1. Learning Objectives
2. Introduction
3. Advocates of existentialism
4. Salient features of existentialism
5. Atheism and theism in existentialism
6. Existence precedes essence
7. Critical evaluation
8. Let Us Sum Up
9. Further Readings
10. Answers to check your progress
11. Possible Questions


After going trough this unit you will be able to
Write about the development of existentialism;
List various thinkers and supporters of existentialism who helped this philosophy to grow and thrive;
Discuss the salient features of existentialism;
Identify one of the central themes of existentialism;
Distinguish between theism and atheism in existentialism; and
Evaluate the existential movement.


Existentialism is regarded as the most important philosophical trend in the modern scientific age. It has succeeded in creating a new revolution in contemporary thought. The Existential movement seeks to oppose the traditional ways of thinking in contemporary philosophy. But one important point to be noted here is that existentialism as a way of thought is not confined to philosophy alone. Its divergent interests and points of view can be traced to other fields of study as well. But one fact that is to be understood is that the concern for human life in someway has always been there in philosophy since time immemorial, though it was never studied under the brand name of existentialism. Only with the advent of contemporary philosophy did thinkers start to study and analyze human life in terms of “quality” and authentic existence and they were thereafter referred to as existentialists and their views as existentialism.

Soren Kierkegaard (1983-1855), a Danish thinker is generally regarded as the “father” of the existentialist movement. He was very much against the abstract conception offered by traditional philosophers regarding life and universe. He tried to show that “truth is factual” – it is a matter to be realized and experienced in our mundane daily life, something to be found in our ethical and spiritual life.

While going through the history of existentialism, we find that soon after the First World War, the views advocated by Kierkegaard on existentialism, spread to Germany and America. The Existentialism movement gathered momentum after the Second World War. The devastating effects of the two world wars that inflicted immense pain and sufferings on human life, forced man to re-think and direct its attention towards self-criticism and self-analysis. At this point, thinkers were alarmed at the prospect of the erosion of human values resulting from the unhindered application of science and technology. Science and technology was then used to maim and destroy the human life. But human life is the most valued treasure of the Universe which is revealed by man’s existence in the world. Therefore, they have given utmost importance to human existence.

Existentialism as a philosophy, deals with individual human existence. It is a type of view points that lays utmost importance to distinctive qualities of the individual, his existence, rather than man and nature or the world understood in the abstract or general sense. Existentialism asserts that each human individual is unique, and possesses uniqueness as distinguished from abstract universal human qualities. The true nature of an individual is to be understood as is revealed through his existence.


Some master figures have contributed to the growth of existentialism by their logical, philosophical and literary expressions. They are Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.

According to Kierkegaard, the main issue in life is to be a Christian or a whole man. His Existentialism deals with the following factors: man’s existence, his immortal soul, his destiny and the reality of God. He identified two great enemies of Christianity. (a) Hegelian Philosophy leading to abstract thinking and (b) the conventional Church goers with their belief in human progress, confidence in reason and faith in the goodness of man. The unbridgeable gulf between God and the world, the creator and the creature leads to anguish in man. At this stage man’s desperation makes him abandon reason and embrace faith. He takes a “leap of faith” leading to authentic existence. Kierkegaard says that a true philosopher must regard and understand oneself as the Creature of God, the absolute sovereign.

Nietzsche: His views on existentialism are often associated with the concepts of “Will to Power”, Superman, morality of masters and morality of slaves. His beliefs in Protestant Christianity influenced his views on existentialism. He asks-what purpose is served when a man wants to know? While knowing, man imposes Being on the process of Becoming. But the knowing subject is also a process. This process, for Nietzsche, is an effort. He also refers to it as Will or Power. Knowledge cannot be general or universal. There is only unique individual relations, interpretations and evaluations. There is no common element or essence, but only individual, private personal and particular existence. Nietzsche opposes the transcendent view of knowledge. What we know, is here before us. There is nothing to know beyond our present existence. Therefore, he accepts the personal reality of the existing individual thinker. Nietzsche’s philosophy is characterized by an extensive intellectual and cultural impasse which he described in terms of the “death of God” and the inception of Nihilism.

