Outside Nietzsche and Heidegger, existentialism is not much read today, but its concerns with spiritual loss and alienation are still relevant to contemporary literature. Here lie the roots of much literary theory — most notably the hostility to mathematics, science, rationalism and to the notion of a literal language.


Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) belongs to the continental philosophical tradition — was indeed the forerunner of many schools antagonistic to the analytical tradition. But whereas Austin recognized intention in speech acts, Husserl had already gone further to include intention in consciousness. {1} He developed a view of Franz Bretano's whose 1874 Psychology from an Empirical Point of View suggested that psychological acts are directed towards an object in a way that the empirical observations of science are not. The view in fact derives from medieval scholasticism (intentional inherent existence of an object) and Bretano went on to find ways of eliminating nonexistent objects we might conceive of (e.g. the present king of France), thus anticipating Russell's Theory of Descriptions.

But Husserl was not interested in language, but in the contents of consciousness, and attempted to make his phenomenology a rigorous science, one that cleared away misconceptions and started with things as they really present themselves. {2} To achieve that end, we had first to suspend (Husserl called it bracketing) the Cartesian distinctions of mind and body, the separation of things are "really out there" from a stable viewing entity which is "ourselves". Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and not an abstract state of mind. With this misconception removed, we then made another bracketing, an eidetic reduction, which revealed the common form of objects. We try to isolate and then to group what is common in our perceptions. As such we are simply distinguishing essences — "whiteness" and "hardness" and "roundness" and "receptacle" of a white porcelain cup. But Husserl's approach of parts and wholes is very different from the analytical approach of set theory. Intuition is employed to imagine both how things are and how they could be.

Husserl developed a very technical vocabulary to ensure that his distinctions were maintained: terms like noesis, noemata, horizons of possible experience, absolute experiences and the transcendental ego, which make translation into other philosophical systems very difficult. But he was also concerned with everyday experiences and perceptions. He stressed the complexity of the structure of experience, providing a stimulus to cognitive science. And this interaction of possibility with structure in perception foreshadowed causal theories of reference. {3}

But intentionality was a central concern to Husserl, and here he did not mean conscious purpose, but how knowledge is co-created with its objects. We see three sides of a cube, for example, {4} and expect a fourth. Perception is an active process. We project assumptions, and fit perspectives into patterns undisclosed from any one viewpoint to make sense of life. And because we may be wrong in our expectations, there exists a wide area of possibilities, what Husserl calls "an horizon of experiences". {5}

Heidegger and Existentialism

How do we include the experiences of other people if we bracket off experience in this way? Husserl never fully answered this question, {6} which found expression in existentialism and hermeneutics. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), {7} Husserl's assistant and then successor at Freiburg, wrote the difficult and unfinished Being and Time {8} which shifted emphasis from Husserl's interest in perception to something overlooked since the pre-Socratics: the fundamental nature of existence itself. Besides everyday unreflecting beings that we refer to (the ontic mode), there is Being-in-the- world (Dasein), the primordial individual nature of our existence, the wonder of being here: Heidegger's ontology. Because existence is willy-nilly given to us, and is an active process (we project ourselves into possibilities, merging the horizons of the actual and potential) Heidegger called our existence "a thrown project." {9} Meanings are structures we live before we think about them. We press on in our expectations and then interpret that world in the light of our beliefs and assumptions, repeating the process endlessly until we die.

Being and Time is a self-involved and anguished work, but the concern for others emerges from Heidegger's ontology: we are automatically born into a world of relationships to people and things. Certainly Heiddegger's style becomes freer and less academic in later works where he discusses truth, art and language, even matters of science and technology. But if Heidegger is sometimes read as saying that poetry comes closest to allowing Being to emerge from the rift between the ontic and ontological (reference and fundamental being), {10} Heidegger in fact analyses Hölderlin, Mörike, Rilke and Trakl largely to illustrate his own conceptions. {11}

Precursors: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche

By turns courageous, proud and perverse, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard appears a textbook existentialist. He was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the youngest of seven children to a man Søren described as afflicted by frightful depression. The son entered the University of Copenhagen, completed his degree in theology in 1840, prepared for the church, broke off his engagement and then began a long period of private study and personal isolation. He travelled to Berlin to hear Schelling, studied Hegel, and between 1843 and his death in 1855 published a series of books which had little effect beyond making him thoroughly unpopular with everyone.

