Existentialism is a study of being. This philosophy struggles with the meaning and purpose of life.  It deals with choice and the ambiguity of the circumstances man must deal with when making a choice. It states that the decision is important in itself, because that is what defines us as human beings. Each time we choose, we choose for all mankind, because in that act of decision we create what it means to be human.

Existentialism had its first stirrings with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist of the 19th century.  His Notes from the Underground (1864) is a seminal work of alienation.  The philosophy became more fully developed with Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century.  Martin Heidegger contributed to its beginnings with Being and Time (1927).  Existentialism reached its completion as a philosophy in the 20th century with the outstanding contributions of the French philosophers, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.  The movement spread rapidly and was embraced by intellectuals worldwide.  American thinkers were important in propagating Existential thought – William Barrett and Hazel Barnes were essential to the philosophy’s elucidation in the United States.

This lecture will discuss the atheist philosophers of existentialism, who dealt with the death of god.  What they meant when they referred to the death of god was that with the advent and spread of technology and science, men and women’s cultural underpinnings had started to disappear.  Institutions, such as the Catholic Church, were still outwardly strong, but many people had found the belief systems of organized religion lacking.  People who had become aware of the paucity of religious, cultural, and intellectual mainstays felt psychically alone and some were floundering.  Existentialism concerns itself with the crisis that comes about when a person realizes how absurd life is, and how humans seek meaning vis-à-vis a meaningless Universe.  Alienation comes about when the familiar starts to have no resonance, when a person feels like a stranger in her own life.  Existentialism was a response to such predicaments, emphasizing the necessity for such qualities as authenticity, responsibility and passion.[1] 

Existentialists wrote about man’s struggle with death. Heidegger made death a primary concern.  He thought that the individual could define herself when she comprehended fully the eventual termination of her being.  Sartre and Camus dealt with the issue of death in their work; Camus writes of the need to live passionately even while knowing that existence can be terminated at any moment.  Sartre discusses the necessity to face death bravely but dismisses death as outside one’s awareness.  When death arrives, there is a loss of consciousness and a cessation of being; there is nothing left but a corpse.  For Sartre, the most important difficulty facing the existential self was becoming a realized individual.[2]

The question of whether existentialism is a philosophy comes up regularly.  Its critics claim that not only is existentialism subjective, but irrational.  Certainly existentialists were aware of the limits of reason and the importance of the emotions. The great skeptical philosopher, Hume, found “reason was the slave of the passions.” But the existentialists’ purpose was to achieve authenticity and individuation.  They had no interest in becoming one-sided.  They concentrated on broader, more open thinking. Although Nietzsche and the French existential philosophers attempted to communicate their ideas more widely by means of plays, parables, and novels, serious reasoning went into the existentialists’ literary productions.  They were deep and involved thinkers.

Anxiety comes about when a person begins viewing the world from a perspective that sees it as chaotic, irrational and having an indifferent causality. At the same time, the awareness of the meaninglessness of life gives one a freedom which can create dread.  Many people never achieve the individuality the existentialists see as essential to authenticity.  Many will quickly try to forget the giddy experience of feeling completely free and fall back into the safety of received opinion- church dogma, conventionality, or at the rare extreme, suicide.  None of these exits from dreadful freedom are authentic.  Escapes into intellectual safety or non-existence are chosen by the coward. Choosing to avoid a choice is still a choice. How much more courageous, how much more valid, say the existentialists, to take up the heavy burden of the truth about existence and live freely and joyously in the midst of pain and ceaseless effort.  Embrace your life and emerge an authentic being.

There are criticisms of existentialism that have some validity.  Facticity, or the circumstances of one’s life, can be so weighty that choice becomes very limited.  Another objection is the existentialist stance concerning free will.  Sartre, the most outspoken advocate of free will, might have adopted a compatibilist outlook had he known what we know now about the human brain.  Sartre was very flexible in nuancing his ideas when presented with evidence.  De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) pointed out that children do not have much freedom and discussed child development.  Sartre assented to her well thought out position.

Existentialism today remains as intriguing and challenging a philosophy as it was earlier in the 20th Century.  Universities with a humanist curriculum teach existentialism. But existentialism’s greatest triumph has been among people outside the academy.  The word existential is frequently, if sometimes incorrectly, applied to describe books, films and art. It is also used to describe states of being.  Bookstores carry works by Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Nietzsche.  People buy their books regularly and read them with pleasure.  Existentialism endures “on the street” because people are still taken up in the struggle of finding meaning and a fully realized self in a world free of a restricting god.

The following books have been chosen because readers and critics have found they have merit for the reader of Existentialism:

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy.  NY: Anchor Books, 1960. 

William Barrett was a distinguished professor and an editor of Partisan Review. His volume, Irrational Man was one of the works that introduced existentialism to America.  It is one of the finest books on existentialism written.  The text covers the principles of existentialism, but its strength is that it goes on to discuss those ideas in the context of art, literature, history and culture.  Some of the section headings are: “The Testimony of Modern Art,” “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition” (Hebraism and Hellenism,) and “The Flight from Laputa.”  He discusses existentialism vis-à-vis kantian philosophy. Barrett had a command of culture and society that was considered a sine qua non for professional intellectuals in the 20th Century and he brought that proficiency to the study of existentialism.  Highly Recommended.

Kaufmann, Walter.  Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Rev. and Expanded Ed. New York: Plume, 1975.

