Q. Write a detailed note about Existentialism.


Existentialism is a philosophical movement. It focuses on individual freedom, choice, and existence. It emphasizes the unique position of the individual. Each person is a self-determining agent.

They are responsible for the authenticity of their choices and actions. This philosophy delves into themes such as angst, despair, absurdity, and the isolation of the individual experience. It argues that life has no predetermined meaning except what we give it.


Existentialism asserts that the most crucial consideration for individuals is their individuality.

They are independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence“).

It is more important than labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories (“essence“).

The actual life of the individual is their “true essence.” This is opposed to an arbitrarily attributed essence that others might use to define them.

Therefore, existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one’s own convictions are essential. It contrasts the rationalist belief that objective, rational knowledge is sufficient to understand the world.

Origins of Existentialism

The roots of existentialism can be traced back to the 19th century. It began with the works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. They were concerned with individuality and personal responsibility.

Kierkegaard critiqued the dominant philosophical systems of his time. He believed they overlooked the individual. Instead, he focused on the “subjective truth” of human existence.

Nietzsche introduced the idea of the “Übermensch” or “Superman.” This individual transcends the confines of traditional morality to create his own values.

Development and Influence

Existentialism became prominent in the 20th century. It was mainly after World War II. The horrors of the war, the Holocaust, and the dropping of atomic bombs brought a vivid sense of randomness to the world.

Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir explored existentialist ideas during this time. They focused on human freedom and the struggle for ethical integrity in a seemingly indifferent or even hostile universe.

Jean-Paul Sartre is often considered the figurehead of existentialist philosophy. He famously declared that “existence precedes essence.”

It summarises the existentialist belief that humans create their own essence (meaning) through their actions. Sartre argued that humans are fundamentally free.

They are condemned to make choices. This is both a privilege and a burden because we must live with the consequences of our actions.

Characteristics of Existentialism

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom, responsibility, and the subjective nature of human existence. Here are some of the key characteristics that define existentialism:

Existence Precedes Essence: Existentialists believe that existence precedes essence. It means that individuals are not defined by a set of pre-existing concepts or nature but instead create their own essence through actions, decisions, and experiences.

Individuals are responsible for defining themselves and giving meaning to their lives.

Freedom and Choice: A central theme in existentialism is the idea of personal freedom and choice. Existentialists hold that every person has the freedom to make their own decisions and must bear the responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions.

This freedom to choose one’s path in life is both liberating and a source of existential anxiety.

Authenticity: Existentialists emphasize living authentically, which involves acknowledging one’s freedom and responsibility and making choices based on personal conviction rather than conforming to societal expectations or external pressures. Authenticity is the key to a meaningful life.

Absurdity: Another core element of existentialism is the recognition of life’s inherent absurdity. According to this viewpoint, life has no inherent meaning, and the universe is indifferent to human concerns.

This confrontation with the absurd prompts individuals to either create their own meaning or fall into despair.

Angst and Despair: The freedom of choice and the responsibility it entails can lead to feelings of angst and existential dread.

It is especially pronounced in the face of life’s ambiguities and the realization of one’s ultimate freedom. While often viewed negatively, existentialists also consider despair a catalyst for personal growth and self-realization.

Alienation: Existentialism explores the theme of alienation, where individuals feel estranged from the world, others, and sometimes themselves.

This alienation can arise from realizing one’s radical freedom and the differences between personal experiences and the external world.

Existential Crisis and the Encounter with Death: The awareness of mortality plays a significant role in existential philosophy. The inevitability of death forces individuals to confront the meaning of their lives and the choices they make. This existential crisis can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s existence.

Rejection of Rationalism and Systematic Philosophy: Existentialists often reject systematic philosophies and rationalism as they believe these systems fail to capture the complexity and nuances of human existence.

They argue that rational thought alone cannot address the fundamental issues of human life.

Subjectivity: Existentialism focuses on personal perspective and subjectivity. How individuals perceive and interpret their experiences is crucial.

Existentialists assert that objective understanding of the world is limited and that proper understanding comes from personal experience and perspective.

Resistance to Reductionism: Existentialists resist reducing human experiences and emotions to simple explanations. They argue that human existence is too complex to be fully understood through scientific or objective means alone.

Impact on Culture

Existentialism has had a profound impact on various fields. It has influenced literature, theater, film, psychology, and theology. Existential motifs can be found in the works of writers like Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Samuel Beckett.