Kierkegaard's quarrel was with Hegel and orthodox Christianity. Hegel had attempted to encompass religion with philosophy, appropriating the realities of faith (which for Kierkegaard mean ever-present terror, perplexity and despair) in anodyne conceptual thought. But Christianity wasn't rational. The early Christian Church may have taken over the Greek term nous — that divine part of human beings that linked them to God and allowed them to appreciate His handiwork — but the appropriation seemed an absurd presumption to Kierkegaard. Man was a particular existing being who inevitably saw the world from his own perspective. Moreover, quoting the story of Abraham, Kierkegaard argued that the intended sacrifice of Isaac could not be squared with ethical conduct: religion was a paradox. Philosophy merely glosses over the real texture of human life, our fears and perplexities. Ultimately, we are forced to accept that there is nothing with which to ground ourselves: we live by an act of faith, a leap into the dark. {12}

Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist and stressed the irrational basis of our beliefs. Law, religion, philosophy, culture — all were fictions which a free man rejects. Truth varies with viewpoint, ultimately reduces to convention and personal interpretation, so that the dispassionate search for knowledge is better seen as a will to power. Indeed, power is very much the ultimate reality, and one which the aristocratic individual will boldly grasp. Human beings do not seek knowledge: they want life in all its strength, abundance and variety.

Nietzsche was looking across the homilies of the Enlightenment, out of the petty hypocrisies of his time, to a sun-drenched vision of the ancient world. There men lived nobly, with a deep knowledge of the precariousness and tragedy of the world. Full understanding was beyond them, but they acted with dignity and accepted the consequences. Equally abhorrent was a world tamed by Kantian imperatives and given historical necessity by Hegel. Man does not grow in moral stature as he submits to reason or social convention. Man is an individual, free to the extent that he has the courage to assert his independence. {13}

French Existentialists

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1907-61), the co-founder of French Existentialism, {14} drew on Husserl, Heidegger and contemporary physiology and psychology to develop being-in-the-world as a field of experience. Perception was primary (a view that won him a sympathetic following among Anglo-Saxon philosophers) but it could also be mistaken. He opposed Cartesian dualism, and its investigations of sensations and qualities, proposing his own reflective and unreflective experience. Merleau-Ponty turned to painting for evidence of the body's attitude to the world, and then to Saussurean linguistics, but reached no firm conclusions.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) covered a wider field, not only in philosophical interests, but as playwright, novelist, political theorist and literary critic. Like Michel Foucault, he was also very anti-bourgeois, and had to reconcile Marxism with individual freedom.

Sartre studied philosophy at the Ècole Normale Supérieure in Paris, became a teacher in Le Havre, returned to Paris and published Nausea in 1938. He was mobilized the following year, served as a meteorologist, was captured and, while in prison, read Heidegger and wrote his first play. Upon release he devoted his time to writing the important but very difficult Being and Nothingness (1943). International fame came soon after when his plays and lectures captured the public imagination. He refused an academic appointment and threw himself into international issues, briefly joining the Communist party but leaving and denouncing communism after the 1956 suppression of the Hungarian uprising. He espoused Algerian nationalism, opposed the American involvement in Vietnam, and was still a potent voice in the events of 1968.

Sartre's philosophy is difficult and perhaps unsatisfactory. Extending an approach of Husserl's, Sartre made imagination an intentional mode of consciousness, and one which escaped causal necessity. Such freedom also applied generally to consciousness, which, moreover, was always aware of itself: Sartre took issue with Freud's view of the unconscious. Aspects of life which involve consciousness Sartre called "for itself" (pour-soi), and these he distinguished from "physical facts" (en-soi). Physical facts obey the ordinary laws of logic, but in consciousness things "are what they are and are not what they are" — a view that introduces Sartre's rather baffling notion of "Nothingness" whereby self-consciousness both creates and annihilates itself. Self appears as a set of commitments and aspirations that give a projective unity to acts of consciousness. How a person regards himself is often formed in childhood (the "fundamental project") but Sartre replaces Freud's causal laws with teleological ones: the person strives for some particular end.

