While the word “existentialism” is familiar to most people, not many of us have a clear idea about just what it means. Like a number of other philosophical terms, the meaning of “existentialism” is not only complex, but the word is used by different people in variety of ways that make that complexity even more difficult to sort out. However, unlike most other philosophical terms, the concept of existentialism is primarily used by people who are either not considered philosophers at all, or who bridge the gap between Philosophy and The Arts. In fact, almost all of those who are considered existentialists are writers of Literature, rather than Philosophy, people who use language in a way that is expressive and suggestive, rather than strictly denotative. For some, this difference is “essential,” since it enables those writers to express truths about the human condition that often escape the scrutiny of more analytic minds. For others, this different approach is precisely the reason such writers are not considered philosophers in any sense beyond the metaphorical, since their work is artistic (even overtly fictional), rather than theoretical. And, after all, how much truth can there be in fiction?
Such a question, of course, is a matter for debate – one that’s lasted since the days of Plato. And it’s only one of many such questions raised by these late 19th & early 20th century thinkers. For in addition to reviving perennial concerns about the relation between theory and practice (philosophy and its application), about the existence of God, and about the nature of the human mind, the existentialists generated new ways of asking about the meaning of life, the specter of death, and whether genuine morality was any longer possible. In the process, they developed some novel terminology of their own, including Nihilism, The Absurd, Authenticity, and The Will to Power, as well as new uses of older terms, such as Anxiety, Dread, Nothingness, The Individual, and even Existence. And this only adds to the difficulty of getting a clear idea of just what “existentialism” is. However, as grim as the topics of existentialists often are, most of the writers in this movement were not simply trying to dwell on the most depressing aspects of life. Each, in their own way, was hoping to confront those aspects of life – often overlooked, denied, or repressed – in order to find the strength (either individually or collectively) necessary to deal with them. As a result, existentialist writings have diverse connections – in fields ranging from psychology and theology to economics and politics, from how to become a genuine individual to how to create the most free and open of societies. As we’ll see, these modern writers not only question what ties we have, or should have, with the past, but also what sorts of things might be possible in a future which doesn’t try to shirk the challenges that face those who happen to be alive today.