What Is Existentialism in a Nutshell?


Vincent White

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom, choice, and responsibility. It is a complex and multifaceted philosophy that has had a significant impact on literature, art, and psychology. In this article, we will explore the key ideas and principles of existentialism in a nutshell.

The Origins of Existentialism

Existentialism emerged in the early 20th century as a response to the growing sense of disillusionment and alienation in modern society. The horrors of World War I and World War II had shattered people’s faith in progress and reason.

The rise of totalitarian regimes had also undermined democracy and individual liberty. In this context, existentialists sought to explore the meaning of human existence in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

The Key Ideas of Existentialism

At its core, existentialism is concerned with the fundamental questions of human existence: Who am I? What is the meaning of life?

What is my purpose? To answer these questions, existentialists reject traditional philosophical approaches that emphasize reason and logic. Instead, they focus on subjective experiences such as anxiety, dread, and despair.

1. Existence precedes essence

One of the central ideas of existentialism is that human beings are not born with predetermined natures or essences. Instead, we create our own identities through our choices and actions. This means that we have complete freedom to shape our lives according to our own values and beliefs.

2. Authenticity

Existentialists believe that individuals should strive to live authentic lives by being true to themselves. This means rejecting social norms and expectations that do not align with their personal values or goals. Authenticity requires courage, as it involves taking responsibility for one’s own choices and accepting the consequences.

3. Angst

Another key concept in existentialism is angst, or anxiety. Existentialists believe that human beings experience a deep sense of anxiety when confronted with the fundamental questions of existence. This anxiety arises from the realization that there is no objective meaning or purpose to life.

The Legacy of Existentialism

Existentialism has had a profound impact on literature, art, and psychology. Many famous writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka were existentialists. Their works often explore the themes of alienation, absurdity, and despair.

In psychology, existentialism has influenced the development of humanistic psychology. This approach emphasizes the importance of individual choice and personal responsibility in shaping one’s life. It also emphasizes the importance of subjective experiences such as emotions and feelings.


Existentialism is a complex and challenging philosophy that challenges traditional ways of thinking about human existence. By emphasizing individual freedom and responsibility, it offers a unique perspective on what it means to be human. Whether you agree with its principles or not, existentialism continues to be an important philosophical movement that has shaped our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.