Kaufmann, the great translator, biographer and exegesist of Nietzsche, has compiled a group of existentialist writings that are at the core of the philosophy.  He does not believe that existentialism is a philosophy, but rather “a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. “ Kaufmann has included Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground as a prototype of existential man’s angst.  He notes the Underground Man’s shrill voice, the ‘strained protest, ‘and the self-preoccupied mind.  The volume contains excellent selections from Nietzsche, which one would expect from Kaufman’s command of the philosopher’s writings. In addition,   Kaufmann had the taste and intellectual understanding of existentialism to include the fine Rilke work, The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge, Kafka’s Three Parables, and the quintessential essay by Ortega y Gassett “Man Has No Nature.” The collection contains very readable pieces by Heidegger and a short story by Sartre, “The Wall,” which is exemplary of existentialism. Kauffman has included Sartre’s essential essays about existentialism. The volume ends with Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.  Kauffman’s book is an extremely intelligent introduction to existentialism.

Readers complain about the editing of this particular edition, and some do not like the brevity of many selections. This volume remains, along with Barrett’s Irrational Man, one of the best introductions to existentialism.  Highly Recommended.

More books for readers who want to study further in the area of Existentialism:

A Note:  Most of the existential philosophers’ texts, with the exception of Heidegger, who is technical and dense, explain existentialism very clearly, lucidly and inspiringly.

George Cotkin. Existential America (2005.) Anne Fulton. Apostles of Sartre: Existentialism in America, 1945-1963 (1999); Gordon Marino. Basic Writings of Existentialism (2004). Hazel E. Barnes. An Existentialist Ethics (1967) and Humanist Existentialism: The Literature of Possibilities. (1959.) Hazel Barnes was an early apostle of existentialism in America, and any of her books on the topic are very elucidating.

The Teaching Company offers courses on Philosophy.  See the Introduction to Philosophy Preface for general courses in Philosophy.  Specific Courses on existentialism are: No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life; Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.  (www.teach12.com.) 1 800 832-2412. 

Professor Hubert Dreyfus teaches an excellent course on Existentialism in Literature and Film free on the Web.  Webcast.berkely.edu. He delivers wonderful lectures on Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, Gay Science, and Anti-Christ. The films are the intriguing Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Breathless, and The Third Man.

The Philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir


Nietzsche was an atheist who was well aware of the ethical and moral difficulties people faced when the traditional moralities began to lose resonance.  That is what he meant when he announced that “God is dead and that we have killed him.”  He understood there was a gaping hole left as the old value systems lost force and power.  He feared that future generations might succumb to nihilism.

Nietzsche detested Christianity and its moral value system.  He maintained that Christianity began as a religion of slaves and that the church had retained slave morality and resentment.  He stated that Christianity favored the weak over the strong and attempted to repress the cruel but creative force of forceful people.  He maintained that Christianity taught ascetic self-denial, self sacrifice, fasting and repression, denying the joyous energy of healthy people.  Worse, religion taught that joyous strength was a negative quality.  People were imbued with the idea that denial of the self was a timeless truth, a dogma from god.

The question for Nietzsche was what could be put in place of this degrading, life-destroying Christianity? He proposed the noble person, or Overman concept.  The noble is aware that all things change and everything is in flux.  She is also aware that her self is not a fixed state, that it seems to change with different stages of desire.  Nietzsche is famous, or infamous, for his theory of the will to power.  But this concept is frequently misunderstood.  Will to power is the battle to establish control over oneself, in the middle of shifting desires and changing selves.

Nietzsche thought that there is a great deal of self-deception in language, which reinforces the fixed, fallacious “I,” just as religion reinforces the concept of the eternal soul.  The noble person must resist this self-illusion and labor to bring all the individual desires under his control.  Self mastery will result in a creative, functioning Being.  Nietzsche firmly believed that the noble person is strong and can incorporate joy, responsibility, love and creative capacity.

A noble person will avoid conforming to the herd, as Nietzsche calls it, the pressure from inferiors.  Nietzsche believed the crowd, or herd, is responsible for promoting conformity, mediocrity, and the moral tenets of the weak.  He recommends the doctrine of “amor fati,” the strength to love one’s fate, no matter what vicissitudes one might have to bear.  He introduces the idea of the eternal recurrence, which is the concept that life happens over and over again, the same way from the beginning of time.  He interrogates readers, asking if we are strong enough to live life on our own terms, so creatively, so masterfully that we will be able to fully embrace its eternal repetition.  The often misunderstood will to power is the creative individual’s way of influencing her environment.

Postmodern thinkers particularly value Nietzsche because of his perspectivism, the belief that truth and morality are simply a matter of interpretation.  He maintained that there were no facts in matters of morality.  He stated that all classifications and generalizations are determined by the time and cultures in which they are formed.  Nehamas states: “Perspectivism does not result in the relativism that holds that any view is as good as any other; it holds that one’s views are best for oneself without implying that they need be good for anyone else.  It also generates the expectation that new views and values are bound to become necessary as it produces the willingness to develop and accept new schemes.”[3]

Critics are disturbed by Nietzsche’s stance that Western value systems are bankrupt and that it is imperative for individuals to create new ones, individual ones that will change over time.  They are worried that his thinking could lead to extremes of violence and cruelty. But Nietzsche had seen ahead to the possibility of a nihilistic future and his works are a creative attempt to forestall it.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy questions, along with Nietzsche, whether the nihilistic stance is possible in theory or in practice. [4]  Nietzsche’s life work can be seen as an attempt at affirmation and enhancement of life, a way to attain a flourishing future for humanity.

