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  • v.11; 2021 Dec

An existentialist approach to authentic science

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The pressures of the ethos of “publish or perish” in academia has led to a multitude of issues for science and scientists. In this paper, we argue that the existentialist philosophy concept of authenticity would be useful for scientists to prevent issues of reproducibility, data manipulation, fraud, and mentorship. We highlight some major caveats and call for policies to prevent them. Overall, we propose a way for scientists to ensure they do not succumb to the pressures of a career in science.


Existentialism is a philosophical idea that existence precedes essence, which means that above the labels, roles, or stereotypes that one may be given, we are first and foremost independently acting conscious beings. Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre from “Existentialism is a Humanism”, his famous essay defending existentialism ( Sartre, 1946 ):

“We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.”

Sartre goes on to explain that the implication of this is that, as humans, we have the freedom of choice and are therefore responsible for our actions and the decisions we make.

“Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

The primary virtue of existentialism is authenticity, whereby choices are made autonomously with full responsibility and avoiding “mauvaise foi” or bad faith, a phenomenon in which an agent adopts false values due to external or social pressures, and in doing so, denies their own freedom.

In this article, we argue that the existentialist account of authenticity is a beneficial approach for the way we should conduct science, and its adoption would ensure scientists do not succumb to the pressures of a career in science. This paper is meant as a guide for scientists to conceptualize the use of existential philosophy in navigating science in academia and industry. It is not an in-depth analysis of existentialism in science, such issues of funding, publishing, and society’s views on science, but rather a discussion of scientists and their individual responsibilities. While we will not discuss the criticisms of existentialist philosophy itself (though we do discuss some specific criticisms in regard to its use in the scientific process) as much has already been written on it, it is important to note that at its core, biological sciences seem to argue against “existence precedes essence” in that individual differences in behavior are nearly always influenced by genetic factors ( Kendler and Greenspan, 2006 ). However, similar to many of Freudian theories being flawed ( Webster, 1995 ), yet theories on anxiety developing from traumatic memories ( Breuer and Freud, 1893 ) are still relevant to modern research on anxiety; aspects of existentialist theories are still relevant in virtue ethics in science – something we will argue in this paper.

The problem

I think it is fair to say that most scientists start out their careers with noble ideals, perhaps with the goal to better humanity or perhaps out of curiosity of the world we live in. However, the pressures of an ingrained ethos of “publish or perish” and the ever-increasing demands for research outputs, has led to a situation in which many scientists end up pursuing higher numbers of publications and higher impact papers. Quoting the 2017 Nobel Prize Laureate Jeffery Hall ( Hall, 2008 ):

“In my day you could get a faculty job with zero post-doc papers, as in the case of yours truly; but now the CV of a successful applicant looks like that of a newly minted full Professor from olden times.”

One might argue that this is not a bad thing, but would pursuing more publications and higher impact papers increase productivity and the quality of science? We argue that this research culture causes immense harm to both science and scientists. First, when the focus shifts to churning out publications instead of pursuing good science with well-designed and well-executed experiments, issues of reproducibility, ethics, and rigor start to emerge. For example, the high demands of publishing might drive a researcher to seek out significance by running a high number of experiments but only presenting significant data or data that fits the hypothesis, or by not replicating experiments or manipulating statistics or “p-hacking”. Second, the demand for research output can change mentorship dynamics, for example, between a primary investigator (PI) and their Ph.D. student. Instead of training their students to become better scientists by mentoring them on how to synthesize hypotheses, to design controlled experiments to test these hypotheses, and to properly analyze the results and understand it in the context of the literature, the pressures of research output can easily push a PI to use their students as a means to generate data. Although we acknowledge that quality of teaching is independent or mildly correlated to publishing ( Centra, 1983 ) and that good training can indeed lead to better research output, there is still the temptation to treat the students as a way to get publications rather than as young scientists-in-training. Third, the demand for increased output becomes a burden on scientists generating the data, which we argue is a huge reason for the high levels of mental health issues in graduate students and academic staff ( Court and Kinman, 2008 , Evans et al., 2018 , Watts and Robertson, 2011 ). Overall, the increased pressures of academia are detrimental to both science and scientists.

The existentialist approach

A key tenet in existentialist philosophy is that, as humans, we are “cursed” with absolute freedom (at least in atheistic accounts such as that of Sartre) and are thus responsible for the choices we make. If we abdicate this responsibility (such as succumbing to the pressures of society), we fall into bad faith. We argue that some concepts developed in existentialism can provide insights on how to develop better practices for scientists to navigate the pressures of academia. By the existentialist approach, we are free to choose that which we desire to be. As scientists, we make a choice in ‘becoming’ a scientist, and with it, the loss of certain freedoms (in abiding professional code of conducts, for example). 1 To stay authentic, we need to accept the burden of the loss of freedom by taking responsibility for this choice—by accepting the loss of freedom in 'becoming' a scientist committed to the truth and to the energetic search for it. Scientists should therefore conduct science authentically with the noble ideal to better humanity. Embracing freedom means not succumbing to the pressures of “publish or perish”, but rather to pursue good science. This then has implications on the problems of reproducibility, data manipulation, falsification, fraud, mentorship, and so on, as mentioned above. This is particularly important in the current climate of academic research with increasing rates of retractions due to fraud ( Steen, 2011 ), more researchers admitting to questionable research practices ( Fanelli, 2009 ), and greater evidence of more research with false findings ( Ioannidis, 2005 ). Having an existentialist approach means that we can no longer blame our actions on the pressures placed on us by the system. The PI should be fully responsible for his/her actions and how they treat their students and staff, and fall into bad faith if they claim they need to publish papers to retain their jobs. On the other hand, pre-independent researchers can no longer place the responsibility of how they conduct their research on the pressures placed on them by their PIs, as this similarly falls into bad faith. In either case, the agent cannot place responsibility on the system as that will fall into bad faith, instead the agent has to be responsible for her action. Given that the agent chose to become a scientist, one who agrees in the pursuit of truth within the constraints of professional code of conduct (as argued above), the agent therefore cannot justify any misconduct as that will be done in bad faith. Overall, we argue that approaching science through an existential perspective would place the responsibility squarely on the individual, preventing misconduct in research and creating a better environment for scientists.

Why existentialism? Rather than providing clear guidance, philosophical idealisms when applied to real-world situations can often add confusion. While the tension between idealisms of philosophies and the reality of a modern scientific career can bring up more questions that they answer, we argue that these questions are worth bringing up, as they highlight issues that we as scientist should question, contemplate, and strive to overcome. There are also many other theories in which scientific ethics can be and are indeed based on. We do not argue that existentialism stands as the only theory or even the best theory when it comes to ethical issues in science, but rather compliments other theories already discussed and applied in ethical science. We argue that existentialism provides a layer of personal responsibility beyond that of professional codes of conduct, and is complimentary rather than oppositional to current concepts. There are situations in which these codes of conduct realistically limit freedoms per se (e.g., Institutional review boards rejecting non-conforming studies), however, we argue that understanding the principles of existentialism in tandem with these codes of conduct would create more robust ethical behavior than simply conforming to latter. These codes of conduct then act as facticity (a limitation and a condition of freedom based on things one did not choose that are “set in stone”). Similarly, seemingly incoherent philosophical theories such as Aristotelian virtue ethics which are agent-focused and depends on human nature that exists independently of the agent (unlike existentialism which is agent-based and denies the existence of human nature) are not always entirely incoherent and can at times be naturalized as facticity – existentialism can be seen as a agent-based account of virtue ethics.

An immediate issue of applying an existentialist approach in science (or perhaps in general) is that of responsibility. By responsibility, we do not mean the responsibility of freedom as stated by Sartre, but rather personal responsibilities that challenge Sartre’s view of freedom. Throughout our lives, we have responsibilities that perhaps realistically limit our freedom. While an existentialist might argue that this constitutes bad faith as said responsibilities can be seen as “societal pressures” (making decisions based on responsibilities can be seen as putting blame on them and hence being inauthentic or falling into bad faith), they realistically remain a consideration for how one acts, and rightly so. For example, if an academic has a family with young children, then surely, they would be mindful of the implications of losing one’s job due to low numbers of papers or fewer high impact publications, resulting in the loss of income, needing to relocate, and other consequences. In such situations, we argue that an existentialist thought process would still be beneficial, as it forces one to take into consideration the authenticity of science (or one’s original intent of pursuing a career in academic sciences). This would be beneficial in two ways: 1) it would prevent certain actions that cross the line (e.g., falsifying data) and 2) if one succumbs to the pressures of academia due to personal responsibilities, it would taper the extent of such acts. Overall, although a researcher might not be fully authentic in conducting science due to extraneous responsibilities, an existentialist approach could minimize any emerging issues.

Another major problem perhaps lies in the economics of the existentialist approach. Regardless of how one conducts research, be it authentic or not, the “invisible hand” of the capitalistic “publish or perish” system of academia would still favor researchers who have more publications and more high impact papers. This system puts pressure on academics to publish more in order to stay relevant in the eyes of the institution that values publishing, which is reminiscent of the economic concept of rent-seeking behavior 2 ( Muller, 2017 ). Such a system can lead to academics following the path of least resistance to obtain short-term rewards/funding. It then becomes conceivable that authenticity (in the existentialist sense of the word) in science might be unintentionally “weeded” out by the system. In our above example, a PI who exploits their students to generate more data at the cost of their development would produce more publications and continue to get grants and promotions, whereas a PI who mentors their students to be good scientists would have a fewer publications and would receive less funding. Similarly, rigorous science requires repeat experiments and robust statistical analysis, but p-hacking or even fraud if undetected (in our opinion, this happens a lot) generates more significant data that leads to faster publications with higher impact. Perhaps like economics, policies need to be in place to prevent such “market failures” in science. Policies need to encompass a more holistic evaluation of the quality of work, rewarding good mentorship over data generation, and taking into consideration the research output beyond the impact factor of journals publishing the papers. What exactly these policies entail would require careful consideration by economist, politics and policy researchers, scientists, funders, and publishers.

Combining the above caveats, a central theme of idealism comes to mind, but are theoretical philosophies such as existentialism overly idealistic to be of benefit to a pragmatic venture such as science? The endeavor of taking abstract and perhaps insensitive ideals of a theoretical philosophy and applying them to specific situations of scientific ethics might appear to be impractical. Furthermore, is existentialism internally incoherent to the real-world pressures that we have accepted in our choice (assuming it is one of good faith) to become a scientist by choosing the loss of certain freedoms and putting blame on the loss of these freedoms? Much has already been argued on the practicality of ethical philosophy, for example, proponents of the “anti-theory” such as the objection of reductive ethical theory and it’s lack of authority ( Williams, 1985 ). Is there any value in an existentialist approach for scientific ethics? As mentioned above, we argue that existentialist theory is complimentary to other philosophical theories and professional codes of conduct. It adds a layer of personal responsibility in which existing ethical guidelines might be lacking. For example, it is perfectly ethical according to professional guidelines to not repeat experiments if statistics sufficiently argue for a certain hypothesis; however, if a scientist authentically seeks the idealism mentioned above, effort would be made to ensure reproducibility through repeat experiments. Being authentic as a scientist would therefore mean resisting the pressures to take “shortcuts” like not replicating experiments, as being authentic as a scientist is to be in earnest pursuit of the truth, above the pressures of publications, impact factors, citations, etc. – something that can only produce better science.

However, scientists can be arrogant, hostile, overly driven by their career etc., and being free from authenticity under these conditions might lead to some very bad behavior. Therefore, existentialist theory alone may be insufficient for ethical science in such cases, rather it should act as a compliment to other ethical theories and codes of conduct. There are also arguments that the existentialist theory is incompatible with other theories. For example, adherence to a professional code of conduct appears to be exactly the kind of external values that existentialists tend to question—“good science” following a professional code of conduct will inherently be subject to the essence of the code, whereas existentialism at its core asks that an agent determines their own essence and questions an enforced “essence” placed on said agent. How then can scientists resolve such contradictions? Similar to our above arguments of responsibility, we believe an existentialist thought process can still be beneficial. Ethical codes of conduct dictate acceptable behavior in a profession, and we propose that they should be adhered to if one is considered a member of said profession. A scientist could however apply existentialist precepts complimentary to already existing ethical frameworks like professional codes of conduct by adhering to the “spirit” in which this code was derived to avoid unethical actions. Overall, we argue an existentialist mindset complimentary to other ethical frameworks could still be effective in preventing certain unethical actions, and to avoid certain “lines” from being crossed or reduce unethical actions.

The pressures of modern academia have inevitably caused a myriad of issues that have unfortunately distorted the intent of many scientists, creating a situation where science and scientists are under extreme stress. In this article, we argue that by using an existentialist approach, scientists will be obliged to come to terms with their responsibility of freedom, leading to choices that are authentic. It is worth noting that many other philosophical theories exist in which science can be conducted, and existentialism is but one that we propose. Critical thinking, through philosophical theories, can be useful tools for a scientist ability to make good judgements in cases where rigid doctrines, like code of conducts, can be skirted. Articles such as the present hence serve as a means to which scientist can engage with philosophical thought in order better the way in which we conduct science. However, more discussions based on philosophical underpinning would be useful in this pursuit. Although issues in funding, measures of success, and how society views science may appear to challenge the use of existentialist concepts in ethical science, by practical adoption of an existentialist philosophical approach in compliment with existing ethical theories and codes of conduct together with sensible policies to prevent “market failures”, we can begin to reform areas of academia that appear to be broken by the high pressures of “publish or perish”.

CRediT authorship contribution statement

Shawn Zheng Kai Tan: Conceptualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing. Lee Wei Lim: Writing – review & editing, Supervision.

Ethics Statement

All authors declare no competing financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


We would like to thank Alexandre Erler, Keri Roberson, Mildred Mitchell, and Madeleine Armstrong for their invaluable input.

1 We take here a stance against a fully epistemological anarchistic (as suggested by Feyerabend (1975) in “Against Method”) in scientific pursuit (though we do recognize that Freyebend was making a reducto argument anyway). We reconcile this with the existentialist philosophy by stating that it is indeed a choice by the agent to become a scientist, and with-it choosing loss of freedom in the form of professional code of conducts, one which the agent must be responsible for if the agent wants to remain authentic.

2 Rent-seeking behavior seeks to increase one's existing wealth without creating new wealth. The theory is when the most talented individuals go into rent-seeking (the most lucrative) fields like finance, law, etc., instead of entrepreneurship, the economy is negatively affected because this does not encourage innovation and growth ( Murphy et al., 1991 ). Muller (2017) used Tollison’s analysis of rent-seeking ( Tollison, 2012 ) as “the study of how people compete for artificially contrived transfers” and parallels it with academia and publishing.

Data Availability

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As an intellectual movement that exploded on the scene in mid-twentieth-century France, “existentialism” is often viewed as a historically situated event that emerged against the backdrop of the Second World War, the Nazi death camps, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all of which created the circumstances for what has been called “the existentialist moment” (Baert 2015), where an entire generation was forced to confront the human condition and the anxiety-provoking givens of death, freedom, and meaninglessness. Although the most popular voices of this movement were French, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as compatriots such as Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the conceptual groundwork of the movement was laid much earlier in the nineteenth century by pioneers like Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche and twentieth-century German philosophers like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers as well as prominent Spanish intellectuals José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno. The core ideas have also been illuminated in key literary works. Beyond the plays, short stories, and novels by French luminaries like Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, there were Parisian writers such as Jean Genet and André Gide, the Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the work of Norwegian authors such as Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, and the German-language iconoclasts Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. The movement even found expression across the pond in the work of the “lost generation” of American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, mid-century “beat” authors like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William S. Burroughs, and the self-proclaimed “American existentialist,” Norman Mailer (Cotkin 2003, 185).

What distinguishes existentialism from other movements in the intellectual history of the West is how it stretched far beyond the literary and academic worlds. Its ideas are captured in films by Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Goddard, Akira Kurosawa, and Terrence Malick. Its moods are expressed in the paintings of Edvard Munch, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Edward Hopper and in the vitiated forms of the sculptor Alberto Giocometti. Its emphasis on freedom and the struggle for self-creation informed the radical and emancipatory politics of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as well as the writings of Black intellectuals such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Its engagement with the relationship between faith and freedom and the incomprehensibility of God shaped theological debates through the lectures and writings of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Martin Buber, among others. And, with its penetrating analyses of anxiety and the importance of self-realization, the movement has had a profound impact in the development of humanistic and existential approaches to psychotherapy in the work of a wide range of theorists, including R.D. Laing, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, and Irvin Yalom.

With this broad and diverse range of incarnations, it is difficult to explain what the term “existentialism” refers to. The word, first introduced by Marcel in 1943, is certainly not a reference to a coherent system or philosophical school. [ 1 ] Indeed, the major contributors are anything but systematic and have widely divergent views, and of these, only Sartre and Beauvoir explicitly self-identified as “existentialists.” In surveying its representative thinkers, one finds secular and religious existentialists, philosophers who embrace a conception of radical freedom and others who reject it. And there are those who regard our relations with others as largely mired in conflict and self-deception and others who recognize a deep capacity for self-less love and interdependence. Given these disparate threads and the fact that there is no unifying doctrine, one can nonetheless distill a set of overlapping ideas that bind the movement together.

  • Nihilism : The emergence of existentialism as an intellectual movement was influenced by the rise of nihilism in late nineteenth century Europe as the pre-modern religious worldview was replaced with one that was increasingly secular and scientific. This historical transition resulted in the loss of a transcendent moral framework and contributed to the rise of modernity’s signature experiences: anxiety, alienation, boredom, and meaninglessness.
  • Engagement vs. Detachment : Against a philosophical tradition that privileges the standpoint of theoretical detachment and objectivity, existentialism generally begins in medias res , amidst our own situated, first-person experience. The human condition is revealed through an examination of the ways we concretely engage with the world in our everyday lives and struggle to make sense of and give meaning to our existence.
  • Existence Precedes Essence : Existentialists forward a novel conception of the self not as a substance or thing with some pre-given nature (or “essence”) but as a situated activity or way of being whereby we are always in the process of making or creating who we are as our life unfolds. This means our essence is not given in advance; we are contingently thrown into existence and are burdened with the task of creating ourselves through our choices and actions.
  • Freedom : Existentialists agree that what distinguishes our existence from that of other beings is that we are self-conscious and exist for ourselves, which means we are free and responsible for who we are and what we do. This does not mean we are wholly undetermined but, rather, that we are always beyond or more than ourselves because of our capacity to interpret and give meaning to whatever limits or determines us.
  • Authenticity : Existentialists are critical of our ingrained tendency to conform to the norms and expectations of the public world because it prevents us from being authentic or true to ourselves. An authentic life is one that is willing to break with tradition and social convention and courageously affirm the freedom and contingency of our condition. It is generally understood to refer to a life lived with a sense of urgency and commitment based on the meaning-giving projects that matter to each of us as individuals.
  • Ethics : Although they reject the idea of moral absolutes and universalizing judgments about right conduct, existentialism should not be dismissed for promoting moral nihilism. For the existentialist, a moral or praiseworthy life is possible. It is one where we acknowledge and own up to our freedom, take full responsibility for our choices, and act in such a way as to help others realize their freedom.

These ideas serve to structure the entry.

1. Nihilism and the Crisis of Modernity

2.1 subjective truth, 2.2 perspectivism, 2.3 being-in-the-world, 2.4 embodiment, 3. existence precedes essence, 4.1 the anxiety of choice, 4.2 mediated freedom, 5.1 the power of moods, 5.2 kierkegaard’s knight of faith, 5.3 nietzsche’s overman, 5.4 heidegger’s resolute dasein, 5.5 self-recovery in sartre and beauvoir, 6.1 authentic being-for-others, 6.2 the ethics of recognition, 6.3 the ethics of engagement, 7.1 post-structuralism, 7.2 narrative and hermeneutic philosophy, 7.3 philosophy of mind and cognitive science, 7.4 critical phenomenology, 7.5 comparative and environmental philosophy, 7.6 philosophy of health and illness, 7.7 a new generation, other internet resources, related entries.

We can find early glimpses of what might be called the “existential attitude” (Solomon 2005) in the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of antiquity, in the struggle with sin and desire in St. Augustine’s Confessions , in the intimate reflections on death and the meaning of life in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays , and in the confrontation with the “dreadful silence” of the cosmos in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées . But it was not until the nineteenth century that the ideas began to coalesce into a bona fide intellectual movement. By this time, an increasingly secular and scientific worldview was emerging and the traditional religious framework that gave pre-modern life a sense of moral orientation and cohesion was beginning to collapse. Without a north star of moral absolutes to guide us, the modern subject was left abandoned and lost, “wandering,” as Nietzsche writes, “as if through an endless nothing” (1887 [1974], §125). But it wasn’t just the rise of modern science and its cold mechanistic view of the world as a value-less aggregate of objects in causal interaction that contributed to the anxiety and forlornness of the modern age. The rise of Protestantism also played a role. With its rejection of hierarchical Church authority, this new form of Christianity emphasized subjective inwardness and created a unique social configuration grounded in principles of individualism, freedom, and self-reliance. The result was the loss of a sense of community and belongingness rooted in the close-knit social bonds of traditional society. And the Protestant shift intensified the Christian attitude of contemptus mundi (“contempt for the world”), contributing to feelings of loneliness and creating a perception of public life as a domain that was fundamentally inauthentic and corrupt (Aho 2020; Guignon 2004; Taylor 1989).

