Existentialism was a movement in continental European philosophy that had its heyday in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century. It has since been superseded by some more recent developments, from hermeneutics and critical theory to postmodernism and poststructuralism. Philosophy, like art, never remains frozen in time, but moves on from one movement or trend to the next, and it often appears that a phenomenon such as existentialism is passé for the reason of its age even while its relevance to our times might be even greater than during its heyday. Is existentialism passé? My answer is no, and here’s why.
First, who were the existentialists and what is, or was, existentialism? It’s best to speak of this not as any straightforward theory but as a rather loose movement of writers, most of whom were philosophers but many were writers of fiction. The image of a herd of cats comes to mind; cats, to their credit, are not herd animals, and nor were the existentialists. They were a motley assortment of individuals who were very far from agreeing to any kind of core doctrine. Among philosophers, its nineteenth-century forerunners included especially Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, while its principal twentieth-century writers included Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and José Ortega y Gasset. Its more prominent novelists included Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Franz Kafka, among others. Most of these writers didn’t call themselves existentialists, in some cases because the term didn’t exist yet and in others because of its popular association with Sartre and de Beauvoir. Others resisted the label because they didn’t like labels.
Philosophy can be likened to a conversation that has been going on for two and a half millennia, and as is the case with any conversation, things often take a turn for one reason or another. Someone asks a new question or challenges some old idea, and the conversation moves on. Many good ideas can get left behind—sometimes because they’re debunked or replaced with a better idea and sometimes for no good reason at all. The conversation simply goes in another direction. Something like this happened to classical American pragmatism. By the mid-twentieth century, Anglo-American philosophers didn’t exactly refute it; they simply moved on. Something similar happened with existentialism.
Unless we’re speaking specifically of the thought of Sartre and de Beauvoir, a better term that existentialism to designate this group of writers is “philosophers of existence,” where existence means human existence. The questions they were asking all pertain to this, or to several of the most fundamental matters that concern any thinking human being: what is the meaning, or the meanings, of human existence? What does it mean to be at all? What is happening to us in this modern world? Can we make ourselves at home in a world of science and ubiquitous technology, a world without absolutes and where more or less all the values of old have been called into question?
These are bold questions, and these writers themselves often wrote with a fearlessness that for one reason or another was more common then than now. Consider Nietzsche: no one else writes like that, or ever has. You can recognize his voice and his style often after a single sentence, and that’s before you even get to the ideas. Questions that seem to come out of nowhere, philosophy “from the spirit of music,” an imagination that could rival the greatest artists of his day. You don’t need to agree with him to admire what he was attempting—nothing less than a “revaluation of all values,” a quasi-psychological diagnosis of the culture of his time, and a radical departure in thinking after what he famously called “the death of God.”
There are many examples of existential thinkers and books that speak to our time as much as they spoke to their own and sometimes more so. Consider a book like Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society of 1951. I consider this book a must read for anyone who wants to understand what’s happening in the modern world and some of the basic conflicts that underlie not only the time in which it was written but our own. The kind of cultural undercurrents he was writing about don’t change quickly, but are centuries in the making and persist through the more surface-level changes that make the news. The conflict between the individual and the mass—mass thinking—was not a phenomenon of post-war Europe alone. This book, and many others like it, speaks to themes that are universal. Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, from 1940, is about suicide—not the psychology of it but the philosophy, the thinking behind it. Suicide, Camus believed, is the most fundamental question of philosophy: does life itself have a meaning, or maybe more than one? The times, he believed, are such that it now appears life has no meaning. If it doesn’t, this raises an obvious question: to be or not to be? If we decide that life is without some objectively knowable meaning, does suicide follow? If one believes in God, one will probably want to say that suicide is not legitimate, but the question is what if one doesn’t, as Camus himself did not? His view was that even if there’s no one big meaning in life, it’s still both possible and necessary to live. In his words, “Although The Myth of Sisyphus poses mortal problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”
One more example, of the dozens I could mention, is Karl Jaspers’ book of 1935, Reason and Existenz. Jaspers was a prolific writer, and two large questions he would often speak to are what is the meaning of reason and is there any transcendence in human life, some higher possibility of individual existence than the immanent and the everyday? Jaspers, like so many philosophers of existence, believed that these are answerable questions, however complex and nuanced our answers will need to be.
The existentialists were not technicians, logicians—those accountants of the mind—or rule followers. They were thinkers in a larger sense, and they had an attitude. Nearly all of them had an imagination, a boldness of mind, and a sense of mystery. They looked beneath surfaces and spoke to their time without the whole matter degenerating into irrationalism or subjectivism. Whether their arguments were logically tidy mattered less than what they had to say. Here is a question we can ask of any philosopher, living or dead: do they have something to say? And if they do, does what they say matter? Does it make a difference to how we understand the world, ourselves, and how we’re living? You’re not always going to agree with this group of free spirits—and they weren’t exactly a group. They didn’t agree among themselves, but what they had to say mattered. You couldn’t be indifferent to writers like this. They didn’t bore their readers with unnecessary technicality and jargon, as philosophers are so often accused of now, even while they were speaking about matters that are the opposite of simple, issues like mortality, meaning, guilt, authenticity, transcendence, mass society, technology, self-creation, and many related themes.
We need writers and thinkers like this. Bring back the existentialists. What they had to say—most of them, most of the time—is more relevant to our time than their own. University courses on these writers are always popular, and if you want to know why, read any of them and see for yourself.