Some Definitions of Existentialism

existentialism: n. a philosophic theory emphasizing that man is responsible for his own actions and free to choose his development and destiny.

Two short definitions taken from http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/:

The doctrine that existence takes precedence over essence and holding that
man is totally free and responsible for his acts. This responsibility is the source of
dread and anguish that encompass mankind.

- Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition; William Collins Publishers, Inc.; Cleveland, Ohio; 1979

A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual
experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as
unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.

- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition© 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation.


More definitions of varying length:

Existentialism holds that each person exists as an individual in a purposeless universe and that he or she must oppose a hostile environment through the exercise of free will.

Existentialism is a theory stating that man’s individual existence precedes his essence and stresses his responsibility for fashioning his self.

Existentialism is an introspective humanism or theory of man that holds that human existence is not exhaustively describable or understandable in either scientific or idealistic terms and relies upon a phenomenological approach that emphasizes the analysis of critical borderline situations in man’s life and especially such intensely subjective phenomena as anxiety, suffering and feelings of guilt in order to show the need for making decisive choices through a utilization of man’s freedom in an uncertain, contingent and apparently purposeless world.


Existentialism, broadly defined, is a set of philosophical systems concerned with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Because we make choices based on our experiences, beliefs, and biases, those choices are unique to us and made without an objective form of truth. There are no "universal" guidelines for most decisions, existentialists believe. Instead, even trusting science is often a "leap of faith."

Some basic tenets:

Mankind has free will.
Life is a series of choices, creating stress.
Few decisions are without any negative consequences.
Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation.
If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.



Existentialism became influential in the mid-1900s. World War II (1939-1945) gave rise to widespread feelings of despair and of separation from the established order. These feelings led to the idea that people have to create their own values in a world in which traditional values no longer govern. Existentialism insists that choices have to be made arbitrarily by individuals, who thus create themselves, because there are no objective standards to determine choice. The most famous of the Existentialist philosophers is the French author Jean-Paul Sartre.

- World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia © 2001 by World Book, Inc. Ivan Soll, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.



Existentialism, associated with such thinkers as Kirkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre [and Woody Allen], can therefore be seen as an irrationalist revolt against traditional philosophy rejecting epistemology and the attempt to ground human knowledge. Human beings are seen as not solely or primarily knowers, but as entities who care, desire, manipulate, choose and act.

Humans are not detached observers but exist in the world. They are open to the world in a way that things are not, but without Descartes’ intermediary strata of ideas and sensations. Rejecting Descartes' dualism, existentialists are concerned more with Being than with Knowing. Existentialism sees humankind as "thrown into existence;" we make ourselves what we are. Therefore, existentialists don’t propose ethics or a set of rules to live by, but conceive more of a framework for action and choices. There may be no room for notions of good and bad, but they do think about a dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic.


All existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth. They have insisted, accordingly, that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. Thus, the
understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individual agent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning. . . .

Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice. Humanity's primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human
being makes choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choice is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails
commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads.

See: http://www.connect.net/ron/exist.html


A related concept is the idea of Alienation. The following remarks on alienation are taken from an essay on Murakami Haruki that can be found at: http://www.ne.jp/asahi/f-shi/grahamch/essay/essay.html. I thought I would include them with the above definitions of existentialism for your reference.

One source considers alienation to be "Estrangement from other people, society, or work... a blocking or dissociation of a person's feelings, causing the individual to become less effective. The focus here is on the person's problems in adjusting to society. However, some philosophers believe that alienation is inevitably produced by a shallow and depersonalised society."1 Also, from a sociological viewpoint: "Émile Durkheim's anomie, or rootlessness, stemmed from loss of societal and religious tradition..." "...according to Heidegger, mankind has fallen into crisis by taking a narrow, technological approach to the world and by ignoring the larger question of existence."2

Alienation has also been described as: - "estrangement; mental or emotional detachment; the state of not being involved; the critical detachment with which, according to Bertolt Brecht, audience and actors should regard a play, considering action and dialogue and the ideas in the drama without emotional involvement."3

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say: "Alienation, in social sciences, the state of feeling estranged or separated from one's milieu, work, products of work, or self," encompassing such variants as "...powerlessness, the feeling that one's destiny is not under one's control but is determined by external agents, fate, luck, or institutional arrangements, meaninglessness, a generalised sense of purposelessness in life... cultural estrangement, the sense of removal from established values in society, and ... self-estrangement, perhaps the most difficult to define, and in a sense the master theme, the understanding that in one way or another the individual is out of touch with himself."4

Since Marx, alienation has lost much of its original sociological meaning, and has been used to describe a wide variety of phenomena. These include: any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feelings that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanised nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organisations.5



1 Microsoft Corporation “Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia”
2 ibid.
3 Microsoft Corporation “Microsoft Bookshelf Basics.”
4 Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. “Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia .vol.1” p.270.
5 Abercrombie, Hill, Turner “The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology.” p.14
6 Kodansha “Japan, an Illustrated Encyclopedia.” p.1014


See also: http://www.thecry.com/existentialism/