Existential themes are central to the Theatre of the Absurd. This portrays human life as inherently devoid of meaning, as can be seen in the plays of Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

Existentialism in Literature

Existentialism has had a profound and lasting impact on literature. This philosophical movement has created a vast and diverse body of work. These works look at themes like freedom, isolation, and the search for meaning in a world that often seems indifferent.

Existentialism allows writers to explore the inner lives of their characters deeply. They present stories focusing on personal pain, existential fear, and the quest for genuine living.

 Themes in Existentialist Literature
Search for Meaning

Characters in existentialist literature often struggle with finding meaning in life. In “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre, the main character, Antoine Roquentin, deals with the monotony and repetition of everyday life.

He has episodes of nausea, which disrupt his daily routine and cause him to question his existence. These episodes symbolize his deep crisis about the meaning of life. Roquentin’s journey through existential despair and his attempts to find purpose reflect the broader human condition.

This search for meaning is a critical theme in existentialist literature, highlighting the struggle to find personal significance in an indifferent world.

Alienation and Isolation

Alienation is a recurring theme in existentialist works. In Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning transformed into a giant insect.

This drastic change symbolizes his complete separation from human society and even from his own identity. His family’s horror and rejection of his new form further deepen his sense of isolation.

Alienation in existentialist literature often reflects the individual’s sense of disconnection from society, others, and even themselves.

Gregor’s tragic story underscores the loneliness and estrangement that can arise from an inability to communicate and connect with others.

Freedom and Choice

Existentialist literature strongly emphasizes the burden of freedom. It highlights the overwhelming responsibility that comes with making choices.

In “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, Meursault faces the consequences of his actions after he randomly kills an Arab on the beach. This senseless act, committed without apparent reason or motive, defines his fate and leads to his death sentence.

Meursault’s journey through the legal system and his reflections on his choices illustrate the existential belief that humans are free to make their own decisions but must also accept the consequences.

The theme of freedom and choice is central to existentialist stories, portraying the heavy weight of personal responsibility.


Many existentialist works discuss the absurdity of life. They reflect on how random and unpredictable events can shape human destiny.

In “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted by a distant, unreachable authority. He is never told about his crime or why he is being charged.

This situation shows the absurdity of his predicament as he struggles to understand and navigate an incomprehensible legal system.

The absurdity in existentialist literature often highlights life’s chaotic and irrational aspects, where events do not always follow a logical or just pattern.

Authenticity and Inauthenticity

The struggle between living genuinely and following societal expectations is central to many existentialist stories. In “The Stranger,” Meursault’s indifference to his mother’s death and his refusal to conform to societal norms about mourning place him at odds with society.

His trial and eventual execution are because of his perceived lack of emotion and societal conformity. It leads him to think deeply about the nature of truth, emotion, and societal expectations.

The theme of authenticity is crucial in existentialist works, encouraging individuals to live true to themselves rather than adhering to external pressures.

Prominent Authors and Works

1- Fyodor Dostoevsky

His work “Notes from Underground” features the Underground Man, a character who faces societal norms with defiance and introspection. He struggles with profound isolation and despair, rejecting the rationalist and utopian ideals of his time.

Dostoevsky’s work delves into deep existential themes, examining the conflicts between individual freedom and societal expectations and exploring the complexities of the human psyche.

2- Jean-Paul Sartre

Characters like Antoine Roquentin in “Nausea” face deep crises about life and existence. These crises lead to profound reflections on the nature of being and the creation of personal meaning.

Sartre’s declaration that “existence precedes essence” highlighted through Roquentin’s experiences. Sartre’s works are fundamental to existentialist literature, exploring the idea that individuals must create their own meaning in an indifferent world.

3- Albert Camus

Although Camus did not label himself an existentialist, his characters embody existential themes. In “The Stranger,” Meursault’s indifferent attitude toward life and his embrace of absurdity highlights the existential struggle for authenticity.

Camus’s philosophy of the absurd, particularly his belief that individuals must confront the absurdity of existence without resorting to false hopes or illusions, is central to his work.

“The Myth of Sisyphus” further explores these ideas, suggesting that we must imagine Sisyphus happy as he endlessly pushes his boulder, symbolizing the human struggle against absurdity.

4- Simone de Beauvoir

Her works examine relationships and personal freedom’s ethical and existential sides. In “The Second Sex,” de Beauvoir explores how women’s identities are constructed about men and societal expectations.

She argues for the necessity of individual freedom and authenticity, advocating for women to define themselves rather than otheres define them.

Her existentialist themes are also evident in her novels, such as “She Came to Stay,” which shows the quest for personal freedom.