Existentialism Philosophy Essay Questions

Author: Addison Ellis
Category: Phenomenology and Existentialism
Word Count: 1000

Mr. White

Mr. White is many things—a teacher, a husband, a father, a college graduate, and a medical patient, to name a few. Some of his features may be counted as accomplishments, others failures, and yet others unlucky accidents thrust upon him by the world. But is this all there is to Mr. White? According to the philosophical tradition of Existentialism, something is missing in this characterization. For the existentialist, we are not merely a collection of facts; we are also self-conscious, living,caring beings. While trees, seagulls, and fish are all similarly alive, they do not live the same sorts of lives that we do. Existentialism is the philosophical science of our peculiar sorts of lives.1

Our lives are ongoing activities. Mr. White’s existence, just like the existence of every similarly self-conscious, caring being, is more than a series of events or a set of facts. In providing such an understanding, Existentialism breathes new life into old ideas about the nature of value, freedom, and even more broadly into questions about the nature of reality and knowledge. In this essay, we will restrict our focus to what existentialists have to say about human nature and living a meaningful life.2

Existence Precedes Essence

Many philosophers, both historical and contemporary, believe that the way something is is determined by its essence. That is, essences are fixed determinants of the way things are. Those who follow this line of thought may take essences to be the non-physical and eternal standards to which things conform.3 Thus, the essence of a table is what determines table-like behavior. Likewise, the essence of a human being is what determines what a human being is like. These fixed determinants can range from principles given by God to those we attribute to society. Martin Heidegger helpfully points out that we often speak of the way “one” does things, referring to no one in particular. We say things like “this is the way one does x,” because doing x correctly means doing it in accordance with some pre-established standard.4 But Heidegger believes that this way of thinking should not extend to our ways of living. That is, we should not understand ourselves as living correctly only when we live “as one lives.” Existentialism reverses this picture by suggesting that it is our living which determines our essence, and not the other way around.

Let’s go back to Mr. White. In order to understand what sort of being he is, we must understand that who he is is not a fact he was born with, nor is it a fact that was established merely after some important events in his life unfolded. He is who he is because of what he chooses, and one can never stop choosing. For even by trying to decide that I will no longer make choices, I am making the choice not to choose. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous of the historical existentialists, expresses the idea that we are who we make ourselves, and not who we are pre-determined to be, with a concise slogan: “existence precedes essence.”5

Freedom & Authenticity

If Sartre is right and our lives are essentially up to us, then existentialists must also be committed to a robust kind of freedom, since we are not determined by what happens to us. But if Mr. White’s essence is up to him, and he’s free to craft his essence as he pleases, then on what standards does he draw to guide himself in his crafting? It would seem that existentialists cannot simply draw from a set of independently existing standards. If this were so, then who we are is again simply a matter of conforming to some pre-established standards.

If the standards are up to us, then why should we choose any one set of standards over any other? That is, how can we make sense of the idea that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live if there is no external standard for judging whether we have made the right choice?6 This is a difficult issue in Existentialism, one that is grappled with by all the major figures in the tradition. The answer we will entertain here is that it is possible to find a standard within our own activities that determines whether they are being performed well or poorly. This is what existentialists refer to as authenticity.7

Mr. White, knowing that he has terminal lung cancer, can arrange the final years of his life in a variety of ways; it is up to him how he will structure his remaining time. But there are two ways in which he can choose: (i) he can see his choices as simply thrust upon him by the world—i.e., he can believe that he really doesn’t have a choice at all, or (ii) he can see his choices ashis own while taking full responsibility for them. Only by acting in this way is Mr. White acting authentically, since it is only under these conditions that he is true to himself. Acting inauthentically, then, involves excusing oneself from responsibility by ignoring one’s freedom. The existentialist hopes to have shown that despite the lack of external guidance, we are perfectly capable of telling from within our own activities whether we are acting authentically or inauthentically.8


Existentialism gives us some tools for understanding (i) our essence, and (ii) how it is possible to live a meaningful life. The ideas defended by existentialists have been thought to have both positive and negative implications for us. On the one hand, our lives are not determined by God, society, or contingent circumstances; on the other hand, absolute freedom can be a burden. As Sartre puts it, “man is condemned to be free.”9 That is, it was never up to us to be free, and we cannot cease to be free. Since we must be free, and because freedom entails responsibility, we can never opt out of being responsible. Thus we are simultaneously unencumbered and encumbered by our freedom to choose who we will be.


