Existentialism is a philosophical stance asserting that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject — not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In all schools of existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude," or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. He maintained that the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom. Subsequent existentialist philosophers retain the emphasis on the individual, but differ, in varying degrees, on how one achieves and what constitutes a fulfilling life, what obstacles must be overcome, and what external and internal factors are involved, including the potential consequences of the existence or non-existence of God.
- From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity. It was by affirming the irreducible character of ambiguity that Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel, and it is by ambiguity that, in our own generation, Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, fundamentally defined man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engaged freedom, that surging of the for-oneself which is immediately given for others. But it is also claimed that existentialism is a philosophy of the absurd and of despair. It encloses man in a sterile anguish, in an empty subjectivity. It is incapable of furnishing him with any principle for making choices. Let him do as he pleases. In any case, the game is lost. Does not Sartre declare, in effect, that man is a “useless passion,” that he tries in vain to realize the synthesis of the for-oneself and the in-oneself, to make himself God? It is true. But it is also true that the most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasizing the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics; for a being who, from the very start, would be an exact co-incidence with himself, in a perfect plenitude, the notion of having-to-be would have no meaning.
- Existentialism does not offer to the reader the consolations of an abstract evasion: existentialism proposes no evasion. On the contrary, its ethics is experienced in the truth of life, and it then appears as the only proposition of salvation which one can address to men.
- Simone de Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Conclusion
- What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.
- Søren Kierkegaard, in what is considered to be one of the earliest statements of existentialist thought, in a journal entry, Gilleleie (1 August 1835) Journals 1A
- Variant translation: My focus should be on what I do in life, not knowing everything, excluding knowledge on what you do. The is key to find a purpose, whatever it truly is that God wills me to do; it's crucial to find a truth which is true to me, to find the idea which I am willing to live and die for.
- Later variant: What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. ... I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.
- Later expression of such thoughts in a letter to Peter Wilhelm Lund (31 August 1835)
- Variant translation: I must find a truth that is true for me.
- I am well aware that as a human being I am very far from being a paradigm; if anything, I am a sample human being. With a fair degree of accuracy, I give the temperature of every mood and passion, and when I am generating my own inwardness, I understand these words: homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto [I am a human being, I hold that nothing human is alien to me]. But humanly no one can model himself on me, and historically I am even less a prototype for any human being. If anything, I am someone who could be needed in a crisis, as a guinea pig that life uses to feel its way. A person half as reflective as I would be able to be of significance for many people, but precisely because I am altogether reflective I have none at all. As soon as I am outside my religious understanding, I feel as an insect with which children are playing must feel, because life seems to have dealt with me so unmercifully; as soon as I am inside my religious understanding, I understand that precisely this has absolute meaning for me. Hence, that which in one case is a dreadful jest is in another sense the most profound earnestness. Earnestness is basically not something simple, a simplex, but is a compositum [compound], for true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness.
- Soren Kierkegaard Stages on Life's Way (1845) p. 365 Hong
- A great deal has been written about Existentialism in recent years, but this work of Dr. Kingston’s seems to me to occupy a unique and important place, and this for two reasons. First, in my opinion he seems to raise those questions about the Existentialist movement which most immediately spring to the mind of any intelligent Christian who finds himself confronted with it. Is the movement a reaction against Christian orthodoxy as such, or is it an attempt to recover certain Christian insights which Christians themselves have largely forgotten? If it is the former, how are we to explain the Christian existentialists, such as Kierkegaard and Marcel? If it is the latter, how are we to explain the atheist and antitheist existentialists, such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? Is it possible, in view of their radical opposition to consider Christian and atheist existentialism of the same genus? Or is it only by a misleading and equivocal use of words that the same label-“existentialism"-has been made to apply to both? And, granted that there can be a Christian existentialism, is it essentially Protestant or is there a genuinely Catholic type which can appeal to authentic, if perhaps partly forgotten, principles of traditional, and even Thomist, theology and philosophy?
- French Existentialism, A Christian Critique, , by F. Temple Kingston, University of Toronto Press, Forward by E.E. Mascall French Existentialism A Christian Critique, 1961
- In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits... In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network's mind there are no limits.
- John C. Lilly, in The Human Biocomputer (1974)
- Our theistic Existentialist is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard is an Existentialist because he accepts, as fully as Sartre or Camus, the absurdity of the world. But he does not begin with the postulate of the non-existence of God, but with the principle that nothing in the world, nothing available to sense or reason, provides any knowledge or reason to believe in God. While traditional Christian theologians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, saw the world as providing evidence of God's existence, and also thought that rational arguments a priori could establish the existence of God, Kierkegaard does not think that this is the case. But Kierkegaard's conclusion about this could just as easily be derived from Sartre's premises. After all, if the world is absurd, and everything we do is absurd anyway, why not do the most absurd thing imaginable? And what could be more absurd than to believe in God? So why not? The atheists don't have any reason to believe in anything else, or really even to disbelieve in that, so we may as well go for it!
- Kelley L. Ross, in the "Existentialism" article at The Proceedings of the Friesian School
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Existentialism
- "Existentialism is a Humanism", a lecture given by Jean-Paul Sartre
- The Existential Primer
- Buddhists, Existentialists and Situationists: Waking up in Waking Life
- Friesian interpretation of Existentialism
- Existentialism covered on In Our Time at BBC 4
- Journals and articles
- Stirrings Still: The International Journal of Existential Literature
- Existential Analysis published by The Society for Existential Analysis
- Existential psychotherapy