Along with these historical developments, social transformations associated with the Industrial Revolution and the formation of the modern state were emerging. With newly mechanized working conditions and bureaucratic forms of administration, an increasingly impersonal and alienating social order was established. When Ortega y Gasset introduces his notion of “the mass man,” he captures the automation and lifeless conformism of the machine age, where everybody “feels just like everybody else and is nevertheless not concerned about it” (1930 [1993, 15]). In their conceptions of “the public” (Kierkegaard), “the herd” (Nietzsche), and “the They” (Heidegger), existentialists offer powerful critiques of the leveled down and routinized ways of being that characterize mass society. And the novels and short stories of Dostoevsky, Camus, and Kafka capture the bourgeois emptiness and boredom of the managerial class and the paranoia and distrust that emerges when life is regulated and controlled by faceless bureaucrats.

These social transformations created the conditions for nihilism, where modern humanity suddenly found itself adrift and confused, unsure of which path to take or where to look for a stable and enduring sense of truth and meaning. The condition of nihilism involves the shocking recognition that there is no overarching reason, order, or purpose to our existence, that it is all fundamentally meaningless and absurd. Of all the existentialists, Nietzsche was the most influential and prophetic in diagnosing and conceptualizing the crisis. With the death of God and the loss of moral absolutes, we are exposed to existence “in its most terrible form … without meaning or aim” (Nietzsche 1887 [1974], §55). And it is against this anomic background that the question of existence, of what it means to be, becomes so urgent. But it is a question that requires taking a radically different standpoint than the one privileged by the philosophical tradition.

2. Engagement vs. Detachment

From Plato onward, Western philosophy has generally prioritized a methodology grounded in a perspective of rational detachment and objectivity to arrive at truths that are immutable and timeless. By practicing what Merleau-Ponty disparagingly calls, “high-altitude thinking” (1964 [1968], 73), the philosopher adopts a perspective that is detached and impersonal, a “God’s eye view” or “view from nowhere” uncorrupted by the contingencies of our emotions, our embodiment, or the prejudices of our time and place. In this way the philosopher can grasp the “reality” behind the flux of “appearances,” the essential and timeless nature of things “under the perspective of eternity” ( sub specie aeternitatis ). Existentialism offers a thoroughgoing rejection of this view, arguing that we cannot look down on the human condition from a detached, third-person perspective because we are already thrown into the self-interpreting event or activity of existing, an activity that is always embodied, felt, and historically situated. Existence, then, is generally grasped not just through dispassionate theorizing but through a careful analysis of first-person experience, of the concrete, flesh and blood particulars of everyday life and the feelings, relationships, and commitments that make us who we are. It is a philosophy that begins from the standpoint of the engagé , of the individual who is engaged in life and who confronts the givens of existence.

The existentialist critique of theoretical detachment was pioneered by Kierkegaard whose scorn was directed primarily at G.W. F. Hegel, a philosopher who adopted the “perspective of eternity” to build a metaphysical system that would provide complete knowledge of reality. By taking a disengaged and panoptic view, Kierkegaard argues Hegel’s system invariably covers over the deeply personal project of being human and the specific needs and concerns of the existing individual. In his words, “it makes the subject accidental, and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing” (1846 [1941, 173]). In response, Kierkegaard reverses the traditional orientation that privileges objectivity by claiming that, when it comes to the question of existence, one’s own subjective truth is “ the highest truth attainable ” (1846 [1941, 182]). This means the abstract truths of philosophical detachment are always subordinate to the concrete truths of the existing individual. “The real subject,” writes Kierkegaard, “is not the cognitive subject … the real subject is the ethically existing subject” (1846 [1941, 281]). And subjective truth cannot be reasoned about or explained logically; it emerges out of the situated commitments, affects, and needs of the individual. For this reason, it does not disclose timeless and objective truths; it discloses “a truth which is true for me” (1835 [1959, 44]). For Kierkegaard, to live this truth invariably results in feelings of anxiety and confusion because it is objectively uncertain; it has no rational justification, and no one else can understand or relate to it. It is an ineffable truth that is felt rather than known. In this sense, the existing individual “discovers something that thought cannot think” (Kierkegaard 1844 [1936, 29]). But prioritizing the contingent and unrationalizable truths of existence does not mean Kierkegaard is forwarding a position of “irrationalism.” He is claiming, rather, that the standpoint of rational detachment cannot help us access the self-defining commitments and projects that matter to the existing individual. Truths of flesh and blood cannot be reduced to systematic explanation because such truths do not provide us with objective knowledge. Rather, they lay bare the passionate and urgent sense of how we should live our lives. They tell the individual: “what I am to do , not what I am to know” (Kierkegaard, 1835 [1959, 44]).

Nietzsche echoes Kierkegaard’s misgivings about methodological detachment and philosophical systems but he does so by forwarding a pragmatic and perspectival account of truth. He argues that philosophers don’t discover objective truths by means of detached reasoning because truth claims are always shaped by and embedded in specific sociohistorical contexts. Truths, for Nietzsche, are best understood as social constructs; they are created or invented by a historical people, and they endure only so long as they are socially useful. On Nietzsche’s account, truths are passed down historically for generations to the point where they are uncritically accepted as “facts.” But from the standpoint of perspectivism, “facts are precisely what there is not, [there are] only interpretations. [The world] has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (Nietzsche 1901 [1968], §481). Nietzsche’s genealogy is one that shows how the history of Western philosophy is largely a history of forgetting how truths are invented. “It is only by means of forgetfulness,” he writes, “that man can ever reach the point of fancying himself to possess a ‘truth’” (Nietzsche 1889a [1990a], §93). This means human beings are already bound up in socially constructed perspectives that they cannot disengage or detach from. To exist, then, is to live in one’s “own perspectival forms, and only in them. We cannot see around our own corner” (Nietzsche 1887 [1974], §374). There is no aperspectival “reality.” The epistemological distinction between “appearance” and “reality” is a pseudo-problem that is always parasitic on the perspectival forms that we inhabit.

Nietzsche goes on to suggest there is a psychological motivation in our shared belief in objective truth. It shelters us from the terrifying contingency and mutability of existence. Nietzsche understands that human beings are vulnerable and frightened creatures, and the belief in truth—even though it is an illusion—has social and pragmatic utility by providing a measure of coherence and reliability. We need these truths for psychological protection, to help us cope with an otherwise chaotic and precarious existence. “Truth,” therefore, “is that sort of error without which a certain species of life could not live” (Nietzsche 1901 [1968], §493).

In Being and Time , Heidegger will expand on this critique of detachment and objectivity by developing his own phenomenological analysis of existence or “being-in-the-world” ( In-der-Welt-sein ). Following the core maxim of phenomenology introduced by his teacher Husserl, Heidegger’s philosophy attempts to return “to the things themselves,” to not explain but describe how things are given, reveal themselves, and make sense to us in our average everyday lives. Employing the word “Dasein,” a colloquial German term that refers to the kind of “existence” or “being” unique to humans, Heidegger makes it clear he is not interested in a systematic explanation of what we are , as if existence referred to the objective presence of a substance—e.g., a rational animal, an ego cogito , or an ensouled body. As a phenomenologist, he is concerned with how we are . In his version of phenomenology, Dasein is viewed not as a substance with what-like characteristics but as a self-interpreting, meaning-giving activity. Dasein refers to “the subject’s way of being ” (Heidegger 1927 [1982, 123]), someone who is always already involved and engaged with the equipment, institutions, and practices of a shared world and that embodies a tacit understanding of how to be in that world.

Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world articulates three related ideas that will become central to twentieth-century existentialism and phenomenology. First, it offers a thoroughgoing rejection of the Cartesian view of the self or “I” as a discrete mental container of “inner” thoughts and beliefs that is somehow separate and distinct from “outer” objects in the world. There is no inner-outer dualism because the self is not a disembodied mind or consciousness. It is the activity of existing, a relational activity that is structurally bound up in the world. Thus, “self and world belong together in the single entity, the Dasein” (Heidegger 1927 [1982, 297]). Second, Heidegger compels us to rethink what we mean by “world.” From a phenomenological perspective, the world is not a geometrical space nor is it the sum of objects. It is the relational setting of our lives, the shared context of meaning that we are already involved in. And our involvement in the world allows objects to count and matter to us in particular ways. Third, Heidegger suggests that being-in-the-world is a meaning-giving activity. When we engage with and handle objects in the world, we give them meaning; we encounter them as meaningful . What appears to us in the immediacy of lived experience is always shaped by the public meanings we grow into. The fact that our existence is “fraught with meaning” suggests that experience has an intentional structure; it is always directed towards objects; it is about or of something (Heidegger 1919 [2002, 60]). The experience of hearing, for example, is not a representation of bare sense data because sounds are invariably colored by the context of meaning we are thrown into. We hear some- thing : we hear “the thunder of the heavens, the rustling of the woods, the rumbling of the motors, the noises of the city” (Heidegger 1950 [1971, 65], emphasis added). Meaning, on this view, is not generated by detached cognitive associations. It emerges against the background of our functional involvement in the world, in the way we are situated and engaged in a shared network of equipment, roles, institutions, and projects. And this engagement reveals a kind of pre-reflective competence or practical “know how” ( können ) that can never be made theoretically explicit.

We see, then, that in their critique of third-person detachment existentialists forward the idea that we are already “caught up in the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1945 [1962, 5]). And an essential aspect of being caught up in this way is the experience of one’s own embodiment and the crucial role that bodily orientation, affectivity, perception, and motility play in our everyday being-in-the-world. In this way, philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Beauvoir, and Marcel challenge the traditional interpretation of the body. Against the standard “Cartesian account,” the body is not regarded as a discrete, causally determined object, extended in space, and set apart from the disinterested gaze of the cognizing mind. The body is not something I have. It is a site of affectivity and meaning. It is who I am . And I cannot obtain objective knowledge of my body because I am already living through it; it is the experiential medium of my existence. “The body,” as Sartre puts it, “is lived and not known .” (1943 [1956, 427]) [ 2 ]

By building on the analysis of the lived body ( corps propre , corps vécu , corps vivant , Leib ), existentialists reveal how our moods, perceptions, and experiences are already bound up in worldly meanings, how we internalize these meanings, and how this act of internalization shapes the way we live, how we handle the tools of daily life, maneuver through lived space, relate to others, and interpret and perform our identities. In her pathbreaking work The Second Sex , Beauvoir illuminates this point by showing how a woman tends to internalize the dominant androcentric worldview, resulting in a representation of herself as subordinate, weak, and inferior. She is the “second sex” not because she is born with a particular biological body, but because she inhabits, enacts, and embodies the oppressive meanings and practices unique to her patriarchal situation. As Beauvoir famously puts it, the woman “is not born , but rather becomes a woman.” This is because “the body is not a thing; it is a situation… subject to taboos [and] laws… It is a reference to certain values from which [she] evaluates [herself]” (1949 [1952, 34, 36]).

The existentialist’s distinction between the object-body and the lived-body has made it possible for contemporary philosophers and social theorists to engage the lived experience of those who have been historically marginalized by the western tradition. By rejecting the standpoint of theoretical detachment and focusing on the structures of embodiment and being-in-the-world, influential thinkers such as Franz Fanon (1952 [1967]), Iris Marion Young (1984 [2000]), and Judith Butler (1990), among others, have explored different ways in which we enact and embody forms of oppression and how this can shape our self-image and inhibit the experience of movement, spatial orientation, and other forms of bodily comportment. These investigations help to broaden and pluralize our understanding of the human condition by shedding light on a diverse range of embodied perspectives, from ethnicity and race, sex and gender, and age and physical ability. And insofar as these analyses help capture what is distinct about the meaning-giving activity of humans, they illuminate what is arguably the unifying principle of existentialism: “existence precedes essence.”

This principle was initially introduced early on in Heidegger’s Being and Time when he writes, “The ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence” (1927 [1962, 42]). [ 3 ] Sartre will later repackage this line with the pithy adage, “existence precedes essence” (1946 [2001, 292]). What this statement suggests is that there is no pre-given or essential nature that determines us, which means that we are always other than ourselves, that we don’t fully coincide with who we are. We exist for ourselves as self-making or self-defining beings, and we are always in the process of making or defining ourselves through the situated choices we make as our lives unfold. This is, according to Sartre, “the first principle of existentialism,” and it “means, first, that man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself” (1946 [2001, 292–3]). The point here is that there can be no complete or definitive account of being human because there is nothing that grounds or secures our existence. Existence is fundamentally unsettled and incomplete because we are always projecting forward into possibilities, “hurling ourselves toward a future” as we imagine and re-imagine who we will be. Existence, then, is not a static thing; it is a dynamic process of self-making.

Acknowledging existence as a self-making process does not mean the existentialist is denying that there are determinate aspects or “facts” about our situation that limit and constrain us. This is our givenness (or “facticity”), and it includes aspects of our being such as our embodiment and spatiality, our creaturely appetites and desires, and the socio-historical context we find ourselves in. But what distinguishes us as humans is that we have the capacity to rise above or “transcend” these facts in the way we relate to, interpret, and make sense of them. If I am compelled by a strong desire for sex, alcohol, or cigarettes, for instance, I do not out of necessity have to act on these desires. I have the freedom to question them and give them meaning, and the meanings I attribute to them shape my choices and the direction my life will take going forward.

This means, unlike other organisms, we are self-conscious beings who can surpass our facticity by calling it into question, interpreting it in different ways, and making decisions about how to deal with it in the future. This is what Kierkegaard means when he describes existence as “a relation that relates to itself” (1849 [1989, 43]). Existence is a reflexive or relational tension between “facticity” and “transcendence,” where we are constrained by our facticity but simultaneously endowed with the freedom to exceed or transcend it. The human being is, as Ortega y Gasset writes, “a kind of ontological centaur, half immersed in nature, half transcending it” (1941, 111). We are not wholly determined by our nature because our nature is always a question or an issue for us. We have the capacity to reflect on and care about it. And the way we care about our nature informs how we create ourselves. Sartre will go so far as to say that human existence is fundamentally “indefinable” and that “there is no human nature” because there is no aspect of our facticity that can fully describe us. Our facticity reveals itself to us only through the self-defining meanings and values that we give to it. “If man […] is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing . Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be” (1946 [2001, 293]). This idea that facticity can always be nullified or negated by our choices reveals the key to understanding the existentialist conception of freedom.

Recognizing that there is no pre-given essence that determines existence, the existentialist makes it clear that it is up to the individual to make his, her, or their own identity through choices and actions. Sartre explains that the coward, for instance, is not the way he is because of an unstable childhood or a particular genetic makeup. The coward “makes himself a coward” by means of his decisions (1946 [2001, 301]). In this way, the existentialist generally affirms the view that the human being has free will, is able to make decisions, and can be held responsible for their actions. [ 4 ] But, as we will see, this does not mean that we can do whatever we want. It means, rather, that existence is structured by our capacity to give meaning to our situation based on the actions and choices we make as our lives unfold. Insofar as we exist, we are envisioning a certain kind of life, assigning a value to our identity, and making ourselves into the kind of person we are.

When we become aware of our freedom as an inescapable given of the human condition, the awareness is often accompanied by anxiety because we realize that we alone are responsible for our choices and the projects we undertake. There is no moral absolute, divine will, or natural law that can provide guidance or justify our actions. We are, in this sense, condemned to be free because “there are no excuses behind us nor justifications before us” (Sartre 1946 [2001, 296]).

In the canon of existentialist literature, no writer captures this idea better than Dostoevsky in his Notes from the Underground . The nameless “underground man” rebels against an increasingly scientized, rational, and mechanistic picture of human behavior promoted by Russian social reformers in the 1860s, where everything a person does was thought to be determined by causal laws. For the underground man, this view reduces the human being to a mechanical cog or “a piano key” (1864 [2009, 18]), and it undermines the one value that gives existence its meaning and dignity, that is, the capacity to choose and create our own lives. [ 5 ] To affirm his freedom, the underground man responds to this situation through self-immolating acts of revolt, doing the opposite of whatever the determinations of rationality, social convention, or the laws of nature demand. When he has a toothache, he refuses to see the doctor; when he is at a party with former school mates, he behaves in outrageous and humiliating ways; when the prostitute Liza reaches out to him in tenderness, he lashes out at her in rage. In this sense, the underground man is an anti-hero. He recognizes that freedom is the highest value, the “most advantageous advantage” (1864 [2009, 17]) for human beings, but at the same time he realizes there is no way of knowing what might come of our choices; they may, as they do for the underground man, result in our own self-destruction. As Dostoevsky writes: “What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And the choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice” (1864 [2009, 20]).

This account of freedom suggests that my being (or identity) is always penetrated by the possibility of its own negation because I can always question myself and assign new meanings to and interpretations of who I am in the future. My self-interpretation is always insecure or unstable. I may interpret myself as a philosophy professor today, but I am also not a professor insofar as I can freely choose to reject this identity and resign from my job tomorrow. In this sense, I am no-thing, a “being-possible.” As Sartre puts it: “human existence is constituted as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is ” (1943 [1956, 107]). For the existentialist, anxiety discloses this predicament to me, revealing that I’ve been abandoned to a realm of possibilities, where I face a dizzying array of options, and I alone am answerable to whatever options I choose. Understood this way, anxiety is not directed at some external object or event in the world. If I am an incarnation of freedom, it is directed at me ; I am the source of it.

In Being and Nothingness , Sartre forwards an account of “radical” or “absolute” freedom, an unconditioned “freedom-in-consciousness” where we make or create ourselves ex nihilo , through the sheer “upsurge” of choice alone. But in the wake of Marxist criticism in the 1940s and 1950s, his views changed; he realized that this early account was far too abstract, interiorized, and influenced by Cartesian assumptions. [ 6 ] It failed to engage the social, historical, and material conditions that invariably limit and constrain our freedom. He came to recognize that our choices and actions are always mediated by the world, by the sociohistorical situation we’ve been thrown into. He sees that the idea of radical, unconditioned freedom “is nonsense. The truth is that existence ‘is-in-society’ as it ‘is-in-the-world’” (Sartre 1952 [1963, 590]). Freedom must be understood as “freedom-in-situation.” It is true that we are free to create ourselves, but it is also true that we are already created by our situation. “Man,” is best understood as “a totally conditioned social being who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him” (Sartre 1972 [2008, 35]).

Sartre’s Marxist inspired conception of situated or mediated freedom is one that had already been forwarded and developed by Beauvoir in her major treatises The Second Sex and The Coming of Age and in her novels such as The Blood of Others (1945 [1970]) and The Mandarins (1954 [1991]). The view is also developed by her compatriot Merleau-Ponty. In Phenomenology of Perception , for example, Merleau-Ponty makes it clear that the options we choose to act on do not emerge out of nothing. They are already embedded in a sociohistorical situation “before any personal decision has been made.” (1945 [1962, 449]) The ways in which we create or make ourselves, then, are always circumscribed by the meanings of our situation. We are simultaneously self-making and already made. “We exist in both ways at once,” writes Merleau-Ponty. “We choose the world, and the world chooses us.” (1945 [1962, 453–454]). As we will see in section 6.3, the recognition of the extent to which freedom is mediated by the material conditions of our situation opened existentialism to a broader engagement with the social sphere and the structures of oppression and violence that shape our experience and self-understanding.

5. Authenticity

Existentialism is well known for its critique of mass society and our tendency to conform to the levelled-down norms and expectations of the public. Rather than living our own lives, we tend to get pulled along by the crowd, doing what “they” do. As Heidegger writes, “We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure. We read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge … we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’… prescribes the kind of being of everydayness” (1927 [1962, 126–7]). Living this way can be comforting, creating the illusion that we are living well because we are doing what everyone else does. But for the existentialist, this conformist way of being is a manifestation of inauthenticity or self-deception because it shows how we are unwilling or unable to face up to the freedom and contingency of our condition; it reveals the extent to which we are afraid of being an individual, of being true to ourselves, and of making our own life-defining choices.

In The Sickness unto Death , Kierkegaard describes inauthenticity in terms of fleeing from ourselves, of “not wanting to be oneself, [of] wanting to be rid of oneself” (1849 [1989, 43]). Insofar as we let others decide our lives for us, we live a life that is bereft of passion, a life of “bloodless indolence,” where we are unwilling or unable to “make a real commitment.” (Kierkegaard 1846 [1946, 266–67]). Similarly, Heidegger will refer to this condition as a form of estrangement that “alienates Dasein from itself,” where we exist as a “they-self” ( Man-selbst ) that drifts along in lockstep with others. (1927 [1962, 254–55]) And this self-estrangement is numbing or “tranquilizing” ( beruhigend ) because it covers over the anxiety of own freedom and finitude.

Sartre and Beauvoir refer to inauthenticity in terms of “bad faith” ( mauvaise foi ), where we either deny or over-identify with one of the two aspects of human existence, either facticity or transcendence. I am in bad faith, for example, when I over-identify with my factical situation and deny my freedom to act on and transform this situation. I am also in bad faith when I over-identify with freedom and deny my past conduct and the fact that my choices are limited and constrained by my situation. Sartre and Beauvoir recognize that the self is never wholly free or wholly determined; it is structurally unstable, it is a “double- property … that is at once a facticity and a transcendence” (Sartre 1943 [1956, 98]). When we cling to one or the other of these poles, we are denying this “double-property,” and this is a denial of the fundamental ambiguity and instability at the core of the human condition.

