DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2024, from

1. Historical development

Although such earlier thinkers as Augustine, Montaigne, Shakespeare and Pascal have been called existentialists, the term should be reserved for a loosely connected group of thinkers in recent times who were responding to certain views that became widespread in the nineteenth century. These views include, first, the scientific picture of reality as a meaningless, value-free collection of material objects in causal interactions, and second, the modern sense of society as an artificial construct that is inevitably in conflict with the aspirations of the individual. German Idealism had attempted to counteract the implications of these new ideas, but idealism had collapsed by the 1840s, and the result was a growing feeling that the individual is ultimately alone and unsupported in a cold and meaningless universe (see Idealism).

Existentialism appeared in the nineteenth century alongside romanticism, but it was different from romanticism in important respects. For one thing, where romanticism tried to evoke a sense of the individual’s participation in the larger context of nature, the first great existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, held that humans are at the most basic level solitary, ‘existing individuals’ with no real connections to anything in this world. Instead of suggesting that we are at home in this world, Kierkegaard tried to intensify the individual’s feeling of anxiety and despair in order to bring about a ‘leap of faith’ that would bring the person into a defining relationship to the God-man (Christ).

The next figure usually included in the pantheon of existentialists, Friedrich Nietzsche, began from the assumption that the development of science and critical thinking in Western history has led to the result that people have lost the ability to believe in a transcendent basis for values and belief. When Nietzsche said that ‘God is dead’, he meant that all the things people previously thought of as absolutes – the cosmic order, Platonic Forms, divine will, Reason, History – have been shown to be human constructions, with no ultimate authority in telling us how to live our lives. In the face of the growing ‘nihilism’ that results from the death of God, Nietzsche tried to formulate a vision of a healthy form of life people can achieve once they have given up all belief in absolutes (see Nihilism).

The translation of Kierkegaard’s works and the discovery of Nietzsche’s writings had an immense impact on German thought after the First World War. The psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers, drew on these two figures to develop what he called a ‘philosophy of existence’. Martin Heidegger, influenced by Kierkegaard as well as by the movement called ‘philosophy of life’ (then associated with the names of Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey and Henri Bergson), began his major work, Being and Time (1927), with an ‘existential analytic’ aimed at describing life from the standpoint of concrete, everyday being-in-the-world (see Lebensphilosophie). Heidegger’s thought was also influenced by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, an approach to philosophy that emphasizes description of our experience as it is prior to reflection and theorizing (see Phenomenological movement).

Working independently in France, Gabriel Marcel was building on Bergson’s philosophy to develop an alternative to the dominant idealist philosophy taught in the universities. Basing his reflections on his own experience of life, Marcel claimed that a human being must be understood as an embodied existence bound up with a concrete situation. Because the body and the situation can never be completely comprehended by the intellect, Marcel sees them as part of what he calls the ‘mystery’. Maurice Merleau-Ponty took over Marcel’s notion of embodied being-in-a-situation as basic for his own existential phenomenology. Jean-Paul Sartre also drew on Marcel’s thought, but he was especially influenced by the thought of Husserl and Heidegger. It seems that the term ‘existentialism’ was first used by critics of Sartre, but it came to be accepted in the 1940s by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as they replied to their critics. Merleau-Ponty and Albert Camus were initially associated with the movement called existentialism during its heyday after the Second World War, but both eventually rejected the term as they came to distance themselves from Sartre due to political differences.

There have been important developments outside Germany and France. The Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, influenced by Dilthey’s philosophy of life, developed a number of ideas that closely parallel those of Heidegger and other existentialist thinkers. The novels and short stories of the Russian writer, Fëdor Dostoevskii, were influential not only for Russian existentialists like Nikolai Berdiaev, but for Heidegger, Sartre and Camus as well. Existentialism has also had a profound impact on other fields. The movement of existential theology remains influential today (see Existentialist theology), and existential psychoanalysis (especially Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss and Rollo May) continues to be of interest in psychotherapy. Though existentialism is no longer a central movement in philosophy, many of its principal exponents continue to be important in current philosophical discussions.

Citing this article:
Guignon, Charles B.. Historical development. Existentialism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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