What is existentialism?

Existentialism, as the name suggests, is the philosophy of existence. The focus of existentialism is on the most profound existential questions you can ask yourself – and which everyone will ask themselves at some point in their lives: What does it mean to be alive? How do I deal with it? Is life worth living? How can I live a meaningful, fulfilling life?

Like many philosophies (and religions for that matter), existentialism addresses the question how to live. However, if you are looking for clear answers and a coherent set of rules to live by, you will not find them in existentialist philosophy.

Contrary to religion and many philosophies existentialism does not provide one clear answer to the question how to live. Nor does it provide a set of rules to live by or guidelines on how to live a good life. It doesn’t say ‘you must do this’ or ‘don’t do that’.

Existentialists don’t believe there is such a thing as an ultimate manual for life that provides all the answers. Existentialism is more like a set of shared principles, a number of more or less coherent views about existence that existentialists agree on. About many other things, they may very well differ.

(Some existentialists are of the opinion that there isn’t such a thing as an existentialist school of thought, precisely because it’s not a coherent vision on how to live. I, however, do believe there is a philosophy of existence we can call existentialism.)

Existentialism is not an easy philosophy to live by. Nor is it a comforting philosophy. Existentialism doesn’t provide a safe and solid foundation on which you can rely. Existentialism calls on you to have the courage to face the rather harsh facts of existence. It’s a confrontational philosophy.

So what does existentialism entail? Existentialism revolves around a number of key concepts, which I will try to explain below.

#1 Meaning

Existentialists acknowledge that people want to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. They want to make sense of the world and the universe, know why they are here, what it all means and what to do with their life. Maybe you have asked yourself the same questions. What’s the point of all this?

The thing is, existentialists believe, there is no point. The universe wasn’t created by a god with a masterplan in mind. (Existentialists don’t believe in the existence of a god or gods, so they are atheists by definition.) The world is contingent and so is your existence.

We live in an indifferent universe devoid of meaning and purpose. Life itself has no inherent meaning either, it has no predetermined purpose. This caused French writer Albert Camus to say that “life is absurd” ; human beings crave meaning – and the universe doesn’t provide one.

The realization that life has no inherent meaning is quite an unsettling thought. This is called ‘existential anxiety’: the uneasy feeling you get when you realize life is meaningless and your life has no purpose.

So is a completely meaningless life all that remains? No. human beings need a sense of meaning to stay afloat. But you are the creator of that meaning. Central to existentialist philosophy is the idea that you have to create your own meaning. Life only has the meaning you choose to give it.

If you are looking for the meaning of life, you can stop looking. You’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking ‘what is the meaning of life?’, ask the better question: ‘what does it mean to be alive?’

#2 Freedom

According to existentialists, there is no ‘reason’ why we exist. Our lives have no purpose and no meaning of their own. We are not born with a predetermined future or role to fulfill in life. There is nothing you are ‘meant to do’.

This is why existentialists say that human beings have no essence. We are no fixed entities. Your self is always changing, with everything you experience, with every choice you make. Our essence is something we shape ourselves. That is what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre means by “existence precedes essence.” You are not born with meaning or purpose, that comes later. You must develop them on your own.

Not defined by an essence, you are free to take matters into your own hand and choose from the options that are open to you. As a human being you create your own essence by exercising your freedom and choosing who you want to be. That is how you create meaning and live a fulfilling, authentic life.

Life only has the meaning you choose to give it.

Now this brings us to another aspect of existentialist philosophy. Existentialists believe that as a human being you are fundamentally free to make your own choices and by doing so shape your life. You are a self-determining being: you become who you are by the choices you make.

There is no escaping that freedom and making choices. You are, in the words of Sartre, “condemned” to it. Everything you do is a choice. In fact, you have to choose. Not choosing is not an option. After all, not choosing is still a choice.

