Existentialism: Definition, History, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Existentialism?
  • 0:48 History
  • 2:21 Characteristics
  • 3:34 Literary Examples
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson describes existentialist philosophy, including its historical roots and key characteristics. While imagining what the world was like after World War II, you'll also consider the value of the existentialist viewpoint in describing human existence.

What is Existentialism?

Have you ever felt like you don't know where you're going, or if you're making any progress at all in your career or your life? If so, you were most likely having an 'existential moment.' Existentialism is a philosophical and literary perspective that focuses on the experience of an individual person and the way that he or she understands the world.

After World War II, some philosophers and writers saw the world as an indifferent place without a set of universal rules that applied to everyone. In light of the large number of casualties, the Holocaust and the use of the first atomic bomb, post-war writers in particular found societal rules and views especially unreliable.

History

Philosophers who debated the meaning of life in 19th-century Europe were trying to understand what it meant to have a 'self' and how human beings could live an ethical existence. While mathematicians and scientists explored the natural laws of the universe, religious people and theologians discussed God's expectations for a good life and the human soul. At the same time, social scientists tried to explain economic and social phenomena through methods involving logic and reason.

In comparison to the vastness of the universe, it's not surprising that human experiences and lives often seemed brief and insignificant. Inevitably, people may have wondered: 'Why do so many bad things happen to good people?' And if there was an omnipotent being, why did that being seem indifferent rather than interested in what happened to us?

After the Second World War, existential writers started to think of human beings in more individualistic terms, as confused and powerless as they might be in the universe. Instead of focusing on society's expectations of a person, existential philosophers and literary figures aimed to explore the meaning individuals created for themselves. They were not interested in painting a rosy or optimistic picture of the world; instead, they were willing to point out challenges that often had no solutions.

Characteristics

According to existentialists, human beings spend their lives in a void plagued by angst and despair in a world defined by alienation and absurdity. Absurdity refers to the persistence of human beings in living out our lives, despite little evidence that what we do matters in the greater universe. We create meaning in our lives even when there is little or no evidence of a natural force or omnipotent being protecting or guiding us. We simply continue to exist aimlessly.

Existentialists also used words like 'authenticity' and 'freedom.' Authenticity describes the attribute of taking responsibility for one's own experience, instead of viewing your experience as defined by outside forces, such as God, the greater society or the universe.

An authentic life is one in which you choose what matters to create your own meaning, an awareness of which leads to freedom. However, this freedom comes with a price, since an awareness of reality is painful and anxiety inducing. While authenticity and freedom may lead to clearer choices, they don't necessarily make life more pleasurable. Yet, we continue to exist.

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