“Existence precedes essence” – Jean-Paul Satre

Existentialism is a philosophical and cultural movement, born in the late 19th and early 20th century, which focusses on the importance of the individual – a thinking, feeling, acting human being. It is a catch-all term for philosophers who shared the belief that all philosophical thinking should begin by thinking about existence; specifically, the existence of the individual.

The movement, in both philosophy and in art and culture, was a rebellion against totalitarianism and mundane, conformist culture. It was also a counter-reaction to the analytic philosophy of the early 20th century; the philosophy of Marx, Weber, Freud.

The overriding ‘theme’ of existentialism is that of the individual against society; society is almost seen as an enemy or an obstacle which the individual must overcome.


Jean-Paul Satre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, writer, and political activist, and one of the key figures of the existentialist movement. Although he was not really an existentialist philosopher, Satre defined existentialism.

Satre described existentialism as a term to group together philosophers who held the doctrine that existence precedes essence. This phrase has parallels with the work of Kant – unsurprising, given that Satre was also a key figure in phenomenology – who in the Critique of Pure Reason purports the view that existence is not a predicate; that it is a necessary pre-condition.

This view is the backbone of existentialism; that existence is not a cause or consequence of anything, it just is.

Before Kant, all philosophers and scholastics believed existence was caused by something; whether it be God or something else. Existentialists were very radical in supporting the idea that existence is not caused by anything.

Satre’s partner, Simone DeBeuavoir, is considered the founder of modern feminism. Modern feminism and existentialism go hand in hand (in fact existentialism goes hand in hand with most civil rights movements, i.e. black power); modern feminism is much more connected with sexuality, identity, femininity.

The concept of ‘bad faith’, coined by Satre and DeBeauvoir, is a crucial idea in existentialist philosophy; understanding this principle is to understand a great deal of existentialism itself. An individual is sad to have ‘bad faith’ when they allow pressures from society to shape or change their beliefs and values, to affect their choices, and strip them of their freedom to act ‘authentically’.

The critical claim of existentialists is that the individual should always be free to make their own choices, and that each individual should dedicate their life to their own ‘purpose’ (what Heidegger refers to as Dasein). Allowing societal pressures to prevent this in any way is an example of bad faith.

Existentialists believe choice can never be taken away from an individual; even in extreme situations such as imprisonment etc, there is still the choice to comply, to not comply, or to commit suicide.


While Satre defined existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is seen as the first existentialist philosopher. Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian and poet, and one of the key figures in understanding existentialist philosophy.

Kierkergard is described as a nihilist within the existentialist movement. Nihilists are bored of everything, everything is equally dull and unimportant except for that fleeting moment of their interest. Kierkegaard is the first to propose that it’s the individual, not society, which gives meaning to life, and the individual is responsible for living their life passionately and authentically. Failing to do this, or allowing pressure from society (or religion) to interfere with this, would amount to having ‘bad faith’ as described by Satre and DeBeauvoir.

All individuals experience a phenomena called existential angst. This is the idea of Hell, of eternal torture, and is far worse than the fear of death or non-existence. Kierkegaard says this existential angst will build up and overcome you, but there are ways to rid yourself of it. One way would be to live as an existentialist; to accept the inevitability of death and live life as fully and authentically as possible. This has many parallels with Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. Another option, as advocated by Schopenhauer, is suicide. The most popular method, is to commit to religion.

Kierkegaard believes we live in a Faustian society, where instead of literally selling their soul to the devil, the individual abandons their soul, loses all sense of identify and ‘self’, when they conform to society for whatever reason. Kierkegaard agrees with Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘God is dead’, that society – specifically the advances in scientific knowledge – have killed him, and that modern science has refuted nearly all of Christianity e.g. the Bible is not heliocentric. Despite this, he argues that God is now more believable. Belief in God requires faith, and Christians believe they must face tests of the strength of their faith; what greater test of strength than proof that much of what you believe is ‘false’?

