Starting Points

What Is Existentialism?

Part Two: Existentialist Themes

In an earlier blog post, I offered an introduction to French existentialism, promising that it was the first of a pair of posts about existentialism. Then I started writing the second post and realized I’d need a third. So this is now the second of three-and-counting entries on existentialism.

In this post, I give a broad-strokes characterization of existentialist thought. In a future post, I’ll give an overview of some of the figures who have been associated with existentialism besides Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom I covered in the first post.

This post breaks down into three main sections. In the first, I offer a kind of warm-up sketch to get the general existential predicament in view. In the second, I show how that sketch feeds into central existential themes of freedom, anxiety, bad faith, and authenticity. And in the third, I argue that we can understand existentialist ideas as inheritors to earlier religious traditions.

Two points before I begin. First, as we’ll see next time, there’s a lot of diversity among the thinkers associated with existentialism. No general sketch can adequately reflect that diversity. And second, this post is somewhat idiosyncratic and speculative in its approach. This is hardly an encyclopedia entry on existentialism (although if you want one, here are two). Instead, you’re getting my impression of what motivates the thinkers that I’ll treat with greater specificity next time.

A Starting Exercise

The Game of "Why?"

We may not be born existentialists but most of us exhibit a flair for existential questioning in early childhood. I’m thinking of the game of “why?” You probably remember it. As children learn the language-game of “why?” and “because,” it dawns on them that every “because” answer can be met with a further “why?”

– What are you doing?

– I’m doing my taxes.

– Why?

– Because I don’t want to get in trouble with the government.

– Why?

– Because I don’t want to go to jail.

– Why?

– Because I like the freedom to move about and go where I please.

– Why?

Like a natural philosopher, the child’s questioning pushes her interlocutor from the mundane drudgery of paperwork to deep questions about freedom and purpose.

The child’s questioning also occasions an important discovery: there’s no principled end point at which the questioning stops. Eventually the grown-up might get exasperated and end the questioning with a “just because,” but even the grown-up knows this answer is unsatisfactory.

In your day-to-day activities, the "because" seems obvious and the need to ask "why?" seems faint. As you dig deeper, this pattern inverts.
Digging Deeper

Picture your life as a series of nested answers to the question “why?” At the top, there are those day-to-day activities of work, errands, leisure, friends, family, and so on. Beneath that top level are a range of practical identities that explain those activities. You go to work each day because you have a job: you’re a contractor, an engineer, a banker, a tour guide. Notice that we’ve shifted from verbs to nouns. The identity as a tour guide (noun) explains your activity of leading a tour (verb). Likewise, non-work activities relate to other identities: you’re a mother, a cycling enthusiast, a member of a book club, Andy’s friend.

You can explain the day-to-day activities in terms of these identities. Each is a natural “because” to a lot of the “why?” questions about why you’re doing the thing you’re doing right now. But why do you have these identities? Why did you choose to be a tour guide, have children, befriend Andy?

Now we’re in murkier territory. The “because” answers might be more tentative. They might point toward deep tendencies in our character, our particular talents, or perhaps pure happenstance. But as we dig deeper, the shape of our lives starts to seem more mysterious.

Uncanny Groundlessness

You might notice a curious inversion as you conduct this exercise. At the surface of our lives, the “because” is clear and confident and the “why?” is faint. I know why I’m going grocery shopping and I’m not particularly inclined to question it. But as I dig deeper into my motivational structure, the “because” loses its confidence and the “why?” starts to feel more urgent. I’m not really sure why I chose to go to graduate school but it’s shaped a lot of what I’ve become in the time since.

For the most part, we don’t dig too deep into this motivational structure. As a result, we live in a world of clear becauses and faint whys. But when we start digging, the whys become more urgent. What’s more, as the young child discovers, the whys don’t bottom out in any definitive because.

There’s a powerful need to feel our life choices are justified but no ultimately compelling justification is forthcoming. Whatever our life choices—however conventional or unconventional—the existentialist sees them bottoming out in an uncanny groundlessness.

Existentialist Themes

The Scream by Edvard Munch is sometimes interpreted as an expression of existential anxiety (source: WIkimedia Commons)
Freedom and Anxiety

The recognition of the groundlessness of our lives can give rise to a twinned pair of responses: awareness of radical freedom and anxiety.

Radical freedom is the discovery that no absolutely compelling because can tell me what I should do. I may have all sorts of reasons to do or not to do certain things—ranging from a sense of obligation to commitments I’ve made to basic morality—but none of these reasons dictate what I must do. Going against those reasons might come at a considerable cost, but it would be disingenuous (a point I’ll return to shortly) to claim that I couldn’t do otherwise. I can—I’m just unwilling to pay the cost of doing so.

One reason I might feel compelled to follow a certain path is that not doing so might undermine an identity I hold dear. Sure, I could drop everything and travel around the world for a year but then I’d lose my job. If I were willing to live in poverty I could escape the rat race of chasing money just to keep up—but then I’d lose a social standing that’s important to me.