For the existentialists, the possibility of breaking free from engrained patterns of self-deception is generally not something that is accomplished by means of detached reflection. It emerges in the wake of powerful emotional experiences or moods. When the existentialist refers to feelings of “nausea” (Sartre), “absurdity” (Camus), “anxiety” (Kierkegaard), “guilt” (Heidegger), or “mystery” (Marcel) they are describing uncanny affects that have the power to shake us out of our complacency, where the secure and familiar world breaks apart and collapses, and we are forced to confront the question of existence. Jaspers refers to these moments as “limit” or “boundary situations” ( Grenzsituationen )—situations “when everything that is said to be valuable and true collapses before our eyes” (1932 [1956, 117]).

Although terrifying, the existentialist makes it clear that we should not close our eyes or flee from these experiences because they are structural to the human condition. They are, as Jaspers puts it, “impassable, unchangeable situations that belong to human existence as such” (1913 [1997, 330]). Instead of turning away from this basic anxiety, the existentialist asks us to turn toward and face it, because it is amidst a collapsing world that the ultimate questions emerge: Who am I? and What now? In this way, the existentialist sees the experience of anxiety and its related moods as an opportunity for personal growth and transformation. World-shattering moods open me up to the possibility of being authentic, of accepting and affirming the unsettling givens of my condition, of being released from distractions and trivialities, and of recognizing the self-defining projects that matter to me as an individual.

For Kierkegaard, the authentic individual is someone that is “willing to be one’s own self.” (1843 [1989, 43]) He, she, or they recognize(s) that there is more to life than following the crowd or chasing surface pleasures. Such a life is invariably scattered and disjointed, pulled apart by temporal desires and the fleeting fads and fashions of the public. Authenticity requires a passionate, “personality defining” ( personligheds definerende ) decision or commitment that binds together and unifies the fragmented and disjointed moments of our life into a focused and coherent whole. The “unifying power” of commitment is embodied in, what Kierkegaard calls, an attitude of “earnestness” ( alvor ), a sober recognition that existence is a serious affair, not a pleasure-seeking masquerade. But authenticity cannot be achieved simply by means of renouncing temporal pleasures and doing one’s duty according to some universal moral principle—such as the Ten Commandments or Kant’s Categorical Imperative. This is because, for Kierkegaard, the subjective truth of the individual is higher than the universal truths of morality. And this means there may be times in our lives where we must suspend our obligation to the ethical sphere and accept the terrible fact that it may be more important to be authentic (to be true to oneself) than it is to be moral (to do what is right.)

In Fear and Trembling , Kierkegaard draws on the biblical figure of Abraham to make this point. As a father, Abraham has a moral duty to love and protect his son, but when God demands that he break this commandment and kill Isaac, he is confronted with a personal truth that is higher than the universal. In committing himself to this truth, Abraham becomes a “knight of faith” by “leaping” ( springer ) into a paradox, one where the truth of “the singular individual is higher than the universal” (1843 [1985, 84]). As a religious existentialist, Kierkegaard contends that this is what is required to enter the sphere of faith and become a Christian. It has nothing to do with membership in a congregation or obedience to doctrinal statements. It is, rather, a willingness to commit to a truth that is fundamentally irrational and absurd. How, for example, can one make rational sense of God’s command to Abraham to kill his own son? “The problem,” writes Kierkegaard, “is not to understand Christianity, but to understand that it cannot be understood” (1835–1854 [1959, 146]). [ 7 ] An authentic or religious life, then, is always accompanied by anxiety and loneliness because the leap individualizes us; it cuts us off from the comforting truths of the public and its blanket conceptions of right and wrong. It compels us to follow a path that no one else may understand. Abraham’s decision is, for this reason, fraught with despair. In his willingness to suspend his moral duty, he appears “insane” because he “cannot make himself understood to anyone.” (1985 (1843], 103)

But with the despair of faith comes feelings of intensity, even joy, as we recognize the absurdity of religious existence, that the eternal or divine is not found in some otherworldly realm, it is bound up in the temporal; that it is this life , the finite, that has infinite significance. Freed from the temptations of the crowd and of blind obedience to moral principles, the knight of faith “takes delight in everything he sees” because he is now fully aware of the majesty and richness of finitude. For him, “finitude tastes just as good as to one who has never known anything higher” (1843 [1985, 69–70]).

Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche is critical of our tendency to follow the herd and cling to universal moral principles. He forwards a conception of authenticity that accepts our nihilistic predicament and rises above Christian values of good and evil. He sees these values as representative of a tame and submissive way of being, a “slave morality” ( Sklavenmoral ) that is subservient to authority and bereft of any originality or style. Nietzsche contrasts this with a “master morality” ( Herrenmoral ) embodied in those who have the courage to face, even affirm, the cruel and tragic aspects of life and the self-directed power to create their own meanings and values against the backdrop of God’s death. Nietzsche refers to the individual who can overcome the meek and slavish values of tradition for the sake of self-creation as an “Overman” ( Übermensch ), an aristocratic figure who embodies the freedom, courage, and strength to be original, that is, to “give style” to life. “Such spirits,” writes Nietzsche, “are always out of fashion or explain themselves and their surroundings as free nature—wild, arbitrary, fantastic, and surprising” (1887 [1974], §290).

The key to living with style is, for Nietzsche, a radical acceptance of one’s existence and the world as it is , embracing all our strengths and weaknesses and all the blessed and cursed events that have been and will be. The Overman is a “yes-sayer” who affirms every aspect of his life, “every truth, even the simple, bitter, ugly, unchristian, immoral truths” (1887 [1996], §1). In The Gay Science , Nietzsche captures this attitude with a famous thought experiment called the “doctrine of eternal recurrence.” Here, he asks if we have the audacity to live the same life we are living now over and over for eternity. “And there will be nothing new about it,” he explains, “but every pain and every pleasure, and every thought and sigh, and everything unspeakably small and great in your life must come back to you and all in the same series and sequence.” On Nietzsche’s view, most of us would recoil in horror at the prospect of eternally suffering through the same boredom, failures, and disappointments. But overflowing with amor fati (love of one’s fate), the Overman welcomes this possibility, proclaiming, “I have never heard anything more godlike” (1887 [1974], §341). Camus describes this attitude as a form of rebellion against servile and conformist ways of being. Like the Overman, “the rebel” is someone “born of abundance and fullness of spirit,” and he embodies “the unreserved affirmation of human imperfection and suffering, of evil and murder, of all that is problematic and strange in our existence. It is born of an arrested wish to be what one is in a world that is what it is” (1951 [1956, 72]).

But not everyone has the inborn power to rebel against tradition and creatively express their unique style of living. For Nietzsche, only “the highest types” can manifest this kind of freedom and capacity for self-overcoming. To this end, his account of authenticity is unapologetically elitist and anti-democratic. Most of us are too mired in self-deception, too frightened and weak to break with the herd and become who we are. “Only a very few people can be free,” writes Nietzsche, “It is a prerogative of the strong” (1886 [1998], §29).

Heidegger devotes much of the second half of Being and Time to an analysis of authenticity, employing the German term Eigentlichkeit —formed from the stem of the adjective eigen (“own” or “property”)—that literally means “being own’s own” or “ownnness.” But he sets up his analysis of authenticity by first claiming that self-deception or “inauthenticity” is unavoidable; it is a structure of the human condition, one that he refers to as “falling” ( Verfallen ). What this means is that in our everyday lives we invariably conform (or “fall prey”) to the norms and values of the public world. This results in a kind of complacency and indifference about the question of existence, where we are not our own selves, where “everyone is the other, and no one is himself” (1927 [1962, 128]). Falling creates the illusion that our existence (or being-in-the-world) is secure and thing-like because we are doing what everyone else does. But, for Heidegger, there is nothing that fundamentally secures our existence. As a self-making activity, I am not a stable thing. I am nothing, a “not yet” ( noch nicht ) that is always unsettled, always in the process of making myself. The awareness of our own unsettledness emerges in moments of anxiety when the familiar and routinized world “collapses into itself” (1927 [1962, 186]), and I “die” ( sterben ) because I am no longer able-to-be, that is, to understand or make sense of who I am. [ 8 ]

Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger interprets anxiety as an individualizing mood, one that momentarily “snatches one back” from the tranquilizing routines of “the They,” leaving us vulnerable and exposed to confront our lives (1927 [1962, 384]). And this is potentially liberating because it can temporarily free us from patterns of self-deception, providing insight, a “moment of vision” ( Augenblick ) that can give our lives a renewed sense of urgency and focus. But this experience of individuation does not detach me from the world, turning me into a radical subject or “free floating ‘I’” (1927 [1962, 298]). Heidegger claims that our self-defining choices are always guided in advance by our historical embeddedness, what he calls “historicity” ( Geschichtlichkeit ). The meanings we choose to give to our lives, then, are not created out of thin air; they have already been interpreted and made intelligible by a historical community or “people” ( Volk ). [ 9 ] The moment of vision shakes me out of my fallen, everyday existence and allows me to come back to my historical world with fresh eyes, to seize hold of the publicly interpreted meanings that matter to me and make them “mine” ( Jemeinig ).

Heidegger refers to this authentic attitude in terms of “resoluteness” ( Entschlossenheit ), where I “pull [myself] together,” giving life a sense of cohesion and focus that was missing when I was lost and scattered in “the They.” But being resolute does not mean that I stubbornly cling to whatever possibilities I happen to choose. For Heidegger, authenticity demands an openness and flexibility with how I interpret myself. [ 10 ] Understanding that existence is a situated process of self-making, whatever values or meanings I commit myself to, I must also be willing to let go or give up on them depending on the circumstances of my life, that is, to “hold [myself] free for the possibility of taking it back ” (1927 [1962, 308]). Resoluteness, on this view, does not mean “becoming rigid” and holding fast to a chosen identity because my self-understanding is always insecure; it can die at any time. For this reason, authenticity requires “readiness” or “anticipation” ( Vorgriff ), where we passionately hold ourselves open and free for the inescapable breakdowns and emergencies of life. It is, in Heidegger’s words, “an impassioned freedom towards death—a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the ‘They’” (1927 [1962, 266]).

Sartre and Beauvoir follow Heidegger in viewing self-deception as structural to the human condition. It is, as Sartre writes, “an immediate, permanent threat to every project of the human being” (1943 [1956, 116]). Although I can certainly deceive myself by over-identifying with freedom and denying the extent to which my possibilities are constrained by facticity, the most common and familiar form of bad faith is when I over-identify with my facticity, as if I were a fully realized object or thing, a being “in-itself” ( en-soi ). This form of self-deception is understandable as it creates the consoling impression that there is something secure and thing-like about my identity, that “I am what I am,” and there is nothing that can change me. But to live this way is to deny my freedom and transcendence, that I am self-making, that I live for myself —or, in the vernacular of Sartre and Beauvoir, “for-itself” ( pour-soi ). Human beings are, on their view, always in the process of making or constituting themselves, modifying and negating their being through moment-to-moment choices and actions. This means my identity is never fixed or stable because I can always choose to take a new path or interpret myself in other ways. Regardless of how I see myself at a given time—as a professor, a father, or a political activist—I am also “not” that person, because my identity is never realized and complete; I am always free to negate a given identity and define myself differently in the future. This means I am “what I am not ” (1943 [1956, 103]). And this situation appears to undermine the prospect of authenticity altogether. If the self is always unstable, always in question, how can I ever be genuine or true to myself?

In Being and Nothingness , Sartre provides an answer, referring to authenticity in terms of a “recovery” ( récupération ) of a self or way of being “that was previously corrupted” (1943 [1956, 116]). [ 11 ] But this act of “self-recovery” has nothing to do with creating or holding on to a particular identity. It involves, rather, a clear-eyed awareness and acceptance of the instability and ambiguity of the human condition. And, along with this acceptance, a willingness to act in the face of this ambiguity and to take responsibility, however horrible, for wherever these actions might lead. As Sartre writes, “authenticity consists in a lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it […] sometimes with horror and hate” (1946 [1948, 90]). But just because existence is fundamentally ambiguous does not mean that our chosen projects are meaningless or absurd. My projects have meaning and value because I chose these projects, but the meaning is contingent; it is never enduring or stable. In The Ethics of Ambiguity , Beauvoir explains: “The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed” (1947 [1948, 129]). The point of authenticity, then, is not to be concerned with who I am —because, at bottom, I am nothing. It is to be concerned with what I do . As Sartre writes, “Authenticity reveals that the only meaningful project is that of doing (not that of being)” (1948 [1992, 475]). For Sartre and Beauvoir, to be authentic is to recover and accept the ambiguous tension of the self, that: we are who we are not —and— we are not who are . And by means of this recovery, recognize that the task of existence involves acting and doing, that is, realizing our freedom through projects in the world but also, as we will see, taking responsibility for how these projects might enhance or diminish freedom for others.

Existentialist ethics generally begins with the idea that there is no external moral order or table of values that exists a priori. “It must be understood,” as Beauvoir writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity , “that the passion in which man has acquiesced finds no external justification. No outside appeal, no objective necessity permits of its being called useful.” But this does not mean that the existentialists are promoting a form of moral nihilism. Beauvoir admits it is true that the human being “has no reason to will itself. But this does not mean that it cannot justify itself, that it cannot give itself reasons for being that it does not have .” It is human existence itself “which makes values spring up in the world on the basis of which it will be able to judge the enterprise in which it will be engaged.” (1947 [1948, 12, 15]). [ 12 ] There is, then, a coherent account of ethical responsibility grounded in freedom, not as a theoretical abstraction but as a concrete expression of transcendence, and the obligation to help others realize their own freedom so that I can realize mine. When I acknowledge that freedom is my essence, I must also acknowledge that it is the essence of others and work, to the best of my ability, to help them realize it. My freedom, then, is not free-floating; it is invariably bound up in the freedom of others. As Sartre puts it: “We want freedom for freedom’s sake and in every particular circumstance. And in wanting freedom we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that freedom of others depends on ours […] I am obliged to want others to have freedom at the same time that I want my own freedom” (1945 [2001, 306]).

Sartre and Beauvoir argue that we generally exist as “a being-for-others” ( un être-pour-autrui ), which is to say that I understand or see myself in the way that I do through “the look” ( le regard ) of the Other. And the look has the power to strip away my freedom and turn me into an object. Human relations, on this account, are best understood as a form of conflict, a dyadic power struggle where I try to assert my freedom and subjectivity by turning the Other into an object, while the Other tries to do the same to me. “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other,” writes Sartre, “the Other is trying to free himself from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me… Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others” (1943 [1956, 475]). This struggle for self-assertion leads to Sartre’s famous claim in his play Huis Clos (No Exit) that “Hell is— other people ” (1944 [1989, 45]).

But the struggle to objectify and possess the Other by stripping them of their freedom is a manifestation of inauthentic being-for-others. There is an authentic counterpart. Beauvoir, for example, explores what it means to develop and cultivate freedom for others with her account of “authentic love” ( l’amour authentique ), describing it as a relationship where we acknowledge and nurture the other’s freedom and transcendence while at the same time resisting the temptations of bad faith, that is, to see the Other as an object or thing to be manipulated and possessed. As a moral stance, authentic being-for-others is a form of reciprocity that involves “the mutual recognition of two freedoms […] [where] neither would give up transcendence [and] neither would be mutilated” (1949 [1952, 667]). In this way authenticity and morality belong together, whereby we have a shared obligation to liberate or free each other so that we can create ourselves and take responsibility for the life we lead. Therefore, as Beauvoir puts it, “to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision” (1947 [1948, 24]).

Heidegger develops a similar idea in Being and Time with his account of “liberating concern” ( befreiend Fürsorge ), a form of care where the central aim is to free the Other from patterns of self-deception so that they can anxiously face and create their own existence. It is a relational stance that “helps the Other become transparent to himself in his care and to become free for it” (1927 [1962, 122]). When we care in this way, we resist the temptation to “leap-in” ( einspringen ) for the Other, as if the Other were a dependent thing or object that needs to be sheltered from the unsettling question of existence. Heidegger refers to this sheltering tendency in terms of a kind of tacit mastery or “domination” ( Beherrschung ) that strips the Other of the anxious responsibility they have for their own life. Instead of leaping-in for the Other and disburdening them of their responsibility, an authentic relation is one that “leaps-ahead” ( vorausspringt ) of the Other, giving them back their anxiety and the freedom to care for and confront their condition. As Heidegger writes, we leap-ahead of the Other, “not in order to take away his ‘care’ but rather to give it back to them authentically as such for the first time” (1927 [1962, 122]). Here, we see the development of an ethical maxim: to act in such a way as to will the realization of your own freedom and the realization of freedom for others.

There is also heterodox current among some religious existentialists, one that suggests that moral demands are placed on us when we recognize ourselves not as voluntaristic subjects—or, in the words of Iris Murdoch, “brave naked wills” (1983, 46) severed from bonds of community and attachment—but as relational beings who are fundamentally bound together in mutual vulnerability. And this recognition may serve as the foundation for an ethics by pulling us out of our everyday self-absorption and awakening us, not to our freedom, but to our essential dependency.

Speaking through the religious elder Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov , Dostoevsky offers a powerful indictment of the “terrible individualism” that he sees as endemic to modernity, where unfettered freedom and self-affirmation have become the highest values. Such a view leads not to self-actualization but to loneliness and despair. The modern man, says Zossima, “is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity […] but this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another” (1879 [1957–80, 279]). Against the vision of the willful subject who makes choices without evaluative limits or constraints, Dostoevsky suggests it is only in recognizing the Other as dependent and vulnerable that we can come to recognize ourselves. True freedom emerges when we release ourselves from the bondage of our own egoistic striving and adopt an attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. The aim is to show that the human being is not an isolated will but a frail and defenseless being that is dependent on the self-less love, compassion, and charity of others. [ 13 ] When we free ourselves from the temptations of individualism in this way, Zossima says a moral demand is placed on us, one where we begin to see that “we are all responsible to all and for all” (1879–80 [1957, 228).

The Jewish existentialist Martin Buber expands on this idea in his masterwork I and Thou . He claims that in our everyday lives we generally relate to others from an instrumental and objectifying standpoint, what he calls the “I-It” ( Ich-Es ) relation, where the other is encountered as a thing (or “it”) to be manipulated and controlled for one’s own use. This relation is comforting because it creates the illusion that we have control of our situation. But there are moments in our lives when this illusion collapses, and we become vulnerable to the other, not as an “it” but as a “you.” In the “I-You” ( Ich-Du ) relation, all the egoistic defenses we rely on to conceal our essential dependency and openness to the Other break down. Buber refers to this as an experience of grace, where the Other is revealed to me as a whole person, defenseless and exposed, and I am revealed in the same way. It is a moment where “two human beings reveal the You to one another” (1923 [1970, 95]). In this way, anxiety isn’t a radically individualizing affair, where the forlorn subject is cut off from the relational world to confront their own freedom. For Buber, exposure to the I-You relation shakes us out of our own egoistic concerns and awakens us to the fact that we are not isolated individuals but beings who are always in living relation with others. With this experience “the barriers of the individual are breached,” and this creates an affective union, a “bridge from self-being to self-being across the abyss of dread” (1938 [1965], 201, 207]).

The Nazi occupation of France, his own experience as a prisoner of war, and the attacks on his philosophy from influential Marxist critics, compelled Sartre to shift his focus from the individual to the social. Following the war, he, along with Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir, launched the influential journal of social criticism Le Temps Modernes (Modern Times), and Sartre made his aims clear in the first issue, writing: “Our intention is to help effect certain changes in the Society that surrounds us… one is responsible for what one is … Totally committed and totally freed. And yet it is the free man who must be delivered , by enlarging his possibilities of choice” (Sartre 1945 [1988, 264–65]). Here we see existentialists making the connection that for the Other to realize their freedom, philosophy must engage the “bases and structures” that limit and constrain them. This is because these structures are not philosophical abstractions; they “are lived as schematic determinates of the individual’s future” (Sartre 1957 [1968, 94]). Society, here, is viewed not as an aggregate of voluntaristic subjects; it is the mediating background of our lives, and if we are going to create a situation of freedom and “enlarge the possibilities of choice,” we must recognize how this background can be violent and oppressive—especially to historically marginalized and undervalued people—and to act in such a way as to transform it.

Of all the major developers of existentialism, it is unquestionably Beauvoir who offered the most sustained and influential analyses of oppression and of possibilities for emancipation, not only in her feminist masterwork The Second Sex , but in her bleak account of the dehumanization of the elderly in The Coming of Age (1970 [1996]) and her reflections on the experience of Black populations in the Jim Crow South in her memoir America Day by Day (1954 [1999]). In these works, Beauvoir illuminates how socioeconomic and political structures can restrict the human capacity for freedom and transcendence, how they have the power to “freeze” the Other, strip away possibilities for agency and self-creation, and trap them in “immanence.” But in these works, Beauvoir makes it clear that this situation is not a destiny. Human beings have no essential nature; no one is born inferior or submissive. We are constituted intersubjectively by growing into, internalizing, and enacting ready-made structures of oppression. But insofar as these structures are constituted and maintained by the choices and actions of individuals, they are not fixed and static. Like human beings, they too are subject to change. Here we see how the recognition that existence precedes essence moves from the ontological realm to the ethical, it becomes a call to action, to engage and transform the material conditions that limit the possibilities of choice for those who are oppressed and marginalized.

In this way, postwar existentialism began to engage the realities of the social sphere and the painful “isms”—classism, racism, colonialism, sexism, anti-Semitism—haunting the western world. It was a philosophy that had come to recognize, in Sartre’s words, that “the individual interiorizes his social determinations; he interiorizes the relations of production, the family of his childhood, the historical past, the contemporary in institutions, and he then re-exteriorizes these acts and options which necessarily refer us back to them” (1972 [2008, 35]). And insofar as these social determinations are not fixed and timeless but contingent human constructs, they can be resisted and transformed to free others.

