EXISTENTIALISM

Existence + Essence= Existentialism
Is it more important what you intend to be or think you are
or is it what you do. In other words, you think of yourself
as honest and yet you cheated on the last quiz (and
justified it somehow)? Are you the sum of your actions
or your intent?
Before you thought about who you were, were you you?
 I think, therefore, I am.
--Rene Descartes

MEDICAL WARNING:
MRS. W  IS NOT ENDORSING EXISTENTIALISM AS BEING 
ANYTHING MORE THAN A PHILOSOPHY. YOU ARE 
RESPONSIBLE FOR LEARNING THE TENETS OF 
EXISTENTIALISM;  YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LOVE THEM OR 
EVEN LIKE IT ALL THAT MUCH.
EXISTENTIALISM CAN BE A WEE BIT DEPRESSING IF VIEWED 
IN A “LIFE­IS­MEANINGLESS, GLASS­HALF­EMPTY” LIGHT. 
TAKE HEART and TAKE NOTES.

Do we have to take notes?
 This Power Point will be online. It does
not, however, make total sense on its own.
 Therefore, you probably want to jot down
examples and explanations that go with
the slides. You will be tested throughout
on understanding, NOT regurgitation.

Chalktalk-Existential Questions:







Existential question" is: a question concerning the
essence of what it means to be alive, such as:
What is the meaning of life? = What is the meaning
(essence) of existence?
Who am I (essentially)?
What is my true nature/essence?
What is my true identity?
What is my greater purpose?
How should I live my life?
What is death? What happens when we die?
Is there a god, and, if so, what is her nature?

A complex philosophy 
emphasizing the 
absurdity of reality 
and the human 
responsibility to make 
choices and accept 
consequences!

ANDREW WYETH
Christina’s World (1948)

It was during the 
Second World War, 
when Europe found 
itself in a crisis 
faced with death and 
destruction, that the 
existential 
movement began to 
flourish, popularized 
in France in the 
1940s…

GEORGIO DE CHIRICO
Love Song

Big Ideas of Existentialism

Despite encompassing a 
huge range of philosophical, 
religious, and political 
ideologies, the underlying 
concepts of existentialism 
are simple…

MARK ROTHKO
Untitled (1968)

Cogito ergo sum.

Existence Precedes Essence
Existentialism is the title of the set of philosophical 
ideals that emphasize the existence of the human being, 
the lack of meaning and purpose in life, and the solitude 
of human existence… “Existence precedes essence” 
implies that the human being has no essence (no essential 
self).

Absurdism
• The belief nothing can explain or 
rationalize human existence.  
• There is no answer to “Why am I?”
• Humans exist in a meaningless, irrational 
universe and any search for order will 
bring them into direct conflict with this 
universe.

“You will never be happy if 
you continue to search for 
what happiness consists of. 
You will never live if you are 
looking for the meaning of 
life.”

“It was previously a question of finding out 
whether or not life had to have a meaning to be 
lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that 
it will be lived all the better if it has no 
meaning.”

Choice and Commitment
• Humans have freedom to choose
• Each individual makes choices that 
create his or her own nature
• Because we choose, we must accept risk 
and responsibility for wherever our 
commitments take us

“A human being is absolutely free and absolutely responsible. Anguish is 
the result.” –Jean­Paul Sartre

Dread and Anxiety

MAN RAY
Les Larmes (Tears)

Dread and Anxiety
• Dread is a feeling of general 
apprehension. Kierkegaard interpreted it 
as God’s way of calling each individual to 
make a commitment to a personally valid 
way of life.
• Anxiety stems from our understanding 
and recognition of the total freedom of 
choice that confronts us every moment, 
and the individual’s confrontation with 
nothingness.

Nothingness and Death

EDVARD MUNCH
Night in Saint Cloud (1890)

Nothingness and Death
• Death hangs over all of us. Our 
awareness of it can bring freedom or 
anguish.
• I am my own existence. Nothing structures 
my world.
• “Nothingness is our inherent lack of self. We are in 
constant pursuit of a self. Nothingness is the creative 
well­spring from which all human possibilities can be 
realized.” –Jean­Paul Sartre

All existentialists are concerned with the study of being or 
ontology. 
TO REVIEW: An existentialist believes that a person’s life 
is nothing but the sum of the life he has shaped for himself. 
At every moment it is always his own free will choosing 
how to act. He is responsible for his actions, which limit 
future actions. Thus, he must create a morality in the 
absence of any known predetermined absolute values. 
God does not figure into the equation, because even if God 
does exist, He does not reveal to men the meaning of their 
lives. Honesty with oneself is the most important value. 
Every decision must be weighed in light of all the 
consequences of that action…
Life is absurd, but we engage it!

Edward Hopper

“New York Movie” (1939)

Human Subjectivity
“I will be what I choose to be…”
It is impossible to transcend 
human subjectivity.
“There are no true connections 
between people…”
My emotions are yet another 
choice I make. I am 
responsible for them.
Edward Hopper

“New York Movie” (1939)

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

In reason, subjectivity refers to the
property of perceptions, arguments, and
language as being based in a subject's
point of view, and hence influenced in
accordance with a particular bias.

The Stranger presents a world that is
completely subjective. Mersault’s decisions
throughout the text embody the tenets of
Existentialism.

Objectivity

Subjectivity’s opposite property is
objectivity, which refers to such as
based in a separate, distant, and
unbiased point of view, such that
concepts discussed are treated as
objects.
A scientist and a spiritual man have
one thing in common– each seeks to
understand an objective truth in the
world.

Human existence cannot be captured by 
reason or objectivity –– it must include 
passion, emotion and the subjective…

Each of us is responsible for 
everything and to every 
human being. 

–Simone de Beauvoir

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE
Sky Above White Clouds I (1962)

Some Famous 
Existentialists
• Søren Kierkegaard 
(1813­1855)

• Friedrich Nietzsche 
(1844­1900)

• Jean­Paul Sartre (1905­
1980)

• Albert Camus (1913­
1960)

“A woman is not born…she 
is created.”
de Beauvoir’s most famous text is 
The Second Sex (1949), which some 
claim is the basis for current 
gender studies…

L’Étranger (The Stranger or The 
Outsider)
• Written by Albert Camus in 1942 (who did not sail the 
ocean blue)

Albert Camus disassociated himself 
from the existentialists but 
acknowledged man’s lonely condition 
in the universe. His “man of the 
absurd” (or absurd hero) rejects 
despair and commits himself to the 
anguish and responsibility of living as 
best he can. 
Basically, man creates himself through the choices he makes. 
There are no guides for these choices, but he has to make them 
anyway, which renders life absurd…

Camus’ absurd world
• The world of values is never predictable nor 
controllable.
• A gap exists between man’s intellectual 
constructs (meaning) and the universe 
(reality).
• He cannot justify new values by appeal to 
convention. “Americans have always 
valued free speech.”

Alienation or 
Estrangement
• From all other 
humans
• From human 
institutions
• From the past
• From the future
• We only exist right now, 
right here…
EDGAR DEGAS
“L’absinthe” (1876)