Existentialism: Definition, Principles Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. What is Existentialism?
  2. History of Existentialism
  3. Key Principles of Existentialism
  4. How to Apply Existentialism in Daily Life
  5. Famous Existentialists and Their Works
  6. Criticism and Controversy
  7. Existence Precedes Essence
  8. Freedom and Responsibility
  9. The Absurdity of Life
  10. Authenticity

Picture this: you're sitting in your favorite coffee shop, sipping on a warm latte, when a friend asks you, "What's the definition of Existentialism?" You freeze. You've heard the term being tossed around in intellectual circles, maybe even skimmed through it in a philosophy book. But putting it into words—that's a whole different ball game. Well, buckle up, because we're about to take a deep dive into the world of Existentialism, helping you understand what it is, its history, key principles, and how to apply it in your daily life.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of will. To break it down, it's all about you—your actions, your choices, your freedom and responsibility. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Here's an easy way of looking at it:

  • Existence: Existentialism believes in the primacy of existence. It's all about the 'here and now.' In simpler terms, it's about the life you are living right now, not the life you could have or should have had.
  • Free and responsible agent: You are free to make your own choices, but remember, with great power comes great responsibility. So, while you're free to decide what to have for breakfast, or whether to go to college or not, you're also responsible for the consequences of these decisions.
  • Acts of the will: Your actions matter. It's your actions that define who you are, not your intentions or desires. It's like choosing to work out every day to stay fit—your actions (working out daily) define you (as a fit individual), not your intention or desire to be fit.

Remember, the definition of Existentialism is not a one-size-fits-all. Different thinkers have interpreted it in different ways. But the core idea remains the same: you are a free and responsible individual, and your actions define who you are.

History of Existentialism

Now that you've got a basic understanding of the definition of existentialism, let's take a step back in time to see where it all began. Think of it as a time machine ride into the past!

Existentialism, as a distinct philosophical movement, started to make waves in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, its roots can be traced back to the works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were concerned with the individual's subjective experience—how you, as an individual, experience and make sense of the world.

Fast forward to the 20th century, existentialism started gaining momentum in France, thanks to philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre, in particular, was instrumental in popularizing existentialism. He even coined the phrase "Existence precedes essence," which became a cornerstone of existentialist thought. But more on that later!

Existentialism also found its way into literature and the arts, with authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka exploring existential themes in their works. Their characters often grapple with existential crises and the absurdity of life—themes that resonate with a lot of us even today.

So, while existentialism might sound like a complicated, high-brow concept, it's deeply rooted in everyday life and human experience. It's not just about understanding the world but also about making sense of our place in it.

Key Principles of Existentialism

Alright, let's get down to the meat of the matter: what makes existentialism, well, existentialism? Existentialism isn't a one-size-fits-all philosophy—it's a broad umbrella that covers a range of ideas. But there are a few key principles that most existentialists would nod their heads at:

1. Existence Precedes Essence: Existentialists believe that each person exists first and then, through their actions and decisions, defines their own essence or nature. This is the complete opposite of the idea that we are born with a fixed nature or purpose. In other words, we make ourselves who we are—there's no instruction manual or guidebook to follow.

2. Freedom and Responsibility: Existentialists emphasize that humans are free agents, capable of making their own choices. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. Every choice you make shapes who you are, and you have to live with the consequences, whether good or bad.

3. The Absurdity of Life: Life is random and unpredictable, and that can feel pretty absurd. According to existentialists, there's no grand scheme or plan—we're just here, and things happen. It's up to us to make sense of it all.

4. Authenticity: Existentialists value authenticity—being true to oneself—over conforming to societal norms or expectations. It's about marching to the beat of your own drum, even if that drumbeat is a little offbeat.

These are just the basics, of course. There's a lot more to existentialism than can be squeezed into a single post. But hopefully, this gives you a solid starting point for understanding the definition of existentialism and its key principles.

