Log In Start studying!

Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads



Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

We've all heard of an existential crisis (and maybe even had one), but did you know there's an entire philosophy behind it that can offer some insight? After World War II in Europe, people were understandably feeling a bit lost in life. Existentialist philosophers, such as Jean Paul-Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, offered a solution to this existential dread by framing the world differently.

Existentialism: Definition

Existentialism is a school of philosophy that suggests humans create meaning for themselves and attempt to make rational choices in a meaningless and irrational world. Some key characteristics are:

  • Existence before essence: Human beings enter the world (existence) before forming their identity or purpose (essence).

  • Subjectivity and authenticity: Because the world has no meaning, individuals must make their own. This meaning is subjective and authentic to the individual.

  • Anxiety and angst: Individuals experience anxiety due to the overwhelming freedom of the world and the choices they have to make.

  • Absurdism: There is an absurdity in the futile nature of attempting to form meaning and purpose in a world without either.

"What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself."

–Jean Paul-Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism, 19461

History of Existentialism

Existentialism first developed in the mid-19th century as a reaction against traditional schools of philosophy, such as positivism and rationalism. Positivism and rationalism suggested that reason and logic were the sources of knowledge. Existentialism argued that reason and logic didn't exist at all.

When the 20th century arrived, it brought World War I and World War II, disillusioning an entire generation. The atrocities of war made the world seem even more senseless and meaningless than before, leading to an Age of Anxiety across Europe. Existentialism gained newfound popularity in a society rejecting traditional values.

The Age of Anxiety:

It is a period in Europe following World War I and World War II defined by anxiety and uncertainty about the future and the present, about existing.

Existentialist Philosophers

Since the beginnings of existentialism under Søren Kierkegaard, different philosophers have added their own takes. Over time, existentialism developed as a defined school of thought, but that is not to say individual philosophers agreed on every point.

Existentialist Philosophers: Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Many consider Søren Kierkegaard to be the father of existentialism, although he never used the term existentialism itself. He proposed the importance of personal meaning and purpose and accepting the anxiety that came with it.

"If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both; Laugh at the world's follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world's follies or weep over them, you will regret both."

–Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, 18432

Existentialism Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard StudySmarterFig. 1 - sketch of Soren Kierkegaard

It is essential to understand that existentialism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. Despite his distaste for the established Danish Church, Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian. He believed that trying to understand God was futile, and one must take a leap of faith and believe.

Existentialist Philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche was another influential philosopher of 19th-century existentialism, but unlike Kierkegaard, Nietzsche harshly criticized Christianity, claiming God was dead. He placed importance on the individual creating meaning in life because there was nothing that came after existence.

Existentialism Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche StudySmarterFig. 2 - Friedrich Nietzsche

Existentialist Philosophers: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose."

–Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism, 19473

Existentialism Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre StudySmarterFig. 3 - Jean Paul-Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher who was vital in popularizing existentialism in the 20th century. He introduced the "existence before essence" concept that we discussed earlier. He also emphasized the freedom offered by existentialism.

In 1968, French authorities arrested Jean-Paul Sartre for civil disobedience. French president, Charles de Gaulle, ordered his release, saying, "You don't arrest Voltaire. (Voltaire was a famous 16th-century French philosopher.)

Existentialist Philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Simone de Beauvoir may have had a relationship with Jean Paul-Sartre, but she was a philosopher in her own right and a very influential figure in the feminist movement. She explored a particular dilemma of existentialism: the battle between absolute freedom and constraining circumstances (such as the possible consequence of a given action).

Existentialism Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir StudySmarterFig. 4 - Simone de Beauvoir

Existentialist Philosophers: Albert Camus (1913–1960)

Albert Camus was another paramount 20th-century existentialist philosopher. He developed the philosophy of absurdism out of existentialism by emphasizing the futility of trying to create meaning or make rational choices. He was also a novelist and playwright, allowing the common reader to understand existentialism and absurdism.