Karl Jaspers: Jasper’s emphasis is on good life and the decision-making self. Philosophy, he says, is a guide to reasonable living, a perpetual questinvolving living, feeling, deciding, acting and risking. Matter, life, self and mind are qualitatively different and they cannot be reduced to any common term. Man’s personal existence can be understood by considering (A) man’s immediate consciousness of selfhood (B) his relations with his fellow beings in social life, and (C) the various historical structures of community life, like morals, law, the family, the state etc. The self has no reality beyond the world; it is a part of this world. This self is authentic and it gives a true meaning to life. The genuine existence of the self is known through certain conditions of environment, suffering, death and guilt.

Gabriel Marcel: While Marcel is deeply religious with liberal outlook, yet his approach is philosophical. According to him, the main theme of philosophy is the human predicament. He is concerned basically with two questions – Who am I? And what is being? He distinguishes between two elements in thinking. The first type is known as “first reflection” and comprises of experiences of seeing and having. This type is found in thinking of the man in the street, that is, the common man and also in the technical and scientific man. The second type is known as “second reflection”. This type is beyond science and technology and objective knowledge. It seeks to reach beyond into the realm of being. There is also the distinction between “me” and something outside or “independent of me”. Being involves that which I ‘am’ and not just that which I ‘have’. It goes into the depths of nature and some degrees of participation with transcendence. However, it is undesirable for a living person to abolish all “having” from his life.

Communion with God, Marcel says, can interpret one’s existence. No formal proofs or conceptualizing is necessary to describe man’s experience with God. Man is free and this freedom can be experienced through hope, fidelity and love.
Martin Heidegger: His existentialism centers around three issues – (a) Man’s life (human being) (b) with his existence in the world of nature (concrete being) and (c) with ultimate reality (Being as such). Marcel says that man must understand that he is a finite. He comes into the world without his consent. He criticizes man who lives a superficial life and who emphasizes things, quality and personal power. Man must abandon his unauthentic existence. In spite of being a part or member of any collective group, he should be above the group- mentality. His mind should never be engrossed in things and details of everyday life. He may, if he chooses, live a life of pure and genuine existence if, he focuses on the truth. By truth, Marcel means that he must view life from a new perspective, that is, in the light of death. But a man may not be aware of this new perspective. Whatever his final destiny may be, he must rise above the mundane activities of daily life and seek to reach to a better life. This is what is to be regarded as man’s heroic existence

Jean-Paul Sartre: His views on existentialism are outlined in his famous lecture, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” In this famous lecture, he comments, “Existentialism in our sense of the word is a doctrine that does render human life possible.” He is convinced that there is no “essence” underlying the things we assert. He sets forth the view that human existence is really what we know. He asserts- “Existence precedes essence”. Sartre follows Nietzsche when he denies the existence of God. Man makes himself and he chooses the conditions in which he has to live. For him, there are no values external to man. Values are created by man. They have neither permanent nor objective basis. Sartre’s philosophy dwells on human experiences of dread, fear and anguish. Man detests loneliness, nothingness and death. Man is immensely free. But human life is marked by obstacles and resistance which man has not created. But human life becomes meaningful through the exercise of free choice in the face of these resistances and obstacles.

Thus, the goal of a human being should be towards a more ideal self. This ideal self is revealed in the heightened consciousness and existence of a free responsible man. But Sartre says that this quest for freedom is endless, quite deceptive and often futile. But even in this futile pursuit for freedom man can demonstrate his integrity.


Do you think existentialist viewpoint is confined to philosophy alone?

Is existentialist movement a reaction against idealism? What do you think?


1. Name some leading existentialists.
2. ‘God is dead’- Who says?
3. What is philosophy, according to Karl Jaspers?
4. ‘Existence precedes essence’- Who writes?
5. Gabriel Marcel is concerned basically with two questions. What are they?
6. Who is generally regarded as the father of existentialist movement?


1. Existentialism is a movement of protest basically against traditional philosophy. It is against Greek rationalism and Hegel’s Absolute Idealism. It opposes naturalism that tries to explain life through cause and effect opposing the naturalistic view point.