The following volumes are suggested as some of the best by readers and scholars for understanding the theories of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed.& Tras.Walter Kaufmann. NY: Modern Library Classics, 2000.

This very nice Modern Library edition brings together 5 of Nietzsche’s important works, with 75 Aphorisms added from the 5 books.

The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was written by the young Nietzsche when he was a classical scholar.  It is interesting for literary purposes, as Nietzsche believed that Greek tragedy was rich during the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles, when the chorus blended music with dance.  Nietzsche discusses Apollonian culture vis-à-vis Dionysian.  He states that Apollonian culture is refined and emphasizes sculpture.  Dionysian is nature and non rationality, best expressed by dance.  He hoped musicians such as Wagner would reintroduce the Dionysian element into German culture.

75 Aphorisms from 5 Volumes.  Many of these aphorisms are splendid.  They are short passages of a few lines to a paragraph or so, commenting on a variety of subjects, from religion to women.  A sample: “There are no moral phenomena at all, but interpretations of phenomena.” 

Nietzsche begins Beyond Good and Evil (1886) with a discussion of philosophers whom he maintains have been blind dogmatists.  He asks why there should be such a search for truth when untruth is the reality.  Nietzsche is forming his life work in this volume, maintaining, as we have seen, that the noble person, the Overman, must move beyond traditional and conventional Christian morality. It is necessary to develop an affirmative stance toward life, even when confronted with the lack of an absolute truth.

Genealogy of Morals (1887) expresses Nietzsche’s case against Christianity.  He states that it is an inversion of noble virtues, such as honor and pride.  Christianity takes such virtues and turns them into a slave ethos of pity, humility and weakness. Nietzsche believed that poverty, humility and chastity were the ascetic Christian ideal and that those concepts had blocked the legitimate sources of joy, sexual energy and virility.  He excoriates religion and democracy in this text. He calls the world to wake up, for humans to lead creative lives. Nietzsche wants humans to make themselves into noble men and women.

The Case of Wagner (1888) is concerned with Nietzsche’s reasons for parting ways with his former idol, Richard Wagner, the famous German composer.  Nietzsche detested Wagner’s conversion to Christianity and he was disgusted by Wagner’s anti-Semitism and involvement with German folk culture.

Ecce Homo (1888) is a book about Nietzsche himself, and the book is funny, ironic and playful.  He discusses his work, the wrong direction it sometimes took and his development as a Dionysian thinker.  He finishes with another attack on Christianity, sure to delight the atheist reader.

A few readers do not like the Kaufmann translation, but many do.  Kaufmann is considered an excellent translator of Nietzsche.  For those who do not like the Kauffman translation, there are the Oxford translations of Nietzsche’s work, favored by some readers.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1883-1885.)  Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for None and All. Tras. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Zarathustra was written after Nietzsche’s Gay Science. The book is a long narrative, somewhat resembling an epic poem rather than an essay or novel. There is an Oxford translation for readers who do not like Kaufmann as a translator.  Some readers enthuse about Zarathustra while others consider it a literary disaster.  The volume sets forth the ideas that would become themes in Nietzsche’s later works. 

Zarathustra is a prophet of some sort, who comes down to speak to mankind from his seclusion of many years.  Readers of Nietzsche will recognize the familiar themes that were to preoccupy him, such as the Overman, the god is dead theme, and the concept of eternal recurrence.  Nietzsche either believed in eternal recurrence literally or used it as a metaphor, depending on the critic one is reading. It is the concept that life happens over and over the same way for eternity.  Nietzsche believed, if that was the case, the Overman has a responsibility to love his fate and to live joyously and creatively.  If one has the same life to repeat until the end of time, one should live so well as to have no regrets.  That is the task for the Overman. 

Kaufmann, Walter. (1950)  Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975. 

Kaufmann’s volume is considered one of the best books on Nietzsche.  Written after World War II, it helped explain the vilified Nietzsche to the intellectual public.  Kaufmann was German, so he understood Nietzsche’s language very well; he also had an excellent command of English.  Prior to Kaufmann’s work, the translations of Nietzsche were of poor quality, losing the philosopher’s elegant prose and irony.

This biography of Nietzsche explains Nietzsche’s philosophy in an even-handed manner, not excusing some of Nietzsche’s objectionable writing but delving deeply into Nietzsche’s thinking and intent.  Kaufmann deals with Nietzsche’s total oeuvre, which is necessary because Nietzsche’s themes were repeated, circled around, reconsidered and rewritten during the course of his writing life.  Kaufmann explicates the philosopher’s concept of willl to power and other ideas in a very accessible and non condescending style.  He is a fine writer himself, writing of one of the finest literary philosophers of the ages. Kaufmann found Nietzsche a keen psychologist as well as philosophic thinker. Kaufmann, an agnostic who wrote some criticisms of Christianity, locates much of Nietzsche’s thinking in Nietzsche’s dislike and reaction to Christianity.  Highly Recommended.

More volumes for readers who want to continue their study of Nietzsche:  Alexander Nehamas.  Nietzsche: Life as Literature (1987); Ed.  Bend Magnus and Kathleen Higgins The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. (1996); H.L. Mencken. The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. (1907); Arthur Danto. Nietzsche as Philosopher. (1965); Ronald Hayman. Nietzsche: A Critical Life. (1980).

Nietzsche is an excellent exegist of his own philosophy, a brilliant writer and accessible to readers lacking a background in Philosophy.  Here are some of his own works:

On Truth and Lies (1873); Untimely Meditations (1876); Human, All Too Human (1878); The Dawn (1881); Twilight of the Idols (1888); The AntiChrist. (1888.)