How to Apply Existentialism in Daily Life

Now that we've got a basic understanding of the definition of existentialism, let's talk about how you can apply these principles in your day-to-day life. Remember, existentialism is all about making your own choices and carving out your own path. Here's how you can do that:

1. Embrace Your Freedom: Recognize that you're a free agent. You have the power to make your own choices and shape your own life. Sure, there might be certain constraints and limitations, but within those boundaries, you've got plenty of room to maneuver.

2. Take Responsibility: Remember that with freedom comes responsibility. Every decision you make has consequences, and you're the one who has to live with them. So make your choices wisely and own them, regardless of the outcome.

3. Find Meaning in the Absurd: Life can seem pretty random and absurd at times, but that doesn't mean it's meaningless. Find your own meaning and purpose in life, whether that's through work, relationships, hobbies, or something else entirely.

4. Be Authentic: Don't just follow the crowd or conform to societal expectations. Be true to yourself and live in a way that reflects who you are and what you value. It might not always be easy, but it's definitely worth it.

Applying existentialism in your daily life isn't about becoming a brooding philosopher—it's about living a life that's true to you. So go out there and make your mark on the world!

Famous Existentialists and Their Works

Now that you have a working definition of existentialism and understand how to apply it in your life, let's explore some of the thinkers who have helped shape this philosophy. Here are a few of the famous existentialists and a snapshot of their contributions:

1. Søren Kierkegaard: Often considered the "father of existentialism," this Danish philosopher emphasized personal choice and responsibility. His works, like "Fear and Trembling," discuss the complexities of faith and ethics.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche: A German philosopher, Nietzsche championed the idea of life affirmation, suggesting that individuals should say 'yes' to life despite its hardships. His work, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," is a testament to this belief.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre: Perhaps the most famous existentialist, Sartre is known for his phrase "existence precedes essence." His play, "No Exit," explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and the human condition.

4. Simone de Beauvoir: A French philosopher and feminist, de Beauvoir explored the idea of the "other" and the struggle for authenticity in her work "The Second Sex."

5. Albert Camus: Camus is known for introducing the concept of the "absurd." His novel "The Stranger" depicts a world devoid of order or meaning.

These thinkers, each in their unique ways, advanced the definition of existentialism and its principles, providing us with a richer understanding of this philosophy. Their works continue to provoke thought and inspire individuals to live authentically.

Criticism and Controversy

As with any field of thought, the definition of existentialism and its principles have not been immune to criticism. Some of the challenges faced by existentialism come from various quarters. Let's dive into it.

1. Overemphasis on Individualism: Critics argue that existentialism places too much emphasis on individual freedom and choice, potentially leading to selfishness or lack of empathy for others. They suggest that this might overlook the importance of community and societal values.

2. Neglect of Reality: Some critics say existentialism fails to consider the 'real-world' constraints that individuals might face. Not everyone has the luxury to ponder the existential questions when they are struggling with survival needs.

3. Pessimism: Existentialism, especially in its emphasis on life's absurdity and meaninglessness, has been criticized for being overly pessimistic. Critics argue that this could lead to an unhealthy outlook on life.

4. Lack of Concrete Solutions: Critics have argued that while existentialism excels in identifying life's dilemmas, it falls short in providing concrete solutions to them.

Despite these criticisms, existentialism continues to be a vital philosophy that offers a compelling perspective on life. It encourages us to question the status quo, to understand our freedom, and to live authentically. In doing so, it contributes to a rich tapestry of human thought and experiences.

Existence Precedes Essence

One cornerstone in the definition of existentialism is the concept that "existence precedes essence." Now, let's break it down so we can understand it even better.

Imagine buying an art kit, you know, the kind with colored pencils, markers, and watercolors. The kit is made with the purpose of creating art. It's essence — being an art kit — is determined before it even exists.

