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Definition: Existentialism from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A philosophical attitude owing much to the writings of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), which developed in Germany after the First World War and somewhat later in France and Italy. Atheistic existentialism was popularized in France by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) during the Second World War. Existentialists emphasize the freedom and importance of individual ‘existence’ and personality and show a distrust of philosophical idealism. Much of their writing is characterized by disillusionment. The term is a translation of the German Existenz-philosophie.

Summary Article: Existentialism
from World History Encyclopedia

Existentialism is a philosophical construct and corpus of ethical thought developed in the nineteenth century and expanded upon in the twentieth century. Existentialism explores both the solitude and uniqueness of the human condition within a universe that is unconcerned—or even antagonistic—toward humankind. Existentialism holds that the reason and purpose for human life are unknowable and thus that free will and personal responsibility govern the consequences of one's actions. In its broadest application, existentialism has been embraced in some form by twentieth-century theologians (Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr), psychologists (Viktor Frankl and Rollo May), writers (Albert Camus and Franz Kafka), and philosophers (Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre). Existentialism has its roots in the thinking and writings of such nineteenth-century luminaries as Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Søren Kierkegaard, among others.

Existentialism, like its immediate philosophical predecessors, is a sharp departure from traditional Western thought that holds that rationality and consciousness are paramount to understanding the human condition. According to Sartre, "existence precedes and rules essence." Otherwise stated, there is no preexisting, predefined nature to humanity other than what the individual creates for himself. And because existentialism does not acknowledge God or a supreme all-knowing entity, human beings are free to make their own choices and will be judged exclusively by the actions and choices they take.

While a part of earlier intellectual currents and popular culture, existentialism became a powerful force in the aftermath of World War II. It is not difficult to understand how a reaction to that war followed by the onset of a Cold War that brought with it the constant threat of instantaneous nuclear annihilation might have given impetus to existentialist thinking. The isolation of each individual in an absurd universe and the humanistic yet stoic philosophy of existentialists seemed suddenly reasonable. The idea of random absurdity that existentialists see as part and parcel of the human condition became the subject of many influential plays and films. Some of the more influential playwrights who explored the theater of the absurd included Eugene Ionesco, Boris Vian, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, and Edward Albee.

Translations of Sartre and Camus, particularly the latter's novel The Stranger and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, fueled a fascination with existentialism in the United States in the Cold War era. Also influential at this time were the so-called Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who borrowed heavily from existentialist thought. On a more popular level, an existential style emerged as early as the 1930s in crime fiction and in film noir with their criminal or semicriminal anti-heroes operating in an amoral, indifferent world. Those genres continued to thrive in the literature and film of the 1950s. An existential stance also inflected the highbrow films of Sweden's Ingmar Bergman, Italy's Michelangelo Antonio, and the New Wave cinema of France developing around the Cahiers du Cinema and new directors such as Jean Luc Godard with his I960 debut film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless).

Other arts were influenced as well. The dominant post-World War II movement in painting of abstract expressionism placed primacy on the individual and spontaneity, with Jackson Pollock its most celebrated figure. Likewise, post-World War II developments in jazz, noticeably bebop, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, celebrated the individual and an embrace of freedom and spontaneous expression. Theologians such as Martin Buber and Paul Tillich also grappled with existentialism in the interwar and Cold War years. One of the most famous products of Cold War concern with a silent universe emerged in the mid-1960s when popular magazines in the United States announced to the public that young Protestant scholars and theologians had begun the theological movement "God is Dead."

  • Apignanesi, Richard. Introducing Existentialism. New York: Totem, 2002.
  • Fulton, Ann. Apostles of Sartre: Existentialism in America, 1945–1963- Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
  • Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian, 1988.
  • Marino, Gordon. Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Random House/Modern Library, 2004.
Paul G. Jr. Pierpaoli
Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO,LLC

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