7. Contemporary Relevance

Existentialism has had a profound impact on how philosophers conceptualize and understand the human condition, with rich accounts of affectivity and embodiment, facticity (or worldliness), and the ways in which we are constituted intersubjectively. It has opened new paths for philosophy to engage with concrete and acute human problems, from sexuality, race, disability, and old age to broader issues of social and political violence and oppressive relations in general. And the movement continues to thrive in the academy today. Not only is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) flourishing as the second largest philosophical organization in the English-speaking world, with smaller research groups (or “Circles”) devoted to every major figure. There is a cascade of scholarship published every year in leading journals and academic presses that captures the enduring relevance of existentialist thought, including important new work engaging the significance of French existentialism as an ethical theory (Webber 2018), reframing our conceptions of virtue and human flourishing (McMullin 2019), and even addressing current analytic debates in philosophies of life-extension, anti-natalism, and transhumanism (Buben 2022). Indeed, the core ideas and major figures of existentialism are not just alive and well; they are shaping developments in a diverse range of areas across the humanities and social sciences.

The legacy is most clearly present in the European philosophies that proceeded it. Existentialism’s critique of foundationalism and the authority of reason as well as its rejection of universalism, essentialism, and “grand narratives” (or metanarratives) all had a decisive impact on post-structural philosophies in France. Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular served as decisive influences on the project of “de-centering the subject” in Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction and in Michel Foucault’s genealogy of power, demonstrating how the subject is not the privileged center or origin of truth and knowledge. The subject is, rather, shaped in advance by sociohistorical structures, an overlapping network of norms and practices, linguistic conventions, and shared meanings, and this shaping takes place in a way that we are never fully conscious of. [ 14 ] The individual, on this view, is more of a placeholder or crossing point in these anonymous structures, where the subject exists as “the inscribed surface of events […] totally imprinted by history” (Foucault 1977, 148). Of course, existentialists reject the idea that this historical imprinting or “decentering” is total or absolute. They are, after all, still committed to the value of freedom and authenticity, but they recognize that freedom is never unconditioned. Beyond the philosophies of Heidegger and Nietzsche, we see this recognition in Merleau-Ponty’s conception of mediated freedom, in Sartre’s postwar account of “freedom-in-situation,” and in what Beauvoir calls “ la force des choses ” (the power of circumstances). The recognition of historicity as an impersonal force that structures our identity had such an impact on Foucault’s work that he once remarked: “My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger” (Foucault 1985, cited in Dreyfus 1995, 9).

In viewing the self not as a substance or thing but as a self-interpreting, meaning-giving activity that is always already bound up in the world, existentialism has also informed key developments in narrative and hermeneutic philosophy. Prominent anglophone philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt (1971), Charles Taylor (1985), and Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) have drawn on classical existentialism to illuminate how we exist in the meanings and self-interpretations that we create for ourselves. My sense of who I am is constituted by an ongoing process of choosing, pulling together, and consolidating the roles, projects, and meanings that matter to me and that are made available by the sociohistorical situation I find myself in. On this view, the story I create for myself is held together by the narrative unity and cohesion that I give to it. This is what Taylor means when he says that we can only understand or “grasp our lives in a narrative” (1989, 47). And this conception of narrative identity not only offers a response to overly reductive conceptions of the self that are grounded in the substance ontologies of mind and body; it demonstrates an attentiveness to the ambiguous tension of our condition, that our choices are both self-fashioning and socially embedded, that we simultaneously make ourselves and are already made.

Beginning with Hubert Dreyfus’s (1972) groundbreaking critique of Artificial Intelligence (AI), philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists have been drawing on existentialist philosophy—especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty—to challenge the overly mentalistic picture of selfhood and agency that modern philosophy inherits from Descartes and Kant and to dismantle traditional representational theories of knowledge. Key works by Shaun Gallagher (2005), Thomas Fuchs, (2018), and Dan Zahavi (2005) have replaced the picture of the disembodied mind with the now widely accepted notion of the embedded, enactive, and embodied self. This is a rejection of the long-held assumption that human action must somehow be represented or “mirrored” in the mind. Existentialism illuminates how—as a situated way of being-in-the-world—human beings already embody a tacit understanding of the world in a way that we are not and can never be thematically conscious of. This means we do not understand things as discrete objects. We understand things in terms of how we use and handle them and in terms of the purposive, meaning-giving roles these things play in our everyday lives. The traditional view of the mind as something resembling the rule-governed processes of a computer program have continually failed to capture this ambiguous and embodied sense of being-in-the-world.

The attentiveness to conditions of oppression, subjugation, and violence among postwar existentialists in France has had a decisive impact on recent developments in critical phenomenology by giving voice to those who have been historically marginalized or undervalued in the western tradition. Beauvoir’s pioneering account of the woman’s experience in The Second Sex is well known for laying the conceptual foundations for second wave feminism, and her late career phenomenology of aging broke new ground by shedding light on the existence of older persons and exposing the toxic ageism in contemporary capitalist societies. Together with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, her ideas would inform Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952 [1967]), a seminal work that disclosed the dehumanizing experience of colonized Black populations and helped give birth to Africana critical theory or “black existentialism” (Gordon 2000). The focus on the ways in which structures of discrimination along with the limits of our own embodiment can constrain our capacities for freedom and transcendence has, in turn, influenced recent phenomenological accounts of intersectionality and the lived experience of, among others, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and exiles (Coulthard 2014; Ortega 2016), queer and trans identities (Ahmed 2006; Salamon 2010), those who are imprisoned or in solitary confinement (Guenther 2013; Leder 2016), and the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill (Aho 2022; Reynolds 2022; Dickel 2022).

Interpreting existence in terms of the situated activity of being-in-the-world not only serves as a rejection of substance ontology and the metaphysical dualisms (subject-object; mind-body; inner-outer) that we inherit from Cartesian and empiricist epistemologies; it also reveals deep affinities with the nonduality of Buddhism and other incarnations of Eastern thought. (Loy 2018; Kalmanson 2020) And the recognition of our enmeshment in the world has informed a range of important advances in the philosophy of place, deep ecology, and eco-phenomenology (Brown & Toadvine 2003; Malpas 2017; Morton 2016; Rentmeester 2016). These endeavors have exposed the limitations of the scientific worldview and our uncritical dependence on technological innovation to address the current ecological crisis. Modern science generally assumes a binary paradigm of the subject as separate and distinct from a value-less domain of objects (or nature), a domain that can, in turn, be mastered and controlled by technoscience. In this way, it betrays our ordinary experience, that in our day-to-day lives we are not atomistic, self-certain subjects but beings that are fundamentally entwined with the world and the meaning and value that this intertwining brings to our experience. For the existentialist, then, extricating ourselves from environmental doom requires not a technoscientific fix but an ontological transformation in our own self-understanding, an awaking to the reality of our interdependence with nature, that the earth is not apart from us but rather part of us.

Outside of the humanities and social sciences, existentialism has also had a deep and lasting impact on the allied health professions. The role it has played in the development of existential and humanistic approaches to psychotherapy (Cooper 2003; Spinneli 2007; van Deurzen 2015) and to phenomenological psychopathology (Parnas & Gallagher 2015; Ratcliffe 2015; Stanghellini et al. 2019) is well-known, but in recent years we have seen its influence emerge in a range of different areas, from narrative medicine to nursing, and from gerontology to palliative care. To this end, existentialism has informed a move away from the reductive and objectifying tendencies of modern biomedicine to recover the first-person experience of health and illness, viewing the body not so much as a biophysical machine that needs to be adjusted and maintained but as the experiential and interpretative medium of our existence. This shift has not only allowed clinicians to challenge the emergent tendency to medicalize ever-expanding swaths of the human condition; it makes it possible for the clinician to better understand the patient’s experience by getting a sense of “what it means” and “what it feels like” to suffer when the body breaks down (Aho 2018; Slatman 2014; Svenaeus 2022; Zeiler & Käll 2014).

Beyond its ascendency in the healing arts, its myriad cultural influences, and its wide-ranging impact on the humanities and social sciences, the enduring legacy of existentialism is perhaps most visible in the classroom. Existentialist-themed courses are often among the most popular in the philosophy curriculum as young students confront, for the first time, the unsettling questions of freedom and the meaning of their own existence. And these questions have never been more pressing as they develop against the backdrop of anthropogenic climate change, species extinction, global pandemics, and the reemergence of authoritarian and fascist politics. Amidst these planetary emergencies, a new generation is facing the predicament of nihilism and the death of God and owning up to the uncanny truth of the human condition: that existence precedes essence.

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Existentialism, existentialists, and Marxism: From critique to integration within the philosophical establishment in Socialist Romania

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  • Published: 19 October 2022
  • Volume 75 , pages 455–477, ( 2023 )

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  • Adela Hîncu   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8579-1459 1 &
  • Ştefan Baghiu   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3442-1455 1  

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In this paper, we discuss how existentialism was criticized, disseminated, and gradually autochthonized in the main philosophical journals of Socialist Romania. We show that the early critique of existentialism was both a statement against contemporary bourgeois philosophy in general and a condemnation of the local philosophical production of the interwar period. In the 1950s, this kind of critique was attuned to the growing fame of several Romanian authors who had emigrated to the West (e.g., Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade) and targeted both past and contemporary irrationalism. Following a period of critique of existentialism without existentialists (i.e., without reference to individual authors), the 1960s discussions of existentialism were mainly driven by interest in a small number of existentialist authors. In particular, the evolution of Jean-Paul Sartre’s work and politics was analyzed as it straddled existentialism and Marxism. The 1970s saw the integration of selected existentialist concepts and themes, in an attempt to offer a Marxist alternative to existentialism in the form of philosophical anthropology. This led to a period of engagement with existentialists without existentialism across an increasing number of separate disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. In the 1980s, following the failure of Marxist philosophical anthropology and at the height of national communism, existentialism could also be autochthonized through the recovery of selected philosophers from the interwar period whose work had been previously criticized as irrationalist.

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The reception of existentialism and phenomenology in the Soviet Union and the state socialist countries of Eastern Europe, while intertwined in important ways with the chronology of existentialism, structuralism, and poststructuralism as dominant Western philosophical trends in the postwar period, should also be understood within the broader history of postwar contestation outside the Western core. Their reception is closely linked to liberation struggles and the aftermath of Western colonial rule in the Global South, but also complexly situated within glocalized cultural and intellectual traditions. Yoav Di-Capua showed that in the late 1950s, “the Arab world boasted of having the largest existentialist scene outside Europe,” as the shaping of a new, “free,” and cosmopolitan philosophy took inspiration from Jean-Paul Sartre’s works. Sartre became a “household name” in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus (Di-Capua 2018 , p. 1) and was translated in the Arab world alongside Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Camus, Unamuno, Ortega, and Berdyaev. Yet soon after, in 1967, Sartre quickly became a nomina odiosa in the Arab world. He was denounced for signing a pro-Zionist manifesto during the Third Arab–Israeli War, a gesture Edward Said later described as a “bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him” (Di-Capua 2018 , p. 4). In the Middle East, Sartre and existentialism were interpreted and criticized in relation to religion. A prominent member of the Hareket journal, the “Islamic socialist” Nurettin Topçu declared in 1970 that “what Sartre calls freedom isn’t freedom at all.” At the same time, he valued Kierkegaard “as a religious alternative to capitalist society” (Armaner 2009 , pp. 8, 10). In comparison, in South Korea in the 1950s, in the aftermath of Japanese colonial rule, ```existence’ and ‘existentialism’ became terms that referred to the works of Sartre,” while reading Kierkegaard was used “only as an introduction to a discussion on Sartre and Heidegger” (Pyo Jae-myeong 2009 , p. 136).

Eastern European existentialism has so far been studied with reference to Western philosophy, as a consequence of long-standing local cultural debates as well as the East–West Cold War imaginary and the way in which its successive revisions shaped the historiographical discourse of the late socialist and postsocialist periods. Recent research however, particularly Michael Gubser’s analysis of phenomenology in postwar Czechoslovakia and Poland, has demonstrated a sensitivity to the complexity of Central Europe’s local intellectual contexts and has characterized Central European phenomenological thought as a tradition to be recovered and utilized for contemporary social philosophy (Gubser 2014 ). The case of Romania further complicates this picture. The Central European phenomenological tradition that Gubser reconstructed “offered a personalist and communitarian social vision distinct from both liberalism and totalitarianism” (Gubser 2014 , p. 229). In this tradition, Heidegger played primarily a subordinate role. In Romania, however, despite staunch resistance to Heidegger within the philosophical establishment during most of the state socialist period, his rediscovery in the late 1970s and 1980s coincided with a broader restructuring of cultural debates around national ideology and the partial reintegration of the interwar intellectual heritage. Phenomenology had been the foremost method of inquiry for Nae Ionescu’s school of thought in the interwar period (Cernica 2020 ), and his close links to the Romanian fascist movement were crucial to the fierce attack on local existentialist voices in the first postwar decade. Subsequently, existentialism in Romania became associated mainly with the figure of Sartre and the changing attitudes toward his writings and politics. In the early 1970s, the work of existentialist authors became increasingly disconnected from existentialism, and Sartre’s own appeal as a possible mediator between revisionist Marxism and existentialism waned. The fact that several of the authors discussed in this paper continued to show interest in existentialism, while simultaneously exploring structuralist themes, should not be considered an anomaly, but studied further in the dialectical spirit in which the authors themselves understood the relationship between humanism and structuralism, as well as in line with challenges to “the received doxa that the generation of ‘poststructuralist’ philosophers broke decisively with existentialism and rendered it out of date, a mere historical curiosity” (Reynolds and Woodward 2014 , p. 260).

Pluralization in the field of philosophy, originally the result of a cautious revisionist Marxism, also enabled philosophy’s central contribution to the edification of national ideology, especially in the debates surrounding the figure of Constantin Noica and his group of disciples (Verdery 1991 ). Phenomenology became a source of “resistance through culture” and moral legitimacy in the 1980s and postsocialist period, when it could be harnessed by its proponents to position themselves as central public intellectuals. This brief chronology should be considered in the broader context of cultural politics in Socialist Romania, from the Stalinist period of the 1950s and renewed intellectual repression around 1958, to the controlled liberalization of the early 1960s culminating in what many intellectuals understood as a thaw around 1968, quickly followed by reideologization from the beginning of the 1970s (sometimes described as “neo-Stalinism”), and culminating over the turn of the decade and in the 1980s with “national communism.”

Existentialism was widely discussed in the cultural and literary press from the early 1960s onward ( Contemporanul , România literară , Amfiteatru , Secolul 20 , etc.), sometimes by the same philosophers whose articles we analyze in this paper, at other times by literary scholars, playwrights, or art historians. This is especially true of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, who were increasingly translated from the mid-1960s onward, and whose plays were widely performed to positive reviews. Footnote 1 From the beginning of the 1950s, literary existentialism was described by critics such as H. Bratu as a byproduct of “decomposing” and “Marshallized countries,” and as having a “gangster conception of the world” through the works of John Dos Passos, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, the “pornographer Henry Miller,” and “Sartre’s existentialists” (Bratu 1951 ). As late as the end of the 1950s, such pejorative labels were still common. When analyzing Camus’ La Peste (1947) in 1957, which had not yet been translated into Romanian, literary critic Mircea Zaciu stated that “it is certain that in some years the existentialist imprint of some passages will only be met with a condescending smile because of its naivety” (Zaciu 1957 ). This perspective began to change only in the 1960s. In the case of Camus, for example, the 1965 translation of La Peste , by Eta and Marin Preda (the latter the most prominent prose writer in Socialist Romania), was acknowledged in the literary press as “the existentialist novel and the road of freedom” by Georgeta Horodincă in 1963, “the social success of existentialism” by V. Moglescu in 1964, or “a high humanitarian message” by Rodica Tohăneanu in 1966. Sartre’s 1963 Les Mots was also translated by Georgeta Horodincă in 1965, and an excerpt from his 1938 La Nausée appeared in 1967. The entire novel was only rendered in 1981, proving that his Marxist profile required more clarification in order to fully enter public literary conscience. Camus’s drama Caligula , which premiered in Cluj in 1969 and in Bucharest in 1980, reached its 200th performance in 1988 (Diaconu 2019 , p. CCXVIII).

For Romanian writers, as the “Young prose writers and literary criticism” round-table in 1964 shows, “a philosophy the likes of existentialism can fuel both the disintegrating literature of Samuel Beckett, who has come to deny the human, and the iconoclast fury of the Beat generation” (Goldis̨ 2011 , p. 79). Sartre’s ideas and existentialism in general came to the aid of literary criticism in many ways, as Alex Goldis̨ shows, and for the young critics like Nicolae Manolescu “the existentialist filigree introduces a militant note, of more acute implication in the ideology of ‘aesthetic autonomy’’’ (Goldis̨ 2011 , p. 139). By the end of the decade, existentialism became, if not a “method,” at least a crucial “language” for literary criticism both for interpreting the local literary production, as Mircea Martin used it in his 1969 Generat̨ie s̨i creat̨ie (Generation and creation), and for the general theory of literature, as structuralist critics such as Toma Pavel and Sorin Alexandrescu used the works of Heidegger and Maurice Blanchot as sources (Goldis̨ 2011 , pp. 195–196). The importance of existentialism for local literary debates in the period is also illustrated by the works of Adrian Marino, where Goldis̨ observes that “the autonomy of the literary work is not justified, for Romanian literary criticism, on a stylistic or structuralist critique, centered on language or text, but on an existentialist philosophy which favored the values of life and individualism” (Goldis̨ 2011 , p. 222). As for phenomenology, although sporadic texts were published from the late 1960s, repercussions could be harsh, and translations from Heidegger remained rare until the late 1970s. Footnote 2 The contribution of the cultural press to the popularization of existentialism and phenomenology under state socialism undoubtedly deserves a separate analysis.

In this paper, we set out to analyze the reception of existentialism in the two main philosophical journals of the time: Cercetări filozofice (Philosophical research) (1954–1963) and Revista de filozofie (Journal of philosophy) (1964–1989). We do not argue either that they were representative of the entire philosophical profession in Romania or that they should only be considered relevant in themselves. These were the official journals of the Institute of Philosophy of the Romanian Academy, later the Academy of Social and Political Sciences, and as such purported to represent the mainstream of what we will describe in this paper as “the philosophical establishment” or “institutionalized philosophy.” The journals featured among their editors the institutionally best-established philosophers at the time, such as members of the Academy or heads of research institutes and philosophy faculties from the main universities in the country. It is worth noting that the journals by no means covered the entire breadth of philosophical production at the time, and in that clearly played the role of both representation and gatekeeping. Cercetări filozofice and later Revista de filozofie also showcased, with various degrees of prominence over the years, the official party line on matters of ideological production more generally, and therefore the latter has been described as “a publication of mixed character: propagandistic, through the articles with which it opened, and on the other hand philosophical, through the studies that followed under the other sections, from which there were often missing not just references to Ceauşescu, but also the classics of Marxism” (Tănăsescu 2021 , p. 25). This has been contrasted with other series published by the Institute of Philosophy, notably Studies in the History of World Philosophy (which came out annually between 1969–1989, and in the period 1969–1973 published no materials on Marxism–Leninism; see Tănăsescu 2021 ). We take this mix to be representative of a flagship philosophy journal during state socialism, and indeed also illustrative, as we will show in this paper, for the ways in which ideological considerations could be constantly revised from within from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. The sections featured in the two journals changed over the years, but generally consisted of studies, debates, lessons or consultations, reports from scientific events in Romania or abroad, occasional thematic sections, and from the very first issue in 1954 critical, bibliographical, and review sections. The latter will figure prominently in this paper, as they showcase the immediate reception of existentialism, if not its integration into local philosophical debates, as some of the studies we discuss did more clearly.

Focusing on these journals rather than the broader cultural press means that we are less likely to encounter any distant outliers in terms of interpretation and more likely to observe that changes in discourse were gradual. At the same time, the genre of the academic article allowed for more in-depth engagement and careful articulation of arguments and is therefore better suited for tracking creative hybridizations of philosophical thought, of which we are particularly interested in Marxist approaches to existentialism. These articles were later collected or become the cornerstones of books, or stemmed from doctoral dissertations defended at universities in Bucharest, Cluj, Iaşi, or Timişoara, which later appeared in print (e.g., Ghişe 1967 ; Gulian 1972a , b ). Published volumes are also beyond the scope of our article, but our analysis nevertheless points out the main directions in which the arguments put forward in the philosophical journals were later developed.