But when it comes to us, humans, existentialism flips the script. In our case, we exist first. We are born without a specific purpose or meaning. That's the "existence precedes essence" part. And what does it mean for you and me? It means we're free — free to define who we are and what our life is about. It's like being handed a blank canvas and a palette of colors. We get to paint our own picture.

Yet, with this freedom comes responsibility. We can't blame the universe, society, or our parents for the picture we paint. It's all on us. So, should we be scared? Not at all! Think of it as the ultimate creative project: crafting your own life.

Just remember, there's no right or wrong picture. What matters is that it's authentically yours. And that's the beauty of existentialism — it empowers us to create our own essence, our own meaning, and our own purpose. Exciting, isn't it?

Freedom and Responsibility

Here's another key phrase in the definition of existentialism: "freedom and responsibility." Sounds serious, right? But in reality, it's pretty simple and quite empowering.

As we've discussed, according to existentialism, you're born free to create your own life. No pre-set paths or paint-by-number instructions. It's like being given a novel with blank pages and being told, "You are the author. Now, start writing."

However, freedom doesn't mean doing whatever you want without thinking about the consequences. That's where responsibility comes in. You're responsible for the choices you make and the actions you take. It's like being both the author and editor of your novel — you write your own story, but you're also responsible for revising and correcting it.

Now, you might be thinking: "What if I make a mistake? What if I write a chapter I don't like?" Well, that's part of the journey. Remember, you're the author. You can always write a new chapter. You learn, grow, and make better choices. And that's the essence of the existentialist perspective on freedom and responsibility.

So, don't be afraid to make choices. Don't be scared to take risks. Own your freedom, take responsibility, and write a novel that's uniquely you. Sounds like an adventure, doesn't it?

The Absurdity of Life

When we're discussing the definition of existentialism, we can't skip over the concept of the absurdity of life. Now, don't panic — we're not saying life is a joke or doesn't make sense. But existentialists do believe that life doesn't necessarily have a fixed or predestined meaning.

Imagine trying to solve a puzzle with no picture as a guide, and no guarantee that the pieces will fit together. That's life, according to existentialism. It's a journey of trying to create meaning in a world where nothing is predetermined.

It's like going on a hike without a map, making your own trail as you go. You might find beautiful overlooks, stumble upon hidden waterfalls, or even get a little lost — but that's all part of the experience. It's your hike, your journey, your story.

So, when existentialists talk about the absurdity of life, they're not being negative or cynical. They're simply acknowledging that life is a blank canvas. It's up to you to pick up the brush and paint your own picture. It might seem daunting, but it's also pretty exciting, isn't it?


Now, let's jump into another keyword in our exploration of the definition of existentialism — authenticity. In the world of existentialism, authenticity is the cornerstone of a life well lived. But what exactly does it mean to be authentic?

Think of it like this. Imagine you're a sculptor. Each day, you chip away at a block of stone, shaping it into a statue. That statue, my friend, is you. It's a representation of who you are at your core — your values, your beliefs, your desires, and your dreams. The act of sculpting? That's you living your life in a way that aligns with your true self.

In existentialism, authenticity isn't about being perfect. It's about being real, being true to who you are. It's about making decisions based on your own inner compass, rather than societal expectations or external pressures.

Remember when you were a kid, and you'd play make-believe? You could be a superhero, a princess, a pirate, anything you wanted to be. You didn't worry about what others thought, you just let your imagination run wild and enjoyed the game. That's authenticity — embracing your individuality and living life on your own terms.

So, in a nutshell, the existentialist definition of authenticity is living a life that is true to who you are, regardless of outside influences. It's about being the sculptor of your own life, carving out your unique path. It's not always easy, but it's certainly an adventure worth embarking on.

If you're intrigued by the ideas discussed in this blog post about existentialism and want to explore further, we recommend checking out the workshop 'A Way of Life Beyond Good & Evil' by Rabih Salloum. This workshop will help you dive deeper into the principles of existentialism and other philosophical approaches, guiding you towards a more profound understanding of life and its complexities.