The volume, Will to Power, was cobbled together by Nietzsche’s sister, a Nazi sympathizer, and was not edited by Nietzsche.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. Illustrated. 452 pp. American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. The Overman. How Friedrich Nietzsche inspired and provoked his American readers. Reviewed by Alexander Star. (NYTimes Book Review)   An important and enlightening volume about Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has just come out.  It is titled American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas.  Rosenhagen traces the influence Nietzsche had on thinkers in America and how each generation of scholars discusses a different Nietzsche  who reflected the ideas of a particular school, such as Rorty’s neo pragmatism, or H.L. Mencken’s individualism or the postmodern belief there was no objective proof of anything.  Ronsenhagen and others lean toward Nietzsche who was somewhat similar to Emerson.  But the American transcendentalists’ idea of will was much weaker than Nietzsche’s, and they believed in a vague unity and immenence of god , or what they called the Oversoul or Divine soul, in the world.  I do not find such a comparison of  the atheist Nietzsche and Emerson very salient.

But such multiple interpretations may be best understood by seeing that Nietzsche is all those ideas in his writings.  His intellectual reach is both deep and wide.  It is perhaps our own limitations which find merely one facet of a man who was engaging in some of the most frightening and empowering thinking of philosophy.  Nietzsche did not flinch when he gained an insight:  he recorded it.  Although another great man, Walt Whitman, the American poet was writing about himself, his description can be applied to Nietzsche’s encompassing breakthroughs .  Here are the lines:  “Very well, then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself)

Martin Heidegger

This Preface to Heidegger will focus on Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time (1927), as Heidegger’s philosophic concepts reside in the text.  Heidegger is a very dense, somewhat dull, very difficult writer, giving to playing with the German Language and making up new words for philosophic ideas and terms.  Readers who are unfamiliar with philosophy will find many guides to Being and Time, and a guide or two is necessary.  It is suggested that students read these guides prior to, or during, reading Being and Time itself. 

At one time, Heidegger felt Nietzsche had not gone far enough with his thought, that Nietzsche had merely replaced god with a vague idea of a force.  Heidegger believed that it was important to confront meaninglessness in the world and attempt to understand existence itself.[5]  He was a pupil of Husserl and greatly influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology, which studies and seeks to understand objects of experience without trying to raise questions concerning their nature, which may be unanswerable.[6]

Heidegger commences Being and Time by demonstrating, one by one, the different ways we humans become aware of our existence, our being.   He concludes that we become aware of ourselves by our awareness of our past, present and future; therefore being is time.[7] Heidegger sees men as receiving their existence from the contingency of where they are situated (thrown into the world) and from the other beings they must interact with. The difficulty is in becoming an authentic individual.  Guilt and anxiety plague us; we move into an unknown future with no certainty of the correctness of our choices.

We feel great anxiety concerning the finitude of death.  But this awareness of death enables us to become authentic, to become separate from the conformity of the other beings in the world if we choose. We face death alone; no one can accompany us there.  We desire meaning, but all we are aware of is meaninglessness, a void.  Since we are “thrown” into the world, Heidegger says we must make choices within a historic, geographic and cultural background.  We cannot rid ourselves of these givens.  Heidegger maintains that these fixities give our choices more meaning. Living in time is inseparable from being; we are always moving toward the future, which is death.  To refuse to face death creates an inauthentic future.  When you refuse death, you refuse a part of yourself.

Heidegger maintains you must remember the past, not as disjointed moments, but as a whole that brought you to the present moment.  Inauthentic ways of facing past and future involve losing oneself in the society of the conventional.  People immerse themselves in social events, competitions, and rivalries.  They displace their anxiety with regard to finitude into smaller, shallower concerns.  Gossip is a common escape; as it is repeated it loses more and more connection with reality.  By remembering the past of our history, we can understand different ways of being.  By remembering our finitude we can embrace a significant engagement with the world.  One may achieve authenticity by living for one’s own values resolutely, and not at the dictates of others. 

The sense of anxiety and meaningless that Heidegger describes is a great dilemma for modern man.  We will see it again in Sartre and Camus, who were greatly influenced by Heidegger.  Heidegger did not want to be called an existentialist, but his concerns situate him as one of existentialism’s most important philosophers.  Heidegger was a supporter and member of the Nazi party in Germany during the Holocaust and World War ll.  He was an anti-Semite. The late Heidegger began to succumb to mysticism and he stated that “only a god can save us now.” But his distasteful persona has nothing to do with the importance of his early philosophy.  His contributions to philosophy are monumental, and he influenced many schools other than existentialism, such as structuralism and the deconstructionists.

List of Books with merit for readers of Heidegger:

Heidegger, Martin. (1927).  Tras.Joan Tombaugh.Being and Time. Revised Ed. New York: State University of New York Press, 2010. 

See the Preface for an overview of the philosophy Heidegger discusses in Being and Time. This translation is considered the best possible one by many critics and many readers, but the 1962 translation by John Macquerrie might be more popular. It would be best to borrow both versions from the library and try them before deciding which to read.

Dreyfus, Hubert.  Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Professor Dreyfus’ study is a wonderful tool for understanding Being and Time; he takes the reader through the volume section by section and offers what many students describe as an informative and rigorous analysis. Dreyfus handed out his lecture notes for many years at Berkeley when he taught Heidegger.  This text is a distillation of those notes. After twenty-five years of teaching Heidegger, he was known as an expert in the field.  Dreyfus’ lucid explanations and point by point elucidation of Heidegger’s philosophy is a wonderful way to ease into or revisit the difficult text of Being and Time.

