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Existentialism is a philosophical stance asserting that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject — not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In all schools of existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude," or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. Subsequent existentialist philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God.

From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity. ~ Simone de Beauvoir

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The crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. ~ Søren Kierkegaard
  • From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity. It was by affirming the irreducible character of ambiguity that Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel, and it is by ambiguity that, in our own generation, Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, fundamentally defined man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engaged freedom, that surging of the for-oneself which is immediately given for others. But it is also claimed that existentialism is a philosophy of the absurd and of despair. It encloses man in a sterile anguish, in an empty subjectivity. It is incapable of furnishing him with any principle for making choices. Let him do as he pleases. In any case, the game is lost. Does not Sartre declare, in effect, that man is a “useless passion,” that he tries in vain to realize the synthesis of the for-oneself and the in-oneself, to make himself God? It is true. But it is also true that the most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start, would be an exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be would have no meaning.
  • Une telle morale [la morale existentialiste] est-elle ou non un individualisme? Oui, si l’on entend par là qu’elle accorde à l’individu une valeur absolue et qu’elle reconnaît qu’a lui seul le pouvoir de fonder son existence. Elle est individualisme au sens où les sagesses antiques, la morale chrétienne du salut, l’idéal de la vertu kantienne méritent aussi ce nom ; elle s’oppose aux doctrines totalitaires qui dressent par-delà I’homme le mirage de l’Humanité. Mais elle n’est pas un solipsisme, puisque l’individu ne se définit que par sa relation au monde et aux autres individus, il n’existe qu’en se transcendant et sa liberté ne peut s’accomplir qu’à travers la liberté d’autrui. Il justifie son existence par un mouvement qui, comme elle, jaillit du coeur de lui-même, mais qui aboutit hors de lui.
    Cet individualisme ne conduit pas à l’anarchie du bon plaisir. L’homme est libre ; mais il trouve sa loi dans sa liberté même. D’abord il doit assumer sa liberté et non la fuir; il l’assume par un mouvement constructif : on n’existe pas sans faire; et aussi par un mouvement négatif qui refuse l’oppression pour soi et pour autrui.
    • Is this kind of ethics individualistic or not? Yes, if one means by that that it accords to the individual an absolute value and that it recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence. It is individualism in the sense in which the wisdom of the ancients, the Christian ethics of salvation, and the Kantian ideal of virtue also merit this name; it is opposed to the totalitarian doctrines which raise up beyond man the mirage of Mankind. But it is not solipsistic, since the individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.
      This individualism does not lead to the anarchy of personal whim. Man is free; but he finds his law in his very freedom. First, he must assume his freedom and not flee it by a constructive movement: one does not exist without doing something; and also by a negative movement which rejects oppression for oneself and others.
    • Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Conclusion
  • Existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion. On the contrary, its ethics is experienced in the truth of life, and it then appears as the only proposition of salvation which one can address to men.
  • With the advent of medieval Scholasticism, … we find a clear distinction between theologia and philosophia. Theology became conscious of its autonomy qua supreme science, which philosophy was emptied of its spiritual exercises, which, from now on, were relegated to Christian mysticism and ethics. Reduced to the rank of a “handmaid of theology,” philosophy’s role was henceforth to furnish theology with conceptual—and hence purely theoretical—material. When, in the modern age, philosophy regained its autonomy, it still retained many features inherited from this medieval conception. In particular, it maintained its purely theoretical character, which even evolved in the direction of a more and more thorough systemization. Not until Nietzsche, Bergson, and existentialism does philosophy consciously return to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and of seeing the world.
    • Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (1995), p. 107
  • If Nietzsche is the father of existentialism, then perhaps Darwin deserves the title of grandfather.
  • This characteristic of Dasein’s being—this “that it is”—is veiled in its “whence” and “whither.”
  • Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being. Thus it is constitutive of the being of Dasein to have, in its very being, a relation of being to this being.
  • What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.
    • Søren Kierkegaard, in what is considered to be one of the earliest statements of existentialist thought, in a journal entry, Gilleleie (1 August 1835) Journals 1A
    • Variant translation: My focus should be on what I do in life, not knowing everything, excluding knowledge on what you do. The is key to find a purpose, whatever it truly is that God wills me to do; it's crucial to find a truth which is true to me, to find the idea which I am willing to live and die for.
    • Later variant: What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. … I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.
      • Later expression of such thoughts in a letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund (31 August 1835)
      • Variant translation: I must find a truth that is true for me.