1This is not to denigrate the lives of things radically different from us, but merely to point out that paradigm human creatures live peculiar sorts of lives. The demarcating line here between lives like ours and lives unlike ours needn’t be drawn along purely biological lines. There are potentially things—certain non-human animals, futuristic artificially intelligent systems—that have lives like ours, and whose lives are properly studied by Existentialism. Similarly, there are some biological humans—the very young, the severely mentally handicapped—whose lives are not like ours, and hence, whose lives are not properly studied by Existentialism.

2Existential themes can be traced as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions. Most philosophers today agree, however, that 19th-Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and 19th-Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did much to provide the framework for what Existentialism would become in its more definitive era. The major figures of Existentialism include not only Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also (perhaps more importantly) Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, in the 20th century.

3What Plato calls “forms.”

4This is an expression of what Heidegger calls the They-self, Being and Time Section 129

5Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism (20)

6There is some debate about whether Existentialism is actually a moral theory. One reason for the doubt is precisely this one – that there is nothing action-guiding about Existentialism.

7Steven Crowell makes this point in his SEP article when discussing Nietzsche’s idea of a ‘ruling instinct.’

8There is a serious worry here that must be addressed by the existentialist, and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader. While it seems better to act authentically than to act inauthentically, don’t we need to meet even more standards in order to count as living a truly good life? In other words, we might worry about whether authenticity is the only guiding principle that we really need. Perhaps it is possible to be an authentic genocidal dictator. If so, then perhaps Existentialism does not, on its own, suffice as a moral theory.

9Sartre, op. cit. (29)


Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie. Ed. Edward Robinson. New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism = (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme) ; Including, a Commentary on The Stranger (Explication De L’Étranger). Ed. John Kulka and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.

About the Author

Addison is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a B.A. in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently interested in philosophy of mind (especially problems of intentionality), epistemology (especially the role of philosophical intuitions in philosophical practice), Kant, and post-Kantian philosophy. Apart from philosophy, he is interested in playing good music, hanging out with his dog, Chessie, and watching/thinking about movies.
Website: https://sites.google.com/site/ellisphilosophy/

by 1000wordphilosophy

Existentialism is a philosophy whose popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109). The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. However, much can be gleaned from the original words of existentialist thinkers that can apply to the state of an existentialist education.

Keywords: Absurd Life; Anxiety; Authentic; Existential Moment; Existentialism; Kierkegaard; Knowledge; Pre-existential Period; Process of Learning


Existence Precedes Essence

Existence precedes essence. We make ourselves, we create our essence; this expression encompasses the major theory behind the existentialist philosophy. Its popularity was greatest in the 20th century, particularly during and after World War II. Existentialist thought was introduced through literary works written by such masters as Sartre, Camus and Dostoevsky (Wingo, 1965). Several existentialist philosophers have impacted the thinking that supports the tenets of this philosophy. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that one controls one's own life, that one has complete freedom "to choose and become what he wills himself to become" (p. 397). Jean-Paul Sartre stated that "the human project…is to create by free choice a life that is noble and beautiful self-construction" (Gutek, 2009, p. 109).

There is some question as to whether existentialism can really be called a philosophy because it lacks the systematic school of thought that other philosophies such as Idealism, Realism, or Pragmatism possess. However, there are common traits that encompass what many great thinkers perceive to be a philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of human beings (Noddings, 1995). Its major principle is that existence precedes essence. Thus, one's existence comes first, and then one defines him or herself through the choices he or she makes and the actions that evolve out of these choices. One is born and THEN he or she develops into who he or she will become as a person (Noddings, 1995). To existentialists, the world is

… an indifferent phenomenon, which, while it may not be antagonistic to human purposes, is nonetheless devoid of personal meaning… in this world, each person is born, lives, chooses his or her course and creates the meaning of his or her own existence (Gutek, 2009, p. 101).

