For example, many existentialists would join other philosophers (such as the Frankfurt School) in condemning an instrumentalist conception of reason and value. Our strategy is to stress Heidegger’s connection with some key existentialist concerns, which we introduced above under the labels ‘Existence’, ‘Anxiety’ and the ‘Crowd’. Kant famously described Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant 1991:54).
He too wants to dominate” (Camus 2000b:31). This criticism was made especially by Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity, and in Dog Years, novelist Gunter Grass gives a Voltaire-like, savage satire of Heidegger. This might be traced back to familiar reasons such as an increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide. I exist as projecting towards the future which, again, I am not. The absurdity of human existence then seems to lie in the fact that in becoming myself (a free existence) I must be what I am not (a thing). One of the key figures of 20th century psychology, Sigmund Freud, was indebted to Nietzsche especially for his analysis of the role of psychology within culture and history, and for his view of cultural artefacts such as drama or music as ‘unconscious’ documentations of psychological tensions. The story naturally raises many problems. We have to understand Nietzsche’s relation to philosophy within this context not only because it illustrates a stylistically different contemplation but because it demonstrates an altogether different way of philosophizing. The expulsion from the Garden opened up a wide range of new possibilities for them and thus the problem of anxiety arose. As we shall see, the authentic being would be able to recognise and affirm the nature of existence (we shall shortly specify some of the aspects of this, such as absurdity and freedom). Camus shares this suspicion and his so called philosophy of the absurd intends to set limits to the overambitions of Western rationality. This principle too is one that I must have freely chosen and committed myself to. Moreover, qua consciousness, and not a thing that is part of the causal chain, I am free. Philosophically, Camus is known for his conception of the absurd.

This particular notion comes from Hegel’s analysis of ‘recognition’, and is found especially in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Jaspers. Whereas the human is always already restricted by the brute facts of his existence, nevertheless it always aspires to overcome its situation, to choose its freedom and thus to create itself. The existentialists thus countered the Platonic or Cartesian conception with a model that resembles more the Aristotelian as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. Previously, revolt or creation had been considered the necessary response to the absurdity of existence. Isn’t one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity the respect to the life of other? Here, Camus goes on to examine the nature of rebellion and its multiple manifestations in history. “If you find that you are by nature mutable,” he wrote, “transcend yourself.” Another source is the Dionysian Romanticism of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who exalted life in its most irrational and cruel features and made such exaltation the proper task of the “higher man,” who exists beyond good and evil. De Beauvoir finds that at present there is no answer to that question. This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Many existentialists would identify the latter with the American and especially French concept of ‘democracy’. Second, there is the possibility of a form of social organisation and action in which each individual freely gives him or herself over to a joint project: a ‘city of ends’ (this is a reworking of Kant’s idea of the ‘kingdom of ends’, found in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals). Hegel is for Kierkegaard his arch-enemy not only because of what he writes but also what he represents. Subsequently a star Normalienne, she was a writer, philosopher, feminist, lifelong partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, notorious for her anti-bourgeois way of living and her free sexual relationships which included among others a passionate affair with the American writer Nelson Algren. With its emphasis on subjective experience, Angst and intense emotionality, German expressionism sought to go beyond the naiveté of realist representation and to deal with the anguish of the modern man (exemplified in the terrible experiences of WWI). In Ethics of Ambiguity de Beauvoir offers a picture of the human subject as constantly oscillating between facticity and transcendence.

The various forms of existentialism may also be distinguished on the basis of language, which is an indication of the cultural traditions to which they belong and which often explains the differences in terminology among various authors.

The debate rests of course upon the fundamental misconception that wants a body of work to exist and develop independently of (or uninfluenced by) its intellectual environment.

Rousseau’s infamous suggestion that under the rule of ‘general will’ everyone would be ‘forced to be free’ (Rousseau in Foley 2008:61) opens the way to the crimes committed after the revolution.

Equally for Heidegger anxiety manifests Dasein’s possibility to live an authentic existence since it realizes that the crowd of ‘others’ (what Heidegger calls the ‘They’) cannot offer any consolation to the drama of existence. Similarly, existentialism was a philosophy that insisted philosophy could and should deal very directly with ‘real world’ topics such as sex, death or crime, topics that had most frequently been approached abstractly within the philosophical tradition. “I know my lot. Likewise, the philosophical importance that the existentialists placed upon emotion has been influential, legitimising a whole domain of philosophical research even by philosophers who have no interest in existentialism.

This evidently marks the continuation of the Hellenic idea of philosophy as a way of life, exemplified in the person of Socrates who did not write treatises, but who died for his ideas. Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me (for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty).

Sartre, by contrast, comes from the tradition of Descartes and to this tradition remains faithful.


He stands in a critical relation to past philosophers but simultaneously he is heavily indebted to them, much more than he would like to admit. Please select which sections you would like to print: Corrections?

De Beauvoir does not give a consoling answer; on the contrary, by turning to Sartre’s notion of bad faith (which refers to the human being’s anxiety in front of the responsibility entailed by the realization of its radical freedom) she thinks that women at times are complicit to their situation. Likewise, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is essential to recognise that the philosopher investigating human existence is, him or herself, an existing human. His multifaceted work as well as his ambivalent relation to both philosophy and existentialism makes every attempt to classify him a rather risky operation. Gregory Gale is an adjunct professor of philosophy.

What truth discovers is that at the ground of all truth lies an unquestionable faith in the value of truth.