  • I am well aware that as a human being I am very far from being a paradigm; if anything, I am a sample human being. With a fair degree of accuracy, I give the temperature of every mood and passion, and when I am generating my own inwardness, I understand these words: homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto [I am a human being, I hold that nothing human is alien to me]. But humanly no one can model himself on me, and historically I am even less a prototype for any human being. If anything, I am someone who could be needed in a crisis, as a guinea pig that life uses to feel its way. A person half as reflective as I would be able to be of significance for many people, but precisely because I am altogether reflective I have none at all. As soon as I am outside my religious understanding, I feel as an insect with which children are playing must feel, because life seems to have dealt with me so unmercifully; as soon as I am inside my religious understanding, I understand that precisely this has absolute meaning for me. Hence, that which in one case is a dreadful jest is in another sense the most profound earnestness. Earnestness is basically not something simple, a simplex, but is a compositum [compound], for true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness.
  • A great deal has been written about Existentialism in recent years, but this work of Dr. Kingston’s seems to me to occupy a unique and important place, and this for two reasons. First, in my opinion he seems to raise those questions about the Existentialist movement which most immediately spring to the mind of any intelligent Christian who finds himself confronted with it. Is the movement a reaction against Christian orthodoxy as such, or is it an attempt to recover certain Christian insights which Christians themselves have largely forgotten? If it is the former, how are we to explain the Christian existentialists, such as Kierkegaard and Marcel? If it is the latter, how are we to explain the atheist and antitheist existentialists, such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? Is it possible, in view of their radical opposition to consider Christian and atheist existentialism of the same genus? Or is it only by a misleading and equivocal use of words that the same label-“existentialism"-has been made to apply to both? And, granted that there can be a Christian existentialism, is it essentially Protestant or is there a genuinely Catholic type which can appeal to authentic, if perhaps partly forgotten, principles of traditional, and even Thomist, theology and philosophy?
  • The dilemma created by the existentialist “leap” is inescapable. Every attempted escape becomes an escape from existentialism itself. … It is one of the characteristics of existentialism that its adherents are continually on the verge of apostasy.
    • Helmut Kuhn, Encounter with Nothingness: An Essay on Existentialism, chapter IX
  • In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits... In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network's mind there are no limits.
  • Why aren’t we offered an existential training? Because one of society’s unacknowledged goals is to minimize existential thought. A company making widgets doesn’t want you to wonder about the meaningfulness of its widget. It wants you to be attracted to the widget’s design and buy two of them. A Broadway producer wants you to tap your feet; a police officer wants you to obey; a politician wants you to vote for her; a clergyman wants you to opt for his religion. None of them are likely to invite you to step back and ponder the meaning of their product, policy, or ideology. You are supposed to buy, to agree, and not to think too hard about anything. That what society wants and believes it needs from you.
  • On the one hand, the existentialist seeks to remain true to his original vision of the meaninglessness and futility of everything, since this fundamental cosmic honesty must be the basis of any attempt to live authentically; on the other hand, his stark personal reality is that he finds himself unable to appropriate the truth of nihilism existentially, unable to affirm it as his personal truth, the truth within which he will henceforth live: and it is at this point that he clutches at the artifice of commitment, hoping to save himself from nihilistic despair by a desperate leap towards a faith that will restore purpose and meaning to his shattered world. … The refusal to make the truth of nihilism one’s own and build one’s life entirely within its shadow is indeed a refusal of existentialism itself.
  • Nor if God does not exist are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us , nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone without excuse. That is I mean to say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything else he does.
    • Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Humanism, 1947 translated by Philip Maniret 1948 p. 34
  • The existentialist says the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment, and it is not by a particular case or particular action that you are committed altogether.
    • Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Humanism, 1947 translated by Philip Maniret 1948 p. 43
  • The existential attitude is one of involvement in contrast to a merely theoretical or detached attitude. “Existential” in this sense can be defined as participating in a situation, especially a cognitive situation, with the whole of one’s existence.
  • There are realms of reality or—more exactly—of abstraction from reality in which the most complete detachment is the adequate cognitive approach. Everything which can be expressed in terms of quantitative measurement has this character. But it is most inadequate to apply the same approach to reality in its infinite concreteness. A self which has become a matter of calculation and management has ceased to be a self. It has become a thing. You must participate in a self in order to know what it is. But by participating you change it. In all existential knowledge both subject and object are transformed by the very act of knowing.
  • Knowledge of that which concerns us infinitely is possible only in an attitude of infinite concern.
  • To assume that one’s existential task is completed when the individual is brought into right relation with society, that is, when the individual has been socialized, is to absolutize society and confuse society with God.
    • Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society (1992), p. 35
  • Now the basic impulse behind existentialism is optimistic, very much like the impulse behind all science. Existentialism is romanticism, and romanticism is the feeling that man is not the mere he has always taken himself for. Romanticism began as a tremendous surge of optimism about the stature of man. Its aim — like that of science — was to raise man above the muddled feelings and impulses of his everyday humanity, and to make him a god-like observer of human existence.
    • Colin Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism, p. 96 (1966)
  • Once we can see how this question of freedom of the will has been vitiated by post-romantic philosophy, with its inbuilt tendency to laziness and boredom, we can also see how it came about that existentialism found itself in a hole of its own digging, and how the philosophical developments since then have amounted to walking in circles round that hole.

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