What is Existentialism?


It feels like quite a while since I’ve actually written about any books, and I felt in the mood for a classic, so I thought I’d post on the Daddy of modern French thought, Jean-Paul Sartre, a man whose dwarfish stature (five foot two) and wall-eye did not prevent his success with the ladies, or indeed his (Western) world wide fame. In 1943 Sartre published one of his most famous philosophical works, Being and Nothingness, and although Sartre’s thought altered over the years, the core of Existentialist theory is contained in this tome. The Existentialist doctrine is arguably one of the bleakest perspectives on life that philosophy has produced. It tells us that Man is separate from the world, and that his existence is a complete absurdity. It tells us that God is dead, and that we are nothing more than the sum of our actions. It is essentially a call to heroism in the face of a lot of harsh facts about existence, and a call that we must respond to every day as if anew. Not many jokes, right? Right. But the power of Existential thought was incredibly strong in the period following the war, and it remains a highly influential theory, whether subsequent thinkers have reacted in admiration of it or in condemnation to it.


It’s easier to look at it through the novels that Sartre wrote, particularly the undergraduate’s favourite, Nausea. This is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a somewhat feckless man who is undergoing what can only really be described as a nervous breakdown. He’s been writing a historical biography but the work is going very badly, and he’s starting to have odd experiences with material objects. When he picked up a pebble on the beach he became particularly aware of its materiality, just as when, sitting in the library, he becomes obsessively aware of his hands, and the feel of them hot and living, against his thighs. Now you or I might say, this is the moment to get out of the library and think about something different for a change. But Roquentin is too hypnotised by this freefall state of consciousness, and as he sheds his daily occupations and future plans, so he ends up eyeball to eyeball with this odd, futile, empty business of living at its most fundamental level.


The first thing to go is the reassuring referential solidity of language. When Roquentin looks at the back of his hands and thinks they resemble crabs, he realises that the power of language to designate an object – ‘that is my hand’ – and thus render it safe within a fixed scheme of meaning, has collapsed for him. At the same time he sees how language used to control the world for him by holding it at bay; without its protection he feels vulnerable and perpetually open to invasion. The stubborn, physical presence of objects threatens to overwhelm him, now that language has become a fragile, fluctuating web around the world and can no longer bind its objects tightly into place. Roquentin comes to think that man’s attempts to give his life meaning, or to order or understand the world, his complex patterns of causality and reason, belong on an entirely different, separate plane from the actuality of brute existence. We can talk all we like, but it won’t make the world any different, or make our presence on it any more than a risible, chance occurrence.


Having come so far it’s easy then to see how past and future are only products of this ungrounded language and our feverish, over-optimistic imaginations. Existentialism understands that life really carries on in a perpetual present, in which we are outer casings filled with this bizarre form of consciousness that allows us to reflect on what we do, as we do it. Sartre’s other radical seachange in perspective is to see human beings as completely free, totally undetermined, and thus condemned to make choices every day that will ultimately constitute the sum of our existence on earth. With complete freedom comes equally complete responsibility. So we may or we may not choose to obey the law, but that’s a decision we’re wholly responsible for; there can be no pathetic wriggling on the hook, by claiming one was ‘made that way’ or ‘couldn’t help myself’. Even doing nothing – especially doing nothing – is a clear choice in itself.


This latter point is beautifully illustrated by Sartre’s other well-known novel, The Age of Reason. People don’t tend to read this novel as much as they do Nausea, but I think it’s by far the more engaging read of the two. In this story, beleaguered academic Matthieu discovers that his girlfriend, Marcelle, is pregnant. Obsessed with the concept of his own freedom, Matthieu can think of nothing more than how to scrape together the cash for a decent, if illegal, abortion. Ah, bless, how loving of him. At the same time his good friend is heading off to Spain to fight in the civil war and wants Matthieu to come with him. Political engagement looking like just another form of crippling self-definition, Matthieu allows apathy to keep him in the state of undefined aspic that he likes best. But the events of the novel conspire to make him reconsider his life policy, and when added to the intrigues of demonic friend, Daniel and the self-destructive acts of wild-cat Russian student, Ivich, the lives and loves of these mostly unsympathetic characters get tangled up in provocative ways. You might think this sounds like a collection of characters who all deserve what’s coming to them, and you might be right. But it’s a particular stylistic trick of Sartre’s to keep the reader engaged in superficially dislikeable types. As a novelist he has a lovely, clear writing style, and manages to take you inside the heads of his characters with panache and charm.


