What Is Existentialism?

Part One: French Existentialism

“What sort of philosophy are you interested in?” I take a wicked pleasure in telling people I like Wittgenstein. I can watch their faces contort as they try to figure out how even to spell the name out in their heads.

Existentialism, by contrast, is an easy one. Everyone’s heard of it and it immediately conjures up images of gloomy turtlenecked intellectuals smoking Gitanes on the Rive Gauche. Just what you want for an emblem of twentieth-century philosophy.

Beyond the cliché, saying what existentialism is gets a bit trickier. What thinkers fall under the heading of “existentialism” is itself a tangled question, never mind what they thought, or what it is about that thought that marks it as “existentialist.”

This blog post won’t clear all of that up. But, in keeping with the “starting points” label, it will offer a few starting points. This post will focus on French existentialism, a movement primarily associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In a subsequent post I’ll consider the broader range of thinkers who have come to be associated with existentialism. [Update: in between, I’ve written a second post outlining some of the central themes of existentialism.]

The Origins of "Existentialism"

The philosopher Gabriel Marcel is generally credited with coining “existentialism” in its now-familiar form. He used the term in 1943 to describe the philosophical outlook of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which had been published earlier that year. He was probably inspired by the term Existenzphilosophie coined by Karl Jaspers to characterize the confrontation with limitless freedom that he considered central to the thought of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kierkegaard used the terms “existential” and “condition of existence” in his writings in the 1840s.

Jaspers rejected “existentialism” as a term to describe his thought. So, too, did Martin Heidegger, who touched on many similar themes. Albert Camus, a sometime friend and associate of Sartre’s, also denied that he was an existentialist. Even Sartre rejected the label when Marcel ascribed it to him, saying “My philosophy is a philosophy of existence; I don’t even know what existentialism is.” But by 1945, Sartre had embraced the term and gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Sartre and his partner Beauvoir were the only two thinkers who ever accepted the term as describing their thought. So it’s with them that we should begin.

Freedom and Choice

Condemned to Be Free

The existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir took shape in occupied France during the Second World War. This was a time when ordinary people faced extraordinary choices. To resist the Nazi occupation was to risk torture and death. To collaborate meant siding with a brutal occupying power and betraying your fellow citizens. A natural response when the Gestapo presses you into naming names or when your friends risk their lives to help you and expect you to respond in kind is, “I had no choice.”

But you always have a choice, says Sartre. There’s no escaping that freedom to choose. Even if you just follow along with what everyone else is doing, you’re still making the choice to follow the crowd. If you blindly follow the advice of a mentor or teacher, you chose who to turn to for advice and you chose to accept that advice uncritically. If you allow a coin toss to determine your every move, you still chose that decision procedure. You don’t get to choose whether or not to make choices. As Sartre memorably puts it, we are condemned to be free.

Subjectivity and Free Will

Sartre might seem to be taking an extreme, even untenable, position with regard to the problem of free will. I’m subject to all sorts of forces beyond my control, both external and internal. Recent research in the psychology of decision-making might seem to invalidate Sartre’s position. There’s reason to think that choice is often an illusion: the reasons we give for our choices are often rationalizations of decisions that were already made beneath the level of conscious awareness.

Responding to this criticism helps to highlight the emphasis Sartre places on subjectivity. The results of empirical psychology are irrelevant to the kind of argument Sartre wants to make. He’s not interested in what a neuroscientist might detect on a brain scan as we deliberate about what to do. He’s interested in what that deliberation is like from the inside. Sartre’s account of our radical freedom isn’t an explanation of human psychology or the laws of the universe. It’s a description of the experience of being human.

Existence and Essence

Unicorns have an essence even though they don't exist (image credit: Freepik)
"Existence Precedes Essence"

Underlying this description of the experience of freedom is a particular idea about human nature—namely that there’s no such thing. We are what we do—no more and no less. In every choice that I make, I’m also making a choice about the person that I am. Every choice that I make is a contribution, small or large, to the unfolding story about who I am and what my life means to me. In choosing to prioritize family over career, or vice versa, I’m deciding to be a family man or a careerist. In choosing a latte or an Americano, I’m also making a declaration, however small, of the kind of understanding I have of what matters to me and why.

Sartre gives technical expression to this idea in the slogan, “existence precedes essence.” Existence and essence are two different ways of talking about being. If I say that all horses have four legs, I’ve said something about what a horse is—that it’s a creature with four legs—which is a description of its essence. If I say that there’s a horse in my kitchen, I’ve said that a particular horse is in a particular place, which is a statement about its existence. Existence and essence are sometimes characterized as that-being and what-being, respectively.

