Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Existentialism argues that human existence is reflexive and is thus unique and unpredictable.

explanatory context


Existentialism is the English translation of Existenzphilosophie.


The German term is a little confusing because existentialism, certainly from 1945, was heavily influenced by French thought. However, existentialist thinking can be traced back to German thought of the 1920s


Existentialism is sometimes traced back to the Kierkegaard. Although other commentators link existentialism with phenomenology and see Bretano as the founder of existentialist thought. (This latter is curious, however, as there is some debate which contrasts essence with existence, arguing that existence precedes essence, essential characteristics are distilled from primary essential life)


Existentialism basically distinguishes existence from existing. Existence is a specifically human quality while things (and in most versions) animals simply exist. Essentially, existence involves reflexivity while existing does not.


Existentialism argues that the world is not a determined, ordered system intelligible through the construction of (natural) laws based on observation, thus existentialism is opposed to both empiricism. Existentialism also argues that reason is not the power guiding human action and is thus opposed to rationalism.


Existentialism argued for the uniqueness and unpredictability of existence and thus was opposed to determinism.


For existentialists, the problem of knowledge is second to the problem of existence or being. Being cannot be a subject of objective enquiry as it is revealed to each person as a process of reflection on unique existence in time and space. Existence cannot be treated abstractly, it has no meaning outside the particular experiences of the individual.


Existentialists argued that individuals should take responsibility for their own lives with no possible certainty of any outcome. The world is seen as having no intrinsic meaning. Thus two types of individual are distinguished by existentialism. Those who unaware of the essentially meaningless nature of existence and thus merely exist in themselves and those who exist for themselves and take responsibility for the freedom that comes with a meaningless world.


This distinction is linked to the notion of authenticity. For some existentialists, authentic existence depends upon the individual’s endeavour to transcend a particular situation. A failure to do so, implying denial of liberty and abandonment to anonymity, is regarded as inauthentic. Other’s argue that it is not possible to transcend one’s own point of view and claim that morals (or ‘moral’ life) is an illusion. Thus authenticity, in this approach, is the preservation of personal identity which is in danger of being eroded by socially generated deceptions. A third view recognises the existence of other free individuals and see authenticity in terms of communication with them.


Existential as applied to facets of the modern world is used in a number of ways. First, it might refer to the observation of life without any concern with its essential components or characteristics. Second, it might refer to the meaningless and (necessarily) alienating nature of life. Third, it might refer to the absurdity of life with its inherent purposelessness and strangeness.


Existentialism is not a unified philosophy, indeed there are probably as many different versions of existentialism as there are major existentialist philosophers. Nonetheless, three broad approaches can be distinguished, conservative existentialism (informed by Christianity), Marxist existentialism, and subjective-rationalist existentialism. Existentialism is closely linked with some forms of historicalist hermeneutic thought, especially in the work of Heidegger (who denied the label existentialist).


Types of existentialism

Conservative existentialism

Conservative existentialism argues that existentialism is compatible with Christian doctrine.


Conservative existentialism is concerned with the relationship of existence to a deistic creator, and attempts to deal with the dilemma of a meaningless world created by a superior being.


Kierkegaard is the foremost conservative existentialist. He stressed the primary importance of the existing individual and developed his analysis in terms of religious consciousness, proposing the notion of ‘subjective truth’. This was mainly in terms of analyses of faith, choice, despair and dread.


Generally, conservative existentialism tends to a moralist view of authenticity. However, in the work of Marcel communication between people as well as with God is supported. Such communication must be based on ‘free’ relationships which retain the uniqueness of the individual and not upon the joint acceptance of rules and goals which may subsume particular human existence under abstract socio-political systems or structures.


Marxist existentialism

Marxist existentialism (or humanist Marxism) sees existentialism as compatible with Marxism in the sense that they are complementary in their critique of society and in their aim to express the inherent freedom of human nature in the form of political liberty.


Existentialist Marxism attempts a radical attack on determinist Marxism, especially that epitomised in Stalinist Orthodox Marxism.


Sartre is usually regarded as the major Marxist existentialist, although his earlier work was rather more idealist than Marxist. Sartre adopts the view that people are free, from birth, to make choices and bear responsibility, however people behave as though their choices and social roles are predetermined, so as to avoid the anxiety that freedom brings. Sartre goes on to suggest that being (i.e. existence) is transphenomenal, that is, its nature is not fully revealed in its manifestations. Everything that has being transcends the descriptions and categories through which it is potentially knowable. This leads Sartre to the dualism of in-self and for-self. The former is fixed, inert, lacking relationships and reason for being. The latter is conscious, indeterminate, flexible and potent. Intuitively comprehending nothingness is what makes human judgement possible because being able to distinguish alternatives is a function of a thing being recognised as not being something else.


Subjective rationalist existentialism

Subjective rationalist existentialism appears first in the work of Jasper (one of the founders of existentialism). It is an attempt to deal with the problem of existence through reason. But this cannot be through objective thought as existence is not an external object, but is transcendent. Existence is exemplified in the human condition of pain, guilt and suffering; the (authentic) human existent is free and takes responsibility for action; and, in so doing, the search for truth (which Jaspers assumes is intrinsic to existence) becomes a striving to transcend ones own existence and communicate with other existents.


Heidegger (influenced by the transcendental phenomenologist Husserl) can also be regarded as a subjective rationalistic existentialist. He addressed many of the same issues as Jaspers but argued that his view differed from Jaspers over the issue of the possibility of a general theory of being. Heidegger’s existentialistic approach argues for a fundamental ontology and the need for essentialist thinking, while Jaspers’ existential approach denies these and restricts existentialism to systematically describing various traits of human existence and regards the search for essences as limiting thought. Some attempts at developing this approach have made attempts to link the freedom of existence with Freud’s more determinist view of self.

analytical review

New World Encyclopedia contributors (2013):

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that arose in the twentieth century. It includes a number of thinkers who emphasize common themes, but whose ultimate metaphysical views often diverge radically because they believe the universe is unfathomable. Philosophically the term “existentialism” came to be associated primarily with the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Many other philosophers who are often tied to the existential movement, such as Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, and Karl Jaspers, rejected the term “existentialism,” though they continued to deal with existential themes broadly construed. In German, the phrase Existenzphilosophie (philosophy of existence) is also used. Some of the common themes that unite these various existential thinkers are anxiety, boredom, freedom, will, subjectivity, awareness of death, risk, responsibility, and consciousness of existing. Perhaps the central issue that draws these thinkers together, however, is their emphasis upon the primacy of existence in philosophical questioning and the importance of responsible human action in the face of uncertainty.

Although, as a movement, existentialism is considered a twentieth-century phenomenon, its roots go back to earlier existential thinkers, such as Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century, and particularly Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche emphasized the subjective element in thinking and the primacy of the will over purely logical or conceptual objectivity. In the twentieth century, Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world” and Sartre’s idea of “existence preceding essence” became two of the most important themes in existential thought. Other more Christian or theistic existential perspectives were also developed. Moreover, existential ideas became very influential in areas outside of philosophy, such as in psychology and the popular arts.

associated issues


related areas

See also




New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2013, 'Existentialism', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 11 October 2013, available at:, accessed 22 May 2017, still available 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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