I think Existentialism is one of those doctrines that either speaks to you in a troubling kind of way, or which appears resolutely abhorrent. I’m quite fond of it, which is really not the point, but I like its savage bravery, and I think it’s intellectually accurate in a way. Where it fails to encompass the world is in its emotional sterility. The main problem with Existentialism is that it doesn’t allow for the power of love, which is itself a force that destroys all reason and causality but in a compelling, creative way. In some ways you could argue that Sartre fell foul of love himself in later life. He abandoned literature in the end as he believed it was nothing more than a bourgeois substitute for proper political commitment in the real world. I can’t remember the quote exactly, but he said something along the lines that no work of literature was worth anything in the presence of a starving child. As ever, he was right only in an excessive and punctilious kind of way. This always strikes me as a very sentimental thought – a compassionate one, undoubtedly, but one that shifts his attention from the realm of icy, pure intellect, to the one of messy, immediate humanity, without finding any kind of middle ground. It’s a very non-academic and indefensible kind of reading, but I can’t help but feel that all the love that’s missing from the Existentialist doctrine gradually started to seep into its edges and corners until it blotted out everything else, and became the absolute guiding principle of Sartre’s thought. Having forced a bitter pill onto his readers, Sartre then wanted to heal the world. I think more of him for harbouring his contradictions from day to day, and remaining responsible for his changes of heart. Existentialism was made very much in his image: that of a paradoxical, but always ethical and determined man.


26 thoughts on “What is Existentialism?

  1. I really liked existentialism when I first came across it(late teens)- I think I found it very bracing after the extreme Catholicism of my upbringing. Now it doesn’t really speak to me that much one way or another

    And Litlove, if you tire of academia (and I forgot to say before kudos on being asked to apply for a chair!) or run out of writing projects I think you would do well at writing an Everypersons guide to esoteric theory.

  2. Thanks for the great read. I am quite interested in existentialism and the idea of complete responsibility it describes. I tried to read Being and Nothingness before, but I could not understand a word in it and gave up eventually. I never read any of his novels. I did read a few stories from Albert Camus and thought they are interesting.

    I really learned a lot from your blog.

  3. Dear Ms Make Tea – I can see how Existentialism could come as a bracing antidote to extreme Catholicism! And thank you for your kind remarks. I have a little soft spot for that esoteric theory of which you speak – which I keep soft by never taking it too seriously. The ideas are wonderful, but living seems to be all about negotiation and compromise. Pak, you have my every respect for even trying Being and Nothingness – it is NOT a fun read. Do consider one of the novels – they are infinitely more accessible and enjoyable. Camus is always considered to be the better novelist of the pair, and I would probably go along with general opinion here, but Sartre is still pretty impressive. I must also post on Camus one of these days, as I really love his work.

  4. I think it is necessary to look at where a philosopher has come from. To go through a war where your existence is determined by chance. To be moved around within that danger with no choice or free will at the whim of “Them”. To be confronted hourly with the sheer accident of continued existence. To be then released to make your own way in the world, with you being responsible for the results of your own choices. This was the societal gestalt after two world wars and Satre codified it. The “Beat” poets of New York seemed to take existentialism and use it as a base. Are the Goths of today the direct descendents of Satre and Kafka or of Kerouac and Burroughs?

  5. As usual, litlove, you’ve placed so many tasty morsels on the table I would need a comment at least as long as your post to nibble my way to the main course. I, too, find this branch of philosophy and the novels it engendered endlessly fascinating, perhaps a testament to my much-prolonged adolescence. I suspect the reason teens and undergraduates resonate to these works is that they’re so freshly dethroned as the kings and queens of their own universes, just beginning to grapple with doubts about their place in the universe of their elders. A period of alienation and, for self-protection, a rejection of pretty much everything, seems like a natural reaction most adults abandon in turn by making a desperate choice of some kind and making the best of it. I’m making a mess of this. What you say about language and its inability to change the brute facts of existence is, for me, the most powerful theme, one you wouldn’t think available to a writer the existence of whose works appears to argue the exact opposite. That’s all we do, as writers and armchair philosophers is change the world with language. His hand is a crab and I, for one, am prepared to believe it.

