What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a cultural movement and intellectual history, flourishing in Europe in the 1940’s and 1950’s. However, its roots predate this, and it is perhaps best viewed as the name for a group of thinkers spanning the 19th and 20th Centuries.


Existentialists argue that this approach conceals us from the highly personal task of trying to achieve self fulfilment in our lives, and this is their chief common aim: to understand how the individual can achieve the richest and most fulfilling life in the modern world.

The prominent figures within the movement have widely differing views, yet there seems to be three common themes spanning writings. Firstly, that humans have no pre given purpose or essence laid out by God or nature, and that it is up to each of us to decide who and what we are through our own actions: our essence is chosen and not given.


Secondly, that we decide our own fates and are responsible for what we make of our lives: we have free will in the sense that we can reflect on the conditions that affect our lives and make our own choices in light of them. We are self fashioning beings.

Thirdly, followers of the view are concerned with identifying the most authentic and fulfilling way of life possible for individuals: we must not conform and feel we are doing well by doing as others do in particular social situations. To become ‘authentic’, we must take over our own existence with clarity, and this transformation is made possible by profound emotional experiences.


Why does Existentialism Matter?

The movement is a large part of literature as well as philosophy; hence, individuals labelled as being part of the movement span many disciplines. Followers of the existentialist view are concerned with our existence as unique individuals, and their ideas are often seen as a backlash against philosophical and scientific systems that treat humans as substances with fixed properties, interacting with a world of objects. To understand humans, they argue, it is not enough to know all the truths of natural science and psychology. Neither does moral thinking suffice: we require a new category not found in our previous conceptual repertoire to enable us to fully understand human existence. 


It is clear from the variety of people who have influenced the movement that it is something worth researching. And, despite involving vast amounts of abstract thought and nontangible concepts, it is still very important for one to try and grasp an idea of the movement. It has inspired many facets of modern day society, as well as inspiring the likes of Woody Allen and Adolf Hitler and thus, the movement must be acknowledged  and respected as a piece of History as well as Philosophy.


Feel free to check out my other articles coming soon on Existential thinkers such as Nietzsche.