Existentialism Philosopher Albert Camus StudySmarterFig. 5 - Albert Camus

"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world."

–Albert Camus, The Stranger, 19423

The French in Algeria

For the most part, French existentialists opposed colonial rule in Algeria, an extremely hot topic following World War II. They believed that denying the freedom of others interfered with the individual freedom offered by existentialism. Albert Camus was a notable exception. He had been born and raised in Algeria, and while he called for the rights of Algerians, he stopped before calling for Algerian freedom.

Nihilism vs Existentialism

Nihilism takes on a bit more of a negative perspective than existentialism. While existentialism encourages individuals to create their meaning, nihilism suggests that trying to create meaning is futile and not worth it.

Existentialism Examples

There are many examples of the influence of existentialism in literature. In addition to Albert Camus, we can look to writers of earlier generations, such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose characters often faced existential crises.

Existentialism Franz Kafka StudySmarterFig. 6 - Franz Kafka

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for."

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 18805

Existentialism Fyodor Dostoevsky StudySmarterFig. 7 - Fyodor Dostoevsky

But what about something a little more modern? Existentialism had already found its place in drama. Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot in 1953 is a significant example of this. Even today, we can see the influence of existentialism in modern film. Think of movies like The Matrix and The Joker, where characters face the same existential questions and anxiety as those decades before.

Existentialism - Key Takeaways

  • Existentialism is a school of philosophy that suggests humans must create their own meaning and purpose in a meaningless world.
  • Key characteristics include:
    • existence before essence
    • subjectivity and authenticity
    • anxiety and angst
    • absurdity
  • Existentialism began with Søren Kierkegaard in the mid-19th century but found increased popularity during the Age of Anxiety with Jean-Paul Sartre.
  • Influential existentialist writers include Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.


  1. Jean Paul-Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism (1946)
  2. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843)
  3. Jean Paul-Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism (1946)
  4. Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Frequently Asked Questions about Existentialism

Existentialism is a school of philosophy that suggests humans must create meaning and purpose in a world that has neither.

The myth of Sisyphus is an example of existentialism in action. Each day, Sisyphus rolls a heavy rock up a hill. And each day, it falls, forcing him to start again. His actions are ultimately meaningless, but it is how he defines meaning in his own world. Camus pointed out this metaphor in a homologous book.

Existentialism began in the mid-19th century with Søren Kierkegaard but found renewed popularity during the Age of Anxiety following World War I and World War II.

The main idea of existentialism is that humans must create their own meaning and purpose in a world that doesn't have either. 

The theory of existentialism is that humans must create their own meaning and purpose in a world that doesn't have either. This freedom can lead to angst and anxiety.

Final Existentialism Quiz

Existentialism Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Which are the main ideas of existentialism?

Show answer


essence before existence

Show question


Who is considered the father of existentialism?

Show answer


Søren Kierkegaard

Show question


Religion and existentialism are mutually exclusive.

Show answer



Show question


During what period in Europe did existentialism see a rise in popularity?

Show answer


The Age of Anxiety

Show question


Which existentialist philosopher claimed God was dead?

Show answer


Friedrich Nietzche

Show question


Which existentialist philosopher proposed the concept of "existence before essence"?

Show answer


Jean Paul-Sartre

Show question


According to existentialism, why does anxiety develop?

Show answer


The freedom of creating your own meaning and the choices you have to make.

Show question


How did World War I and World War II influence the rise of existentialism?

Show answer


The atrocities of war made the world seem even more meaningless than before and people began rejecting traditional values.

Show question


Which playwright wrote the existentialist play Waiting for Godot?

Show answer


Samuel Beckett

Show question


Which existentialist philosopher developed the philosophy of absurdism?

Show answer


Albert Camus

Show question


of the users don't pass the Existentialism quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Get FREE ACCESS to all of our study material, tailor-made!

Over 10 million students from across the world are already learning smarter.

Get Started for Free