  6. Very interesting — I find existentialism pretty compelling too; I particularly like the way you describe it at focused on the present — that what’s most meaningful (or the only thing that’s meaningful) is what is happening right now. The idea that we are completely free is more troublesome — aren’t we much more likely these days to say that we aren’t free at all, our feelings and actions determined by biology or environment or whatever? — but perhaps what matters is how we perceive it. Whether we are free or not, life does often feel like a series of crucial choices, each one of which is a chance to define who we are.

    And the shift into sentimentalism is very interesting, from one extreme to another.

  7. Ah, Litlove, another amazing entry from you! I just have to read and reread, it is so rich. (And I’m a brain-dead existentialist at the moment, so I can’t comment even if I wanted to.) 🙂

  8. I too am fascinated by Existentialism. I think I have “No Exit” on my shelf but I have not read it even though I bought it years ago. How do his plays compare to his novels?

  9. Archie – I think you’re absolutely right about the force of historical circumstances. The notion of taking responsibility for one’s choices every day was also somehting people were open to hearing after the uncertain morality of the Occupation. Thank you, Nancy Ruth! David – I think you’re anticipating a post I want to write about the power lf language! I havn’t got all my thoughts together yet, but I am 100 percent in agreement with you. Dorothy, what you say about 21st century determinism is very interesting. Sartre talked about facticity, which is to say the fact a person was white or black or male or female or born in London or Paris. But those things were irrelevent for him really – one’s power of choice was where the self-definition and the meaning of life lay. Thank you so much, LK! I always feel that Existentialists can either think or do, but not both at the same time. I’m sure there’s a healthy subcategory for those who’d like to do neither for a while! Stefanie – I’m actually a big fan of Sartre’s plays although my favourite is not No Exit (that’s pretty good though) but Les Mains Sales (I can’t remember how it translates). They are also remarkably accessible and wonderfully dramatic. I read most of them in my late teens and enjoyed them immensely.

  10. Dear litlove et al,

    I should like to interrupt this fine discussion on existentialism and everyone’s favourite squinty-eyed French philosopher to shamelessly plug the fact that I have jumped on the blogging bandwagon. If anyone can help me get my head round how I read other people’s that would be helpful too because I can’t seem to get away from mine and onto other people’s when searching them by name.

    I’ve posted on here a fair bit before and in time I hope to write about books and films, though I doubt I will be able to accomplish it with the same grace as Lovely Litlove and your good selves. At the moment it is mostly about food.

    Back on topic, this represents me taking a more existential approach to writing as I am currently living in the mauvaise foi of being a full-time journalist (and loving it).



  11. I agree with Ms. Tea: You need to write an everyman’s guide to esoteric theory. Doesn’t it seem so many of these theorists ignored love (and its irrationality)? As a matter of fact, ignored so much of what makes us human? It leads one to want to study their lives and backgrounds, as archiearchive notes, doesn’t it? Perhaps a guide with a biographical piece for each theorist that ties in how his life may have affected his theories is in order (sorry, the acquisitions editor in me is always coming up with ideas for books for others to write).

  12. I have been curious about existentialism for some time (probably since college), but I have always been in a bit too much awe of exitentialist writers to give them a try and read some of their works. I have books by Sartre and de Beauvoir, but am always a tad bit too trepidatious to read them. I am such a big fence sitter about things that I can never decide what I really think about them–maybe philosophy is not my thing. I think I am not a good abstract thinker–and philosophy seems so abstract to me. Loved your post, though. Maybe I need to get one of those philosophy for dummies books.

  13. Absolutely wonderful post. The thing I like best is how compassionate you are toward Sartre, and for making him seem so human, and so honest. I haven’t read these novels, because I’ve worried that they’d be nothing more than illustrations of a philosophy and so terribly boring. But it sounds like you think they stand alone, which makes them much more appealing.

  14. Welcome, Princess Benelux, to the blogworld – we are delighted to have you in it. However, !’m very glad David is giving you the technical support; I’m rather hopeless at that! Emily – I’m hugely appreciative of any suggestions you may have, and certainly I’d love to do a mix of theory and biography. It would be lots of fun to write. Danielle and Bloglily – I think you would both find a lot to enjoy in Sartre’s novels, particularly The Age of Reason, which I think is quite an easy, gripping read. It’s very philosophy-lite, and Nausea is one of those books you can’t fail to be moved by, one way or the other. Beauvoir, too, is a very accessible writer. I’ll post about her one day, because there’s lots to say on her score. Do try them! I would be so very interested to know what you think.