Connecting Elements of Existential Thought

Existentialism is best illustrated by the common elements of thought attributed to existentialist thinkers. One is the thought that we are free from all external elements. Although we have a past, this past does not factor into the present moment of our life. External elements are, or one's past life is, only important if one chooses to make them important (Noddings, 1995). Another connection is the concept of responsibility. While one is free to make one's own choices, each person is responsible for what choices he makes. As Noddings suggests, one cannot "give away [his or her] freedom" to outside agents such as "the state, to parents, to teachers, to weaknesses, to the past, and to environmental conditions" (p. 18).

Of importance to the existentialist is the common message that "every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity" (Noddings, 1995, p. 18). While we know that there is a world full of reality, to the existentialist, this reality only becomes such when one is a basic part of it. Noddings states that "reality lies in [everyone's] experience and perception of the event rather than the isolated event" (p. 18). Noddings relates the example of the perception of two people listening to a speech:

… two men may hear the same speech, the same words, the same voice. One man's reality may be that the speaker is a political demagogue, for the other man the reality is that the speaker is an awaited political savior (p. 18).

According to existentialists, one must rely upon oneself and a relationship to those around him or her. One must possess a self-realization that one must relate to others, as he or she "lives out [his or her] life span in an adamant universe" (Nodding, 1995, p. 19). One is "thrown into the universe in which there is no fixed course of action, nor final structure of meaning" (McLemee, 2003, p. 1). Even though one is part of an adamant universe, one becomes the subject of his or her own life, a unique and idiosyncratic being. Nodding (1995) explains a basic concept of existentialism, that "people are not thrown into the world with a nature…only by planning, reflecting, choosing and acting, people can make themselves" (p. 59). To Greene (1973), a person only passes through life once and therefore must begin creating his or her own identity. In other words, people are born with no true identity or sense of self; they construct themselves over time. One can do this by taking "responsible action for the sake of wholeness, to correct lacks in concrete situations and thus alter themselves in the light of some projected ideal" (p. 261).

Knowledge is said "to be the way a [person] comes in touch with [his or her] world, puts questions to it, transforms its component parts into signs and tools, and translates [his or her] findings in words." This person uses this knowledge to make choices and determine future actions. Knowledge is used "to clarify and to open up a life" (Greene, 1973, p. 137). Through knowledge, one builds a life day to day.

Rather than illustrating their messages through argumentation and persuasion, as other philosophies have done, existentialists use the venue of stories to propagate their message. They do this because they believe that "life is not the unfolding of a logical plan; one cannot argue from trustworthy premises what a life should be like or how it should be lived…meaning is created as we live our lives reflectively." Stories personify the reflective experience and provide accounts of "the human struggle for meaning" (Nodding, 1995, p. 62). Characters generally face a life of "angst, anxiety and alienation in an absurd universe" (Gutek, 2009, p. 100).


The founders of existentialism made little reference to education and the role of the teacher, the learner, the environment or the curriculum. The mission of existentialism "analyzes the basic character of human existence and calls the attention of [people] to their freedom" (Wingo, 1965, p. 419). However, much can be gleaned from the original words of thinkers that apply to the state of an existentialist education, as education has come to be seen as "a foundation of human progress" (Park, 1968, p. 299). Furthermore, a "careful" understanding of existentialism reveals "strong qualitative ties which provide a framework for understanding the roles individuals play, and how they struggle with those roles in educational institutions" (Duemer, 2012). A few modern philosophers, including Van Cleve Morris and George Kneller, have written extensively, applying existential thought to education.

In an existentialist school, individualism must be "the center of educational endeavor" (Knight, 1998, p. 77). Van Cleve Morris (1968) sees education as a way "to awaken awareness in the learner," with the task of education falling chiefly on secondary schools at a time when schools provide "occasions and circumstances for the awakening and intensification of awareness" (Park, 1968, p. 300). He says that prior to puberty (a time called the Pre-Existential Period), children are not really aware of the human condition or yet conscious of their personal identity and should learn the basics of education. After puberty, young adolescents experience their Existential Moment, when they become more aware of themselves in relation to the world (Gutek, 2009). To Morris, school should be concerned with developing "that integrity in [students] necessary to the task of making personal choices of action, and taking personal responsibility for these choices, whether the culture smiles or frowns" (1968, p. 313).

School policy that supports the existentialist philosophy focuses on the individual student, as teachers enter the "private world" of the student. The here and now life experiences are more important than the messages from...

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