Existentialism in the Early 19th Century

Major Themes

Because of the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, the term
is impossible to define precisely. Certain themes common to virtually all
existentialist writers can, however, be identified. The term itself suggests one
major theme: the stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, on
subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice.

Moral Individualism

Most philosophers since Plato have held that the highest ethical good is the
same for everyone; insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles
other morally perfect individuals. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren
Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted
against this tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual is
to find his or her own unique vocation. As he wrote in his journal, “I must find
a truth that is true for me . . . the idea for which I can live or die.” Other
existentialist writers have echoed Kierkegaard\'s belief that one must choose
one\'s own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Against the
traditional view that moral choice involves an objective judgment of right and
wrong, existentialists have argued that no objective, rational basis can be
found for moral decisions. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are
to count asmoral situations.


All existentialists have followed Kierkegaard in stressing the importance of
passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth.
They have insisted, accordingly, that personal experience and acting on one\'s
own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. Thus, the understanding
of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a
detached, objective observer. This emphasis on the perspective of the individual
agent has also made existentialists suspicious of systematic reasoning.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and other existentialist writers have been deliberately
unsystematic in the exposition of their philosophies, preferring to express
themselves in aphorisms, dialogues, parables, and other literary forms. Despite
their antirationalist position, however, most existentialists cannot be said to
be irrationalists in the sense of denying all validity to rational thought. They
have held that rational clarity is desirable wherever possible, but that the
most important questions in life are not accessible to reason or science.
Furthermore, they have argued that even science is not as rational as is
commonly supposed. Nietzsche, for instance, asserted that the scientific
assumption of an orderly universe is for the most part a useful fiction.

Choice and Commitment

Perhaps the most prominent theme in existentialist writing is that of choice.
Humanity\'s primary distinction, in the view of most existentialists, is the
freedom to choose. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a
fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes
choices that create his or her own nature. In the formulation of the 20th-
century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. Choice
is therefore central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal
to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility.
Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have
argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their
commitment wherever it leads.

Dread and Anxiety

Kierkegaard held that it is spiritually crucial to recognize that one
experiences not only a fear of specific objects but also a feeling of general
apprehension, which he called dread. He interpreted it as God\'s way of calling
each individual to make a commitment to a personally valid way of life. The word
anxiety (German Angst) has a similarly crucial role in the work of the 20th-
century German philosopher Martin Heidegger; anxiety leads to the individual\'s
confrontation with nothingness and with the impossibility of finding ultimate
justification for the choices he or she must make. In the philosophy of Sartre,
the word nausea is used for the individual\'s recognition of the pure contingency
of the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the total
freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.


Existentialism as a distinct philosophical and literary movement belongs to the
19th and 20th centuries, but elements of existentialism can be found in the
thought (and life) of Socrates, in the Bible, and in the work of many premodern
philosophers and writers.


The first to anticipate the major concerns of modern existentialism was the
17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal rejected the rigorous
rationalism of his contemporary René Descartes, asserting, in his Pensées (1670),
that a systematic philosophy that presumes to explain God and humanity is a form
of pride. Like later existentialist writers, he saw human life in terms of
paradoxes: The