What Do We Mean by Existentialism?


Vincent White

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emerged in the 20th century, primarily in Europe. It emphasizes individual freedom, choice, and subjective experience. The term “existentialism” comes from the Latin word “existentia,” which means existence or being.

At its core, existentialism is concerned with the nature of human existence and the meaning of life. It questions traditional beliefs and values and encourages individuals to create their own meaning and purpose in life.

The Key Concepts of Existentialism

Existentialism is a complex philosophy with many different ideas and perspectives. However, there are several key concepts that are central to existentialist thought:

1. Existence Precedes Essence

Existentialists believe that humans do not have an inherent nature or essence. Instead, we create our own essence through our actions and choices. In other words, we exist first and then define ourselves through our experiences.

2. Authenticity

Authenticity is a crucial aspect of existentialist thought. It emphasizes being true to oneself and living in accordance with one’s values and beliefs. Authenticity involves taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions, even if they lead to discomfort or conflict.

3. Freedom

Existentialists place great value on individual freedom and choice. They believe that we are responsible for creating our own lives rather than simply following predetermined paths or societal expectations.

The Legacy of Existentialism

Existentialism has had a significant impact on philosophy, literature, psychology, and other fields. It has influenced numerous thinkers and writers over the years, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and many others.

Despite its influence on modern thought, existentialism remains a highly debated topic among scholars and philosophers. Some argue that it is too individualistic and ignores the importance of social and political factors in shaping human experience. Others see it as a valuable perspective that emphasizes personal responsibility and freedom.

Ultimately, whether or not one agrees with existentialist ideas, it is clear that they have had a profound impact on the way we understand ourselves and our place in the world. By questioning traditional beliefs and values, existentialism encourages us to explore new possibilities for meaning and purpose in our lives.


In conclusion, existentialism is a complex and thought-provoking philosophy that challenges traditional beliefs about human nature and the meaning of life. It emphasizes individual freedom, choice, and authenticity, and encourages individuals to create their own values and purpose in life. While it may not be for everyone, those who embrace existentialist ideas can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world.