With regard to the methodological toolkit used here, we have opted for a mixed approach, combining quantitative analysis with hermeneutic textual analysis. The former consists of a search for terms in the digital archive of the two main philosophy journals in Romania during state socialism, Cercetări filozofice and Revista de filozofie , comprising about 5000 scholarly articles and reviews. We searched both for the root word “existentalis-” and for specific authors associated with existentialism and phenomenology—Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl—in order to uncover the connections between debates about specific authors and the debate on existentialism in general. As we found during this quantitative research, some existentialist authors provided too little data—Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty—so we decided to make this a case study of the foremost authors—i.e., those who provided sufficient data for a comprehensive understanding of the instrumentalizations of existentialism in Romania, with special focus on Sartre’s reception. Throughout this paper, when referring to terms or names as occurrences in our quantitative analysis, they will appear in quotation marks. The hermeneutic analysis is informed by intellectual history and the history of political thought, especially its insistence on the importance of reading texts in their political, institutional, and intellectual context (Freeden 1996 ; Trencsényi et al. 2018 ; Lóránd 2018 ). A similar mixed methodology was used to analyze the review section of the main philosophy journal in Hungary, Magyar Filozófiai Szemle . This revealed trends in academic engagement with Western philosophy that, according to the authors, would have been apparent neither from the analysis of state policy and institutional histories nor from philosophers’ private memoirs (Szücs 2018 , p. 280). In this paper, we also aim to identify long-term changes in philosophical discourse that would otherwise be difficult to detect through hermeneutic analysis alone, if only because of the sheer volume of sources. Conversely, it is the in-depth interpretation of the texts around the turning points identified through quantitative analysis that suggests further quantitative research from one section to the other in this paper. First, we provide an overview of the critique of existentialism in the 1950s. Second, we discuss the relative popularity of the major existentialist authors from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Third, we analyze the autochthonization and atomization of existentialism and phenomenology in the 1980s and point out their consequences in the postsocialist period.

Existentialism without existentialists: The critique of irrationalism past and present in the 1950s

In the 1950s, the critique of existentialism in Romania’s main philosophical journal, Cercetări filozofice , was generally predictable, in that it operated with the distinction between the irrationalism, decadence, and idealism of bourgeois philosophy spun by capitalism and imperialism and the rationalism, realism, and progressiveness of Marxist philosophy. Over the course of the decade, this evolved from a critique of existentialism without existentialists —a vigorous critique of existentialism without mention of existentialist authors—to a nominal critique, directed at the likes of Kirkegaard, Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, but only superficially rooted in exegesis of their philosophical texts by the end of the decade; and finally, to a critical analysis of existentialism that in the 1960s took an in-depth look at its philosophical underpinnings, suggesting a possible rapprochement with Marxist humanism around 1968.

The quantitative analysis shows the cutoff for what we term the critique of “existentialism without existentialists” in 1960, when the first volume of Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique was published. As Graph  1 shows in relation to mentions of “Sartre,” it was not until 1961 that they reached relevant numbers and drove discussions of “existentialism” along. Until then, no other relevant existentialist philosopher or phenomenological analysis was mentioned significantly—except for Edmund Husserl, who was not discussed as an existentialist author—although the critique of existentialism was highly relevant for the journal, as we detail below. When Sartre took a stand against contemporary Soviet Marxism–Leninism in 1960, Footnote 3 the debate over existentialism became personal, and “Sartre” was the main reason for the increase in occurrences of the term in the debates. In 1968, Sartre was again responsible for the larger number of mentions of “existentialism” and here we witness a different approach in the journal, i.e., he was mostly discussed with reference to his evolution toward Marxism and further toward communism, and thus rehabilitated.

figure 1

Occurrences of “existentialism” and “Sartre” in \(CF\) and RdF (1954–1989)

Several features of the more dogmatic texts from the 1950s and early 1960s deserve closer examination. First, critiques of existentialism and phenomenology in the 1950s doubled as critiques of interwar bourgeois decadence and its turn toward idealist philosophy. This was consistent with similar pronouncements in Eastern Europe, some of which were translated in Cercetări filozofice (Bînkov 1955 ). What distinguished the Romanian contributions from the others was the fact that they reproduced the trope of cultural inferiority and directed it against contemporary Western culture.

The most vivid formulation of this type of argument came from Pavel Apostol, whose own path as a philosopher reflects the complexities of reckoning with the interwar intellectual past under state socialism. Apostol earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1948 and headed the Historical and Dialectical Materialism Department at the Babeş University in Cluj until 1952, when he was publicly expelled from the party and arrested. Apostol, who was of Hungarian–Jewish origin, was accused of being a member of Zionist youth organizations in the interwar period, of espousing a nationalist stance as a journalist in the immediate postwar period, and of supporting fascist and bourgeois intellectuals after 1948. Footnote 4 After his release from prison in 1955, he worked as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy in Bucharest and completed a two-volume study on Hegel’s dialectical logic. In the texts he published in Cercetări filozofice in the first years after his release, Apostol was fiercely critical of contemporary bourgeois philosophy, which, in his opinion, “reflects the social and historical situation of a class that is decomposing: focused on itself, disconnected and hostile to all that is alive and viable in society, delirious in the sterile contemplation of its own uselessness, praying to the terrible fear that it ultimately represents nothing for the future of society (the social origin of the obsession with nothingness in bourgeois philosophy)” (Apostol 1955 , p. 129).

One of his articles is of utmost importance for understanding the reception and role of existentialism within socialist realism. In ```Terror of history’ and praise of the return to animality,” 1955, Apostol took up arguments from the critique of Western society and culture, links to fascism, as well as the critique of a model of imitation, as his argument also extended to the existentialist and phenomenological philosophy of the interwar period in Romania. The philosophy of figures such as Nae Ionescu, who was immensely influential among young intellectuals, while he also vehemently supported the extreme right, was described by Apostol as epigonal and lacking originality: ```native Romanian’ existentialism is nothing more than a translation of Heidegger’s existentialism into common theological language,” he argued, which “by preaching acceptance of suffering, of evil in the world […] aimed at diverting the attention of the masses from the real, social causes of misery and the shameless, cruel, savage exploitation of the people.” Apostol understood this as a means to celebrate war and sacrifice, to “justify ‘Romanian’ imperialism ‘philosophically’’’ (Apostol 1955 , p. 129), and even to “support the idea of a conflict between the Occident and the Orient” (Apostol 1957 , p. 128). In a second step, he related his criticism of existentialism to prominent interwar Romanian intellectuals who continued writing in emigration after the Second World War, such as Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade, who were often seen as reactionary thinkers, just as Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berdyaev were criticized in Soviet debates. Eliade’s post-emigration fame in the West was a particularly sore point. In his commentary on The Myth of Eternal Return (1949), which he read in a 1953 German translation, Apostol noted that Eliade applied the cyclical vision of history he had developed in the interwar period, which Apostol read as justifying the exploitation at the heart of capitalism, to the history of the West. “How terrible it must be for the cause of the Western bourgeoisie,” he mused, “if the losers of Romanian history can play the role of its saviors!” (Apostol 1955 , p. 130). In this way, the Romanian existentialists were dismissed as imitators, part of a self-colonizing decadent movement of the East European bourgeoisie. Anti-existentialism was simultaneously a form of anti-elitism, pitying local importers of existentialism as unoriginal imitators of Western individualist thought.

Apostol’s sources for his critique of contemporary existentialism were established orthodox Marxist–Leninist authors from Eastern Europe, such as György Lukács, whose 1952 The Destruction of Reason he reviewed very favorably in the journal, or Georg Mende, whose 1956 Studien über die Existenzphilosophie he reviewed a year later (Apostol and Öffenberger 1956 ; Apostol 1957 ). This brings us to the second important feature of the 1950s critique of existentialism: its contemporary intellectual points of reference, whether in terms of substantiating the critique, as in the case of Apostol, or in terms of constructing the object of the critique, were very diverse and their geography did not follow the neat ideological divide between East and West. At a time when existentialism was rarely mentioned in philosophical articles, let alone as a standalone topic of inquiry, the review section of Cercetări filozofice was lively with mentions of the critique of bourgeois philosophy, including existentialism and phenomenology, and more generally of the “new conservatism” in the American journals Science and Society , Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , or The Journal of Philosophy (Grünberg 1957 ; M.C. 1957 ; T.P. 1958 ), the most recent issues of which reached Romanian philosophers with negligible delay. French critiques of existentialism and the social role of intellectuals also found favor with reviewers, such as Roger Garaudy’s 1957 Humanisme marxiste or Jean Kanapa’s 1957 Situation de l’intellectuel (Neagoe 1958 , 1959 ). Footnote 5 Soviet philosophers’ criticism of bourgeois ideology was relayed in reports of research visits in the Soviet Union, from the World Congress of Philosophy, or through reviews of collections of articles translated into Romanian, under titles such as Contemporary subjective idealism: critical essays (Ioanid 1958 ; M.G. 1958 ; Grünberg 1958 ). Finally, the positive reception of the work of Mexican Marxist philosopher Emilio Uranga and criticism of the phenomenological critique of existentialism by Chilean philosopher José Echeverría show that the interests of Romanian philosophers in the 1950s and early 1960s also extended to the Global South (D.B. 1960 ; Grünberg 1958 ). Footnote 6 The geography of the critique of existentialism in Romania was thus much more balanced than one would expect based on top-down accounts of the Gheorghiu-Dej regime’s cultural politics during the decade, which focused on censorship and repression (Vasile 2011 ).

The third and final feature of the early critique of existentialism that we would like to discuss at greater length is its generational character. In its sharpness, Pavel Apostol’s critique was already somewhat out of step with the overall tone of Cercetări filozofice , which became increasingly professionalized in the 1950s. Apostol’s early texts were animated by the antifascist and class-struggle ethos more typical of the beginning of the decade, as well as by a preoccupation with ideological orthodoxy that was undoubtably rooted in the experience of unpredictable waves of purges among intellectuals, which had seen Apostol, among others, sent to prison. Together with articles by C. I. Gulian, Henri Wald, or Ludwig Grünberg, they speak of a shared generational experience of interwar antisemitic violence and antifascist organizing, followed by postwar radical Marxist–Leninist cultural reconstruction with its purging of bourgeois intellectuals. This was a generation that both participated in and repeatedly fell victim to the enforcement of Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy in philosophy from positions of authority in universities and the Academy, a situation to which they adapted with varying degrees of conformism or direct contribution to the enforcement of the ideological line. As Felicia Waldman noted about the fate of Jewish professors at the University of Bucharest in the first half of the 20th century, “individuals usually had options, but personal ambition often dictated how they were chosen and whether morality would play a role in the process” (Waldman 2018 , p. 264).

After coming under public criticism in 1948, philosopher C. I. Gulian became one of the most important advocates of orthodoxy in the field of philosophy. He was a professor at the University of Bucharest and head of the Department of Philosophy (1953–1975), head of the Department and then of the Institute of Philosophy at the Academy (1949–1971), and editor-in-chief of Cercetări filozofice . Gulian engaged with existentialism only sporadically, including in his 1957 volume on method and system in Hegel’s work, in which he criticized the existentialist interpretation of the Phenomenology of Spirit as a philosophy of ```the tragic of existence, anxiety and death’ […] instead of a dialectics of oppression and alienation” (Adler 1958 , p. 167). However, in a 1958 article that marked a new period of ideological intensification in Romania, Gulian wrote vehemently against contemporary attempts to “humanize” Marxism based on Marx’s early writings and his thinking on socialist morality and alienation. Gulian’s critique referred in the same breath to bourgeois existentialist philosophers Sartre and Camus, socialist politician André Philipp, theologian Pierre Bigo, and Polish revisionists Roman Werfel and Leszek Kołakowski. Gulian opposed their attempts to interpret Marxism as ethics—i.e., to separate it from scientific socialism as its revolutionary political practice—by referring to orthodox Marxism–Leninism. He emphasized the class character of bourgeois law and ethics, explained the development of socialist morality according to the Marxist law of base and superstructure, and affirmed the working class as the only source of socialist morality determined by the political goals of the transition from socialism to communism and thus the only source for the realization of “true humanism” (Gulian 1958 ).

In the following years, bourgeois philosophy was again severely criticized. Henri Wald wrote a scathing critique of phenomenology as a subjectivist, idealist, and metaphysical response to issues of dialectical unity between object and subject, between ontology, gnoseology, and logic, between theory and method in philosophy, etc. (Wald 1960 ). This came after his own 1959 book on dialectical logic was publicly criticized for contradicting the classics of Marxism–Leninism on the issue of the identity between dialectics, the theory of knowledge, and logic. After repeated administrative sanctions, he was removed from the University of Bucharest and the Institute of Philosophy in 1962. He had taught at the university after the war, from which he was expelled as the son of Jewish merchants, and survived forced labor and the Bucharest pogrom protected by friends (Conovici 2000 ).

Philosopher Ileana Mărculescu, discussing the issue of consciousness as formulated by Marx and Engels in their critical revision of Hegelian phenomenology, reviewed debates about consciousness in Western psychology and philosophy and arrived at a critique of existentialism’s denial of the Marxist idea of objectivation, which she deemed “an anti-scientific, irrationalist crusade against objectivity” (Mărculescu 1959 , p. 87). Mărculescu renewed the theory of reflection and, in particular, the possibility of objectivation in relation to consciousness—i.e., the materialization of the knowledge that consciousness has of itself, as represented in cybernetics. Over the next decade, her position gradually evolved into a recognition of “the subjective aspect of philosophical activity” in articles she published in 1967–1968; a call to intellectuals from socialist countries to reconsider the question of freedom, which she formulated at the third Christian–Marxist symposium in Marianske Lazne, Czechoslovakia, in 1967; and the definition of philosophy as a science of the spirit, the metaphysical implications of which did not go uncriticized in the Romanian press in 1968 (Shafir 1984 , pp. 449–451). Mărculescu’s intellectual trajectory in the 1950s and 1960s, which eventually led to emigration to the US in the early 1970s, exemplifies a broader change in the attitude of the philosophical establishment toward bourgeois philosophy in general, the issues of existentialism and subjectivity in particular, and finally, the understanding of the role of philosophy and philosophers in society.

An existentialist among Marxists: Reflections on Sartre’s intellectual path in the 1960s

By the mid-1960s, criticism of existentialism grew quieter. Although Gulian’s basic argumentation in favor of Marxism did not fundamentally change, the tone and intent of his articles certainly did. When he wrote about axiology in bourgeois philosophy in 1964, he was much more careful about distinguishing between different kinds of approaches, including existentialism, as more or less progressive or nonscientific and reactionary (Gulian 1964a ). He also distinguished between different authors, claiming, for example, that Heidegger’s existentialism, compared to Jaspers’, went further in its “aim to isolate man from nature and society” (Gulian 1965 , p. 1557). The first moment in which existentialism was used in Revista de filozofie without an implicit negative connotation was an article by Pavel Cîmpeanu on Kafka’s literature (Cîmpeanu 1965a ). Footnote 7 This was part of a larger rehabilitation of modernism and existentialism at the dawn of Ceauşescu’s regime, who legitimized his first years in rule through seemingly distancing himself from the Soviet Union. In describing Kafka as an existentialist writer who simultaneously reflected on the objective and structurally absurd reality of bourgeois society, Cîmpeanu used existentialism as a neutral and even functional adjective—along the lines of the literary critics of the 1960s, as discussed in our introduction. Existentialism became a frequently implied label and “language”—as Goldis̨ puts it—in literary studies, so that Cîmpeanu had a unique opportunity in the more rigid journals of philosophy: extracting existentialism from a long series of diatribes. More generally, this coincided with the moment when existentialism entered literary debates, with world-literature authors seen as existentialist writers retrospectively—from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Eugen Ionesco. Nevertheless, this was achieved through a temporal displacement of Kafka, as Cîmpeanu followed Walter Kaufman and W. Heiney in claiming that Kafka was more of a classical writer than a contemporary one. Footnote 8

More neutral references to existentialism such as Cîmpeanu’s coexisted in Revista de Filozofie with continued criticism of bourgeois philosophy in the familiar terms of the previous decade, for example, Al. Boboc’s “The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and contemporary irrationalism” (Boboc 1965 ). In the second part of his article on Kafka, published a month later, even Cîmpeanu took care to explicitly distinguish Kafka from existentialism, arguing that interpreting Kafka as “poet of failure, of the existentialist type,” is only partly justified (Cîmpeanu 1965b , p. 1461). This type of argument became more common in analyses of cultural production from the mid-1960s onward, as in Ion Pascadi’s article on contemporary drama in which he clarified that “if one criticizes the flawed philosophical position [i.e., existentialism] that is at the heart of these works, one should not bypass the real human problems put forward by Sartre, O’Neil, or Tennessee Williams, which in turn must be understood within the social-historical framework in which they occur” (Pascadi 1965 , p. 1016).

Compared to the cultural press, Revista de filozofie was somewhat behind its time in terms of the reception of existentialism, taking up controversial positions less frequently, but generally offering more detailed accounts. A good example of this is the way it covered the colloquium Morale e società organized by the Gramsci Institute in Rome in 1964. As Christian Ferencz-Flatz and Alex Cistelecan point out in the introduction to this issue, the colloquium was a highly unequal encounter between Marxist philosophers and Jean-Paul Sartre, in which the participants’ political camps were generally preserved and the French and Marxist revisionist debates ran almost in parallel. But what was the meeting’s echo back in Romania, and how did it affect the reception of existentialism and Sartre? As the only Romanian participant, C. I. Gulian wrote about the colloquium in Contemporanul (The contemporary) and in the main party-ideological journal, Lupta de clasă (The class struggle) in 1964. He argued that the meeting had been, on the one hand, an opportunity for Marxist philosophers to address topics that were in danger of being monopolized by the representatives of “subjectivism” and, on the other hand, it had been necessary in order to reopen the debate between Marxism and existentialism, since Sartre’s position had evolved over the years and showed “tendencies […] to overcome old subjectivist positions.” Gulian’s opinion of Sartre’s humanistic thought was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting his change of perspective as evidence of the validity of Marxism. He suggested that Marxists should look more closely at issues such as subjectivity, individuality, freedom, and values (Gulian 1964a , p. 7). In his more developed version of the argument, published in Lupta de clasă , Gulian articulated this as the agenda of a Marxist “philosophical anthropology” and the core of Marxist humanism (Gulian 1964b ).

Revista de filozofie also published a reflection on the colloquium a year later. Authored by Fred Mahler, it was based on a close reading of the participants’ contributions, which had been published in the French and Italian press in the meantime. Mahler described the colloquium in terms of “a theoretical confrontation,” but despite this framing and the occasional simplification of the relationship between Marxism and existentialism, he reconstructed in detail the participants’ arguments, especially Roger Garaudy’s and Sartre’s. He appreciated the latter’s critique of positivism, but ultimately concluded that Sartre was still far from a dialectical solution to the problem of ethics, freedom, and determinism. Interestingly, toward the end of his article, Mahler reiterated the distinction between drawing on some results of non-Marxist philosophy to elaborate a Marxist ethics and refraining from taking a critical stance toward their fundamentally nonscientific basis. This remark was explicitly meant as a denunciation of Marxist revisionism—or of the idea, which he saw formulated by Karl Kosik, that the theoretical basis of Marxism itself must be reconsidered in order to address the issue of ethics (Mahler 1965 ). This clearly shows the limits of how far intellectual engagement with the problems of subjectivity could go in integrating the existentialist challenge to Marxism, and indeed, to our knowledge no strong arguments for revising Marxism on the basis of existentialism were put forward in Romania at that time.

Nevertheless, the study of Sartre’s thought was at its height toward the end of the 1960s. In a 1968 article on Sartre and Marxism, Magda Stroe offered a complex overview of his philosophy and politics. Stroe taught Marxist philosophy at the Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest from 1955–1956 and was particularly interested in esthetics. In 1975 she defended her doctoral dissertation on Sartre’s esthetics, parts of which were published in Revista de filozofie in the second half of the 1970s (Stroe 2009 ). In her 1968 article, which was the first detailed account of Sartre’s philosophy and politics up to The Critique of Dialectical Reason , Stroe grappled with the issue of whether Sartre’s intellectual evolution should be seen as a rupture (following Merleau-Ponty) or as continuity (Simone de Beauvoire’s position in “Merleau-Ponty et le pseudo-sartrisme”). This was the starting point for a detailed survey of Sartre’s work and ideological positions, from his renunciation of socialism in 1939 to his understanding of socialism as a “human project” in 1946, as an “absolute frame of reference for the appreciation of the political act” in 1957, and finally his 1966 self-identification as a “Marxist and communist” (Stroe 1968 , p. 148). At the level of his theorization of existence as “situated,” Stroe acknowledged his “persistent efforts to avoid subjectivism, irrationalism, [and] indeterminism,” pointing out that through his “theory of the situation, Sartre attempts to limit the absolute voluntarity of choice and to show that choice is not realized in a void but in reality.” Stroe even claimed that “ L’Être et le Néant reveals the existence of some positive moments in Sartre’s thought” and that “although he pays tribute to idealism and metaphysics, he points to real problems: the importance of subjectivity, choice, and commitment” (Stroe 1968 , p. 149). However, Stroe saw the most important transformation as coming from Sartre’s political experience, which led him, in his 1952 Les communistes et la paix , to recognize “the need to organize the working class into a party” (Stroe 1968 , p. 154). In Stroe’s view, this was a very legitimate stand that distinguished Sartre’s development from that of Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with whom he shared a common position in 1945. Camus, Stroe explained, “did not overcome the stage of abstract negation of capitalism” and Merleau-Ponty “lapsed into skepticism and reformism” (Stroe 1968 , p. 155).

In reorganizing the local Marxist perspective on Sartre’s work and activity, Stroe also applied the concept of praxis to the “dialectical unity between the objective and the subjective.” She concluded that Sartre’s philosophy maintained an unresolved internal contradiction between phenomenology/existentialism and an anti-subjectivist, anti-irrational current, but that the latter had absorbed or at the very least hybridized the other. In the same issue of Revista de filozofie , Ana Katz reflected on the relationship between existentialism and Marxism in Sartre’s thought through the lens of his approach to freedom. Katz came to a similar, though perhaps more blunt, conclusion as Stroe, who started with an open mind that there is neither only rupture nor only continuity in the development of Sartre’s thought. “Despite all these real connections to Marxism,” Katz argued after examining his work and politics similarly to Stroe, “Sartre is no Marxist. But neither is he an existentialist among existentialists. […] Rather, we can say […] that he is an existentialist among Marxists, that he has found a solid foundation of human solidarity on the path of class struggle, but that he has not yet completed it” (Katz 1968 , p. 169).

