What Is Existentialism According to Oxford Dictionary?


Martha Robinson

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as “a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” Let’s explore this definition in detail.

Key Tenets of Existentialism

Existentialism is a complex philosophy with many different interpretations, but there are some key tenets that are common across most schools of thought. These include:

  • Individual Freedom: Existentialists believe that individuals have complete freedom to make their own choices and determine their own path in life.
  • Responsibility: With freedom comes responsibility. Existentialists emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and choices.
  • Authenticity: In order to live a meaningful life, one must be true to oneself and live in accordance with one’s own values.
  • Anxiety: The freedom and responsibility inherent in existentialism can lead to anxiety about the meaning and purpose of life.

The Roots of Existentialism

Existentialism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction against traditional philosophical systems such as rationalism and empiricism. It was heavily influenced by the work of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is often considered one of the founding fathers of existentialism. He argued that traditional morality was based on a flawed understanding of human nature and advocated for individuals to create their own values based on their unique experiences.

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger believed that traditional philosophy was too focused on abstract concepts and ignored the concrete, lived experience of individuals. He emphasized the importance of understanding one’s own existence and the world in which one lives.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre is perhaps the most famous existentialist philosopher. He argued that individuals are completely free and responsible for their own actions, and that this freedom can be both liberating and terrifying.

Applications of Existentialism

Existentialism has had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, including literature, psychology, and theology. It has been used to explore questions about the meaning of life, the nature of human existence, and the role of individual choice in shaping our lives.


Existentialist themes can be found in many works of literature. For example, Albert Camus’ novel “The Stranger” explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and authenticity through its protagonist Meursault.


Existentialism has also influenced psychology, particularly in the areas of humanistic psychology and existential therapy. These approaches emphasize the importance of subjective experience and personal responsibility in mental health treatment.


Some theologians have drawn on existentialist ideas to explore questions about faith and spirituality. For example, Paul Tillich’s work on “the courage to be” emphasizes the importance of confronting anxiety and taking responsibility for one’s own existence.


In conclusion, existentialism is a complex philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom, responsibility, authenticity, and anxiety. It emerged as a reaction against traditional philosophical systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and has had a significant impact on fields such as literature, psychology, and theology.