Evaluation of Existentialism

The evaluation of existentialism has been quite negative. Some even view it as an ant philosophical movement. Others, however, do not take such a dismal view of it. James Collins believes that it is a challenging and instructive philosophy. It embodies a legitimate continuation of several important European traditions and addresses itself to vital problems of the greatest contemporary moment for both philosophy and life . Perhaps the somewhat morbid popular interest in the personality of Sartre may be advanced as an excuse for not giving careful hearing to the arguments of the existentialists


After studying the philosophy of Existentialism, the question will arise in anybody’s mind: how can the aims, curricula and methods in a school depend upon the individual’s choice and freedom? Organization of such a programmed would be impossible and bring about chaos.

The teacher’s individual relationship and close understanding of every pupil’s personality would require a great deal of time and effort.

The concepts of ‘Being’, ‘meaning’, ‘Person’ are not very clear and appear nebulous. It is not easy to build up an educational programmed when the terminology for the objectives of the educational process is not clear…

Educational standards and practices that manipulate the child’s behaviors in an arbitrary manner violate the principle of free choice.

Many teaching practices, testing procedures, and bureaucratic system of classifying children may be questioned.

Teachers who have learned to provide existential encounters for their students enable the learners, “to create meanings in a cosmos devoid of objective meaning to find reasons for being in a society with fewer and fewer open doors.”

There are some major areas of conflict between atheistic existentialism and traditional. The former’s complete denial of any forces outside the “human situation” and its rejection of any essential characteristic in man are contrary to traditional metaphysical beliefs. The radical subjectivity of existentialist epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics is also not in harmony with both traditional and many modern views of these issues.

Other limitations of existentialism lessen the acceptability of this school of thought as a philosophy for modern man. The most glaring one seems to be the naïve view the existentialists take of the “social realities” of the modern industrial, urban world. They offer no social theory for solving the complex problems of our scientific age Thus proposals for “individual living “ might appeal to the hermit or the frontiersman but they are of little help to the people who must spend their lives in large cities, work for large companies, worship in large congregations, and even recreate in crowds.. Man is responsible, not only for himself but for his fellowmen.

Yet another weakness might be noted in existentialist philosophy which limits its application to the modern world, namely, the neglect of the scientific mode of knowing in their general theory of knowledge. After all, this is the “age of science” and complete philosophy of life cannot relegate the philosophy of science to a position of minor importance.

As an educational philosophy, existentialism, at least in its present form, does not provide an adequate basis for educational theory. Perhaps this state of affairs is due to the fact that most existentialists have given no serious consideration to the development of the educational implications of their fundamental philosophical tenets.

There is no place in existentialist philosophy for social theory as developed within the other philosophies The existentialist often is accused of being “antisocial” in his behavior as well as in his philosophy. If existentialists have no theory of society, it might be more accurate to ask how they view other men. First, they would grant to others the same existential freedom which they demand for themselves. That is, man is never to be viewed as a means but rather as an end.

The school itself has become a place where the individual is “socialized” so that he can be a good group member, a good citizen rather than a good person. If existentialism does nothing else but bring about a proper balance between the individual and society, it will have merited the praise of educators.

The existential view of development is not without its critics, many of whom view of theory and its practices as representing a neurotic, narcissistic philosophy of pain and anguish.


In contrast, existentialism’s protagonists see it as the only hope for human survival as in existentialism.   Since existentialism is optimistic, the preaches the doctrine of action and emphasizes the concept of freedom, responsibility and choice, it has exerted an increasing appeal to the educator, who has been shown the new horizons

Interest is directed on the ‘man’ – his genuine or authentic self, his choices made with full responsibility of consequences, and freedom. It describes and diagnoses human weaknesses, limitations and conflicts

Man cannot be explained by reason as the idealists emphasize. It traces the origin of all these and anticipates that man will overcome them. These arise; they say when a man comes to have a sense of meaninglessness of his life.

They do not want man to be philistine (one whose interests are material and common place) or mediocre who submerges himself. They want the ‘transcendence’ of man, which means that he should become more and more ‘authentic’.

“Because I exist, because I think, therefore, I think that I exist.” According to the statement ‘I think’ it is clear that ‘I’ exists and it has existence. ‘I’ that exists is always subjective and not objective. Now the person because of knowing the object does not desire to know the object, but he emerges himself in knowing the self. Kierkegaard





This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.