Existentialism: A Comprehensive Guide & Principles
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is Existentialism?
  2. Main Philosophers of Existentialism
  3. Key Principles of Existentialism
  4. How Existentialism Affects Our Lives
  5. Why Existentialism Matters
  6. Existentialism in Literature and Arts
  7. Criticism and Controversy of Existentialism
  8. Existentialism vs Other Philosophical Theories

Let's take a journey into the world of philosophy, specifically focusing on a concept that has been a major influence in various fields—existentialism. This is a concept that's been discussed, debated, and dissected by many, but what does it really mean? This blog aims to provide a clear and simple definition of existentialism, explore its key principles, and delve into how it impacts our lives and society.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism, at its core, is a philosophy that emphasizes the individual, their emotions, actions, and the freedom and responsibility that come with these. It's a perspective that tells us that we are not just passive beings in the world; we are active participants who shape our own lives and destinies.

But where did it all start? Existentialism has its roots in the 19th and 20th centuries, with various philosophers contributing to its development. Some key figures include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. But don't worry—we'll get to know them a bit more later on.

The definition of existentialism is often associated with phrases like "existence precedes essence" or the belief that "life is what you make it." These phrases encapsulate the idea that we exist first, and it's up to us to give our existence meaning. Life doesn't come with a manual, and there's no predetermined path for us to follow. We make our own choices, and we're responsible for the outcomes of these choices. In other words, we're the authors of our own lives.

It's also worth noting that existentialism isn't just about individualism or solipsism—a belief that only one's own mind is sure to exist. It also recognizes our interconnectedness with others and the world. Existentialism acknowledges that while we are free to make our own choices, these choices can and do affect other people and the world around us.

So, why should you care about existentialism? Well, understanding the principles of existentialism can shed light on the human condition and our place in the world. It can help us appreciate the freedom and responsibility we have in shaping our lives. But more than that, it can encourage us to live authentically, to make meaningful choices, and to actively engage with the world around us.

Existentialism can be a bit complex to understand at first, but hopefully, this simple definition of existentialism helps make it a bit clearer. And remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg—there's so much more to explore!

Main Philosophers of Existentialism

Now that we've gotten a basic definition of existentialism, let's meet some of the main thinkers who helped shape this philosophy. Each of them contributed unique ideas and perspectives, which together, form the rich tapestry of existentialist thought.

Søren Kierkegaard: Often regarded as the "father of existentialism," this Danish philosopher emphasized personal choice and responsibility. Kierkegaard believed that we all face a fundamental choice—whether to follow the crowd or listen to our own individual voices. He championed the idea of "subjective truth," which means that truth is a personal matter, not an objective fact.

Friedrich Nietzsche: This influential German philosopher is known for his critique of traditional values. Nietzsche emphasized the idea of "will to power," suggesting that humans are driven by a deep desire to exert their power and express their individuality. He also famously declared, "God is dead," reflecting his belief that traditional religious beliefs had lost their power in modern society.

Jean-Paul Sartre: A French philosopher and writer, Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist. He gave us the phrase "existence precedes essence," which encapsulates the core idea of existentialism. Sartre believed that we are not born with a fixed nature or purpose; instead, we define ourselves through our actions and choices.

Albert Camus: Another French philosopher, Camus rejected the label of "existentialist," but his works are often associated with the philosophy. Camus explored themes of absurdity, rebellion, and freedom in his writings. He argued that life is inherently meaningless, but this doesn't lead to despair; instead, it frees us to create our own meaning and purpose.

These philosophers, among others, shaped the definition of existentialism and its principles. Their ideas continue to resonate today, challenging us to question our assumptions, live authentically, and take responsibility for our lives.

Key Principles of Existentialism

Let's dive deeper into the heart of existentialism. Though it's a broad philosophy with various interpretations, there are a handful of key principles that stand out. Here are the main ones:

1. Existence Precedes Essence: We've touched on this in the definition of existentialism, but it's worth revisiting. In traditional philosophy, people believed that we are all born with an "essence" or a fixed nature. Existentialists turn this idea on its head. They argue that we exist first, and then through our actions and decisions, we create our own essence or identity.

2. Freedom and Responsibility: Existentialism holds that we are free to make our own choices. But with this freedom comes great responsibility. Every choice we make shapes who we are and the course of our lives. It's up to us to decide who we want to be and to take responsibility for our actions.

3. The Absurd: The world, according to existentialists, often doesn't make sense. This nonsensical aspect of existence is what they refer to as "the absurd." Rather than despairing over this, existentialists suggest embracing the absurd as a part of life.

4. Authenticity: Being true to oneself is a central theme in existentialism. It's about living according to our own values and beliefs, not those imposed by society. Authenticity involves accepting our freedom and responsibility, and making choices that reflect our true selves.

Understanding these principles gives you a clearer picture of what existentialism is all about. It's not just a philosophical theory—it's a way of looking at life that emphasizes individual freedom, authenticity, and the inherent strangeness of existence.

How Existentialism Affects Our Lives

Now that we have a solid understanding of existentialism and its key principles, let's delve into how it impacts our daily lives. You might be surprised by how much this philosophical approach influences us, even subtly.

Decision Making: Existentialism places the power of choice firmly in our hands. Every decision we make carries weight and helps shape our essence. So, the next time you're making a decision—big or small—remember, it's a chance to define who you are.

Personal Responsibility: Existentialism teaches us that we're responsible for our actions. This can be both liberating and daunting. We're free to choose but must also face the consequences of our choices. This principle can make us more mindful of our actions and their potential impact on our lives.