How? Sartre argues that identity partly depends on others recognizing us, but this "being for others" is also alienating, and not easily integrated into self-consciousness. He says "respect for Other's freedom is an empty word" but also "I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as mine". How are these to be reconciled? Sartre's Being and Nothingness is incomplete, and his later works adopt a more Marxist perspective ("I have said, and I repeat, that the only valid interpretation of human History is historical materialism.") Sartre develops a more impersonal and holistic view of society where human affairs are conducted under conditions of scarcity and therefore competition. So arises alienation, reinforced by the material conditions of life — houses, cars, machines — which keep men apart. In this Critique of Dialectic Reason Sartre records his final disillusionment with communist politics.{15}


Existentialism is not a philosophy so much as a protest against certain features of contemporary life. God has disappeared. Nature is governed by abstract laws. Man himself has dwindled to a statistic in the state bureaucracy; even his inmost thoughts and feelings are matters of psychology, physiology, ultimately of chemistry. Man's dethronement has been going on for three hundred years ago, ever since the advent of science in the seventeenth century, but it has taken a century's wars, depressions, concentration camps and wholesale state engineering to bring matters to a head. Existentialism champions what has been overlooked in man's one-sided desire to intellectually comprehend and to control the uniqueness of human life: its variety, its need for personal validation. Hence the irrationalism of the movement, its partisan nature, its willingness to dispense with reason or close argumentation, even to denigrate custom and logic as fiction.{16}

We lose ourselves in universal objective systems, said Kierkegaard, and are less than men if we submit to the fear of being different, claimed Nietzsche. To confront the absurdities of existence is to know anxiety, dread and ambiguity, but dread is also "the dizziness of freedom which gazes down into its own possibilities, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself."

Because it stresses the individual, and has an ecstatic quality, recognizing the temporal and the historical context, existentialism has been attractive to the arts. Many of its philosophers were indeed excellent writers, Nietzsche and Sartre in particular. But the artist who reads existentialist philosophy to understand more clearly what his work is attempting to achieve will generally be disappointed. Contrary to popular claims, the existentialist view is not liberating. Nor does it champion the aesthetic outlook: it uses that outlook to examine various contemporary issues that defy reasoning. So much the better say its advocates. Not philosophy at all, say its critics, but an investigation better served by other disciplines — sociology, politics, literary theory, aesthetics in general.

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1. D. Bell's Husserl (1990) and M.J. Inwood's Husserl, Edward in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995).
2. Graham White's Husserl in Teichman and White's An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995), Chapter 2 in Mary Warnock's Existentialism (1970), and Chapters 4-8 in Reinhardt Grossmann's Phenomenology and Existentialism (1984). Also Edmund Husserl's Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (1960).
3. H.L. Dreyfus's Husserl, Intentionality and Cognitive Science (1982).
4. Paul Armstrong's Philosophical Backgrounds and Literary Theories (1966).
5. p. 101 in Teichman and White 1995.
6. Edmund Husserl's The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1937).
7. Graham White's Martin Heidegger in Teichman and White 1995, and Armstrong 1966. Also C. Guinon's The Cambridge Guide to Heidegger (1993).
8. M. Heidegger's Being and Time tr. Macquarrie and Robinson (1977).
9. Armstrong 1996.
10. Armstrong 1996. Also M.A. Gillespie's Hegel, Heidegger and the Ground of History (1984).
11. John D. Caputo's Demythologizing Heidegger (1993).
12. Robert Stern's Søren Kierkegaard in Teichman and White 1995.
13. Jenny Teichman's Friedrich Nietzsche in Teichman and White 1995., and Walter Kaufman's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. (1974).
14. Chapter 4 in Warnock 1970, also Armstrong 1966.
15. Jenny Teichman's Jean-Paul Sartre in Teichman and White 1995, and Armstrong 1966. Also Thomas Baldwin's Sartre, Jean-Paul in Honderich 1995.
16. pp 52- 55 in Charles Hampden-Turner's Maps of the Mind (1981).