The consolidation of this cautiously benevolent view of Sartre and existentialism toward the end of the 1960s was marked, as earlier, by an article that Gulian authored. Writing on existentialism and axiology in 1968, he acknowledged the historical, objective justification of existentialism, positively assessed the move by authors such as Sartre and Camus from existentialist problematization to action, and argued that existentialism’s contribution to human knowledge was meaningful and that, in particular, its critical analysis of human limitations could be integrated into a dialectical anthropology. Gulian saw in existentialism both an antidote to the naïve optimism of humanism and rationalism, and a “hidden axiology”: through despair, doubt, withdrawal, and loneliness, existentialism in fact indirectly expressed a striving for participation in life understood as a realm of values (Gulian 1968 , p. 1415). With the explicit exception of Heidegger, Gulian held that existentialism, like psychology (be it Adler or Freud) or sociology, were legitimate ways of exploring the real conditionings of human existence. “What is important, however, are not the conditionings, but what man can do in spite of these conditionings ,” he concluded, “therefore the existential problem leads us to the problem of values” (Gulian 1968 , p. 1417; italics in original). Both Gulian and Stroe emphasized the same aspect: that the only recoverable aspect of subjectivity is the situated condition of experience. This was also expressed in Ana Katz’s assessment that “like Marx, who claimed that misery becomes even more unbearable through the recognition of misery,” Sartre saw that acknowledging the problem made the problem unbearable.

Existentialists without existentialism: Between a Marxist philosophical anthropology and the fragmentation of disciplines in the 1970s

The quantitative analysis of the occurrences of the term “existentialism” (including variants) and the mentions of the main existentialist authors in Cercetări filozofice and Revista de filozofie showed an unusual desynchronization. Sartre was the first author to be drawn into debates about existentialism, especially from the early 1960s onward, and he was thus the first to be reread through an existentialist revisionist lens by Magda Stroe, Ana Katz, and C. I. Gulian toward the end of the decade. After a long period in which “existentialism” had almost disappeared from Revista de filozofie compared to its peaks in the early and late 1960s (see the 1969–1977 period in Graph  2 ), the term regained prominence in 1978. Yet this came with an unusual twist: it was completely disconnected from Sartre’s ideas and writings. A similar desynchronization had occurred earlier, when Edmund Husserl was heavily criticized in the journal in 1960, but the number of mentions of “existentialism” did not increase until 1961, when Sartre was drawn into the debate. The same happened in 1965 and 1967, when “Husserl” was mentioned frequently, yet “existentialism” did not come into discussion. In 1968, it was “Sartre” once again who drove the occurrences of “existentialism” up. However, after that “Sartre” lost his connection to “existentialism,” as the graph shows most notably in 1979, when he is mentioned frequently, but “existentialism” is not. After 1978, when the number of mentions of “existentialism” declined, mentions of “Sartre” increased in 1979, of “Heidegger” in 1983 and 1987, and of “Husserl” in 1986 which, in contrast to the early socialist period, leads us to describe the 1970s and 1980s as a period of existentialists without existentialism . What had happened?

figure 2

To understand the proportions of these occurrences, here are the main findings of our quantitative inquiry: Marx – 40 500; Hegel – 10 700; Kant – 7600; Sartre – 1250; Husserl – 1560; Heidegger – 1550; Kierkegaard – 220; Merleau-Ponty – 210; Camus – 230; Beauvoir – 55. This is also why we list only the results for “Sartre,” “Husserl,” and “Heidegger.”

Once again, C. I. Gulian’s attitude was crucial to the way the official philosophical establishment as represented by the main philosophical journal dealt with existentialism. After a decade of criticizing existentialism for its irrationalism, and a decade of grappling with Sartre’s mediation between existentialism and Marxism, the 1970s witnessed an attempt to develop a specifically Marxist approach to the central problem of the situated human existence that was brought to the fore by all existentialist authors. Following up on his earlier writings on philosophical anthropology, in a 1971 article Gulian acknowledged the role of contemporary existentialism in drawing attention to “the importance of the situation for anthropology,” yet nevertheless maintained that existentialist analysis retained its “abstract-metaphysical, ahistorical, and incomplete character” (Gulian 1971 , p. 719). The Marxist philosophical anthropology that Gulian proposed went beyond existentialism’s recognition of situatedness (which he conceded even in the case of Heidegger, because of his discussion of temporality). It also integrated the insights of contemporary sociology and psychology, but not their drawbacks (in particular, the focus of functionalism on social integration or the reduction of social issues to individual psychology). Importantly, Gulian also distinguished philosophical anthropology from revisionist Marxism, albeit not explicitly, but by arguing that the most important existential relationship was that between man and being ( Sein understood in a neutral ontological, not metaphysical, sense) and not that between individual and collectivity (Gulian 1971 , pp. 723–724), the core of Marxist humanist discourse at this time in Romania (Hîncu 2022 ). The intellectual genealogy of philosophical anthropology thus understood went back to Marx and Engels and led to an examination of the ways in which people’s capacity for self-affirmation was sociohistorically determined, as were existential attitudes. This approach to situatedness, Gulian maintained, succeeded in overcoming the internal contradiction that persisted even in the existentialist thought most consistent with Marxist dialectics (Jasper and Sartre in particular): the contradiction between the claim that man is fully determined and that man is fully self-determined. Marxist philosophical anthropology did so “through analysis : the analysis of what , how much , and how the historical situation determines man from its depth” (Gulian 1971 , p. 729; italics in original).

In 1972, Gulian offered a detailed definition of Marxist philosophical anthropology in relation to various philosophical approaches. Against Marxist authors who deemed philosophical anthropology a “bourgeois” invention, Footnote 10 he claimed that philosophical anthropology was an integral part of Marxist philosophy, especially in its focus on the historical materialist analysis of values and in its use of dialectics as a method (Gulian 1972b , p. 197). Gulian grounded Marxist philosophical anthropology in certain sciences examining the biological-psychological and sociohistorical structures that determined man without “annihilating freedom of choice.” In so doing, he argued that it “opposes the existentialist conceptions that seek to anchor philosophical anthropology ‘beyond’ the particular sciences.” Finally, Gulian distinguished Marxist philosophical anthropology from structuralism, or what he identified as Althusser’s “theoretical anti-humanism” (on the reception of structuralism in Revista de filozofie more broadly, see Baghiu 2021 ). Gulian maintained that structuralism sought to eliminate the issues of meaning and values, whereas philosophical anthropology approached man both ontologically and axiologically, theoretically and practically, in order to know man as much as to change him (Gulian 1972b , p. 198).

Marxist anthropological philosophy was certainly not exclusively a project of Gulian’s. In fact, a series of colloquia on philosophical anthropology had taken place in Moscow (1969), Bucharest (1970), and Sofia (1971) as part of a collaboration between the institutes of philosophy in the three countries. Revista de filozofie published translations of several Bulgarian and Soviet lectures on all three occasions. The 1969 editorial introducing them expressed the hope that future meetings would go beyond discussions of the theoretical nature of philosophical anthropology and address the fundamental contemporary issues of man (O.C. 1970 , p. 60). Given the intransigent tone of the Bulgarian and Soviet contributions to the 1969 meeting, it is indeed possible that Gulian had his counterparts in mind when he argued against criticizing philosophical anthropology as “bourgeois.” However, a year later in Bucharest, Soviet philosopher B. T. Grigorian articulated a view of existentialism similar to Gulian’s, acknowledging the positive preoccupation of “subjectivist philosophy” with the alienation of man but arguing that it left unresolved the contradiction between the objective and subjective (Grigorian 1971 ). If there was some convergence among philosophers from the three countries, the third and final meeting of the colloquium, held in Sofia, showed that beyond mutual introductions to each other’s research agendas, there was no attempt to articulate a coherent common approach to Marxist philosophical anthropology (see Redacţia 1972 , pp. 201–202; and following articles).

In terms of “institutionalized philosophy,” as throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Gulian’s work played the role of redrawing the boundaries to which Marxist–Leninist philosophy could be stretched, in terms of engaging with Western literature for local theory building. His agenda for philosophical anthropology was never taken up, but his approach to existentialism in particular set a precedent for disentangling existentialist authors from existentialism as a philosophical approach to be challenged. Gulian took what he needed from the critique of Sartre’s existentialism, and although he rescued the concept of situation from his thinking, he separated it from Sartre’s thought. So did Haralamb Culea’s 1973 article on “Directions in the epistemological foundation of sociology,” in which the philosopher involved in empirical sociological research maintained that “sociology has a considerable number of theories that can play a heuristic role […] [and in which] results can also be seen in research supported by psychologistic, relationist, noological, phenomenological, existentialist, [and] historicist theories” (Culea 1973 , p. 1016). In our reading, this indicates a timid struggle to create an interdisciplinary debate about the possible role of philosophy in the context of the disciplinary atomization of social sciences and humanities, both in the West and increasingly under state socialism as well. With the rise of cultural studies and cultural anthropology in Western academia, Eastern counterparts found it difficult to keep the domain compact, so that the use of philosophical concepts in new contexts (sociology, philosophical anthropology, literary studies, theory of science, etc.) became rather intuitive.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Revista de filozofie published several articles dedicated to individual authors, such as Gulian’s consideration of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and its relation to structuralism (Gulian 1978a ), Alexandru Boboc’s article on Heideggerian ontology (Boboc 1978 ), or Gulian’s interpretation of Husserl’s Lebenswelt as a “return to praxis” (Gulian 1978b ). All philosophers who were considered existentialists in the 1960s and 1970s were now stripped of their existentialist label and discussed in various debates; whereas existentialism was no longer singled out, but generally mentioned alongside many other philosophical orientations. This was due to the increasing professionalization and fragmentation of philosophy and the rise of cultural studies, where the tools created in the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired new interpretations of dialectical and historical materialism, and eventually the decentering of materialism altogether in favor of other philosophical preoccupations. This is illustrated by the translations from Western philosophy into Romanian in the 1970s and 1980s, which were mostly concerned with epistemology, philosophy of science, logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and consciousness, and artificial intelligence (on analytical philosophy, see Pârvu 2014 ; for the case study of the prolific translator Mihail Radu Solcan, see Vică forthcoming ).

The move can also be observed in the evolution of textbooks on dialectical and historical materialism from the 1950s to the 1980s, as Alex Cistelecan argued convincingly (Cistelecan 2021 , 2022 ). In what concerns existentialism, the textbooks show an evolution broadly comparable with the one discussed in this paper. The historical materialism textbook published in 1961 contained a separate chapter on the critique of contemporary bourgeois sociology, with a subchapter on its “existentialist and pragmatist strands” (Curs de materialism 1961 ). Several years later, in 1967, a chapter on “currents and directions in contemporary sociological thought” included subchapters on “psychologism,” empiricism, structuralism and functionalism, and “technocratism” and the sociology of industrial society, but no longer a subchapter on existentialism. Instead, an entire chapter was dedicated to the topic of “man in contemporary society,” and covered pre-Marxist, Marxist, and non-Marxist conceptions of man and human essence, and a discussion of socialist humanism and the development of personality ( Materialism istoric 1967 ), highlighting the rising centrality of humanism as a Marxist philosophical concern. The textbooks published over the 1970s rather became a collection of thematic discussions on a variety of topics, with little indication of an overarching framework and little pretense at exhaustive or systematic mapping of the philosophical field: e.g., the object of philosophy, materialism, structure and system, determinism, development and progress, knowledge and truth, action, etc. ( Filozofie 1975 ). Finally, there were almost no new textbooks on dialectical and historical materialism in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, existentialism also became a useful tool to explain how interwar Romanian philosophy could be reread in a useful manner with the rebirth of nationalism and the partial recovery of the interwar cultural tradition previously deemed idealist, bourgeois, or irrationalist. A good example of this is the philosophical work of Lucian Blaga. In 1985, Dumitru Matei wrote an article titled “Lucian Blaga on the ‘philosophical consciousness,’’’ in which he claimed that the Romanian philosopher’s “metaphysical coordinates” were preexistentialist. In 1989, Teodor Dima also argued that Lucian Blaga’s concept of “Luciferic knowledge” could be seen as a form of atheistic metaphysics: “in our century, irrationalism—through the so-called dialectical theology and through religious existentialism—strives to modernize religion through a return to its old meaning, the mystical one” (Dima 1989 , p. 152). On the occasion of philosopher Mircea Florian’s 100th birthday in 1988, existentialism, when analyzed as an important part of Florian’s work, was seen as a phenomenon “triggered by the fundamentally human desire to offer the way to a more adequate knowledge of the human being, to be a questioning through which man can become himself again” (Ghis̨e 1988 , p. 361).

To conclude our analysis of the integration of existentialism beyond purely polemical engagement in studies featured in Revista de filozofie in the 1970s, we would like to point out a conjectural error in our quantitative representation in Graph  2 , which nevertheless supports our analysis of the 1970s as a time of existentialists without existentialism : although it may appear that “Heidegger” and “existentialism” are strongly linked in the journal at the end of the decade, the increase is in fact coincidental. 1978 was the year of Heidegger’s death, which explains the spike in his mentions, but most of the references to “existentialism” came from a survey of contemporary debates on existentialism by N. I. Maris̨. His article brings us to the conclusions of our own overview of the reception of existentialism in Socialist Romania.


Comprehensive, but not polemical, Mariş’s article grappled not only with the proliferation of existentialist literature but also with the attempts to define it in both Western and Marxist scholarship. It concluded with a definition of existentialism that can also be read as a recapitulation of the stages through which the reception of existentialism went in Socialist Romania:

Existentialism must be considered as an idealistic philosophical current of subjectivist-irrationalist orientation, which emerged as a direct consequence of the complex situation created before the Second World War through the works of Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, G. Marcel, [and] N. Abbagnano. Later, it experienced a wide audience and a further development in contemporary thought. Existentialism deals with a variety of themes discussed in specific ways: the contingency of human existence, “throwing it away” and giving it up, “choice,” freedom, the powerlessness of reason, transcendence, the absurd, loneliness, the fragility of human existence, nothingness, etc. (Maris̨ 1978 , p. 623)

In the 1950s, there was a highly confrontational and divisive perspective on existentialism, rooted in the critique of the interwar period and of bourgeois philosophy from Romania as well as from the capitalist West. In the 1960s, this approach to existentialism without existentialists was replaced by a closer examination of the development of existentialist thought in relation to Marxism, especially in the works of Sartre. Some of the most important concepts of existentialism, such as the situation, freedom, or choice, were increasingly integrated into Marxist analyses of the human condition in the 1970s. Although the project of a “Marxist philosophical anthropology” did not bear fruit, it again detached existentialism from existentialists, so that by the end of the decade, existentialist authors were being discussed in various fields and debates, but no longer in relation to existentialism as a philosophical current with which to contend. As national ideology gained pride of place in cultural debates in the 1980s, the main discussions in philosophy also shifted decisively from Marxism’s intense engagement with bourgeois philosophy until at least the early 1970s. Finally, the integration of existentialism in local debates through exegeses rather than mere polemics also made it possible to partially rehabilitate authors from the interwar period previously deemed “irrationalists” by identifying existentialist themes or tendencies within their work

Our analysis of the reception of existentialism has several implications for understanding intellectual thought in Socialist Romania. First, it has shown that the period of the 1950s, although couched in very divisive rhetoric, was nonetheless broader in scope than an analysis focusing exclusively on the Sovietization of the cultural sphere would allow. On the one hand, it was broader in chronological terms, as the critique of existentialism was deeply rooted in the critique of the interwar period and philosophy’s role in supporting the existing sociopolitical order, the extreme right, and war. On the other hand, the engagement with existentialism drew on a host of sources from the capitalist West, state socialist Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, and occasionally from the Global South. Second, we argue that the engagement of the official philosophical establishment with the work of Sartre, with its ups and downs, should be seen in a broader context of postwar contestation and integration of intellectual thought originating in the Western core. Romanian philosophers’ cautious approach to Sartre in the 1960s was not only a sign of relative conservatism, but also a consequence of the Romanian actors’ positioning in relation to their Western Marxist counterparts and their Eastern European peers in events such as the 1964 Gramsci Institute colloquium or the academic cooperation in the field of philosophical anthropology between Bulgaria, Romania, and the Soviet Union in 1969–1971. The figure of C. I. Gulian, as editor-in-chief of the main philosophical journal, is central to understanding how the boundaries of benevolent acceptance and the agenda of Marxist theorization of existentialist themes were drawn within institutionalized philosophical thought. A comparative analysis of Revista de filozofie and other major cultural journals of the period, which is beyond the scope of this paper, could answer the question of the extent to which the lines of demarcation drawn here resonated beyond the official philosophical field. Finally, the way in which in the 1970s existentialist authors were delinked from existentialism as a philosophical strand of thought that required critical positioning points to the broader consequences of the failure of Marxist theory to reliably integrate its “others” under state socialism. As can be seen in the case of anthropological philosophy, the attempt to integrate key existentialist concepts led not to broader investment of the cultural field in a Marxist theory of man, as hoped, but to the appropriation of existentialist authors for debates that went beyond philosophy, to the disciplines of humanities and social science that had split off from the overarching Marxist–Leninist philosophical paradigm. This raises important questions about the role of the official philosophical establishment in managing intellectual plurality, not only by keeping it in check but also by providing precedents for a more “dialogical” engagement with non-Marxist scholars.

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24 november 2023.

The original online version of this article was revised due to a retrospective Open Access order.

23 November 2023

A Correction to this paper has been published: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-023-09608-z

While we are unable to offer a full account of translations from existentialist authors, some of which appeared in excerpts in various journals, based on the very useful chronology compiled in Diaconu ( 2019 ), we can identify the second half of the 1960s as the period when most translations were published: a speech by Sartre at the Vienna Congress of the Peoples for Peace appeared as early as 1953, and other speeches, articles, and interviews by him continued to be published regularly from the second half of the 1950s, as were journalistic pieces by Simone de Beauvoir, in fewer numbers, beginning in 1960. Several existentialist volumes were translated in 1965: Sartre’s Les mots (trad. Dumitru Trancă); Camus’ L’Étranger (trad. Georgeta Horondică), Caligula (trad. Laurenţiu Fulga), and La Peste (trad. Eta and Marin Preda); and de Beauvoir’s Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (trad. Anda Bondur). In 1969 a two-volume edition of Sartre’s theatre came out, and a collection of Camus’ plays was published in 1970. Irina Mavrodin also translated the latter’s L’Exil et le royaume (1968) and Le mythe de Sisyphe (1969).

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Hîncu, A., Baghiu, Ş. Existentialism, existentialists, and Marxism: From critique to integration within the philosophical establishment in Socialist Romania. Stud East Eur Thought 75 , 455–477 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-022-09514-w

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  • Basics of Existentialism
  • The concept of ‘being’ in existentialism
  • The role of freedom and choice in existentialism
  • Existentialism and the absurd
  • The concept of ‘bad faith’ in existentialism
  • The relationship between existentialism and nihilism
  • Existentialism and the concept of ‘the other’
  • The role of anxiety and dread in existentialism
  • Existentialism and the search for meaning
  • The concept of ‘authenticity’ in existentialism
  • The role of death and finitude in existentialism
  • Existentialism and Religion
  • Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘leap of faith’
  • Existentialism and the problem of evil
  • The role of God in existential thought
  • The existential critique of religious institutions
  • Existentialism and atheism
  • The concept of ‘despair’ in Kierkegaard’s thought
  • Existentialism and mysticism
  • The role of faith and belief in existentialism
  • Existentialism and the concept of ‘the absurd’ in religious contexts
  • The relationship between existentialism and Buddhism
  • Key Figures in Existentialism
  • The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard
  • The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
  • The philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The philosophy of Albert Camus
  • The philosophy of Martin Heidegger
  • The philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir
  • The philosophy of Karl Jaspers
  • The philosophy of Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The philosophy of Franz Kafka
  • The philosophy of Gabriel Marcel
  • Existentialism in Literature and Arts
  • Existential themes in the works of Franz Kafka
  • The representation of existentialism in film
  • Existentialism and the theatre of the absurd
  • The role of existentialism in modern art
  • Existentialism in the works of Albert Camus
  • The influence of existentialism on music
  • Existential themes in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The representation of existentialism in popular culture
  • Existentialism and postmodern literature
  • The influence of existentialism on contemporary theatre
  • Ethical Considerations in Existentialism
  • The concept of ‘bad faith’ and its ethical implications
  • Existentialism and the ethics of responsibility
  • The role of freedom and choice in existential ethics
  • Existentialism and the concept of ‘the other’ in ethics
  • The ethical implications of existential nihilism
  • The ethics of authenticity in existentialism
  • Existentialism and the ethics of despair
  • The ethical implications of existential anxiety
  • Existentialism and the ethics of death and finitude
  • The ethics of existentialism in a globalized world
  • Existential Psychology
  • The influence of existentialism on humanistic psychology
  • Existential psychotherapy and the concept of ‘the other’
  • The role of anxiety and dread in existential psychology
  • Existential psychology and the search for meaning
  • The concept of ‘authenticity’ in existential psychology
  • The role of death and finitude in existential psychology
  • Existential psychology and the concept of ‘the absurd’
  • The influence of existential psychology on contemporary psychotherapy
  • Existential psychology and the treatment of depression
  • The role of existential psychology in understanding mental health
  • Feminist Existentialism
  • Simone de Beauvoir and the concept of ‘the other’
  • Existentialism and the feminist critique of patriarchy
  • Feminist existentialism and the concept of ‘bad faith’
  • The role of freedom and choice in feminist existentialism
  • Feminist existentialism and the search for meaning
  • The concept of ‘authenticity’ in feminist existentialism
  • Feminist existentialism and the ethics of responsibility
  • The role of existentialism in contemporary feminist thought
  • Feminist existentialism and the concept of ‘the absurd’
  • The influence of feminist existentialism on contemporary gender studies
  • Existentialism in Modern Context
  • Existentialism and the challenges of globalization
  • Existentialism and the ethics of technology
  • The role of existentialism in contemporary political thought
  • Existentialism and the challenges of environmentalism
  • The influence of existentialism on postmodern thought
  • Existentialism and the ethics of social justice
  • The role of existentialism in contemporary education
  • Existentialism and the challenges of secularism
  • The influence of existentialism on contemporary psychology
  • Existentialism and the ethics of artificial intelligence
  • Comparative Studies (Existentialism vs. other philosophies)
  • Existentialism and phenomenology
  • Existentialism and Marxism
  • Existentialism and rationalism
  • Existentialism and empiricism
  • Existentialism and postmodernism
  • Existentialism and pragmatism
  • Existentialism and structuralism
  • Existentialism and deconstruction
  • Existentialism and psychoanalysis
  • Existentialism and humanism
  • Criticisms of Existentialism
  • The critique of existentialism by rationalists
  • The critique of existentialism by empiricists
  • The critique of existentialism by Marxists
  • The critique of existentialism by feminists
  • The critique of existentialism by postmodernists
  • The critique of existentialism by psychoanalysts
  • The critique of existentialism by theologians
  • The critique of existentialism by humanists
  • The critique of existentialism by pragmatists
  • The critique of existentialism by deconstructionists

The comprehensive list provided above demonstrates the relevance and necessity of research in existentialism. It encompasses a broad spectrum of topics, from the fundamental concepts of existential thought to its influence on contemporary society, literature, and art. Students and scholars alike can benefit from exploring these existentialism research paper topics, as they delve into the complexities and nuances of this influential philosophical movement.