Blattner, William. Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’: A Reader’s Guide.  New York: Continuum Press, 2007.

William Blattner is a philosophy professor who has taught Heidegger’s Being and Time for many years.  He was a student of Hubert Dreyfus and he thoroughly communicates his understanding of Heidegger to readers.  Readers who would like a slightly less demanding study than Dreyfus’ would do well to try beginning with Blattner.

Chapter Three of the text is the one that deals most thoroughly with Heidegger’s philosophy, and Blattner does not spare the portions of Heidegger’s thought he believes weak. Over all, this is a nice guide with which to begin studying Heidegger’s Being and Time.

For Readers Interested in more Commentaries on Heidegger:

Richard Polt. Heidegger: An Introduction.(1999) Note: Polt is not only a fine scholar and accessible writer, his book deals with Heidegger’s later philosophy, which is frequently ignored in Introductions to his work;  Paul Edwards. Heidegger’s Confusions (2004.) This volume is critical of Heidegger’s thinking. Michael Gelven. Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time. (1989). Stephen Mulhall. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook on Heidegger’s Being and Time. (2005). Taylor Carman. Heidegger’s Analytic: Interpretations, Discourse and Authenticity in Being and Time.(2007.)  Note: Carman is a renowned Heidegger scholar.

Professor Hubert Dreyfus offers a free course on Heidegger from Umiversity of California,Berkeley. Webcast.berkeley/courses. Philosophy 185-Heidegger.

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre, thinker, activist and French public intellectual, is the philosopher who most exemplifies existentialism.  He studied under Husserl, the phenomenonologist, and read and admired Heidegger. Being and Nothingness (1943) is his magnum opus, written while he was a young man.  Sartre composed the text hurriedly and the haste is apparent- some parts are not fully developed and others are turgid, dense, and hard to understand.  Sartre’s later attempt to defend and disseminate his philosophy to a wider audience, Existentialism is Humanism, (Lecture -1946; publication- 1956) is more accessible, but still confusing to many readers.  This Preface will discuss some of the concepts in Being and Nothingness, because the text contains most of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s text is not easily accessible, unlike his fiction and plays. 

Sartre maintained that man does not have a nature, that he comes into the world without one and this state is designated as existence.  It is as he begins to choose that he begins to create himself and become what he is, essence. That is what Sartre means when he uses the two terms.  Sartre’s existentialism is primarily concerned with choice and making life meaningful by choosing a project, by which Sartre means choosing a goal to move to, short or long term.  That the world, or our society, or our physical limitations resist us and our project’s completion assures our freedom. [8] We would have no choice in a world that would instantly gratify our desires. Freedom, states Sartre, means “to do in a resisting world by means of victory over the world’s resistances.”[9]

Bad faith is an important concept of Sartre’s.  By attempting to avoid our freedom, we frequently place ourselves in a false position.  The realization that we are in a meaningless world, where chaos and absurdity exist, creates a crisis for us.  We become anxious and frightened. One of Sartre’s narrators experiences nausea.  In order to avoid such negative feelings, we develop bad faith, retreating into scientism and determinism in an attempt to deny we have any choice.[10] We can also assert that we are not the source of our value system, placing the responsibility on a transcendental other, such as god. Sartre has definitions for what he calls being-in-itself, which is a state of existence like a rock, and being-for-itself, which is man in a state of reaching for a goal.  The concept of god, Sartre maintains, is contradictory.The mythical God is both being-in-itself and being-for-itself.  That state is the one that we secretly wish to attain- we want to be god and so experience failure.  Sartre believes that “man is a useless passion.”Another form of bad faith is to identify oneself with one’s profession.  Sartre’s famous example is of the waiter who acts so much the waiter that he apparently is nothing else. The waiter does not realize that he has lost himself in his total immersion into his job.

Sartre identifies a third form of being in his volume, being-for-others, which means I exist as an object for others.  I am alone in a park.  The trees, birds, benches all seem to belong to me.  But another person enters.  He is the object of my gaze.  But now he makes the things in the park objects of his gaze.  He looks at me.  I am now the object of his gaze, his object.  Sartre illustrates being-for-others with another example.  I am eavesdropping at a keyhole, enjoying myself.  I hear creaking behind me.  Suddenly I feel the other looking at me.  I am the object of his judgmental, disapproving gaze.  The other’s look, his gaze, defines me.

Sartre identifies what he considers a fundamental problem between people.  We must stop the other from making us into an object and we know that the other is making the same calculation.[11]  Love becomes even more problematical, for as Sartre explains concerning a person who is in love: “…he wants to be loved by a freedom, but demands that this freedom as freedom should no longer be free.”[12]  We want love given freely and we want to be objectified as “wonderful,” “the whole world.”  But then we have no security, for if the lover is free, he can go away, love another or objectify us as loathsome.  Our foundations are no longer in our control.  So we want our lover to be free to love us freely and at the same time we want to possess and control the other.  That is why human relations are so difficult, according to Sartre.[13]

The concept of facticity is important to Sartre’s thinking.  The term means the conditions we face, such as our job, our physical limitations, our society and our location, among other things.  But Sartre believes that all these facts are external to us. Our approach can be measured by how we react to the givens, how we interpret them, and the choice we make regarding the facts, to leave them or to stay.  Once we make that decision, Sartre asserts that facticity ceases to matter.  Sartre does not believe in fatalism.