Internet Resources

1. Existentialism: An Introduction. Christopher Scott Wyatt. Jan. 2004. http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/. Clear accounts of key figures and ideas.
2. The Realm of Existentialism. http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/philo.html. Extensive but friendly site, with accounts of key figures, book reviews, etc.
3. The Husserl Page. Bob Sandmeyer. Jan 2004. http://www.husserlpage.com/. Introduction and extensive listings for Husserl: also references to phenomenology generally.
4. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Marianne Sawicki. 2001. http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/husserl.htm. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
5. Edmund Husserl. Christian Beyer. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/husserl/ Extended treatment, with bibliography and a few Internet listings.
6. Edmund Husserl. Alan Lui. http://vos.ucsb.edu/browse.asp?id=810. VOS listings.
7. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). W. J. Korab-Karpowicz. 2003. http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/heidegge.htm. Balanced Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Heidegger's philosophy as a whole.
8. Existence and Being. Martin Heidegger. 1949. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/heidegg2.htm. Excerpt in Existence and Being from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre. Walter Kaufman (Ed.)
9. Martin Heidegger: Division One of Being and Time. http://faculty.ccri.edu/paleclerc/existentialism/heid_anal_dasein.shtml. Paul Leclerc. 2001. Basic terminology of Da-sein.
10. Heidegger: Being-There (or Nothing). Garth Kemerling. Oct. 2001. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/7b.htm. Introduction and good listings.
11. Martin Heidegger — Resources Web Page. Daniel Fidel Ferrer. Jan. 2004. http://www.lib.cmich.edu/bibliographers/danielferrer/
. Resource listings.
12. Commentary of Kierkegaard. Anthony Storm. Aug. 2003. http://sorenkierkegaard.org/. Extensive articles, listings, gallery of illustrations, etc.
13. International Kierkegaard Information. Julia Watkins. http://www.utas.edu.au/docs/humsoc/kierkegaard/ Very full listings of resources, more for the specialist.
14. Nietzsche Chronicle. Sep. 2003. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~fnchron/. Outline biography of Nietzsche.
15. Selected Papers. John S. Moore. 1993-2001. http://www.mith.demon.co.uk/index.htm. Several papers on Nietzsche's relevance to contemporary thought.
16. Friedrich Nietzsche. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Oct. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/. Straightforward introduction to Nietzsche's life, work and influence.
17. One hundred years since the death of Friedrich Nietzsche: a review of his ideas and influence. Oct. 2000. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/oct2000/niet-o20.shtml. Entry in A world socialism perspective.
18. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Guillermo J. Grenier. Jan. 2002. http://www.fiu.edu/~grenierg/nietzsche_bio.html A very readable account of Nietzsche's life and work.
19. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). Jack Reynolds. 2001. http://www.iep.utm.edu/m/merleau.htm. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with extensive (but offline) bibliography.
20. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Thomas Ryan Stone. Jan. 2003. http://www.epistemelinks.com/Main/
. Selected listings.
21. Biographies: Jean-Paul Sartre. Peter Landry. Dec. 1997. http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/
. Simple introduction.
22. Existentialism. Kelley L. Ross. 2003. http://www.friesian.com/existent.htm. Introduction, concentrating on Sartre.
23. Summary of Some Main Points from Sartre's Existentialism and Human Emotions. David Banach. http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/sartreol.htm. Main points, with link to full lecture.
24. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Existentialism. Christian J. Onof. 2003. http://www.iep.utm.edu/s/sartre-ex.htm. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with (offline) references.
25. Existentialism is a Humanism. Jean-Paul Sartre. 1946.
. Sartre's lecture, translated by Andy Blunden.
26. Jean-Paul Sartre. Thomas Ryan Stone. Jan. 2003. http://www.epistemelinks.com/Main/