The Range of Existentialism Research Paper Topics

Existentialism, a philosophical movement that originated in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been a significant influence on various aspects of modern thought and culture. This philosophical approach focuses on the individual’s experience and emphasizes freedom, choice, and responsibility. It has had a profound impact on literature, art, psychology, theology, and even politics. The range of existentialism research paper topics is vast and provides a rich field for academic research and exploration.

Importance and relevance of existentialism in philosophy

Existentialism addresses the most fundamental aspects of human existence, focusing on individual experience, freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent or even hostile world. This philosophy challenges individuals to confront the ‘absurdity’ of life and to create their own meaning and values, rather than relying on external authorities or traditional beliefs. It also emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility and the consequences of our choices and actions. These themes are incredibly relevant in today’s world, where many people struggle with feelings of alienation, meaninglessness, and existential anxiety.

Discussion on Topics

Exploring the various existentialism research paper topics can provide a deeper understanding of the different aspects of this philosophy and its impact on various fields of study. Here are some areas worth exploring:

  • Basics of Existentialism: Understanding the foundational concepts of existentialism is crucial for anyone interested in this philosophy. Research topics in this area can include the concept of ‘being’ in existentialism, the role of freedom and choice, existentialism and the absurd, and the concept of ‘bad faith.’
  • Existentialism and Religion: Existentialism has a complex relationship with religion. Some existentialist thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, were deeply religious, while others, like Sartre, were atheists. Research topics in this area can explore the role of God in existential thought, the existential critique of religious institutions, and the relationship between existentialism and Buddhism.
  • Key Figures in Existentialism: The works of key figures in existentialism, such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, provide a wealth of material for research. Topics can include an exploration of their individual philosophies, a comparison of their ideas, or an analysis of their influence on literature, art, or modern culture.
  • Existentialism in Literature and Arts: Existentialism has had a significant influence on literature, film, theatre, and art. Research topics in this area can explore the representation of existentialism in film, the role of existentialism in modern art, and the influence of existentialism on music.
  • Ethical Considerations in Existentialism: Existentialism places a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and the ethical implications of our choices and actions. Research topics in this area can explore the ethics of existentialism, the concept of ‘bad faith’ and its ethical implications, and the role of freedom and choice in existential ethics.
  • Existential Psychology: Existential psychology focuses on the human experience and the existential challenges and concerns that we all face, such as freedom, responsibility, meaning, and death. Research topics in this area can explore the influence of existentialism on humanistic psychology, the role of existential psychology in understanding mental health, and the treatment of depression using existential psychotherapy.
  • Feminist Existentialism: Feminist existentialism explores the intersection of existentialism and feminism. Research topics in this area can explore the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, the role of freedom and choice in feminist existentialism, and the influence of feminist existentialism on contemporary gender studies.
  • Existentialism in Modern Context: Existentialism continues to be relevant in the modern world and has influenced various aspects of contemporary society, such as politics, education, and technology. Research topics in this area can explore the challenges of globalization, the ethics of technology, and the role of existentialism in contemporary political thought.
  • Comparative Studies (Existentialism vs. other philosophies): Comparing existentialism with other philosophical movements, such as phenomenology, Marxism, rationalism, or postmodernism, can provide valuable insights into the similarities and differences between these philosophies. Research topics in this area can explore the relationship between existentialism and phenomenology, existentialism and Marxism, or existentialism and postmodernism.
  • Criticisms of Existentialism: Existentialism has faced various criticisms from other philosophical movements and thinkers. Research topics in this area can explore the critique of existentialism by rationalists, empiricists, Marxists, feminists, postmodernists, psychoanalysts, theologians, humanists, pragmatists, or deconstructionists.

The importance of existentialism cannot be overstated. It addresses fundamental questions about human existence, freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning in a seemingly indifferent or even hostile world. The range of existentialism research paper topics is vast and provides a rich field for academic research and exploration. Whether you are interested in the foundational concepts of existentialism, its influence on literature, art, or modern culture, its ethical implications, or its relevance in today’s world, there is a wealth of material to explore and analyze. Understanding existentialism and its various research areas is not only academically rewarding but can also provide valuable insights into the challenges and concerns of our modern world.

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University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism

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Steven Crowell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism , 412 pp., Cambridge University Press, 2012, $29.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780521732789.

Reviewed by Michael R. Kelly, Boston College

One could say without exaggeration that academic philosophers have neglected existentialism over the past several decades. No longer academically fashionable, it's not surprising that existentialism courses are offered rarely -- if ever in some departments -- at the graduate level. When one thus goes to teach such a course at the undergraduate level, it is likewise unsurprising that one finds very little quality secondary literature. [1]  This latest volume in Cambridge University's growing list of 'companions' to figures associated with a philosophical movement and/or historical period contributes in an important way to correcting this deficiency and perhaps halting this cycle. Some remarks on the general content and structure of the volume will support these points.

An impressive list of highly respected commentators -- all of whom work within, or in dialogue with, the tradition in which academic philosophy has placed existentialism, namely, 'continental' philosophy -- present generally clear and thoughtful essays. Every piece is expository, introducing the target audience, "students" (14), to major existentialist "figures" (e.g., Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre), "concepts" (e.g., existence preceding essence, self, death,  Angst , authenticity, commitment, ambiguity, identity), and related topics (e.g., literature, religion, politics, psychology). Perhaps more importantly -- and as a way to avoid redundancy with other 'companions' devoted to existentialist thinkers -- many of the contributions are also critical scholarly pieces that "performatively . . . demonstrate the vitality of existential thought" by examining issues in existentialism "philosophically pertinent" for contemporary philosophical research (14).

Part of what makes the work successful, moreover, is the way it overcomes the unique challenges that any companion to existentialism faces, namely, the fact that existentialism arguably was more a cultural or literary movement than a technical philosophical movement and seemingly everyone associated with it denied being an existentialist. Steven Crowell, however, applies an organizational principle to this companion that manages to overcome both challenges, capturing the broader reach of existentialism despite "restricting" itself -- or perhaps because it restricts itself -- "to philosophical existentialism" (15).

The bookends of the volume comprehensively present existentialism's historical and cultural dimensions. The first main section broadly situates the existentialist movement with two very fine essays, David Cooper's "Existentialism as a philosophical movement" and William McBride's "Existentialism as a cultural movement." The last main section of often exemplary essays details existentialism's relation to, and continuing influence on, related fields in Jeff Malpas's "Existential as Literature," Merold Westphal's "Existentialism and Religion," Robert Bernasconi's "Racism is a system: how existentialism became dialectical in Fanon and Sartre," and Matthew Ratcliff and Matthew Broome's "Existential phenomenology, psychiatric illness, and the death of possibilities."

The third main section, on "Major Existentialist Philosophers," is predominantly a series of couplets on the major philosophical figures in existentialism: Alastair Hannay, "Kierkegaard's single individual and the point of indirect communication" and Hubert Dreyfus, "'What monster then is man': Pascal and Kierkegaard on being a contradictory self and what to do about it"; Richard Schacht, "Nietzsche after the death of God" and Lawrence Hattab, "Nietzsche: selfhood, creativity, and philosophy"; William Blattner, "Heidegger: the existential analytic of Dasein" and Karsten Harries, "The antinomy of being: Heidegger's critique of humanism"; and Steven Crowell, "Sartre's existentialism and the nature of consciousness" and Thomas Flynn, "Political existentialism: the career of Sartre's political thought." There are also single essays on Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty: Kristina Arp's "Simone de Beauvoir's existentialism: freedom and ambiguity in the human world" and Taylor Carman's "Merleau-Ponty on body, flesh, and visibility." The essays in this section largely provide reliable introductions to a broad range of themes in the thinkers considered 'existentialist'. Moreover, most provide insightful introductions to the existential themes in each thinker's works. The strategy of including double entries on most of these thinkers creates the space to explore the peculiarity of existentialism generated by its inclusion of figures who deny being existentialists and/or are denied such inclusion, as well as to explore the richness of their thought for contemporary research.

The first of Crowell's two essays, "Existentialism and its legacy," deserves special attention, for it is less an introduction to existentialism than a thought-provoking 'manifesto' on the vibrancy of this seemingly dormant philosophical movement. The motivating conception for the volume and Crowell's introduction is the "thesis that existential concepts and ideas have much to teach us as we pursue philosophy in a climate quite removed from the one in which they initially appeared" (4). Crowell is likely advancing more than the trivially true observation that our social-political climate is historically different from that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His claim could be taken to imply something about the atmosphere surrounding the 'divide' in contemporary academic philosophy. That existentialist concepts continue to inform continental philosophy -- even if some would dispute such a claim -- would surprise no one, and Crowell interestingly evidences this point by turning to two thinkers who fall outside the existentialist movement in their early work only to return to existential themes in their late works, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (11-14). That one finds existentialist concepts -- as Crowell does, following John Haugeland -- in "philosophy of science and philosophy of mind" and "in dialogue with 'analytic' philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, John Searle, and John McDowell," however, likely will surprise many (5-6). But, as Crowell provocatively proposes, perhaps Thomas Kuhn's critique of positivism, which rendered "obsolete" the divide that placed value in the hands of 'existentialists' rather than fact-minded scientists, "opened space for a 'new existentialism'" (6-7).

If at this point one chafes at Crowell's proposal about a 'new existentialism', perhaps one will more easily accept his claim that existentialist concepts are prevalent today in moral psychology (7). To support this point, Crowell considers Bernard Williams's account of "tensions that exist between issues . . . in ethical inquiry and the 'impartial standpoint' demanded by traditional philosophical analysis, . . . between what is meaningful and what is rationally groundable," as one that can bring into relief in a different context "what is at stake in Heidegger's notion of authenticity or Camus's notion of the absurd" (7). Similar points are made about a range of 'analytic' philosophers: Harry Frankfurt's notion of care, Charles Taylor's notion of strong evaluation, Steven Darwall's revival of the second-person perspective, and Christine Korsgaard's concept of practical identity that "channels the existentialist idea of commitment" in her inquiry into the sources of normativity (7-11).

Whether one considers Crowell's assessment of the relation between analytic philosophy and existential themes an instance of the former coopting the latter; whether one considers Crowell's assessment evidence that analytic philosophy is beginning to outgrow its detached and abstracted mode of thinking and embrace a view of philosophy as a way of life rather than a science, it is indisputable that a such dialogue is underway. It may be a new existentialism, or a renewal of existentialism, or a renewal of analytical philosophy -- depending on one's commitments -- but in any event the dialogue speaks to existentialism being "as much a  legacy  as it is a history" (4). Many essays in the collection likewise are worthy of close reading by students and scholars alike, while only a very few should be approached critically. I shall review a selection of some of each in a way that complement's Crowell's detailed introductory overview.

Cooper's "Existentialism as a philosophical movement" is a clearly written introduction that effectively argues, "the denial that there was an existentialist family or movement is . . . implausible" (29). Cooper carefully presents and unravels the tensions and inconsistencies in existentialist doctrine across its representative figures; for example, Albert Camus's disagreement with Heidegger, Sartre, et al. about whether human beings are fundamentally estranged from a fundamentally absurd world (31). Casting out Camus and other literary figures from the existentialist movement enables Cooper to disabuse readers of certain stereotypical readings of existentialism (30-1). Existentialists do not advocate, he argues, a life uninformed by rational reflection. Indeed, we should reject the "popular picture of the existentialist hero [as] someone choosing or creating  ex nihilo  . . . " for one of "a person . . . resolutely prepared to stand back from his or her situation and commitments, calmly to consider these and the alternative to them, and only then to take a decision . . . for which responsibility is fully accepted" (30, 43-4).

McBride's essay on the cultural dimension of existentialism will resonate more with readers intent on preserving literary figures in the existentialist movement (51). He provides a clear account of the origin of the term (51), a helpful discussion of the post-war condition that made existentialism's emphasis on the "unconventional" attractive (55), and a valuable overview of the bifurcation of the movement into Christian and secular forms (52). Those interested in the fractured relations between Camus and Sartre and between Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty will find here, moreover, a useful narrative of the role communism played in these figures' political thought and action (56, 58-9). Readers of the volume will find three major strands of thought in McBride's essay -- literature, religion, and politics -- neatly and quite helpfully developed in the closing section of the work.

Jeff Malpas's very fine essay on existentialism  as  literature presents a sober yet convincing argument (against Cooper, perhaps) in favor of including literature in the movement of existentialism. Malpas distinguishes between the "existentialist and the existential," where the former denotes "an attitude or mood that . . . thematizes the problematic character of human existence in a world where there is no pre-given source of meaning . . . " and the latter denotes "that which pertains to existence." This distinction, in turn, enables one to argue, without reducing all literature to existentialist literature, that existential concerns are a part of literature (293). What follows is an impressively succinct yet illuminating overview of the most important works of Fydor Dostoyevsky, Camus, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Herman Hesse, as well as the literary works of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Also useful for those new to existentialism or existential literature are the series of synoptic assessments of the relations between Dostoyevsky and Camus (298, 308); Kafka and Camus (298); Beckett and Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus (312); and Hesse and Dostoyevsky and Hesse and Sartre (313). Amidst this sparkling clear essay, Malpas develops in detail the driving insight of Camus's thought -- "the need for the renunciation of violence and the recognition of life as the only real value," our "being bound to the earth, to sea, and to sun, to a finite and fragile existence that always stands under the shadow of death and yet nevertheless allows of a certain happiness" -- showing that there is reason to philosophically situate Camus closer to the late Heidegger than to Sartre (309-10).

The voice and words of an author -- a philosopher -- who has devoted his (academic) life to thinking about, writing about, and living through existentialism and religion comes to us in Merold Westphal's contribution. With a passion reflecting this 'commitment', Westphal invites us in his introduction to recognize that existentialism has remained with us, philosophers, assuming we think existentialism and the history of philosophy correctly:

It is often said that existentialism has passed into the history of philosophy. But that is a problem only if we think of that history as a kind of museum in which we become antiquarians who observe animals no longer living or artifacts no longer useful.  It has nothing to do with us . But if we have an existential spirit we will not read any of the history of philosophy that way. We will hear the texts of the great thinkers as voices that address us directly, offering interpretations of our being-in-the-world full of possibilities for our belief, our actions, and our affects or attitudes.  It has everything to do with us  . . . (322)

By detailing the thought of four thinkers who radically emphasize the self by way of radically different relations to religion -- Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Gabriel Marcel -- Westphal undertakes to convince the reader that "existentialism is about the urgency of deciding what to do with our lives . . . with my own life" (322-23). His essay constitutes a most reliable introduction not only to the thinkers examined, but also to their existentialist concepts and ideas.

While I cannot recount all of what is so valuable in this essay, the material on Kierkegaard traces some exceptionally complex concepts in the Kierkegaard's work in an exceptionally clear way. Westphal notes Kierkegaard's distinction between faith and religion -- where the latter denotes "three modes of being-in-the-world" -- and details the notions of the "aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious" attitudes as "different answers to the question, what makes the good life good?" (323). To shed light on this Kierkegaardian distinction, Westphal returns to the biblical context of the New Testament regarding faith as  pistis , which, beyond the Platonic reduction of  pistis  to an inferior status as a "cognitive act of our sensible faculty," means "trust and obedience" as an "act of a whole person in relation to a personal God" (325). Rather than try to prove the reasonableness of faith -- and here Westphal provides a most convincing reading to a most perplexing claim in  Fear and Trembling  -- Kierkegaard "insists that faith goes against reason," is "absurd," because "that is how [faith] does and should look from the standpoint of the Enlightenment Project's interpretation(s) of human cognitive powers" (326-27). With this in mind, we can see why faith is a 'leap' that involves risk, passion, and urgency -- all of which entail a very  personal commitment . Students and scholars alike will learn from the valuable insights in the following parts of this essay -- in particular, the account of Nietzsche's legacy in Sartre's atheistic existentialism (333, 336).

The remaining two essays in this section demonstrate the legacy of existentialism, its influence on varying fields of research, to different degrees of success. Bernasconi demonstrates the continued relevance and reach of existentialist ethics by presenting a persuasive account of the mutual influence between Sartre and Fanon. In the process of providing helpful introductions to Fanon's  Black Skin, White Mask  and its impact on Sartre's  Critique of Dialectical Reason  (353), Bernasconi establishes that it was not just that Fanon brought Sartre to the insight that racism is a system of thought, but also that the Fanon was an existentialist in his own right -- and perhaps "was . . . the better existentialist" (359).

Ratcliffe and Broome, in another vein, suggest that the existentialist account of interpersonal relations remains valuable for contemporary psychiatry's understanding of certain forms of illness, e.g., depression, schizophrenia (369, 372). It is a solid essay that is not without interest. Yet the authors pay only limited attention to Heidegger (375, 378-79) and Merleau-Ponty (375) beyond their introductory overview and thus focus too narrowly on Sartre's existentialism -- and indeed on standard accounts of Sartre on shame, the body, and the death of possibilities -- to persuade the reader of the full relevance of existentialism for contemporary psychiatry. Their broader strategy seems to be -- despite their testimony (364) -- one of opposing Sartre's thought to the "folk psychology" understandings of interpersonal relations, thereby establishing the former as a "plausible interpretive framework" with "appeal" (373-74). Without a substantive comparative analysis of the methodological merits of Sartre's phenomenological existentialism over contemporary psychiatry's approach for understanding fundamental issues regarding mental illness, however, it's difficult to appreciate the appeal.

Two essays in the second main section fail, for very different reasons, to satisfy the objectives of the volume. Carman's distinctively lucid prose and mastery of Merleau-Ponty's  Phenomenology of Perception  are on display in his entry. The essay is a good introduction to the French phenomenologist of the body's major published text and theme. It even contains a lengthy discussion of Merleau-Ponty's Schneider that sets up a promising interpretation of the transition in Merleau-Ponty's thought from phenomenology to ontology, from  Phenomenology of Perception  to  The   Visible and the Invisible  (276-80). Nevertheless, Carman does little to bring into relief just what is 'existentialist' about Merleau-Ponty's work. Indeed, I cannot find a single substantive mention of the word, 'existentialism,' in his entry.