Science, the existentialists say, has succeeded in destroying and suppressing the creativity of man, human values and personal freedom, human feelings and emotions. Therefore, existentialism criticizes the scientific culture prevailing in modern society. It urges all writers, artistes to be conscious of human freedom and rescue humanity from doom and despair.

2. Unlike the traditional philosophers who assert that man is essentially rational, the existentialists say that man is guided by passion and not by reason. They lay utmost importance on will to power, self consciousness, feelings and emotions, tastes, individual likes and dislikes.

3. Existential thinkers are alarmed by the alienation between man and nature. Modern man has discarded nature and has turned himself into a machine. He has reached such a state that in spite of realizing his helpless state and meaningless existence, he is unable to do anything about it. He is suffering from guilt, dread, anguish and despair. Some existential thinkers say that philosophy aims to realize the true meaning of human life, man’s existence in order to free man from all his sufferings. Human life is known only through varied aspects of man’s life; they may be, pain, sorrow and suffering or happiness, contentment and well-being. Therefore, existentialism lays importance on the authentic existence of man.

4. Existentialism is an investigation and analysis of the human dilemma or human predicament: the dilemma with regard to his situation and his prospects in the world. In fact, since the last century, man has expressed concern over his sense of alienation from and meaningless existence in this world. Man feels himself as an outsider in this world, where he must reside. During the 19th Century, some thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky and few others were continuously raising their voice against the lamentable condition of man in this world.

5. Existentialism asserts that “Existence precedes essence.” Nothing can be above human existence. Human existence is the sole aim of all thought. It is above all qualities of things. Man’s existence alone, as he lives with his physical experience, is what matters. His actual existence cannot be conceptualized. It is a matter of living and experiencing. The existentialists, therefore emphasize the primacy of human existence.
6. Existential philosophers have laid importance on human subjectivity. Existentialism rejects materialism and idealism. Truth is subjective and cannot be known apart from the subject’s inner feelings. The immediate feeling or apprehension of the individual reveals the truth. It cannot be expressed in proposition. It is a matter of experience.

7. Existentialism lays emphasis on the freedom of the individual. Man is free but he is dominated by sorrow, fear, pain, dread and guilt. These are “Angst of life”. Man should find out the cause of these emotions, feelings and sufferings. Nietzsche asserts that “Will to power” and “faith in self” will help us to be free from the “Angst of life”. Man has immense choices within his reach. He has to work upon them and also accept responsibility for them. A genuine or authentic self exists, accepts choices, takes decision and accepts responsibility for them. Existentialism, in fact, asserts that man should strive for such an existence that thrives even in the face of frustrations and the impersonality of modern civilization.


Atheism and Theism in Existentialism

Within Existentialism, we find both theistic and atheistic view points. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian and he wanted man to understand the reality of God, the absolute sovereign. He is against all attempts to make Christianity “reasonable” or to defend Christianity through intellectual attempts. He is also against the conventional churchgoer. To know the true and real meaning of his life, he has to undergo pain and despair. This will make him abandon reason and embrace faith. This is what is known “leap of faith” in the life of an authentic individual. Nietzsche is a renowned atheistic Existentialist. He advocated the concept of “death of God” and also believed that we, humans have killed God. From this we can say that Nietzsche, once upon a time did believe in God. But later on, he turned against God. He talked of the “Higher Man” embodying the higher values of the “Lords (Superman) of the Earth”, not the virtues of mediocrity demonstrated by Christianity, Democracy and Socialism. He opposes conventional Christianity which, he believes, makes man impersonal, passive, indifferent and uninvolved.

Heidegger is quite neutral, rather indifferent, to the question of God. The concepts of God in traditional philosophy and religion is not to be treated as the basis of everything, God, for him, is a being like any other being.

Jaspers asserts that we can be guided by faith, love and insight. Though he quotes Nietzsche, often he is closer to Kierkegaard. However, he does not accept either Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity or Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”.

