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Existentialism is a philosophical movement characterized by an emphasis on individuality, individual freedom, and subjectivity. It was inspired by the works of Søren Kierkegaard and the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and was particularly popular around the mid-20th century with the work of the French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others, including the novelist, essayist and playwright Albert Camus.

Among the most famous and influential existentialist propositions is Sartre's dictum, "existence precedes essence," which is generally taken to mean that there is no pre-defined moral or spiritual essence to humanity except that which we make for ourselves. Human beings are not pre-determined in any way but are free to do as they choose - they must be judged by their actions rather than by 'what they are', since they 'are' entirely what they do. This version of existentialism does not admit the existence of a god or of any other determining principle. Sartre also warned against all 'viscous' elements of existence, that might ensnare the freedom that is the human being. As long as the traps of viscosity can be avoided, the main problem for the human being then becomes that of how to choose one's actions.

Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th Century precursor to 20th Century existentialism, discussed this challenge in his writings on angst. Others, such as Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.

The main tenets of the movement are set out in Sartre's L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as Existentialism and Humanism.

The movement also had a great influence in 20th century literature. The first existentalist novel was Hermann Hesse's, Der Steppenwolf.

Existentialist concepts

See philosophy for a list of other concepts related to existentialism.

Major thinkers and authors associated with the movement

Novelists and Playwrights:

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Kafka, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Marquis de Sade, Hermann Hesse.


Nikolai Berdyaev, Henri Bergson, Karl Jaspers, Soren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, Gabriel Marcel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Blaise Pascal, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Stirner, Peter Wessel Zapffe


Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Viktor Frankl

Modern music dealing with existential topics:

Gothic rock