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Existentialism in the early 19th century again

Existentialism in the Early 19th Century

Major Themes

Because of the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, the term

is impossible to define precisely. Certain themes common to virtually all

existentialist writers can, however, be identified. The term itself suggests one

major theme: the stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, on

subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice.

Moral Individualism

Most philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is the

same for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles

other morally perfect individuals. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren

Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted

against this tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual is

to find his or her own unique vocation. As he wrote in his journal, "I must find

a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die." Other

existentialist writers have echoed Kierkegaard's belief that one must choose

one's own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Against the

traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and

wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be

found for moral decisions. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich

Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are

to count asmoral situations.


All existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance of

passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth.

They have insisted, accordingly, that personal experience and acting on one's

own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. Thus, the understanding

of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a

detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individual

agent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning.

Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and other existentialist writers have been deliberately

unsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies, preferring to express

themselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despite

their antirationalist position, however, most existentialists cannot be said to

be irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought. They

have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that the

most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science.

Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as is

commonly supposed. Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientific

assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction.

Choice and Commitment

Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice.

Humanity's primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the

freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a

fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes

choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th-

century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choice

is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal

to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility.

Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have

argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their

commitment wherever it leads.

Dread and Anxiety

Kierkegaard held that it is spiritually crucial to recognize that one

experiences not only a fear of specific objects but also a feeling of general

apprehension, which he called dread. He interpreted it as God's way of calling

each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life. The word

anxiety (German Angst) has a similarly crucial role in the work of the 20th-

century German philosopher Martin Heidegger; anxiety leads to the individual's

confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimate

justification for the choices he or she must make. In the philosophy of Sartre,

the word nausea is used for the individual's recognition of the pure contingency

of the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the total

freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.


Existentialism as a distinct philosophical and literary movement belongs to the

19th and 20th centuries, but elements of existentialism can be found in the

thought (and life) of Socrates, in the Bible, and in the work of many premodern

philosophers and writers.


The first to anticipate the major concerns of modern existentialism was the

17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal rejected the rigorous

rationalism of his contemporary René Descartes, asserting, in his Pensées (1670),

that a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and humanity is a form

of pride. Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms of

paradoxes: The human self, which combines mind and body, is itself a paradox and



Kierkegaard, generally regarded as the founder of modern existentialism, reacted

against the systematic absolute idealism of the 19th-century German philosopher

G. W. F. Hegel, who claimed to have worked out a total rational understanding of

humanity and history. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, stressed the ambiguity and

absurdity of the human situation. The individual's response to this situation

must be to live a totally committed life, and this commitment can only be

understood by the individual who has made it. The individual therefore must

always be prepared to defy the norms of society for the sake of the higher

authority of a personally valid way of life. Kierkegaard ultimately advocated a "

leap of faith" into a Christian way of life, which, although incomprehensible

and full of risk, was the only commitment he believed could save the individual

from despair.


Nietzsche, who was not acquainted with the work of Kierkegaard, influenced

subsequent existentialist thought through his criticism of traditional

metaphysical and moral assumptions and through his espousal of tragic pessimism

and the life-affirming individual will that opposes itself to the moral

conformity of the majority. In contrast to Kierkegaard, whose attack on

conventional morality led him to advocate a radically individualistic

Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed the "death of God" and went on to reject the

entire Judeo-Christian moral tradition in favor of a heroic pagan ideal.


Heidegger, like Pascal and Kierkegaard, reacted against an attempt to put

philosophy on a conclusive rationalistic basis—in this case the phenomenology of

the 20th-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Heidegger argued that

humanity finds itself in an incomprehensible, indifferent world. Human beings

can never hope to understand why they are here; instead, each individual must

choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction, aware of the certainty

of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of one's life. Heidegger contributed

to existentialist thought an original emphasis on being and ontology as well as

on language.


Sartre first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his

own philosophy and by becoming the leading figure of a distinct movement in

France that became internationally influential after World War II. Sartre's

philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human

beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one,

and thus human life is a "futile passion." Sartre nevertheless insisted that his

existentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom,

choice, and responsibility. He eventually tried to reconcile these

existentialist concepts with a Marxist analysis of society and history.

Existentialism and Theology

Although existentialist thought encompasses the uncompromising atheism of

Nietzsche and Sartre and the agnosticism of Heidegger, its origin in the

intensely religious philosophies of Pascal and Kierkegaard foreshadowed its

profound influence on 20th-century theology. The 20th-century German philosopher

Karl Jaspers, although he rejected explicit religious doctrines, influenced

contemporary theology through his preoccupation with transcendence and the

limits of human experience. The German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich and

Rudolf Bultmann, the French Roman Catholic theologian Gabriel Marcel, the

Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, and the German Jewish

philosopher Martin Buber inherited many of Kierkegaard's concerns, especially

that a personal sense of authenticity and commitment is essential to religious


Existentialism and Literature

A number of existentialist philosophers used literary forms to convey their

thought, and existentialism has been as vital and as extensive a movement in

literature as in philosophy. The 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor

Dostoyevsky is probably the greatest existentialist literary figure. In Notes

from the Underground (1864), the alienated antihero rages against the optimistic

assumptions of rationalist humanism. The view of human nature that emerges in

this and other novels of Dostoyevsky is that it is unpredictable and perversely

self-destructive; only Christian love can save humanity from itself, but such

love cannot be understood philosophically. As the character Alyosha says in The

Brothers Karamazov (1879-80), "We must love life more than the meaning of it."

In the 20th century, the novels of the Austrian Jewish writer Franz Kafka, such

as The Trial (1925; trans. 1937) and The Castle (1926; trans. 1930), present

isolated men confronting vast, elusive, menacing bureaucracies; Kafka's themes

of anxiety, guilt, and solitude reflect the influence of Kierkegaard,

Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche. The influence of Nietzsche is also discernible in

the novels of the French writers André Malraux and in the plays of Sartre. The

work of the French writer Albert Camus is usually associated with existentialism

because of the prominence in it of such themes as the apparent absurdity and

futility of life, the indifference of the universe, and the necessity of

engagement in a just cause. Existentialist themes are also reflected in the

theater of the absurd, notably in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

In the United States, the influence of existentialism on literature has been

more indirect and diffuse, but traces of Kierkegaard's thought can be found in

the novels of Walker Percy and John Updike, and various existentialist themes

are apparent in the work of such diverse writers as Norman Mailer, John Barth,

and Arthur Miller.

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