Year of creation

The current in philosophy was formed in Europe in the XIX – XX centuries. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were the first to turn to existentialism in their writings.

Mass media about existentlism

Being a cultural phenomenon no less than a current in philosophy, existentialism has a noticeable impact on literature, popular culture and even socio-political discourse.

In the XX century, existentialism developed in the works of German (Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers) and French (Gabriel-Honoré Marcel, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre) philosophers and writers.


The main position of existentialism is the postulate that existence precedes essence. Within the framework of this concept, it is argued that people themselves make decisions about actions and the meaning of life guided by circumstances and not by a rational system. Given the absence of any higher power, free choice is the fundamental principle. Great importance in existentialism is attached to fear as a positive stimulus that encourages human activity and gives an opportunity to abstractly assess one’s being.

Existentialism was formed as an antithesis to classical schools of thought seeking to define the structure and order of the world order.

Defining Features of Existentialism:

  • the categories of the absurdity of being, fear, despair, loneliness, suffering, death are put  at the forefront;
  • the individual must resist society, the state, the environment hostile to the “other”, because they all impose their will, morality, their interests and ideals on the person;
  • the concepts of alienation and absurdity are interrelated and mutually conditioned in the literary works of existentialists;
  • existentialists see the highest value of life in the freedom of the individual;
  • human existence is interpreted as a drama of freedom;
  • most often in works of fiction, the method of narration from the first person is used.
  • In the works of fiction, existentialists seek to understand the true causes of the tragic disorder of human life.

Existentialism emphasizes that a person is responsible for his actions only when they act freely, have freedom of will, choice and means of their implementation. The forms of manifestation of human freedom are creativity, risk, the search for the meaning of life, play, etc.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher and theologian, the founder of existentialism. He wrote on the topics of organized religion, Christianity, morality, ethics, psychology and philosophy of religion in a language full of metaphors, irony and hyperbole. Most of his philosophical works are devoted to the consideration of how a person lives as a “single individual”, focusing more on the concrete reality of human life than on abstract thinking and emphasizing the importance of personal choice and devotion.

In contrast to the German classical philosophy, striving for objectivity, Kierkegaard was interested in the subjective attitude of the individual to Jesus Christ, which comes with faith. A significant part of his works is devoted to Christian love. At the same time, he was very critical of the organized state religion, especially the state Danish Church.

At the beginning of his work, Kierkegaard published under pseudonyms, presenting different views on the same topic and arranging a dialogue with himself. His works were written in Danish and during his lifetime were little known outside of Scandinavia. At the beginning of the XX century, translations into various European languages appeared, and by the middle of the century his works had already had a significant impact on European philosophy.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) a Russian writer and publicist whose works reflect the human condition in various social, religious and philosophical contexts. One of the greatest novelists in world literature, Dostoevsky had a noticeable influence on the works of Nietzsche, Sartre and many other writers and thinkers.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) a German philosopher, psychologist and classical philologist, a representative of irrationalism. He was often considered the inspiration for philosophical and literary existentialism, and later postmodernism. In many ways, his views are difficult to understand in any systematic form. It is perhaps impossible to talk about Nietzsche’s holistic teaching – his work has been and remains the subject of heated debate.

Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) a German philosopher and psychiatrist, one of the founders of existentialism, doctor of medicine, doctor of psychology, professor of psychology and philosophy. Member of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences. Jaspers was the first to introduce the term “Existential Philosophy”.

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) a French novelist, philosopher, publicist, one of the leaders of the philosophical and artistic directions of existentialism. Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.

Gabriel Honoré Marcel (1889 – 1973) a French philosopher, playwright and musician.

Marcel converted to Catholicism in 1929, his philosophy was later called “Christian existentialism” (the most famous mention was in Sartre’s work “Existentialism is Humanism”) – a term that Marcel himself at first approved, but later rejected. In addition to numerous philosophical works, he authored more than thirty dramatic works.

Jean–Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) a French philosopher, playwright, and writer. Sartre was one of the most famous and influential thinkers of his time. In the works of Sartre, literary and philosophical views are amalgamated. In his early philosophical writings, he focuses on emotions, imagination, and the nature of personality.

In the second half of the XX century, existentialism became essentially a genre component in literature, cinema, and even fine art, so most modern writers, cinematographers and other cultural figures explore the ideas and motives of this philosophy in their works. 


Existentialism is criticized by both religious movements and Marxists, both sides accuse existentialism of manifesting human baseness and the “darkest” sides of man, at the same time the “lightest” in man remains in the shadows.


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