Interestingly, towards the end of his life Kierkegaard converted to Christianity. In existentialist terms Kierkegaard is partaking in a leap of faith, throwing himself wholly into religion. Kierkegaard (before his conversion) spoke of how taking a leap of faith is crucial to being an existentialist, however converting to religion would appear to be a direct contrast of existentialism. Most existentialists believe religion suppresses the individual and encourages conformity, and a loss of self; also if Kierkegaard was not truly a Christian, i.e. he did not really believe in God but was simply overcome by existential angst, then he was guilty of having bad faith.


German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) explored the existential and phenomenological nature of ‘being’ in his most famous book Being and Time, which is widely considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century.

In Being and Time, Heidegger declares that the metaphysical age is over; people no longer believe that things exist independently of the mind. The purpose of the Enlightenment, and Marx, Weber etc. was to understand reality; Heidegger dismisses this. He introduces the concept of Dasein and states that this is all people should be concerned with.

‘Dasein’ is a German word, translated literally, means existence; for Heidegger the meaning of Dasein is meant as being-in-the-world/moment. Every person has their own individual Dasein, it’s a consciousness structure, it’s your individual way of dealing with things.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

This quote/proverb symbolises what Heidegger means by Dasein. Take an individual whose ‘purpose’ is to build, say a carpenter, when they are hammering a nail they are in their own reality. They are in the moment, they are doing what they are meant to do. That is Dasein. The concept of Dasein is similar to Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia.

Although every individual has their own Dasein, for Heidegger there is only one correct Dasein; to be German. Satre says there is no one culture or person with one true Dasein, rather there are many forms (Heidegger’s Being and Time is a review of Satre’s Being and Nothingness). 

He believes population must be kept down so people can have their Dasein, and supports mass-murder to achieve this end.

For Heidegger, and Satre takes this from Heidegger, what you think of as ‘the past’ is just the presence of guilt and regret. You can only have Dasein in eternal presence; by simply being. There is no past, there is no future either; you know nothing about it, everything is uncertain. The only true existence is the present.

Another concept Heidegger introduces is directedness; this is more relevant to phenomenology than existentialism, but the two are closely linked. He argues that people see what they want/need to see, not what’s actually there.

In the illusion above, do you see a duck or a rabbit? Whichever you saw, now look for the other and you will see it. This demonstrates the point; how can one image be two things? When we try to see the rabbit, we see it, and the same when we try to see the duck.

Satre and Heidegger agree that fear, guilt and boredom are the modes of being, or the texture of existence.

Existentialism in art and culture

Existentialism was as much a cultural movement as a philosophical one. Existentialism has become ingrained in art (post-modernism), music (jazz), film, and writing in today’s culture.

The Dicemen by Luke Reindhart, is the story of a man who lives his life by rolling a dice to make his decisions. This is utterly existential.

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is the story of a young, arrogant nobleman who leads a debaucherous, promiscuous life until he is overcome with guilt (existential angst).

Edward Munch’s painting The Scream represents the realisation of non-existence, becoming a non-entity.

General points

Existentialism is a reversal of the cogito: “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am, therefore I think” It can be reduced further (phenomenal reduction) to “I think.”

Descartes did ask the right question: why do I exist? But came up with the wrong answers. He was also wrong with his idea of being and the self. There cannot be an ‘I’ in the cogito because ‘I’ cannot be found anywhere. It doesn’t have a physical location as Descartes suggested. People have tried to find, and some people believe they have found, the existence and location of consciousness. But it cannot really be located.

Existentialists argue you can only investigate the texture or content of existence. You cannot examine existence itself because you cannot be outside of existence. Part of the function of art is to explore and illustrate the texture of existence.

Your existence is shaped by other people, this is unavoidable, just as your existence shapes other people. Existentialism is self-defining because the content of existence is continually defining itself.

Existentialism responds to Descartes – “what if all reality is a dream?” – so what? We exist, and can only exist, in the reality we perceive; so why worry about whether or not that reality is ‘real’. Also applies to the Plato’s idea of the forms, and his cave analogy: we may be trapped in an imperfect world with only representations of the forms, but the falsity we are trapped in is consistent. Even if we are aware that we are in a dream or an imperfect world, we can’t do anything about it except play along with it, so why bother?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s