The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Existentialism: A philosophical school concerned with the human condition, particularly with questions of existence and meaning. Existentialists emphasize the individual, asking what it means to exist as a human being and highlighting individual freedom, choice, and subjectivity. Whether theistic or atheistic, existentialists deny that human reason can adequately explain the universe and reject notions of immutable or absolute value systems. Moreover, they reject deterministic systems of fate or predestination, maintaining that individuals have free will and are thus entirely responsible for their actions. Individuals must create morality and meaning in a world without defined guideposts or rules, an anxiety-provoking situation that often leads to denial and self-deception.

Existentialism, which arose in the twentieth century and gained global eminence in the aftermath of World War II, particularly in Europe, has its roots in the philosophy of nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who examined the individual’s relationship to God and argued that only through God could one escape despair. Kierkegaard maintained that most people live on an aesthetic level ruled by appearances and conventions and that movement to the second, ethical stage involves a “leap,” as does movement to the third and highest stage, the religious stage. According to Kierkegaard, who emphasized the importance of individual decision, the leap is not rational but a conscious choice to embrace meaning; faith is a matter of choice, not logic. Notable works by Kierkegaard include Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844), Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846), and Sickness Unto Death (1848).

Other important influences on existentialism include two German philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, an individualist, anti-Christian thinker who rejected religion as a crutch, and Edmund Husserl, who founded phenomenology. Nietzsche argued that people must accept that they exist in a material world; claimed that the “will to power,” rather than sympathy or socialization, is the main human instinct; and set forth the idea of the Übermensch, an “overman” or “superman” who overcomes nihilism by rejecting religious and social conventions, accepting complete responsibility for himself, and developing his own morality. Key works expounding these ideas include Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883—85) and The Will to Power (1888). Husserl, who emphasized the psychical realm of awareness and sought to describe experience in order to reach “things themselves,” argued that objects attain meaning only as they are perceived in an individual’s consciousness, rejecting the idea that objects have inherent meaning.

Existentialists typically fall into two major camps: theistic and atheistic. Theistic existentialists focus on the relationship between human beings and God and, following Kierkegaard, emphasize that faith is an individual, conscious choice that must be made without objective proof. Christian existentialists such as German-American theologian Paul Tillich and French philosopher Gabriel Marcel have emphasized that true freedom — including freedom from conflict and despair — may be found in God. Tillich, for instance, maintained that individuals, as finite beings, experience existential anguish (dread of nonbeing, or death) and are alienated from God, the infinite “Ground of Being”; human existence is dependent upon but estranged from the creating and sustaining essence, a gap that Christ, a “New Being,” heals by bridging the finite and the infinite and thereby revealing the essence inherent in existence. Much of Tillich’s existentialist thinking is set forth in The Courage to Be (1952). Major works by Marcel, who is often credited with coining the term existentialism but considered his own thought neo-Socratic, include Être et avoir (Being and Having) (1935) and Le mystère de l’être (The Mystery of Being) (1949—50). Other noted theistic existentialists include Swiss theologian Karl Barth, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, German philosopher Karl Jaspers, and German theologian Karl Rahner.

Atheistic existentialists, rejecting the idea of a supreme being, maintain that existence precedes essence and assert that the universe is an absurd, irrational place without purpose or meaning. Drawing on Nietzsche, they argue that individuals must define themselves and create meaning through their exercise of free will. They emphasize the importance of facing up to the human situation and living authentically by accepting and exercising the attendant freedom and responsibility. The two major figures associated with atheistic existentialism are Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, and Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher and writer.

Heidegger, a student of Husserl who rejected the existentialist label, referred to his seminal work Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) (1927) as phenomenological ontology. Focused on the meaning of being, he began by asking, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” Then, highlighting the contrast between being (existence), and nothing, he argued that to be human was to find oneself “thrown” into the world and that existence necessarily involved participation in the world (dasein, or “being there”). He also grounded being in time, maintaining that one’s possibilities and potential change over time, and distinguished between two ways of living in the world: a banal, passive, uncritical mode he deemed “inauthentic” and an “authentic” mode involving recognition of the human condition and active self-analysis.

In L’être et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique (Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology) (1943), Sartre, who was influenced by both Heidegger and Husserl, emphasized that “[e]xistence precedes and rules essence” and that “man makes himself.” He advocated dragging oneself out of the slimy visqueux, out of a passive existence; imbuing existence with essence, or meaning, by the exercise of choice and free will; and living an authentic life as an individual by asserting total freedom and accepting total responsibility. Moreover, unlike many other existentialists, Sartre accepted the characterization of his work as existentialist and adopted the term in a 1945 lecture, published as L’existentialisme est un humanisme (Existentialism Is a Humanism) (1946), which introduced his philosophy and responded to Christian and Marxist charges of quietism, negativity, subjectivism, isolationism, and relativism or permissiveness. Describing man as “condemned to be free,” Sartre reiterated the importance of emerging from a passive existence and becoming engagé — engaged or committed in the social sphere, including political struggles against repressive institutions, laws, and conventions. In the literary arena, he commonly focused on the anxiety and alienation of the individual in an absurd and meaningless world, with major works including the play Huis Clos (No Exit) (1943) and the novel La nausée (Nausea) (1938). Other influential existentialist writers include Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Franz Kafka.

Existentialist literary criticism, as pioneered by Sartre in works such as Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (What Is Literature?) (1947), evaluates literary works based on how well they represent the modern condition in general and, in particular, the struggle of individuals to define themselves through responsible individual action and social engagement in spite (or perhaps because) of their isolation and alienation.