Marcel says that we can transcend extreme objectivity. We can participate in prayer, meditation or contemplation as we encounter an authentic and transcendent reality. There can be a reciprocal relation between a living personal God and a finite and concrete self or God. Harold H. Titus in “Living Issues in Philosophy” says about Marcel’s views – “To refuse God is to refuse to be”. Though man cannot adequately conceptualize Being or God, but if he experiences the presence of God, no formal proof or conceptualizing is necessary.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s straight-forward and forceful atheism is revealed through his writings like “Being and Nothingness” and his lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, to name a few. Sartre’s belief in the existence of God is quite different to the views generally accepted. His emphasis is on man’s personal freedom. For him, God cannot exist outside a totality or whole. In fact, he says that God as a creator, who is supposed to have created man in their essence and left to act freely, is quite incompatible with human freedom as conceived by Sartre. God cannot determine, Sartre says, the time when a man is “to die”. Man has an intrinsic desire to be God, and God, he says, can ultimately be identified with this desire. Man cannot rely on any external support or God, except his freedom. Man, therefore, must rely on his resources which his freedom offers.

There is no clear-cut distinction between the theists and atheists within existentialism. In fact, both theists and atheists are concerned with human existence along with its associated issues. Few among them are agreeable in accepting God as a transcendental entity. But surely from a neutral stand point, we may say that God can succeed in elevating the status of human existence. If God rescues man from his “predicament” making his life enriched and fulfilled, in this sense God can be accepted as one of the positive factors in existentialism.


1. What is “Leap of Faith”?
2. Name two followers of theistic and atheistic existentialism.
3. What is angst of life?
4. Who says about ‘faith in self’ and ‘Will to Power’?
5. Who wrote ‘Being and Nothingness’?


Existentialism, as the name, suggests deals with human existence. This existence is not an ordinary existence – it is unique, revealing the inner immediate experience of self awareness of the individual. Man’s life becomes significant and meaningful, only when he is recognized as an existing individual. An existing individual is aware of his immediate consciousness and this awareness cannot be expressed through abstractions. Abstract thinking makes man impersonal, taking him away from the concrete human being and human situation. There is no other reality or being except existence found in the “I” rather than the “it”.

Jean-Paul Sartre and some others assert that the statement “Existence Precedes Essence” is the soul and spirit of the existential movement. They distinguish between “existence” and “essence”. “Existence” is something occurring within space and time, a state of being actual and something which is given here and now. An individual is said to exist in this sense. The existentialists give a more richer, higher and positive status and content to the verb “to exist” in comparison to the verb “to live”. A person is said to have an authentic existence only when he is living and growing, full, vital and self-conscious life.

On the other hand, “Essence” is that which makes a thing what it is. It is what distinguishes a particular thing from other things. It is that which all things similar and labeled by the same name have in common. In fact often we may talk rightly about essence even though, really, there may not be any factual essence at any particular time. There is a distinction between ‘what a thing is’ and ‘that it is’. Essence is ‘what a thing is’ and ‘that it is’ is existence of the thing.

The classical philosopher relied solely on essence. Plato emphasized upon the concept of man, that is upon man in general and not upon any individual man. For him and others, a person is a person, not by his existence, but as revealed by the ideal, form or essence of man i.e., man-ness.

Existential thinkers reject this very notion of the classical thinkers. They say that the personal act of existing cannot be a matter of conception or abstraction. To actually know about existence one has to experience or actually live through it. It cannot be properly revealed through propositions. For them, the state of existence is primal than the supra-temporal and supra-empirical essence.


1. Who first coined the phrase “Existence precedes Essence”.
2. What is Existence?
3. What is Essence ?
4. Name the classical philosopher who solely relied on Essence?


The point where all existentialists meet is their concern for human predicament, man’s feelings of estrangement and alienation, his separation from his deeper and inner self, from his fellow-beings from nature and the world. All existentialists want to think and deal with the issue—what is involved in being a human person?

They all oppose traditional philosophy that speculates; deal with systems that have overlooked certain fundamental problems of man’s existence. They oppose science and any mass movements, and more recently they have criticized linguistic analysis and logical positivism too. However, they are to be commended for bringing into focus certain contemporary problems of human experience and existence and also for being alert to the inconsistency between thought and action. They have protested against philosophical solutions offered by Hegel, Marx and Engels, asserting that their solutions are ineffective to meet the demands of modern man. Men have become impersonal and detached due to his feelings of estrangement since the last hundred years. The Industrial Revolution that have produced great cities, the collective and mass movements and the fragmentation and specialization knowledge due to the advancement of science and technology – all these factors are responsible for man’s predicament. This predicament is a dilemma faced by man. He is forced to live and make home in the world where he is unhappy and frustrated.

