Defining existentialism as a philosophy is notoriously difficult, primarily because it embraces several philosophical positions, many of which conflict. Yet, existentialism can be generally defined as a reaction against traditional philosophy’s emphasis on the abstract, the objective, and the rational; instead it emphasizes the dynamic, the subjective, and the personal. Emphasizing personal involvement, engagement, choice, and commitment, existentialism is concerned with the existential, feeling, thinking individual who makes decisions and acts from a particular life situation rather than from a universal position determined by reason, history, or time. Existentialists advocate choosing an authentic life: a life not attained through social norms and everyday expectations but rather through the individual’s own choice, engagement, and self-creation. Consequently, abstractions and generalizations are avoided on the basis that each individual should choose and create his or her own nature. This radical freedom, checked only by death, which defines the limits of existence, and personal responsibility leads to the feelings of despair, boredom, and alienation popularly associated with existentialism. Thus at its core, existentialism is the study of problems of existence and questions of being. Questions of time—how the individual exists within the present and relates to the past and future—are central to many existentialist philosophers’ questioning of being.
As an intellectual, literary, and cultural movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, existentialism is largely identified with the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre. The major intellectual precursors of the movement are varied but are found primarily in the work of 19th-century Danish religious thinker S0ren Aabye Kierkegaard, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and Russian novelist Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky. A few major philosophers identified as existentialists include Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel, and Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo. However, many, most notably Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, rejected the label, in part to avoid generalization and group classification. As a cultural and literary movement, existentialism flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, largely under the directive of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.
Heidegger and Sartre
Concerning issues of time, two of the most important existentialist writers are Heidegger and Sartre. Yet, their differing conceptions of the power of the moment and its relation to time, as well as of individual freedom and choice, led them to differing theories of time. In Being and Time (1927), one of the most influential existential works published before World War II, Heidegger proposed a new conception of our relation to time and history. For Heidegger, existence is always historical. Rather than view time as a sequence of moments, he argued that human existence must be understood from three units of existential time: past, present, and future. Existential time is a unified structure in which the future recalls the past and gives meaning to the present. Existence, then, is more than just being present in a series of temporal moments; it is the orientation of oneself within the unity of a history. He further argued that while choice belongs to a moment, it is not limited to the moment. Thus, to lead an authentic life, the individual must understand choice within a historical framework. For Heidegger, human choice is always within the context of the past, present, and future, and therefore within the context of meanings and agendas that did not originate with the individual and so cannot be eliminated. The freedom to make choices, then, does not allow individuals the ability to escape their historical contexts. Rather, the freedom of choice allows humans the opportunity to create responses that have the potential to generate unexpected possibilities within their given context.
Whereas Heidegger argued that existence is historical and that individual freedom and choice are informed and checked by a historical context, Sartre argued a strikingly different position on being and history that was originally formulated in one of his best-known philosophical works, Being and Nothingness (1943). Sartre viewed history as the foundational situation in which the individual makes choices and the process of self-making occurs. His understanding of the individual’s position in time is largely informed by his theories on meaning, freedom, and choice. For Sartre, the individual’s only source of meaning is freedom—more specifically, freedom of choice. All things and beings, including humans, acquire meaning through human projection. Because that projection is totally free and not conditioned by the past, individuals are defined only by how they choose to define themselves. This open freedom allows individuals to completely control the meaning in their lives and thus to control the meaning of the past, present, and future. Individuals, then, are solely responsible for the future. Sartre argued that individuals fear this open freedom and responsibility and cling to rigid self- and social definitions. He demanded that human individuals recognize this freedom and act decisively in an otherwise inherently meaningless world.
Together Heidegger and Sartre raise questions about how the future is linked to the past and how the present is constructed. Both recognize that the past does not simply continue unguided, and both argue that the influence of the past is propelled by human freedom and choice. For Sartre, freedom of choice provides humans the agency to control the meaning of the past. For Heidegger, freedom of choice provides humans the agency to overcome the past. In addition, both reject the idea that rational analysis of the past can guide future values. For Heidegger, human choice is always contained within a framework of meanings and contexts that can be creatively reformed and manipulated to generate new possibilities. For Sartre, human choice is always separated from the past through a moment of indeterminate freedom: The individual is always granted the freedom to choose what past to propel, and in doing so, to shape the present and the future anew.
Whereas Heidegger and Sartre dealt with conventional views of time divided into past, present, and future, other existentialist writers—namely, their precursor Friedrich Nietzsche—adopted a cyclical view of time. Throughout his writing, though most notably in The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs (1882) and Thus Spake Zarathustra (published in four parts between 1883 and 1892), Nietzsche advocated a revival of the ancient concept of time as “eternal recurrence,” wherein time repeats itself cyclically and one’s life is lived over and over again. The cyclical nature of time bestows the individual with an enormous responsibility, and the way that one lives life becomes crucial. Nietzsche’s conception of time placed significant importance on questions of being and existence, as well as the significance of the choices one makes in life. Nietzsche’s premise is most notably dealt with by the 20th-century writer Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).
At the core of existentialism’s questioning of being is the questioning of time: What will humans choose to become? How much freedom and choice do humans have in relation to the past, to the present, and to the future? For most existentialists, freedom of choice and the ability to make authentic choices allow humans agency in carrying on the past, negotiating the present, and directing the future.
See also Dostoevsky, Fyodor M.; Heidegger, Martin;
Humanism; Kierkegaard, S0ren Aabye; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de
Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and time (J. Stambaugh, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press. (Original work published 1927)
Kundera, M. (1999). The unbearable lightness of being. New York: Harper.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The gay science: With a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs (W. Kaufman, Trans.). New York: Random House. (Original work published 1887)
Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and nothingness (H. Barnes, Trans.). New York: Philosophical Library.