Since at least the Middle Ages, philosophers have noticed that these two kinds of being can be distinguished. I can talk about the essence of a unicorn—I can say that it has the shape of a horse but also a horn in the middle of its forehead—even though unicorns don’t exist. No one has ever encountered a unicorn but because we know what a unicorn is, we’d know one if we saw one.

Human Transcendence

Unicorns have an essence even though they don’t exist. Their essence precedes their existence, since I can characterize their essence without saying anything about whether any exist. Humans are unique in that the reverse is true: our existence precedes our essence. We become what we are through the choices that we make. And we exist before we start making choices.

But surely we can characterize human beings the way that I just characterized horses and unicorns. I can say things about humans having two legs, opposable thumbs, belonging to the family of great apes, and so on. So how are humans different?

These descriptions would indeed characterize the essence of the animal organism Homo sapiens. But humankind transcends its animal nature, according to Sartre. We are more than just animals precisely because we aren’t simply conditioned by our nature. This point returns us to the earlier discussion of choice. My animal nature may indeed give me strong inclinations to do certain things—to concern myself with my social status, for instance, or to seek sexual partners—but it’s still up to me whether and in what way to pursue those inclinations. I can also resist my biological urges. If I don’t, I’ve chosen to be the kind of person who doesn’t resist his biological urges. That, too, is my choice.

Fleeing Freedom: Bad Faith and Anguish

Bad Faith

We are constantly tempted to disown our choices. We give all kinds of different explanations for our actions—everyone else is doing it, my job requires it of me, I’d let down my parents, it’s human nature, that’s just how it’s done—that amount to saying concerning a given choice that it wasn’t a choice at all. Sartre calls these avoidance strategies bad faith.

The most familiar form of bad faith is the kind that denies my transcendence or freedom. I make a choice and then deny that it was me that made the choice, and thereby disown my responsibility for the choice. A second form of bad faith denies the implications of my choices. Sure, I’ve consistently pursued career advancement at the cost of time with my family, but I still insist that I’m a family man. If my choices make me what I am then a consistent pattern of choices reveals my essence. To insist otherwise is to speak in bad faith.

The Scream by Edvard Munch: a classic expression of existential anguish

Why do we do this? No one wants to act in bad faith. Sartre diagnoses bad faith as a recoil in the face of our radical freedom. The fear we feel when we confront our freedom he calls anguish. (The term is angoisse in French and is closely related to what Kierkegaard and Heidegger call angst. These latter terms are normally translated as “anxiety.” I give a more detailed treatment of existential anxiety here.)

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre gives a compelling pair of examples to illustrate his concept of anguish. The first is vertigo before a precipice. That dizzy feeling some of us get when looking over a cliff—that isn’t a fear that we might slip and fall but a fear that we might throw ourselves off. Not that we have a strong desire to jump—quite the contrary. But we recognize palpably at that precipice what is true at every moment of our lives: no matter what we’ve resolved on in the here and now, nothing prevents us at the next moment from radically undermining that resolve. This is the essence of radical freedom. At every moment we’re free to rewrite our life story.

The vertigo example concerns anguish directed toward the future: nothing that I resolve on now can determine what I will do next. Sartre’s second example of a gambling addict concerns anguish directed toward the past. The gambling addict has resolved to overcome his addiction. He will never gamble again. But then he sees the gaming table and feels himself pulled toward it, even against what he thought was his own will. In that moment he realizes that his past resolve has no power to constrain what he does in the present.

Freedom is a burden. It means we don’t get to coast or run on auto-pilot. It makes us infinitely responsible for the life that we’re leading. Honestly confronting the scope of this freedom induces anguish. And the natural response to anguish is to deny this freedom and escape into bad faith.

Existentialist Ethics

No Straightforward Answers

So how should we live? On one hand, existentialism confronts this question more frontally than maybe any other modern philosophical movement—this is central to its popularity and enduring appeal. On the other hand, Sartre and Beauvoir resolutely refuse to give a straight answer to this question.

They have principled reasons for this refusal. To give instructions on how to live would go directly counter to the idea of radical freedom at the heart of existentialism. You’re free to choose the person you will be. Existentialism is sometimes criticized for its amoralism since even moral precepts don’t constrain this freedom.

Choosing Our Choices

The question, then, is how a philosophy of radical freedom can give us any guidance at all. The answer Sartre and Beauvoir give is at what we might call a second-order level of practical reflection. There’s the first-order level of what I should do and how I should live and to these questions Sartre and Beauvoir insist that things are up to us. But then there’s a second-order level of how we come to terms with these choices. And on this second-order level we can be more or less honest about the nature of these choices. To act in bad faith, denying our responsibility for what we do, or denying what our choices have made of us, is dishonest. To own up to this responsibility is to be honest with ourselves about our freedom.