But this rejection of objectivity by the existentialists that deny and suppress distinctive human qualities is not accepted by all, since they have gone a bit too far in rejecting all objectivity. They have denied the importance, and sometimes have raised irrational criticism towards science, nature, the external world, and many valid insights and issues of other kinds of philosophy. The critics ask – if reason cannot solve the problem of human existence, is there any guarantee that passion alone will be able to do so?

Reason should not be discredited or devalued. Man must refer to objective standards of truth and goodness to settle differences of opinion and also major disputes relating to all aspects of the world.

To give importance to a particular mood or a set of feelings as the hint or clue to understand life and the world is utterly objectionable and highly dangerous. In fact, such an emphasis on emotions of anxiety and dread will only create a sense of absurdity and nothingness.
However, we will have to give due credit to existentialism that have directed our attention to serious frustrations, disorders and discrepancies of modern life. In fact, it deserves special merit for alerting us to the precarious condition of not only modern civilization but also of the human existence in its entirety.


Existentialism as a philosophical trend could not last long. Although it gained popularity in the works of Sartre (existence precedes essence) and other existentialists like Nietzsche (God id dead), still the priority or supremacy of human being or man as the creator of all values cannot be easily accepted in the context of philosophy. Therefore, critics have criticized it vigorously. Whatever it may be, existentialists’ effort to understand man as a particular human being in the context of scientific or mechanical age through theistic and atheistic approach is also equally praiseworthy or readable.



  • D.R. Bali: Introduction to Philosophy, Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1989
    • H.J.Blackham: The Six Existentialist Thinkers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952
    • Dilip Kumar Chakravarty: Perspective in Contemporary Philosophy, Ajanta Publications, New Delhi, 1998
    • D.K. Chakravarty : Fundamentals Questions of Epistemology and Metaphysics, Omsons Publications, 2000
    • Margaret Chatterjee: The Existentialist outlook, Orient Longman, 1973
    • Dhirendra Mohan Datta: The Chief Currents of Contemporary Philosophy, The University of Calcutta, Kolkata, 1952
    • J.N. Sinha: Introduction to Philosophy, New Central Book Agency, Calcutta, 1985
    • H Harold Titus: Living Issues In Philosophy, Eurasia Publishing House, New Delhi, 1968
    • John Macquarrie : Existialism, Penguin Books, 1973
    • Mary Warnock: Existentialism, Oxford, University Press, 1970


1. They are Soren Kierkegaard, Fredrick Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre.
2. Nietzsche
3. Philosophy is a guide to reasonable living, a perpetual quest involving living, feeling, deciding, acting and risking.
4. Jean Paul Sartre
5. The two questions are-i) Who am I? And ii) What is being?
6. Martin Heidegger

1. It indicates to embrace faith abandoning reason.
2. Kierkegaard and Marcel are two theistic existentialist philosophers. On the other hand Nietzsche and Sartre are two atheistic existentialist philosophers.
3. We understand that man is free but he is dominated by sorrow, fear, pain, dread and guilt. They are ‘Angst of life’.
4. Nietzsche
5. Sartre

1. Jean Paul Sartre
2. Existence is something occurring within Space and Time, a state of being actual and something which is given here and now.
3. Essence is that makes a thing what it is.
4. Plato


1. What are the two great enemies of Christianity to Kierkegaard?
2. Mention the concepts associated with Nietzsche’s existentialism.
3. What is philosophy, according to Karl Jaspers? How does he attempt to understand personal existence?
4. Gabriel Marcel is concerned basically with two questions. What are they?
5. Explain the distinction Marcel makes with regard to thinking?
6. What ere the main issues around which Heidegger’s existentialism revolves? Explain.
7. What are the salient features of existentialism? Explain.
8. What is “Freedom” for the existentialist?
9. How does an existentialist understand “human subjectivity” and “primary of Existence”?
10. Write a note on Atheism and Theism in existentialism?
11. “Existence precedes essence”. Explain with reference to Sartre.