The point of recognizing your radical freedom isn’t that you should chuck everything away but to recognize that you have the choice. If you choose to continue in the life you have, you should recognize that as a choice and not as a simple default or something you have to do.

We normally think of being free as a positive experience. But in the existentialist framework, it’s a fraught one. This life full of choices is burdensome and disorienting. Any confidence that you’re on the “right” path is shattered. The experience of freedom takes the form of anxiety.

I’ve written about existential anxiety in a public forum elsewhere. Unlike its clinical variant, existential anxiety isn’t straightforwardly a bad thing or something we should want to be cured of. Think of it instead as a door opening onto a world you didn’t know existed. It can be dazzling and bewildering. You might want to slam the door shut and go back to life as it was. Or you can step through the door and begin to explore. I’ll explore each of those two options in turn.

Bad Faith

The default response to an anxious confrontation with freedom is to run from it. Faced with an unanswerable “why?” there’s a strong temptation to fall back on a dogmatic “because.” One of the prime targets of existentialist critique is bourgeois conformity. This is the mindset of the person who has the spouse and 2.5 children, the middle-class career, reads the right newspapers, holds the right opinions—because that’s what “one” does. Martin Heidegger writes about the conformist pressure of this “one.” In answer to the big “why?” questions, the default answer is to defer to the thoughts, decisions, and actions that conform to the prevailing social norms.

Sartre says this kind of conformity manifests bad faith. The attraction of doing what “one” does is that it doesn’t feel like a choice. The person who defers to social norms is making a choice—given all the possible options, I choose to do the thing that most people around me are doing—but acts as if it isn’t a choice. And because it doesn’t feel like a choice, you face none of the anxiety that comes with taking responsibility for that choice being the one that you choose, from among the dizzying variety of alternatives.

Although existentialist philosophers like to target bourgeois conformity, it’s important to recognize that the object of existentialist critique isn’t a certain set of choices but the structure of those choices. The problem with choosing to prioritize career stability over pursuing your passions isn’t that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that choice. The problem, if there is a problem, is your reason for making that choice. If you choose career stability simply because everyone around you is doing that, and you dismiss those passions as youthful fantasies that aren’t befitting of adult responsibilities, then you’re choosing in bad faith. But if you recognize the pull of both career stability and a passionate life and choose the career in full anxious awareness of what you’re giving up as a result, that choice can be an authentic one.

Søren Kierkegaard proposes that his knight of faith—one version of his idea of an existentialist hero—could to all the world seem like a simple shopkeeper. The mark of authenticity isn’t some outward marker of lifestyle but the nature of one’s inner commitments.


“Knight of faith” is a very particular piece of Kierkegaardian terminology—as the Übermensch or overman is distinctively Nietzschean. A more general term that describes a person who takes responsibility for their choices is authenticity. An authentic person recognizes that their choices are their own, and takes ownership of those choices. The “because” that ultimately answers their “why?” questions is found in themselves, and not in popular opinion, divine authority, or the laws of nature.

Authentic choices are individuating. When I choose authentically, I’m choosing in a way that’s uniquely my own. As a result, those choices define me. That makes my choices more burdensome. I’m not following the default option of the crowd but forging my own way. And if those choices are unimaginative or selfish or reckless or hurtful, I can’t excuse them by saying I had no choice or that everybody was doing it. I have to accept full responsibility for those choices.

Again, recall that authenticity isn’t a matter of what you choose but the spirit in which you choose it. A person might choose to be a stockbroker authentically or inauthentically. If you ask an inauthentic stockbroker why she’s a stockbroker, she might talk about the importance of investments, climbing the property ladder, and staying ahead in “the game.” If you ask an authentic stockbroker why she’s a stockbroker, the reasons she gives will bottom out in choices that she recognizes as defining her in her unique individuality.

The "Ethics" of Authenticity

From this account of authenticity, a kind of ethics emerges. I say “a kind of ethics” because a lot of existentialist philosophers deny that they’re formulating an ethics. Because the existentialist outlook emphasizes radical freedom, it would be contrary to its spirit to prescribe a set of principles. So you won’t find anything like a set of principles to live by in existentialism. But the ideas we’ve encountered so far point to a certain set of values.

You can see how courage might matter to an existentialist. Freedom is scary—or rather anxiety-inducing—and an authentic individual resists the temptation to follow familiar paths, instead taking responsibility for her own choices. Thinking for yourself also requires imagination and creativity, which might explain why existentialist themes have been so attractive to many artists. Existentialism is also highly individualistic. Authenticity is a matter of taking responsibility for yourself in your uniqueness and not following along with the crowd.

Existentialism and/as Religion

Existentialism in this broader sense is generally said to begin with Kierkegaard in the 1840s. I think it’s not a coincidence that this movement arose at a time of religious crisis. In concluding this post, I want to advance a speculative claim. Existentialism arose to fill a void left by traditional religiosity.

Ethics or Something Else?

At the end of the last section, I indicated the problem with describing existentialism as providing us with anything like an ethics. The whole point of the existentialist idea of radical freedom is precisely not to tell you what to do. But I suggested that we can see certain values implicit in the notion of authenticity. So what’s going on here?