Dreyfus' essay on Pascal and Kierkegaard I find rather disappointing. There likely is a good case to be made for Pascal as the harbinger of Christian existentialism, but after a brief, two-page overview of Pascal on the contradictory self as a synthesis of the Judeo-Christian tradition (98-9), no mention is made of him. Dreyfus suggests that Pascal can be seen as an anticipation of Kierkegaard, who is 'Pascalian' in that he likewise holds that the "self is a hopeless tension unable to resolve its internal contradictions" (101). Noting that this hopelessness generates a sickness in man that, according to Kierkegaard, paradoxically is "man's great advantage over the beast" insofar as man is "aware of this sickness," Dreyfus overlooks an opportunity to explain in more detail the relation between these thinkers on this score; this is especially striking since Pascal, with somewhat different objectives at stake, describes something like this 'promising' sickness when he notes, "the greatness of human beings consists in their ability to know their wretchedness." [2]

In attempting to explain the Kierkegaardian sense of commitment that overcomes this hopelessness or despair, Dreyfus appeals to Kierkegaard's notions in  Fear and Trembling  of the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith (as told through the narrative of the lad and the princess, whose love the lad never can have but to whom the lad nevertheless unconditionally commits his life). For Dreyfus, it is commitment itself that overcomes the despair generated by this synthetic tension that is the self, for "if you are unconditionally committed to a particular person or cause, that will be your identity forever, that is, for the rests of your life" (104-06). But this is an incorrect reading of Kierkegaard, for unconditional commitment alone is not faith and faith alone overcomes despair. The lad committed -- infinitely resigned -- to the idea of a princess with whom he never will have to relate in reality does not grapple with the temporal; i.e., the lad commits himself 'eternally' to the princess in a way that transforms his life, but this transformation shelters him from the temporal reality -- he will relate to this woman in ideality only -- because he makes, as Kierkegaard puts it, only a 'single-movement'. Dreyfus's notion of unconditional commitment thus obscures the distinction between resignation and faith. The crucial distinction between these two characters, however, is that the lad 'resigns' himself to never getting the princess' love  in this life  and this is precisely what distinguishes him from Abraham and his faith by which believes he will lose Isaac and yet get him back in this life, thus making a 'double-movement'. [3]  It may be that the structure of commitment is what counts in one's life, and this may be good existentialism, but it is a rather misleading picture of Kierkegaard's thought.

The majority of the essays in this second major section fare much better than these. Of notable merit are Hannay's account of Kierkegaard's method of indirect communication and the singularity of the self, Crowell's discussion of the fundamentally existential underpinnings of Sartre's view of pre-reflective self-awareness or consciousness, and Flynn's even-handed account of the strengths and weaknesses of Sartre's political existentialism. Likewise useful are Schacht's account of how Nietzsche's attempt to overcome nihilism distinguishes his thought from existentialism (121-23) and how the latter's Dionysian sensibility contrasts with both Christian and secular existentialism (129-30, 132). And Hattab's entry on Nietzsche continues this theme of Nietzsche's ambiguous relation to existentialism while at the same time explaining how Nietzsche's "stylistic choices" become part of the existentialist legacy (18, 153-55). It must suffice to say that each essay will reward reading and reading again.

Both Heidegger entries not only provide exceptionally clear overviews of Heidegger's broader thought and its relation to existentialism, but each also offers the reader original insights into specific dimensions of Heidegger's thought. Blattner's essay is an exemplary instance of a contribution for a volume like this. He lucidly yet succinctly presents to those new to Heidegger a flawless primer on the basics of the existential themes in  Being and Time , e.g., throwness, facticity (as it differs from the factual), death (as it differs from perishing), possibility, authenticity, understanding, disposedness, anxiety, care, conscience, resoluteness, and the social dimension of Dasein. Beyond these clear overviews and helpful distinctions, Blattner presents a compelling discussion of vulnerability as a feature of Dasein's life that can bring it to "live in a new way" (170). The vulnerability of 'that-for-the-sake-of-which' one lives one's life is not to be thought of as a condition that invites a careless preparedness to abandon our commitments because they are contingent and fragile. Rather, Blattner proposes that "to be aware of the vulnerability of one's deepest commitments and entanglements is to be prepared to  struggle  for them" (171) -- a point that perhaps the reader can productively bring to Dreyfus' essay. Elegantly developing this discussion of vulnerability into an illuminating way to understand Heidegger's notion of 'anticipatory resoluteness', Blattner explains this "resoluteness" as one "that has fully integrated the vulnerability of Dasein's world, commitments, entanglements, passions and attunements into the manner in which it is resolutely open to the current factical situation" (173).

Harries' entry is a fine introduction not only to Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism," but also to what Sartre meant by the description of existentialism as a humanism (186-88, 190). Moreover, Harries fashions his contribution in such a way that reveals Heidegger's turn ( Kehre ) as a deepening of the inquiry into the question of being (181), why Heidegger believed Sartre's existentialism was a humanism (to be rejected), and a subtle account of how Heidegger himself came to reject (the humanist elements of) national socialism (182-83). Beyond just a clear introduction to these complex and controversial issues, Harries neatly returns his discussion to an account of later Heidegger's thought as a modified Kantian humanism understood as a humanism that is a care for our humanity in the modern condition of our "homelessness" (196-97).

The closing word of this review is reserved for Arp's impassioned argument for the distinctiveness and originality of Beauvoir's existentialist thought. Though the volume does not include an essay devoted to the relation between feminism and existentialism (13-14), Arp's essay successfully demonstrates the existentialist elements of one of feminism's foundational figures. She introduces the reader with ease to Beauvoir's fundamental works -- "Pyrrus and Cineas,"  She came to Stay ,  The Ethics of Ambiguity and  The Second Sex  -- and the enduring importance of her work for existential ethics character formation (260-64). Arp explains clearly the notion of ambiguity and its importance for Beauvior's thought, and also establishes Beauvior's philosophical acumen precisely insofar as her deep understanding of Hegel's [master-slave] dialectic (267-69) rather than the supposed influence from Sartre enabled her to understand why it is that "one is not born, but becomes, woman" (265) -- and thus why Beauvoir controversially held women to be "complicit in their own oppression" (269).

With very few exceptions, the essays in this volume will admirably fill the existing gap in secondary literature on existentialism. They also very well might trigger a renaissance in contemporary philosophical research on existential concepts and themes -- in both analytic and continental philosophy.

[1]  Exceptions to such generalizations exist, of course. Here are three that I believe worth more than a look: David Cooper,  Existentialism: A Reconstruction  (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); John Haugland, "Toward a New Existentialism" in  Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Jack Reynolds,  Understanding Existentialism  (Chesham: Acumen Press, 2006); and Felicity Joseph, Jack Reynolds, and Ashley Woodward, eds.  The Continuum Companion to Existentialism  (London: Continuum, 2011).

[2]  B. Pascal,  Pensees and Other Writings , trans. H. Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), aphorism 105.

[3]  See S. Kierkegaard,  Fear and Trembling , ed., trans., H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 20, 41-50.

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87 Existentialism Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best existentialism topic ideas & essay examples, 📌 simple & easy existentialism essay titles, 👍 good essay topics on existentialism, ❓ existentialism questions.

  • Gardner’s “Grendel” as a Nihilist and Existentialist Grendel’s response is to show the hero his contempt for nobility and meaning in life. Finally, Grendel’s life is so devoid of meaning that he decides to try and kill the queen.
  • Philosophy of Existentialism The philosophy of existentialism though difficult and abstract gives explanation to most of the questions that we ask ourselves as we go through life. We will write a custom essay specifically for you by our professional experts 808 writers online Learn More
  • The Theory of Atheistic Existentialism As far as I am concerned, this theory is not valid in the explanation of a row of important issues existing in the Universe with regards to the Creator, and all the moral issues connected […]
  • A Reflection on Bigelow’s “Primer of Existentialism” According to Bigelow, the rise of Existentialism can be discussed within the context of people becoming increasingly secularized, which intensifies the sensation of ‘universal loneliness’, on their part, “The main forces of history…have collectivized individual […]
  • Existentialism in “Nausea” and “The Stranger” In Nausea, the main character is a well-traveled 30-year-old man afflicted with intense feelings of the meaninglessness of his own being, an experience he dubs ‘nausea.’ The main character and narrator, Roquentin, is portrayed as […]
  • Concepts of Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism” In this discussion, the objective is to describe the two outstanding concepts that make up the title of the speech: Existentialism and Humanism.
  • Existentialism of the 20th Century They argued that human beings are actors in the world and hence are aware of what is in it unlike the trees and stones that just exist.
  • Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre The Judeo-Christian religious tradition insists that it is necessary for the soul to be viewed as being in a constant fight with the body in an attempt to transcend the temptations of the flesh. The […]
  • “Going Local” and Existentialism The freedom of the individual stems from the ability to create their essence, since both the capacity of free will as humans is the sub of decisions made, including the roles and identities which constitute […]
  • Existentialism in Le Guin Story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” In this short story, the main characters refuse to follow the immoral attitudes of society and make their own choices which is the direct representation of existentialism which is beneficial for society.
  • The Elephant in the Room: Existentialism and the Denial of Death In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Peter Ivanovich experiences a chilling moment as he contemplates his own mortality in light of the long and painful period of torture and agony that befell his colleague […]
  • Existentialism: Existence of the Exceptional Individual Jean-Paul Sartre established the idea of existentialism in the nineteenth century, and it focused on the duties of the people’s choices in the ecosphere that fell short of ethics.
  • Sartre’s Philosophy of Existentialism The main thesis of the theory of existentialism is that existence precedes essence and that one has to start from subjectivity.
  • Postmodern Existentialism and Spirituality The road, referred to in the title of the book, is connected to humans’ idea that they are the prodigal son.
  • Aspects of Existentialism as a Philosophical Concept It is not simply by a pure accident that the 20th century is now being strongly associated with the initial rise of existentialism, as an entirely new branch of Western philosophic thought, which is concerned […]
  • Nietzsche & Emerson vs. Rational Western Existentialism According to Nietzche, simpler situations are always true and the problem is that people tend to complicate standards by engaging the emotive qualities of existentialism instead of focusing on the simple tenets of the truth.
  • Continental Philosophy: Existentialism and Phenomenology World is irrational and absurd, it is impossible to find the true reasons and explanations of events, and humans confront the world only to be able to choose how to live within this world.
  • Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s Ideas of Existentialism Kierkegaard’s writing is developed in the context of his approach to Christianity, while Nietzsche’s thesis lies in the death of God.
  • Cartesian Dualism Against Existentialist Nihilism In my belief, the idea that there is no God because His existence means the absence of freedom is not right.
  • Literary Genre of Existentialist Novel Existentialist literature is often characterized by the absurdity of the existence of man, and how a man often dwells on the ugly and dark sides of things.
  • The Aspects that Influenced the Poetry of Auden and the Question of Existentialism The existence of a gift denotes the action of a provider and thus the question that remains is about the giver of the gift of writing poems.
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Necessity Gives Rise to Bipartisanship — for Now

The far right finds itself marginalized in the House as Speaker Johnson pushes through aid to Ukraine and Israel by relying on Democrats.

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Speaker Mike Johnson looks to the side while surrounded by a crowd in the Capitol. He is wearing a dark suit with a maroon tie.

By Carl Hulse

Reporting from Capitol Hill

When Congress convened in 2023, an empowered far-right Republican faction in the House threatened to upend Washington and President Biden’s agenda.

But the intransigence of that bloc instead forced Republicans and Democrats into an ad hoc coalition government that is now on the verge of delivering long-delayed foreign military aid and a victory to the Democratic president.

The House approval on Saturday of money for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan over angry objections from the extreme right was the latest and perhaps most striking example of a bipartisan approach forged out of necessity. The coalition first sprang up last year to spare the government a catastrophic debt default, and has reassembled at key moments since then to keep federal agencies funded.

Unable to deliver legislation on their own because of a razor-thin majority and the refusal of those on the right to give ground, House Republicans had no choice but to break with their fringe members and join with Democrats if they wanted to accomplish much of anything, including bolstering Ukraine in its war against Russia.

“Look at what MAGA extremism has got you: nothing,” Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, told Republicans on the House floor as lawmakers took their first steps toward approving the aid package. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. In fact, it has empowered Democrats. At every critical juncture in this Congress, it has been Democrats who have been the ones to stand up for our country and do the right thing for the American people.”

The moments of bipartisan coming-together are hardly a template for a new paradigm of governing in polarized times. The grudging G.O.P. collaboration with Democrats has only come about on truly existential, must-pass legislation — and typically only at the last minute after Republicans have exhausted all other options, making the coalition unlikely to hold on less critical bills and the social policy issues that sharply divide the two parties.

And the political incentives are stacked decisively against it. The cooperation with Democrats has placed Speaker Mike Johnson at risk of losing his post, making him the second G.O.P. speaker to face a threat to his job for reaching across the aisle, after Kevin McCarthy was toppled last year.

With its legislative power diluted, the furious right has been left to wield the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair as its only remaining weapon.

“This is a sellout of America,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has taken steps to try to force Mr. Johnson from the speakership, said after the vote.

The few instances of coalition governing also have come about grindingly slowly. Mr. Johnson delayed for months as he deliberated over whether to move forward with the Ukraine element of the legislation and put his speakership on the line. It had been clear for months that the aid would pass overwhelmingly if it only it was put on the floor, and the lopsided vote totals on Saturday were probably not substantially different than they would have been if the vote had been held many months ago.

“I call it failing through the day to a good conclusion,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who temporarily served as speaker after Mr. McCarthy was deposed. “The frustration here is that we are going through the worst set of policymaking and taking an excruciatingly long period of time to go through what is an inevitable result. It is long past frustrating.”

Mr. McHenry was not the only one feeling that way. As they have watched their priorities and plans get steamrolled by the bipartisan coalition, those on the far right have grown increasingly exasperated as members of their own party align with Democrats to override their strident opposition.

“There is continued frustration with the fact that we are, frankly, allowing the House to be governed by Democrats,” said Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas. “Every single point of leverage has been given away in abject failure and capitulation from Day 1.”

While Democrats say the foreign aid package should have been approved months ago, they took some satisfaction in seeing the marginalization of the far right.

“They should have been made irrelevant a long time ago,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and a former House majority leader. “The problem was we sent a message for two or three months of indecisiveness in America. Indecisiveness, and a lack of resolve to confront an invader, an autocratic invader of a free country. And we also sent a message of lack of resolve on Israel confronting terrorists.”

Democrats have not gotten all they wanted in their often difficult and halting negotiations with the Republicans that at times threatened the financial stability of the federal government.

Mr. Biden had to agree to spending caps to avert a federal default that would have been caused by breaching the debt limit last year, setting off a spending fight that was not resolved until March. Democrats also had to swallow some spending cuts to favored programs such as I.R.S. enforcement. But in many respects, the spending parameters for the year — and in the military aid package — were shaped by Democrats, as evidenced by the strong support from the party in the end.

“I am glad to see the House finally moving forward to pass this critical legislation, which mirrors the package I negotiated and helped pass here in the Senate,” said Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee.

When it came to the money to sustain Ukraine, Democrats also had the advantage of strong support in Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, who was unyielding in his backing of the financial assistance despite dwindling support for it among his fellow Senate Republicans.

Mr. McConnell’s stance ensured a sufficient number of Senate Republicans would be on board. It also meant three of the four congressional leaders — himself; Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader; and Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House Democratic leader — were all strongly behind the aid to Ukraine along with Mr. Biden, putting immense pressure on Mr. Johnson to join them.

The intense effort to deliver the Ukraine aid also exposed the limits of the coalition approach. With Republicans demanding new border security provisions as part of any ultimate agreement, a bipartisan bloc of senators engaged in prolonged talks that in February produced a proposal that included significant Democratic concessions aimed at stopping the flow across the border. But the plan was immediately torpedoed by former President Donald J. Trump and other Republicans unwilling to let go of a powerful campaign issue.

With the fight over the Ukraine funding drawing to a close, Congress has just a handful of legislative issues it must deal with this year — a Pentagon policy measure, a farm bill, renewal of Federal Aviation Administration programs and most likely a temporary measure to fund the government through November. Given divided control of government, all that legislation will need to be advanced on a bipartisan basis.

But the steady approach of elections that will decide control of both chambers of Congress and the White House means much of the time will be taken up by the parties lobbing political grenades at one another, meaning bipartisanship could be difficult to come by in the months ahead.

Carl Hulse is the chief Washington correspondent, primarily writing about Congress and national political races and issues. He has nearly four decades of experience reporting in the nation’s capital. More about Carl Hulse


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    experience of things as they present themselves to the observer. Existentialism, on the other hand, examines the existence. and the role t he individual plays in terms of his or her feelings ...

  5. Existentialising existence theory and expanding the sociology of

    The authors say that their position has 'affinities' (p. 8) with earlier symbolic interactionist (Mead), phenomenological (Schutz), existential (Sartre, Jaspers) and existential-phenomenological (Heidegger) positions in philosophy and sociology, because of 'the centrality of time for understanding the experience of being human' in such thinkers' works (p. 8).

  6. (PDF) Existentialism in Education

    Abstract. This paper is an attempt to survey the hist orical development of existentialist. philosophy, meaning of existence, its philosophical premises and perspectives. Further, this also deals ...

  7. Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    1. Nihilism and the Crisis of Modernity. We can find early glimpses of what might be called the "existential attitude" (Solomon 2005) in the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of antiquity, in the struggle with sin and desire in St. Augustine's Confessions, in the intimate reflections on death and the meaning of life in Michel de Montaigne's Essays, and in the confrontation with the ...

  8. Existentialism

    Existentialism has drawn attention to the presuppositions and conditions of natural and humanistic sciences: science and scientific truths are of human making and existentialism studies the process of the production of knowledge, the function of knowledge and science in modern society, the value judgments associated with science, representations and "techniques of power" (Foucault) in ...

  9. Existentialism

    Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, writer, political activist, and literary critic. He was one of the most renowned intellectuals of the twentieth century. He is considered as the main representative of French existentialism (also known as French existential phenomenology). His capital philosophical work, Being and Nothingness (1943 ...

  10. PDF ExistEntialism

    Existentialism exerts a continuing fascination on students of philosophy and general readers. as a philosophical phe-nomenon, though, it is often poorly understood as a form of ... this volume of original essays, the first to be devoted exclu-sively to existentialism in over forty years, a team of distin-

  11. Existentialism, existentialists, and Marxism: From critique to

    In this paper, we discuss how existentialism was criticized, disseminated, and gradually autochthonized in the main philosophical journals of Socialist Romania. We show that the early critique of existentialism was both a statement against contemporary bourgeois philosophy in general and a condemnation of the local philosophical production of the interwar period. In the 1950s, this kind of ...

  12. (PDF) Philosophy of Existentialism and its Implications for Educational

    The paper offers an existential-dialogical perspective on the actual dayto-day experience of children and teachers. According to this worldview, a child's development in school is dependent on the capacity to build relations of dialogue and love with the significant adults in their lives, and to gain a sense of meaning and confidence in the world.

  13. Using Cinema and Literature to Explore Existentialism

    Abstract. This article describes how the book When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession and the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can be used to help counseling graduate students understand existential theory and its application to clients. Yalom's Four Givens of Existence, which consists of freedom and responsibility, meaninglessness, existential isolation, and death, are discussed ...

  14. Existentialism Research Paper Topics

    The Range of Existentialism Research Paper Topics. Existentialism, a philosophical movement that originated in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been a significant influence on various aspects of modern thought and culture. This philosophical approach focuses on the individual's experience and emphasizes freedom, choice, and responsibility.

  15. Philosophical Exploration of Absurdism and Existentialism: A

    Furthermore, the research paper delves into the influences that shaped Kafka's philosophy, particularly his Jewish identity and experiences living in a rapidly changing, industrializing society. Kafka's writing reflects the anxieties and struggles of individuals in a modernized world, highlighting the existential dilemmas faced by those ...

  16. The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism

    The first of Crowell's two essays, "Existentialism and its legacy," deserves special attention, for it is less an introduction to existentialism than a thought-provoking 'manifesto' on the vibrancy of this seemingly dormant philosophical movement. The motivating conception for the volume and Crowell's introduction is the "thesis that ...

  17. Essays in existentialism : Sartre, Jean Paul, 1905-1980

    Essays in existentialism by Sartre, Jean Paul, 1905-1980. Publication date 1965 Topics Existentialism Publisher ... English. viii, 437 p. ; 21 cm First ed. published in 1965 under title: Philosophy of existentialism Includes index Bibliography: p. 423-431 Notes. pen markings and highlights. Access-restricted-item true Addeddate 2020-10-06 06:02 ...

  18. Essays in Existentialism

    In Essays in Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the leading French exponent of existential philosophy, wrote a book that opened many doors to the mind. Sartre challenged his readers to think beyond the meaning of their everyday thoughts and beliefs. His essays on nothingness, on the emotions, and on the image - including " The problem of nothingness," "The role of the image in ...

  19. PDF Chapter One Introduction A. Understanding Existentialism

    A. Understanding Existentialism The common perception is that existentialism is only about alienation, despair, absurdity and negativity. It is an odd movement as most thinkers deny that they fall under the category of existentialist. On one hand there are certain ideas and principle which most existentialist agree on some; on the other hand ...

  20. Existentialism Research Papers

    An Existential Perspective on Anxiety integrating with Phenomenology. Anxiety term deriving from "Angst" in german which has same semantic roots in latin "angustia" word means that "getting choked" or "getting narrowed". The aim of this paper was bring an existential perspective on anxiety disorders which... more. Download.

  21. Essays in Existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre

    975 ratings23 reviews. A splendid introduction to the philosophy of existentialism. In Essays in Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the leading French exponent of existential philosophy, wrote a book that open many doors to the mind. Sartre challenged his readers to think beyond the meaning of their everyday thoughts and beliefs.

  22. Existentialism and Absurdity in Albert Camus's "The Stranger

    Existentialism and Absurdity in Albe rt Camus's " The Str anger ", Psychological Study. Hayder M.SaadanM.Ridha AL-Hasani. Al -Mutafawqeen Secondary School,General Directorate of Education in ...

  23. 87 Existentialism Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

    Sartre's Philosophy of Existentialism. The main thesis of the theory of existentialism is that existence precedes essence and that one has to start from subjectivity. Postmodern Existentialism and Spirituality. The road, referred to in the title of the book, is connected to humans' idea that they are the prodigal son.

  24. House Aid Package Is Latest Example of Bipartisanship Forged Out of

    The House approval on Saturday of money for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan over angry objections from the extreme right was the latest and perhaps most striking example of a bipartisan approach forged ...