Freedom is difficult.  One can only be sure of deciding on something and doing it today and not in the future, because when the future arrives our action may be different from what we decided earlier.  “Authenticity,” Sartre explains, “reveals that the only meaningful project is that of the doing, and not in the arriving at a permanent stopping point.”[14]  Sartre maintains: “My freedom to choose must not be confused with my freedom to obtain.”[15]Consequences, even when unpleasant, are not important to Sartre’s philosophy.  The purpose of a human is to make choices and create values.  The only measure of our life is what we do, not what we had the capacity to do.  The tenets of existentialism offer man a sense of responsibility; they do not rob him of it as religion and other institutions would do.

When we decide, we have created someone who does what our decision dictated.  If we decide to be courageous today, and we succeed, we have created a courageous person.  We will also have created the value of courage by our decision.  Human nature does not exist, says Sartre, and it is our responsibility to create it. This choice and this responsibility defines being human.  In closing, when we make such choices, we are defining and choosing what it is to be a human being. That is what Sartre means when he asserts that when you choose, you choose for all mankind.

The following books have been chosen by readers and critics as having particular merit for Sartre scholars.

Catalano, Joseph.  A Commentary on Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Readers who have needed help with Sartre’s enormous master work find Catalano’s book an excellent text for understanding Sartre’s philosophy and particularly its most difficult points.  Catalano never shrinks from attempting to explain conceptually tangled issues, such as what Sartre understands meaning to be, or when Sartre states that we “exist our body.”

Catalano begins with the title of Being and Nothingness, then the subtitle: Phenomenological Ontology. “A Commentary” andproceeds togo through all four parts of Being, thoroughly discussing the points that are important in each chapter.  Catalano’s style is accessible, but slightly technical.  It helps the reader to have some background in philosophy and in reading Sartre.  It is considered by many critics and readers to be the best chapter by chapter commentary on Sartre. 

Detmer, David.  Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity. Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 2008.

Detmer’s text is one of the best critiques of Sartre.  Detmer explains most of the philosopher’s difficult ideas, such as negation, absence, Sartre’s thinking on existential psychoanalysis and more.  Detmer’s style is fluid, very accessible and easy to understand.  Sartre Explained contains chapter headings such as: Being and Nothingness but also Phenomenology, Nausea and A Critique of Dialectical Reason.  Detmer analyzes Sartre’s play No Exit, a vehicle for Sartre’s philosophy, and the Sartre play, The Devil and the Good Lord, in terms of its atheism.  There is a very well referenced section at the end listing books by Sartre and some of the best about Sartre. Sartre Explained is an excellent text for the beginning reader to learn about Sartre’s philosophy. Highly Recommended.

Sartre, Jean Paul Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 2nd Ed. Tras. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Routledge, 2003. See the discussion in the Preface to Sartre.

Sartre, John Paul. (1944)  No Exit and Three Other Plays.  New York: Vintage, 1955.

No Exit is a vehicle for Sartre’s philosophical ideas.  Most of the existentialists wanted their message to reach the general population rather than remain in rarified intellectual circles. 

Three people, a beauty, Estelle, a pacifist journalist, Garcin, and a lesbian, Inez, have recently died.  They are placed in a highly decorated room with three color clashing sofas.  They have no mirrors, but they have a bell to call the valet and a paper knife. (Sartre discusses a paper knife in Being and Nothingness as an object that has been designed, being-in-itself, unlike a human who has not been designed and is faced with choice and action-being –for-itself.) Each character has a terrible past.  Estelle had an extra marital affair and killed the baby from that affair, causing her lover to kill himself.  Garcin was cruel to his wife and cowardly in politics. He ran away from his enemies instead of standing by his principles.  He was caught and shot.  Inez lured the wife of her cousin away; he died and Inez taunted her lover about killing him.  Her lover burned the house down and they both died.

Each person sets about tormenting the others.  They remain in bad faith and need the gaze of the other to authenticate them.  Esther craves Garcin and doesn’t care if he’s a coward.  Inez desires Estelle; Garcin needs Inez to believe he is not a coward.  They are in a state of being-for-others.  When the door swings open, none of them have the courage to escape their intolerable situation.  They are moral cowards, incapable of courageous choice.  Garcin states: “Hell is other People.”

Sartre, Jean Paul. (1939) The Wall and Other Stories. Tras. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions, 1975.

The Wall is a short story about a rebel caught by government forces during the Spanish Civil War. He will be shot by firing squad the next morning.  He wants to die “clean,” a courageous death.  He tries to remain detached from his two fellow prisoners and to detach from his memories. 

His fellow prisoners are executed, but the government soldiers offer him a reprieve from death if he will tell them where his friend, Juan Gris, is hiding.  He is determined not to give them Gris’ hiding place, but as an ironical joke on them, tells them that Gris is hiding in a shed in the local cemetery.  Some hours later he is released into the general prison population.  A friend in the prison yard tells him Gris was caught and shot. He had left his hiding place on account of a quarrel and hid in the shed of the cemetery where the soldiers found him. The narrator starts laughing hysterically. 

The narrator realizes the absurdity of the situation and realizes he should have remained silent and not made jokes with a chaotic universe.