This is a topic of some scholarly debate. Some scholars see authenticity as representing a kind of highest value, in the same way that Plato once gave a supreme valuation to the good. Others see authenticity not as a value in its own right but as a kind of “meta-value”: it’s only in living authentically that you can be said to properly embrace values of your own. Others still insist that authenticity is essentially amoral and can point equally to good or to evil.

My own sense is that we’re asking the wrong question when we ask about how authenticity relates to ethical ideals. We should instead ask how authenticity relates to religious ideals. And to make sense of that, I first need to say something about nihilism.


Nihilism is one of those fancy-sounding terms—much like existentialism—that attracts much attention from moody young men. Existentialism and nihilism have a close relation to one another but the relation is almost entirely opposite from the common understanding.

Take Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher most associated with nihilism. I’ve heard more than one person express their understanding that Nietzsche was a nihilist. In fact, the opposite is true. Nietzsche saw nihilism as the gravest danger facing contemporary Europe and took his philosophy to be a bulwark against it.

Nietzsche is famous for proclaiming the death of God but the proclamation was far from triumphant. Christianity, as Nietzsche saw it, led to a dead end. It preached an abnegation of the will. Any kind of striving or self-assertion was seen as contrary to the spirit of Christian humility. As Nietzsche saw it, this spirit of self-denial would ultimately turn in on itself. Modern atheism wasn’t a rejection of Christianity so much as a fulfillment of this spirit of self-denial. Atheism seemed to him just the most extreme expression of Protestant austerity.

Nietzsche drew a portrait of the nihilist that he called the “last man”—and it closely fits the model of inauthenticity I sketched above. The last man seeks mediocre contentment, relinquishing any positive aspirations—a nineteenth century couch potato, if you will.

This was the danger Nietzsche saw in the death of God. If we stopped believing in God but had no positive alternatives, human existence would just sink into meaninglessness.

Meaning and Narrative

Nietzsche’s worry about meaninglessness gives us an alternative way of thinking about the value of authenticity. It’s not about finding value in the ethical dimension but about finding meaning in life.

A meaningful life is different from an ethically upstanding or a happy one. It’s easy to think of any number of artists, scientists, or explorers who led lives rich in meaning but who were themselves amoral or even morally monstrous. A failed revolutionary or social justice campaigner might not enjoy an especially happy life but their lives are filled with purpose. Likewise, being morally good your whole life doesn’t guarantee a meaningful life.

Meaning differs from happiness or goodness as a value in that it typically has a narrative dimension. The lives we describe as meaningful are the lives we can tell stories about. There’s drama and aspiration, success and failure, a trajectory that reaches toward a goal. Each of us wants to be the hero of our own story. But that means there needs to be a story to tell.

Even more than providing a basis for ethics, I think, religion has traditionally provided a basis for meaning. All the world’s religions fit a human life within a broader narrative. Figures like Christ or the Buddha provide models for how a righteous person ought to live. Those lives are themselves filled with drama—consider Christ’s Passion or the Buddha’s trajectory from coddled prince to naked ascetic. But they also set a trajectory for our own lives. We can trace the ups and downs of our own lives in terms of how we approach or deviate from the religious ideal. Pilgrimage is a common feature in many religions because religion figures life itself as a kind of journey toward a goal.

Existentialism as Secular Religion

The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century challenged the old certainties of religion. Enlightenment thinkers sought to replace dogma and superstition with reason and a scientific understanding of the world. But in doing so, they also dislodged the central pillar of meaning in many people’s lives.

One way to understand existentialism is as an attempt to find meaning in a world that’s lost its faith. There’s no going back to pre-Enlightenment religiosity—on that both Christian and non-Christian existentialists are agreed. But they also agree that we can’t live flourishing lives without a sense of meaning.

Where do we find meaning if not in religion? What narratives do we turn to if not the narratives of faith? You make up your own. A central feature of the think-for-yourself outlook of existentialism is that our lives are our own to make what we will of them. In this respect, the individualism of existentialism seeks to replace a collective narrative about the meaning of our lives with a personal one.

Franz Stuck, Sisyphus (1920) (source: Wikimedia Commons). The myth of Sisyphus, condemned eternally to roll a boulder up a hill, became the central image in Albert Camus's treatment of the absurd.
The Absurd

To conclude, let’s go back to that game of “why?” There once was a time when most people were content with religious answers as the ultimate “because” to our “why?” questions. A central feature of existentialism that I noted above is the conviction that the whys go deeper than the becauses.

How does making up your own sense of purpose resolve this issue? Well, it doesn’t. A common theme in existentialist thought is that, in making up your own “because,” you’re not settling anything. Instead, you forge ahead with a keen awareness that, from a cosmic perspective, your life choices are arbitrary and groundless. In that respect, an authentic life is absurd. You live as if your choices matter—even though you know that, ultimately, they don’t.

Everything I’ve written here has been in broad strokes. In my next post, I’ll look at some specific thinkers to whom the label of existentialism has attached. There are commonalities between them but the differences are at least as important.

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