The roots of existentialism began with Kierkegaard in the first half of the 19th century. He was critical of Hegel's philosophical system which analysed being (or existence) in an abstract and impersonal way. Kierkegaard was concerned with the individuals subjective experience of what it is to exist as a human being. For Kierkegaard the individual constantly has to choose what s/he is to become without recourse to the findings of science and philosophy. As we saw in the philosophy of god section Kierkegaard thought that the individual could chose to have a religious faith in the face of an absurd world
The German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was influential in the development of methods that were later used by the existentialists. A phenomenologist is interested in things as they appear to consciousness, rather than things-in-themselves (See Kant). This emphasis on the individuals subjective consciousness was continued in the 20th century as existentialism developed.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) studied under Husserl. Heidegger was interested in the "question of being". He thought that western philosophy had been over obsessed with the problem of knowledge. For Heidegger the individual as being-in-the-world was characterised by action and anxiety: knowing the world is not our primary way of being in the world. In his later works, Heidegger became more interested in the history of concepts in language. He regarded his investigations as an attempt to disclose or uncover the concealed nature of being. His most fundamental question was: why should there be being at all, when there could be nothing? Although Heidegger claimed he was not an "existentialist", his influence on Sartre and the existentialist movement is undeniable.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) is, perhaps, the best-known existentialist. He was a gifted playwright and novelist who was offered the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, but refused it. Sartre thought that there was no fixed human nature or essence and so the individual has to choose his/her being. This choice brings with it responsibility. Those who do not choose, but base their lives on pre-arranged moral and philosophical systems are said to be acting in bad faith.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a journalist, novelist and philosopher. He thought that life was essentially absurd: the modern world is full of injustice, millions work in repetitive exploitative jobs. Camus thought that we should rebel against these absurdities by refusing to participate in them.
Existentialism in the 20th century reflects the loss of certainties in the post-modern world. If there are no clear philosophical answers to the question of existence, then each individual has to design their own life as a project. The choice and responsibility of that project falls entirely on them.
Søren Kierkegaard led a brilliant but turbulent life. His intellectual precocity was recognised by his father who educated him before he moved on to the University of Copenhagen where he studied for 10 years.
As a young man, Kierkegaard began to feel that he would always be an 'outsider'. In 1837 he fell in love with the 14 year old Regine Olson to whom he became engaged. However after much inner turmoil he broke of the engagement, convinced that his fate was to be the 'exception', the lonely wanderer.
Kierkegaard thought that philosophers who claimed that philosophy could show us the ultimate nature of spirit were deluded. Hegel claimed to have overcome paradox, but Kierkegaard was not convinced. Existence, for Kierkegaard, was paradoxical. The individual must find his/her spiritual path, not through the comfortable dogmatic rituals of the established church or the pseudo-clarity of Hegelian dialectics, but through action, action that is conscious of religious conviction.
Kierkegaard held that religious faith was central to an authentic existence. His Christian existentialism has continued to be influential. Theologians have had to face the horrific absurdities of the 20th century and religious (or theistic) existentialism shows how the individual can, with faith be authentic in an uncertain world.
Jean Paul Sartre was one of the leaders of the French post war left wing intellectual movement, co-founding with Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61) the journal Les Temps Modernes. His experiences as a resistance fighter shaped his philosophy that was influenced by the ideas of Husserl and Heidegger. Politically Sartre claimed he was a Marxist and thought that freedom had both political and individual dimensions.
Unlike Kierkegaard, Sartre was an atheist. As God does not exist, there are no 'essences'. By essence, Sartre is talking about a pre-defined human nature. What Sartre meant by the phrase 'existence precedes essence' is this: If there is no cosmic designer, then there is no design or essence of human nature. Human existence or being differs from the being of objects in that human being is self-conscious. This self-consciousness also gives the human subject the opportunity to define itself. The individual creates his/her self by making self-directed choices.
As human existence is self-conscious without being pre-defined, we, as autonomous beings are "condemned to be free": compelled to make future directed choices. These choices induce anxiety and uncertainty in to our psyches. If we, as individuals, simply follow custom or social expectations in order to escape this angst, we have escaped the responsibility of making our own choices, of creating our own essence. We have acted in bad faith.
To act authentically we must take responsibility for our future. We cannot choose what gender, class, or country we were born into, but we can choose what we make of them. We are free to create our own interpretation of ourselves in relation to the world, to create a project of possibilities, of authentic actions as the expression of freedom.