What Influenced Existentialism?


Vincent White

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice. It emerged in the 20th century, in response to the rise of rationalism and scientific thinking. This movement was influenced by several factors, including the social and political context of the time, as well as the work of several prominent philosophers.

The Social and Political Context

At the turn of the 20th century, Europe was going through significant changes. Industrialization had led to urbanization, which in turn had led to a breakdown of traditional social structures. People were no longer bound by their communities and families; instead, they were free to pursue their own goals and desires.

This newfound freedom was both exhilarating and terrifying. On one hand, people were excited by the possibilities that lay before them. On the other hand, they were overwhelmed by the responsibility of making their own way in life.

In addition to these social changes, Europe was also experiencing political upheaval. The two world wars had left a profound impact on European society; people had witnessed firsthand the horrors that human beings were capable of inflicting on each other.

These experiences left many people feeling disillusioned with traditional values and institutions. They began to question whether there was any meaning or purpose to life at all.

The Work of Søren Kierkegaard

One philosopher who greatly influenced existentialism was Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard lived in Denmark in the 19th century and wrote extensively about individual freedom and choice.

Kierkegaard argued that true freedom could only be achieved by embracing uncertainty and taking responsibility for one’s own choices. He believed that many people were living “inauthentic” lives, simply going through the motions without truly engaging with their own existence.

Kierkegaard’s ideas about individualism and authenticity would prove to be influential for later existentialist thinkers.

The Work of Friedrich Nietzsche

Another philosopher who had a significant impact on the development of existentialism was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a German philosopher who lived in the 19th century.

Nietzsche believed that traditional morality and religion were no longer viable in the modern world. He argued that human beings needed to create their own values and meaning, rather than relying on external authorities.

Nietzsche’s ideas about the “death of God” and the need for individual self-creation would be taken up by later existentialist thinkers, who saw them as a call to embrace individual freedom and choice.


Existentialism emerged from a complex set of social, political, and philosophical factors. It was a response to the rapidly changing world of the 20th century, as well as to the work of several influential philosophers.

Today, existentialism continues to be an important philosophical movement, with many people finding resonance in its emphasis on individual freedom and choice.