Embracing the Unknown: The concept of the absurd in existentialism encourages us to embrace the unpredictable nature of life. This can help us become more adaptable and open-minded, especially when life throws curveballs our way.

Authentic Living: Existentialism pushes us to live authentically and not be swayed by societal norms or expectations. This can lead to a more satisfying life, as we're living according to our own values and not someone else's.

Existentialism, therefore, isn't just an abstract concept—it has real, tangible effects on how we live our lives. It encourages us to take control, be true to ourselves, and embrace the unpredictability of life. So, in a way, understanding the principles of existentialism can lead to a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Why Existentialism Matters

So, why does the definition of existentialism matter to us? Isn't it just a complex philosophy that only thinkers and scholars concern themselves with? The answer is a resounding no. Existentialism matters because it's about the human experience—something we all share.

Understanding Ourselves: Existentialism encourages us to probe deeper into our own existence. It nudges us to ask tough questions about who we are, what we value, and what our purpose is. This introspection can lead to self-improvement and personal growth.

Empowering Choices: By recognizing that we are free to make our own choices, existentialism empowers us. We realize that we're not just passive observers in life—we are active participants shaping our own destinies.

Accepting Responsibility: Existentialism reminds us that with freedom comes responsibility. We are accountable for our actions and their outcomes. This can lead to more thoughtful decision-making and a deeper sense of fulfillment.

Appreciating Life: Existentialism helps us appreciate life in all its unpredictability. It teaches us to find meaning even in the face of the absurd. This can make us more resilient and optimistic, even in challenging times.

Existentialism, therefore, has profound implications for how we live our lives. It's not just an abstract philosophy—it's a roadmap for living a more authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life. And that's why understanding the definition of existentialism truly matters.

Existentialism in Literature and Arts

Existentialism isn't just a philosophy that exists in scholarly papers. It pops up in our daily lives, especially in literature and arts. But how exactly does the definition of existentialism fit into these creative fields? Let's find out.

In Literature: Existentialism takes center stage in literature, shaping narratives and character development. Characters grapple with existential questions, introspect deeply, and navigate the absurd. Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" and Albert Camus' "The Stranger" are prime examples of existential literature.

In Visual Arts: Existentialism influences how artists perceive and represent the world. Painters like Edward Hopper communicate solitude and alienation—core existential themes—through their works. The often bleak and unsettling imagery serves as a stark reminder of existential concerns.

In Cinema: Existentialism also finds a home in cinema. Films like "Blade Runner" and "The Seventh Seal" explore themes of existential dread, the search for meaning, and the human condition in a visual and visceral way.

In Music: In music, existentialism inspires lyrics and compositions. Musicians from Bob Dylan to Radiohead have explored existential themes in their songs, reflecting on life's paradoxes and the human experience.

The influence of existentialism in literature and arts is vast. It's a testament to the philosophy's relevance and resonance. So, next time you're engrossed in a book, admiring a painting, watching a film, or listening to a song, keep an eye (or an ear) out for the touch of existentialism!

Criticism and Controversy of Existentialism

Existentialism, like any philosophy, isn't without its critics. Some argue that it's too pessimistic, others say it's too individualistic. Let's take a closer look at these criticisms.

The Pessimism Critique: Critics often argue that existentialism paints a bleak picture of life. They say that by focusing on concepts like despair, absurdity, and death, existentialism fails to celebrate life's joys. But supporters of existentialism would counter that it's not about being gloomy—it's about facing reality head-on.

The Individualism Critique: Existentialism places a lot of emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility. Critics say this can lead to selfishness, as everyone becomes absorbed in their own existence. But again, proponents argue that existentialism encourages authentic living, not selfishness.

The Religious Critique: Some religious thinkers criticize existentialism for its atheistic tendencies. They argue that by rejecting a higher power, existentialism leaves no room for spiritual beliefs. On the flip side, there are also Christian Existentialists who find a way to reconcile their faith with existentialist thought.

While these criticisms challenge the definition of existentialism, they also enrich our understanding of it. They remind us that existentialism, like life itself, is complex and multi-layered. So, whether you agree with the criticisms or not, they're definitely worth considering!

Existentialism vs Other Philosophical Theories

Now that you have a clearer understanding of existentialism, let's see how it stacks up against other philosophical theories. We'll compare it to two popular ones: rationalism and empiricism.

Existentialism and Rationalism: Rationalism is all about the belief that reason is the chief source of knowledge. It sounds pretty logical, right? But existentialism would beg to differ. According to the existentialist point of view, our lived experiences and personal choices are just as important—if not more so—than pure reason.

Existentialism and Empiricism: Empiricism is another theory that places a lot of weight on knowledge. But it focuses on sensory experience—what we can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell. While existentialism recognizes the importance of these experiences, it also emphasizes the inner, subjective experiences of the individual.

So there you have it. That's how existentialism compares with other philosophical theories. But remember, this is just a basic comparison. Each of these theories is a world unto its own, with its own set of principles and ideas. And just like existentialism, they all offer unique ways to understand the world around us.

If you're intrigued by the concepts discussed in this blog post about existentialism and want to delve deeper into the philosophical realm, check out Rabih Salloum's workshop, 'A Way of Life Beyond Good & Evil.' This workshop will provide you with a broader perspective on existentialism and help you explore the philosophical foundations that could enrich your understanding of life and its various aspects.