Some Works by Sartre: Existentialism is a Humanism. (1973); Anti-Semite and Jew. (1946); What is Literature. (1988); On Genocide. (1968); The Family Idiot. (1971- About Flaubert.); Nausea. (1938) Nausea is an important novel about an aimless young man who is writing a biography of a famous person.  He is anxious and giddy because of his current freedom.  He does not know how to act.  He experiences a crisis when he sees and feels the enormous being-in-itself of a large tree.  He is on his way to authenticity by the novel’s end.  Inspired by a jazz record, he thinks about the creative acts of the singer and the composer, and determines to begin a novel.

Some Books about Sartre: Anthony Manser. Sartre: A Philosophic Study (1967); Arthur C. Danto. Sartre. (1979;) Robert Bernasconi. How to Read Sartre (2007;) Ronald Aronson. Sartre’s Second Critique. (1987;);Hazel E. Barnes. Sartre and Flaubert (1981;) Barnes. An Existentialist Ethics. (1971;) David Detmer. Freedom as a Value (1988.)


Camus was an Algerian born Frenchman whose early works exemplified and propagated the spread of existential philosophy.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1957 for his important literary production.  Camus was a brilliant and popular author whose works, as Sartre and de Beauvoir’s, were embedded with his philosophic concepts.  This Preface will examine two important texts by Camus as keys to his intellectual beliefs.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) is a brilliant exposition of existentialist thought.  Camus begins his extended essay by stating that the primary question facing man is whether or not to commit suicide.  When a person is faced with the meaninglessness and absurdity of life, the question is why continue to live?  A person is faced with his own nature- man demands meaning, and the world has no meaning.  The absurdity lies in man’s desire with regard to the world’s indifference.

There are two ways to commit suicide, physical and intellectual.  The physical is one type of cowardice; a person lacks the courage to live out the term of life.  The philosophical is to turn to god and a false transcendence.  The existential man resolves to live and come to terms with life’s absurdity. 

Camus discusses several types of partial solutions to the problem of living.  The lover, Don Juan, knows the illusory nature of love. He is aware that eternal love does not exist so he pursues one love after another.  The actor lives other men’s lives for a few hours on the stage, in a continuous procession of different plays and different lives, all of which are illusory.  The conqueror lives in time; his conquests are illusory and will be swept away with his death.  The author, states Camus, is at the extreme of absurdity.  He tries to enrich mankind and yet can merely describe, repetitively, the fleeting efforts of man’s search for meaning.  He reports the ephemeral path of all people.  He attempts to cover nothing with an appearance, a something that does not exist.

When Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, his concept of the existential hero began to emerge.  Camus believed that revolt is an essential feature of mankind.[16]  Sisyphus was a rebel against the ancient Greek gods, who punished him by condemning him to everlasting labor.  He is sentenced to pushing a heavy rock up a mountain, and when he reaches the top with it, it rolls back down again.  He must begin anew each time.  Sisyphus conquers his punishment and the decree of the gods by embracing his labor.  His task is hopeless, but he is determined to continue it, accepting the terms of his rebellion.  By this acceptance, he rises above his punishment.  Camus pictures Sisyphus with a smile on his face because he is still in revolt.  He is conscious of his fate and his consciousness makes him happy.  This happiness turns the punishment into a supreme act of self-realization. 

Camus’ lucid, poetic style and brilliant philosophic position inform The Myth of Sisyphus. He has portrayed the tenets of existentialism in the story of Sisyphus and provided his readers with an exemplar of how to live life fully, deeply and courageously.  Highly recommended

The Stranger was written by Camus in the same year he wrote Sisyphus, 1942.   It is a novel concerning an affectless Frenchman in Algiers who murders an Arab on a beach.  The Arab has pulled out a knife and the Frenchman fires his gun at the man over and over.  He is condemned to death because the prosecutor focuses on the man’s indifference at his mother’s funeral.  In jail, he rejects the comfort and solution of religion.  After an outburst of rejection toward the prison chaplain, the narrator finds a sense of peace and some sense of the meaning of life before going to his death.  Camus’ novel is close to nihilism, but Camus never succumbed to the extreme philosophical principal of negation.

Camus’ later works, such as The Plague (1948) show that he was moving toward a resolution in which some people work together to rise above their fate.  Camus’ books continue to be read by young people with a great deal of interest.  He was a public intellectual and was known to possess moral authority. While he later moved on from existentialism, he was a highly important and visible member of the philosophy.  He came to believe that humans, by working together, can create new values.[17]

Books for readers who wish to study Camus:

Camus, Albert. (1942) The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Vintage, 1991.

___________.   (1942.) The Stranger. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Hughes, Edward J. The Cambridge Companion to Camus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Companion is an excellent volume for a reconsideration of Camus, a foremost thinker and writer of existentialist philosophy.  A variety of essays by scholars consider Camus’ engagement with philosophy, his journalism, his influences, his theatre work and The Myth of Sisyphus.  In addition, Part 2 of this Companion looks at Camus and social justice, violence and ethics, the quarrel between Camus and Sartre, and Camus’ portraits of women.  Part 3 contains essays on The Stranger, The Plague, La Chute, Le Premier Homme and the literature of loss.  This is a fine volume for obtaining an understanding of the full range and depth of Camus’ engagement with the literary, political and philosophical issues of his day.

Note: With the new emphasis on colonial studies, beginning in the 1970’s to the present day, Camus has aroused new interest for his writings and activity on behalf of Algiers.

More books for readers who want to study Albert Camus:

Philip H. Rhein. Albert Camus (1989); Jospheph McBride. Albert Camus. (1992); Donald Lazare. The Unique Creation of Albert Camus (1973); Richard Plant. “Benign Indifference,” in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 29, no. 20, May 18, 1946. 10.; Robert Solomon. Dark Feelings, Grim Thoughts: Experience and Reflection in Camus and Sartre. (2006.)