  15. Actually, after the first time I read this entry, I wanted to ask you what are your ideas on love. How does Existentialism not allow the power of love? Does that imply that love is not a free choice?

    I really should read more. I have been reading your blog for a few months. Even though I don’t read a lot of novels, I still find everything you have written to be very interesting. I always feel like I have learned something.

  16. I don’t think existentialism precludes love. However, I think that the difficulty with it is switching the perspective from the micro (i.e. the world immediately around us) to the macro (i.e. the world at large). On a macro perspective, individuals have no relevance and hence people can often despair at existentialism. But at the micro level, people can love, even obtain bliss and in this sense, their own life is worthwhile to them, just not to the world at large. Perhaps there is only meaning at the individual level and the collective is meaningless. Just a theory and open for much criticism I suspect.

    If you think of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, you have this undercurrent of how taking responsibility for one’s actions will ultimately lead to love, or at least opens one up to love. Raskalnikov was lost in his torment of the murder he committed. The realisation of the horror of his actions combined with the love he received from Sonya gives him a chance to redeem himself. But, he is the only one who can take that chance. I read existentialism as a philosophy that says absurd things will happen in this world, our own subjectivity will rationalise it and then we will choose a response. From this response consequences will occur and we will be responsible for these consequences. Even if we don’t act responsibly as a result. Even the most evil doer ultimately feels remorse for the evil doings and hence, the power of self to create its own judgement day. All of these observations are only relevant from the individual perspective. On a macro perspective, it has no relevance whatsoever.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog entry, thank you for writing it.

  17. Pingback: Patently absurd « fear of death is intransitive

  18. Well, as a high school student I was having trouble writing a paper on existentialism and violence, and the problem lied in the fact that I had no idea what existentialism was. This was the only piece I found that could explain it in a way that was even possible for me to understand. Thank You.

  19. Existentialism was introduced to me as a breath of fresh air in a Philosophy scene that was out of its tree into Logical Positivism and other forms of navel-gazing activity. Existentialism, the brochure correctly said, brought human suffering back onto the list of subjects for human inquiry. For the first time in a long while, humans were back on the stage as a subject of study as opposed to the abstract codswallop that had mesmerised Philosophy for so long. I was hooked, and duly delved. Wow, I’d discovered the Holy Grail; a chalice of gold brimming with hope (as opposed to the pewter mug filled with dead ideas bequeathed to me by my pious, nominally Catholic mother).

    Existentialism takes the Linus Rug away from us (Linus, in the comic strip ‘Charlie Brown’ had a rug he snoggled to feel secure in his being. Don’t laugh. It was a metaphor for the crutches we all use to avoid looking reality in the face, and religion is the biggest crutch of all). The basic tenet of existentialism for me is simple:

    You exist, you’re conscious, so something important (like a miracle) is happening – find out what it is, or be consigned to oblivion.

    Alas, most of us elect, by default, to be consigned to oblivion, including my Catholic mom, who ignored Christ’s appeal to chuck the Linus rug. Christ’s real teachings (as opposed to those peddled by the priests) are dinky-di existentialism.There’s nothing absurd about life. The absurdity is in how we choose to regard it, by grovelling to statues and imagined deities. There’s nothing absurd about human suffering unless we have no idea (or intention of ever having an idea) what it’s for. The mess our physical and social worlds are in is a direct consequence of our inability to take responsibility. Just look at the garbage films we watch (violence, murder and mayhem) and wonder why we enact that tripe out in real life.

    Being a real existentialist takes guts. Chucking the Linus rug is an act of heroism. If you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian, it’ll mean saying to yourself the risk of Hell is better than the con job already in progress. Knowledge of the self is what courage takes, and it’s not being taught in any institution I know about. To make it all the harder, one has to be courageous in solitude, not only undaunted by the loneliness but exhilarated by it, knowing that it’s all happening in a world that is mad by its very nature. We’re all heroic in taking on this thing called material existence. It’s like buying a ticket on the Ghost Train at Coney Island. Once you’re in there, it takes on a life of its own. The existentialist can chuckle all the way around to the exit doors, despite the shrieks and horrible smells emanating from his fellow passengers.

  20. Pingback: 7 x 7 Award | Tales from the Reading Room

  21. Reblogged this on JUST DOCUMENTING. and commented:
    Was working on an Existentialism post myself, but couldn’t articulately thoughts clearly, so I’m reblogging this for future reference and/or future reflections: plus, it’s also a nice read.

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