So you are free to live your life the way you want. Of course, existentialists acknowledge that this freedom is not unlimited. Existence is always situated: it is always connected by the era, place and circumstances that you find yourself living in.

Not everything that happens to you is a choice. However, the message of existentialism is that in every situation you are free to make your own choices, within the possibilities that the situation offers. You choose how to interpret the situation and how to react to the situation.

The options that you can choose from may vary, but there are always options open to you. And therefor, says Sartre, you always have a choice and therefore you are always free.

According to existentialism, this freedom of choice even applies to the most fundamental choice we face: living itself. It was Albert Camus who said the most fundamental question in philosophy is whether life is worth living. If you decide it’s not, there is always the option of ending it.

From the moment we are born, one thing is certain: one day we will die. There is no escaping that. Life is temporary. Existentialists are always aware of their own mortality as a basic fact of life. They don’t believe in an afterlife, in heaven or hell, or in reincarnation. You only get to live once. You get only one shot. This is it.

And with this in mind you choose how you want to live your life. And if you want to live it in the first place. Choosing the way you want to live your life is something you do, realizing that death is always an option. It will come at the end of your life, or by your own choosing.

#3 Responsibility

Another key aspect of existentialism is the notion of responsibility. For existentialists, freedom always comes with responsibility. You have to take responsibility for your own life and for the choices you make. It’s your life, and you have to live it. Only you can decide how you want to live an authentic life that provides you with a sense of meaning.

Living your life in the existentialist way is not choosing the easy and safe way. It does not involve simply going with the flow. It means takings responsibility, living in a deliberate way, making conscious choices, acting intentionally and asking critical questions.

Existentialists are not conformists, blindly following the crowd. As will be clear by now, existentialists believe it’s up to you to figure out which path in life you choose to follow. Living the existentialist way is creating your own unique individuality.

An existentialist is not a sheep in the herd, following whatever rules for life they are told. Existentialism stimulates you to leave the herd and take on the responsibility of being – being yourself.

#4 Authenticity

For existentialists, the only way to deal with the absurdity of an existence devoid of meaning is to live authentically. Meaning to live you way you want and become who you want to be. Living authentically also means that you are in the driver’s seat yourself – not somebody else. You are in control of your own live and you take full responsibility for who you are and what you do.

For existentialists, being authentic is not something you are, but something you strive for. You live authentically when you become who you want to be through the choices you make. You make plans, set goals, start projects, striving to create a purposeful and fulfilling life that is meaningful to you.

The opposite is inauthenticity, or what Sartre calls “bad faith.” Inauthenticity is the denial of the fact that you are fundamentally free and deliberately avoiding the responsibility that comes with it. It’s inauthentic to say you do things the way you do because that’s the way you have always done. It’s inauthentic to say you believe things because that’s what you have been told. It’s inauthentic to live your life the way other people do, because ‘that’s what one does’.

You and only you are ultimately responsible for the way you engage with the world. Authenticity is an expression of your unique individuality. This makes existentialism an individual, highly personal philosophy. You have to face the facts of existence and deal with them yourself, no one can do that for you. This is called ‘existential loneliness’.

(Existentialism should not be confused with nihilism. A nihilist believes in nothing, nothing has value or meaning. For a nihilist, life is empty, hopeless and hopeless. An existentialist, like the nihilist, recognizes that ultimately nothing has meaning, but does not accept that and tries to give his own life meaning and purpose.)

So these are the main principles and concepts of existentialism. They have an effect on everything else, from your everyday choices to all the other existential questions in life. Many of the essays and musing on this website will in some way be related to existentialist philosophy. I hope existentialism can be a guiding philosophy in your life too.

Further reading: Funny as it sounds, but Existentialism for dummies by Christopher Panza and Gregory Gale is actually a very good introduction to existentialist philosophy. Other options would be How to be an existentialist by Gary Cox, or Understand existentialism by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson, but there are many other books and publications about existentialist philosophy worth reading.