Simone de Beauvoir

De Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949.  She had worked on it for two years.  Although de Beauvoir was unmarried and childless, a writer, teacher and intellectual who had equal status to men, she had begun to think about women’s place in society.  The Second Sex is a seminal volume in the Women’s Movement. Divided into two parts, Facts and Myths and Woman’s Life Today, the text deals with the way woman’s gender is constructed.  Beauvoir talks about the ways in which men conceive of women, and then how women, in turn, define themselves as objects.

Woman lives in what de Beauvoir calls immanence, a constant round of uncreative and repetitious duties until she dies. Beauvoir states that woman remains in a state of waiting until death comes, and in the meantime, she is “bored to death.”  Beauvoir rejects essentialism, the belief that woman has a biologically determined nature.  She states: “Woman is not born but rather becomes a woman.”  When The Second Sex was published it created something of a scandal, but captured the public interest so much that it was published into many languages.  Second Sex is considered a framework for the field of feminist scholarly inquiry. 

When gender studies became popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, The Second Sex had a revival.  It is important for current readers to keep in mind that Beauvoir critiqued women’s position from an existentialist point of view.  Reviewers frequently fail to discern this undercurrent in The Second Sex. While a number of readers find the text dated in sections, it remains an important document for the women’s movement.

The Second Sex has been unfortunate in the story of its translations into English.  The first Parshley translation was unsatisfactory and abridged. The new Borde and Melovany translation is unabridged and the received opinion of most readers is that is generally an improvement.  There are a few readers who still consider this new translation unsatisfactory.

Ethics of Ambiguity. (1949.) De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is an important volume for two reasons.  The first is that De Beauvoir writes more clearly about the tenets of existentialism than Sartre does in Being and Nothingness.  Sartre’s work is difficult and obscure, while de Beauvoir’s writing is very accessible.  She clearly articulates a viable existentialist way of living.  The second reason is that de Beauvoir discusses the nature of childhood experience.  Sartre had ignored this issue in his works, which is contradictory to the concept that man is born with no nature. “A child, clearly, is not free.”[18]   Ethics attempts to explain that existentialism is not a moral nihilism and that it is possible to create an ethics of ambiguity that does not deny a priori that separate existences can at the same time be connected,[19] which is similar to Camus’ existential position in The Plague.

Books for readers who wish to study Simone de Beauvoir:

Bair, Deidre.  Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. NY: Summit Books, 1990.

Bair’s volume discusses the life and philosophical ideas of Simone de Beauvoir.  Bair deals with the fact that Beauvoir did not emphasize her political, literary and philosophical thought as independent from Jean Paul Sartre’s’, who was her lifelong companion and colleague.  Bair spoke with Beauvoir at different periods over several years before completing this book.  Readers have mixed opinions but it is an important biography of de Beauvoir that helps to understand this complex and brilliant woman.  Chapter 28 is an excellent and amusing summary of The Second Sex.

De Beauvoir, Simone. (1946-1949) Trans. Catherine Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 2010.

________________. (1947.) The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel, 2000.

­­­­­________________.  (1945.) The Blood of Others. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.

De Beauvoir wrote several fine novels, but Blood is the novel that most exemplifies existentialist philosophy. A young woman decides to help The Resistance in France during World War II after leading an aimless existence.  Her lover must deal with the responsibility of sending people on missions for the Resistance that he knows might lead to their deaths.  He contemplates his responsibility for a friend’s death and for the young woman’s death, but concludes that he must bear this burden and freely go on to help the Resistance.

More books for readers who want to continue the study of de Beauvoir’s thought:

Mary Evans. Simon de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. (1985) Elizabeth Fallage. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. (1988) Margaret Crosland. Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and the Work. (1992) Catherine Brosman. Simon de Beauvoir Revisited. (1991) Debra B. Berghoffen. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. (1997)

Videos of Lecture: Existentialism

Lecture: Existentialism

Video of Discussion: Existentialism


1 Barrett, William.  Irrational Man: Studies in Existential Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1960. 3-65.

2 “Existentialism.”  In Ted Honderich,ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

3 Nehamas, Alexander.  Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, Mass; London, England: Harvard University Press, 1985. 72.

4 “Nihilism.” in Ted Honderich,ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 623.

5 Madigan, Timothy J. “Nihilism.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York:   Prometheus Books, 575.

6 Magee, Bryan. The Story of Philosophy.  New York: DK Books, 2001. 230.

7 Magee. Story of Philosophy, 212-213.

8 Detmer, David.  Sartre Explained: From Bad Faith to Authenticity.  New York: Open Court Publishing Co, 2008.

9 Sartre, Jean Paul.   Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. 2nd Ed. Tras. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Routledge, 2003

10 Levy, Neil. “Existentialism.” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2005. 319.

11  Sartre, Being and Nothingness.  555.

12 _____.   479.

13 Detmer. Sartre Explained.  106.

14 Sartre, Jean Paul.   Notebooks for an Ethics.  Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992. 425.

15 Sartre. Being and Nothingness.  648.

16 Read, Herbert. (1951)  The Rebel.  New York: Random House, 1991. Introduction, viii.

17 Lowen, Jeanette.  “Albert Camus.”  in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

18 Green, Ruth. “Simone de Beauvoir.” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 111.

19 ______________________________. 111.

See the Bibliography for all the lectures on Philosophy. There are over 76 works listed.