What Does Existentialism Mean and Why Should You Care?

Existentialism, a philosophical and literary movement that emerged in the 1940s, has attracted a lot of interest over the years. Despite being a complex topic, understanding what existentialism means is essential. This article will explore what existentialism is, emphasizing its relevance in our modern-day world.

What is existentialism, and how did it come about?

Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement hostile to abstract speculation, encouraging individual experiences as unique and the only way to understand the existence. It emphasizes freedom, authenticity and individualism as key to grappling with the human condition.

It emerged in the early 1940s in post-war Europe and was influenced by World War II and the idea of the human experience at the time. It was a reaction against traditional philosophy that focused on metaphysics and held that certainty is possible. Existentialism focuses on individual freedom, the non-universality of human culture, and the idea that people create who they are through their choices and actions.

The Foundational Elements of Existentialism

Existence Precedes Essence

The fundamental notion of existentialism is that a person should make choices independent of any pre-defined essence or human nature. Existentialists believe that an individual’s essential nature is created through their choices and actions. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, “existence precedes essence.”


Authenticity is the concept that individuals need to be true to themselves and honest in their relationships with others. One must not hide behind societal norms, but face the choices they make and their consequences. In short, individuals must be true to themselves and take responsibility for their decisions.

Anxiety (Angst)

Existentialists believe that anxiety, or angst, is a natural part of human life. The anxiety derives from the knowledge that humans must make choices independently without any universality of human values or morals guiding them. Existentialists acknowledge the uncertainty and anxiety of the human condition and see this anxiety as a part of the human experience.

Freedom and Responsibility

Existentialists believe that individuals must be responsible for their actions and choices. This is especially true because existentially those are the only things that have any real value. As such, every individual must recognize that their actions have the potential to change the world and carry a significant degree of responsibility.

Why is Existentialism Relevant?

Existentialism and the Individual

Existentialism meets the needs of the modern individual. In today’s society, people struggle for individuality, identity and self-worth. Existentialism offers an alternative to traditional ways of understanding our existence, from questioning what is real and true to dealing with anxiety and freedom.

Existentialism and Society

Existentialism offers a critical view of social constructs and cultural assumptions. Its emphasis on the individual choice and responsibility over social constructs can help individuals realize their uniqueness and get out of the box created by stereotypes and conformism.

Existentialism and Psychology

Existentialist ideas also take center stage in humanistic psychology, which examines how individuals treat self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Existentialism highlights the importance of making meaning in one’s life and moving beyond the confines of social conditioning—ideas that are also central tenets of humanistic psychology.

Authors and their works associated with Existentialism

Author Works
Jean-Paul Sartre No Exit, Being and Nothingness, Nausea
Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals
Albert Camus The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague

Existentialism in Popular Culture

Existentialism has played a crucial role in shaping popular culture in the media. Its impacts can be felt in various forms of mainstream media such as films, books, music, and social media. The films The Matrix, Fight Club, and Waking Life, for example, contain many of the existential themes that are widely debated.

The Critiques of Existentialism and their responses


Existentialism has often been criticized for promoting individualism and a self-centered approach to life. Critics have accused the movement of ignoring the essential connections that humans have with one another.

The response is that existentialism isn’t promoting egoism; rather, it emphasizes taking responsibility for one’s choices and defining one’s unique identity.


Some have critiqued existentialism, claiming that it promotes escapism from society’s challenges and responsibilities.

The response is that existentialism emphasizes facing the challenges of human experiences directly. Individuals must recognize their anxiety, engage in self-reflection and make choices based on their conclusions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Existentialism

What is the universal essence of humans in existentialism?

In existentialism, there is no universal essence of humans. Individuals are free to make choices regarding their lives, define their unique identity and ultimately create their own essence.

What is the role of freedom in existentialism?

Freedom is a vital component of existentialism. Individuals are not bound by any pre-existing characteristics or societal constructs, and freedom is what enables them to find their unique identity.

Why is authenticity important to existentialism?

Authenticity is significant to existentialism because it emphasizes being honest with oneself and making choices based on one’s values and beliefs. In short, authenticity means being true to oneself.

What is the difference between existentialism and nihilism?

Nihilism is the belief that everything is meaningless and purposeless. Existentialism, on the other hand, insists that humans create their own meaning through their choices and actions.

What is the difference between existentialism and absurdism?

Existentialism and absurdism have subtle differences. Absurdism entails an acceptance of the meaninglessness of life. Existentialism, on the other hand, does not disregard the idea of meaning but asserts that individuals are responsible for creating their meaning through their choices and actions.


Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that has left a significant impact on modern-day culture. Its emphasis on individualism, authenticity, anxiety, and freedom provides a unique perspective on human experiences. While existentialism has been the target of many critiques, its relevance in modern-day society is undeniable.


  • Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of Life. Guildford Press.
  • Moore-Gilbert, B. (2009). Literary theories in practice. Routledge.
  • Norman, R. J. (2006). The Philosophy of Existentialism. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

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