Existentialism: Brief Definition

The issue of human being has been taken seriously by Socrates mid- 300s B.C. Yet, theoretically, it was firstly come up with early 20th century by Søren Kierkegaard from French-word “Exister” (“Occurred”). Simply, it has been considered as the perception of existence, i.e. the way individuals find themselves existing in the world through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Existential thought states that a person should be forced to choose own existing purpose without being responsible for laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. For an individual with existential thought, society is unnatural and its traditional religious and secular rules are arbitrary, but personal responsibility and discipline is crucial. Worldly desires are futile.

Historical Emergence of Existentialism

Existentialism was founded in Denmark, developed in Germany and matured in France.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard ​​(1813-1855) is accepted as the first contributor of the thought existentialism.

Søren Kierkegaard sketched by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard spent his whole life in Copenhagen as a priest. Emergence of the philosophy that influenced many people, has been triggered due a small heartfelt adventure of a priest. For some unknown reason, Kierkegaard himself breaks his engagement with his beloved one. Perhaps it was due to the fact that something very desirable was achieved and that it had to end before the thought of the loss of longing for it began. Thus, this situation pushed him into deep thoughts for an event for the first time. After this event, Kierkegaard broke away from society and turned to a reclusive life and began to write his works (e.g. Philosophical Fragments -1846, The Sickness Unto Death -1849 etc.) in such an environment.

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself”. –Søren Kierkegaard

Basically, Kierkegaard’s philosophy insists that faith and reason are completely independent from each other; also a direct reaction to G. W. F. Hegel, whose German idealism dominated the majority of European philosophical thought at the time. Kierkegaard’s philosophy, along with the atheist philosopher F. Nietzsche, is the main inspiration for many 20th century philosophers like E. Husserl, M. Heidegger, J.P. Sartre and S. Beauvoir, A. Camus, though.

Early 20th century, E. Husserl (1859-1938) put forward a phenomenon called Phenomenology, that relies on basic principle, “consciousness, is the consciousness of something, it is directed towards something.” Accordingly, there is no “spontaneity” of realism, reality is something that is directed, realized and seen.

Edmund Husserl

“To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness.” -Edmund Husserl

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has written “Being and Time” in 1927 that concretions E. Husserl’s Phenomenology and S. Kierkegaard‘s philosophy.

Martin Heidegger

He states that human being has left to this world in the nude (this is not the result of a choice or choice). And adds, with its being left to be exist, human being has been obliged to the freedom to create his own existence. Being left itself is the lack of freedom, where death is inevitable.

“The human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being.” -Martin Heidegger

In the meantime, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who mastered Husselr’s philosophy, finishes the philosophy department in Paris and goes to Germany to take lessons from Heidegger.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The main point of Sartre, that emphasizes the active role of man in determining his own destiny, was influenced by philosophers such as K. Marx, E. Husserl and M. Heideggerd that is consisted by examining the relation between the existence of human and the other things. In other words, Sartre has put forward the problem, starts from the subject, how to explain human freedom and responsibilities that are determined by world of objects.

For the basic instinct in Sartre’s philosophy, from Descarte’s famous thought, I think therefore I am (“Cogito, ergo sum”) can be reconsidered as I exist therefore I think.

“Hell is other people” – J.P. Sartre

The main point of the philosophy of Albert Camus (1913-1960), who lived in the same period with Sartre and accepted existentialism as his focus, was that putting human at the center.

Albert Camus

Besides his philosophy, Camus’s literarature strength was very strong.One of the main concepts mentioned in his ideas and books was his incompatible people. Another meaning of this is the concept of “absurd” which Camus stands on too. Due to Camus, “absurd” is the relationship between consciousness and the world, where human is a conscious being and therefore has awareness. Since there is no awareness of the world, there is an endless disharmony between human and the world. Because of this disharmony, ones cannot find an answer to his/her quest and remains inconclusive, that is called “absurd”. Also Sartre defined this inconvenience with the word “nausea”. As a result of the intensity of human emotions, people attempt expectations that are realized or not realized in their life. That’s when human start to feel incompatible with all this and individual who realizes that feels incompatible, gets problematic feelings. As a result, that individual becomes “stranger” with his/her own hand. After explaining all this, Camus looks for ways to escape. Camus concludes that there is no escape, early awareness of the individual only facilitates the adaptation process, though.

“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee ?” – Albert Camus

Bonus: Recommended Books Related Existentialism

  • Wahrheitsgetreuer Bericht über meine Reise in den Himmel (org. German) / Immanuel Kant (1877).
  •  Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (org. German, Eng. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None”) / Friedrich Nietzsche (1883).
  • Schopenhauer ve İnsan (org. Turkish) / Ionna Kuçuradi (2006).
  • Sein und Zeit (org. German, Eng. “Being and Time”) / Martin Heidegger (1927).
  • Gelassenheit (org. German, Eng. “Discourse on Thinking”) / Martin Heidegger (1959).
  • Frygt og Bæven (org. Danish, Eng. “Fear and Trembling”) / Søren Kierkegaard (1843).
  • Enten /Eller (org. Danish, Eng. “Either/Or”) / Søren Kierkegaard (1843).
  • La Nausée (org. French, Eng. “Nausea”) / Jean-Paul Sartre (1938).
  • L’existentialisme est un humanisme (org. French, Eng. “Existentialism is a Humanism“) / Jean-Paul Sartre (1946).
  • Les chemins de la liberté 1: Lâge de raison (org. French, Eng. “The Age of Reason“) / Jean-Paul Sartre (1945).
  • Les chemins de la liberté 2: Le sursis (org. French, Eng. “The Reprieve“) / Jean-Paul Sartre (1945).
  • Les chemins de la liberté 3: La mort dans Iâme (org. French, Eng. “Troubled Sleep“) / Jean-Paul Sartre (1949).
  • Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens (org. German, Eng. “Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity“) / Karl Jaspers (1936).
  • L’Étranger (org. French, Eng. “Stranger”) / Albert Camus (1942).
  • Le Mythe de Sisyphe (org. French, Eng. “The Myth of Sisyphus“) / Albert Camus (1942).
  • L’Homme Révolté (org. French, Eng. “The Rebel“) / Albert Camus (1951).
  • La Peste (org. French, Eng. “The Plague“) / Albert Camus (1947).
Sartre, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Camus

E.B. Ozberak, O.S. Tapsin

Resources: https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/existentialism.htmhttps://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/188282https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/https://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/#H2https://dusunbil.com/albert-camusnun-uyumsuzu/https://www.cafrande.org/varolusculugun-kurucusu-jean-paul-sartre-ve-felsefesi/

7 thoughts on “Existentialism: 101

  1. Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!


  2. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. appreciate it


  3. Howdy! This article could not be written any better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!


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