But what do I choose? If neither morality nor anything else can tell me what the “right” choice is, does that mean that any one choice is just as good as any other? The existentialist answer is that what makes a choice right is given by an internal standard, not an external one. Suppose I resist the urge to cheat on a test even if it will get me ahead. What would have made cheating wrong in that instance comes from a certain idea of the kind of person I want to be. I’ve decided that I want my public esteem to line up with my actual merits and to cheat on the test would betray that ideal. If I cheated on the test, I’d be cheating myself.

What my actions mean depends on the spirit in which I do them. Beauvoir argues that our choices aren’t absurd—in the sense of being unconstrained by any sense of right or wrong—but ambiguous. The same action can mean different things depending on the self-understanding that accompanies it.


Both Sartre and Beauvoir think that existentialism also has a bearing on our dealings with one another. We’re social being and make sense of our lives in our relations with others. That also means that who we are is hostage to the perceptions of others—in Sartre’s jargon, we are being-for-others. I might like to think of myself as a rock star but if no one wants to hear me play music then I’m only a rock star in my own imagination.

It’s understandable, then, that we might care deeply what others make of us. But we also have to accept that we can’t control the responses of others. Their responses matter precisely because, like us, they’re free. To want to control their responses is to ask the impossible: that a free being be entirely subject to your wishes. Honest and mature interpersonal relations begin with respect for the freedom of others.

Sartre and Beauvoir on Love

For Sartre, this paradox of wanting to control the responses of a free individual is especially acute when it comes to love. We want our lovers to be faithful, we want love to last, we want some kind of guarantee against waning love and roving eyes. Marriage vows essentially encapsulate those wishes, with the couple pledging lifelong fidelity to one another. But pledges and guarantees run counter to the freedom that makes love worth having in the first place.

Beauvoir is less pessimistic than Sartre about the possibility of love. She agrees that love between free beings can never come with guarantees. But rather than seeing this as a recipe for perpetual insecurity she sees in it an opportunity for mutual growth, if only both partners will take it. The wish to control the responses of another manifests a failure to respect that other person’s freedom.

Sartre and Beauvoir strove to live their ideals. Although they remained attached to one another for the duration of their lives, they never married and each openly consented to the other having other lovers.

The Second Sex

The Exclusion of Women

Sartre was politically engaged but in a lot of his philosophical writings he can sound as if he’s characterizing the human condition as such. Beauvoir was much more sensitive to the ways in which particular social and political situations shape our lives. Most notably, she offered a detailed and powerful analysis of the status of women in mid-twentieth century Europe in The Second Sex, which went on to exercise considerable influence on second-wave feminism.

Western philosophy has traditionally been a male-dominated discipline and the same men who aspire to make universal statements about human nature tend to exclude women from sharing in that nature. Where “mankind” is rational, creative, capable of abstract thinking, “woman” tends toward the irrational, the conventional, and the concrete.

The Social Construction of Gender

In keeping with the spirit of Sartre’s slogan, “existence precedes essence,” Beauvoir famously writes, “One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” On Beauvoir’s analysis, “woman” isn’t a biological category but a socially constructed role. A woman who accepts this socially constructed role is in bad faith, allowing prevailing social norms to tell her who she is. Beauvoir insists on women’s essential freedom but also acknowledges the powerful social forces that inhibit women’s flourishing.

The Second Sex introduces ideas that remain important to this day. For her insistence that the concept of “woman” is socially constructed, Beauvoir is sometimes credited with originating the distinction between sex (which is a biological category) and gender (which is a socially constructed one).

Further Reading

Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is often taken to be the central text of French existentialism. It’s also very long and written in a dense and difficult style. More accessible is his essay, “What Is Existentialism?” which provides a helpful introduction to existentialism. A collection of Sartre’s essays has been published by NYRB Classics.

Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity is her most famous articulation of existentialism. Less well-known but highly readable is her essay, “Pyrrhus and Cineas,” published in a collection of her philosophical writings. Companion volumes collect her political writings and feminist writings. Her most famous work, however, is The Second Sex, which is a groundbreaking existential analysis of the situation of women.

Both Sartre and Beauvoir were adept writers and they explore existentialist themes in fiction as well as in their philosophical writings. Sartre’s novel Nausea and his play No Exit are his most notable literary works. Beauvoir’s novels She Came to Stay and The Mandarins both treat existential themes.

Sarah Bakewell’s book, At the Existentialist Café, offers a lively account of Sartre, Beauvoir, and their circle in mid-twentieth century France. There are also well-regarded biographies of Sartre by Annie Cohen-Solal and of Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick. Gordon Marino’s The Existentialist Survival Guide offers concrete guidance on how to live as an existentialist.

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