20th Century Existentialism

Claire Jordan

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The Basics

Existentialism is philosophy that is centered upon the analysis of existence and of the way humans find themselves existing in the world.

  • humans exist first and then each individual spends a lifetime changing their essence or nature
  • concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility
  • people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life
  • make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook
  • personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth
  • you define yourself at each given moment by acting at each given moment

An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.

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What It Is and Isn't


  • human free will
  • human nature is chosen through life choices
  • decisions are not without stress or consequences
  • personal responsibility and discipline
  • worldly desire
  • society is unnatural; traditional and secular rules are arbitrary
  • there are things that are not rational
  • a person is best when struggling against their individual nature


  • social values and structural control on the individual
  • wealth, pleasure, honor
  • people are good but are ruined by society
  • science can make everything better!
  • "I want my way, now!"
  • "It's not my fault!"

The People

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Martin Heidegger

  • rejected any dualism regarding mind and body
  • distinction between subject and object
  • investigated the meaning of our authentic existence, significance of our mortality, and our place in the world among others
  • "Being and Time"
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Jean Paul Sartre

"Like all dreamers I confuse disenchantment with truth."

"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown in to the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

  • ethical interest
  • strong notion of freedom

  • influenced by Heidegger
  • existential phenomenology
  • wanted to understand human existence rather than the world

"To be human is characterized by an existence that precedes its essence."

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Simone de Beauvoir

"I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth - and truth rewarded me."

  • French Existentialist Philosopher
  • lover of Jean Paul Sartre
  • explored the roles of women in society, wrote "The Second Sex"
  • studied the role of individual choice
  • importance of free will and the anxiety of the individual (caused by one's independent choices)

Albert Camus

"At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face."
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The Stranger

Existentialism vs. Absurdism

  • Some say that "The Stranger" is existentialist fiction, and others say that Camus was not an existentialist
  • However, very few "existentialist" philosophers were willing to accept the label of "existentialist"
  • just because Camus said he wasn't an existentialist doesn't mean we can't talk about his novel in the light of both Absurdism and existentialism
  • one of Sartre's most important ideas was that of radical personal freedom; the freedom to choose, which can be seen in The Stranger

  • In the beginning of The Stranger, Meursault is very detatched and tends to describe much of what occurs around him from a removed position
  • The focus of Meursault’s murder trial quickly shifts away from the murder itself to Meursault’s attitudes and beliefs.
  • We can see the existentialist point of view come into play whenever Meursault begins to question what life is, and what it means to actually live

"Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn't much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy...Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter." (114)

The Bibliography