Existentialism: From Kierkegaard to Sartre

Updated on December 1, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Existentialism: More than Just a School of Philosophy

Existentialism can be seen as a discourse traceable to certain thinkers who belong to different coordinates and occupy different spaces, but have the same approach to the question of existence. It is a particular philosophical approach to the experience of nothingness and absurdity which attempts to discover meaning in and through it. Existentialist writers, for instance Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre, begin from a sense that an ontological dimension of consciousness is forced out by systems and institutions of society that over-values rationality, acquisitiveness, will-power, technological expertise, and productivity. This loss (of being, transcendence or encompassing) hurls man into a universe of meaninglessness; rarefied fragments into a time-stream of disconnected present without any past or future.

Man: The Existent

The very concept of “man” in Existentialist philosophy, goes away from any static position. An Existentialist sees him in action; for only in action can existence attain concreteness and fullness. This can be best understood in terms of the Sartre’s core concept: “Existence precedes Essence”. This implies that the act of “becoming” is a pre-condition of “being”. This “becoming” is understood in terms of an individual’s faculty of decision-making, exercise of choice and understanding of freedom.

In Existentialism, the term “Existence” is restricted to the type of being exemplified in man. Søren Kierkegaard, the first of the modern Existentialists, maintained that, man fulfils his being precisely by existing, by standing out as a unique individual, refusing to be absorbed in any system. Man is different from other creatures simply by his awareness not only of what he is, but also of what he may become. One must not think of transcendence in terms of only the rare moments of vision or trance. To talk about transcendence, as Sartre did is to understand that, every moment, the “Existent” transcends or goes beyond what he/she is at that moment.

Man is different from other creatures simply by his awareness not only of what he is, but also of what he may become.

God and Faith

Heidegger and Sartre, together with other Existentialists, agree that man has no fixed essence. “He is not a manufactured object” (Sartre). Kierkegaard’s insistence that existence can not be reduced to logically manipulatable ideas, and Nietzsche’s thought of man as transcending towards “superman” are on the same lines. All of them agree that man, as an “existent”, is unfinished. Theistic Existentialists think of existence as transcending towards God. On the other hand, thinkers like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre think of it as transcending into “Nothingness”, for man is entirely abandoned to set his own norms, determine his values and what he will become.


Sartre sees “Being” from a subjective vantage point, with a change from primacy of knowledge to primacy of existence. Sartre’s Existentialist ontology studies the structures of 'beings' and focuses on the “what” and “how” (instead of “why”) of human reality as it manifests itself in the world. He rejects the Kantean division of “noumena” and “phenomena”, and adopts Hegel’s “L’etre-en-soi” and “L’etre-pour-soi” to distinguish between non-conscious and conscious entities. Since consciousness is “pour-soi” (for itself), Sartre sees it as a lack, an emptiness, and an ability to initiate its “nothingness of being”.

Therefore, the human cogito is, despite the shock of finding itself in a world and trapped inside a human body, its own master and even a paradoxical ens-s-se. At the same time, the existent faces a creative indeterminism and transcendental subjectivism whereby human choice and self-commitment create human nature and a world of values through collective recognition.

In this context, it is important to understand Sartre’s concept of authenticity. If God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence. That being is 'Man', or as Heidegger says, “Human Reality”. The precedence of Existence over Essence implies a negation of human nature. This means that man is endowed with unlimited freedom, an existent is nothing but a summation of free actions.

Freedom- Power- Responsibility

On the other hand, Sartre’s idea of limitless freedom implies limitless responsibility. One is not only responsible for his own acts, he is responsible for all. Roquentin, the hero in Sartre’s Nausea says,” I am all alone, but I march like a regiment descending on a city… I am full of anguish.”

Central to the argument of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” is an insistence that existence can not be understood in causal terms. Consciousness self-determining, “It always is what it is not and is not what it is”—a playful paradox that implies that we are in a constant process of choosing.

Throughout our lives we accumulate a body of facts, true to our being, our “facticity”. However, we can remain free to envision new possibilities to reform ourselves and reconsider our “facticity” in the light of new projects and ambitions: our “transcendence”. On one hand, we try to define ourselves; on the other hand, we are free to break away from what we have become. We are always responsible for our choices and actions.

“I am creating an image of man of my own choosing, in choosing myself I choose man”.

— Jean-Paul Sartre

Bad Faith

This brings us straight to Sartre's concept of “bad faith”. On a phenomenological level, it consists of deferring the moment of decision. As the existent is faced with a challenge to choose, he generally tends to postpone the moment of decision to avoid the responsibility associated with his choice. On a deeper ontological level, such a pattern of bad faith consists of a confusion between transcendence and facticity. A second pattern of bad faith comprises man’s thinking of himself as the “other” thereby permanently assuming a role, transforming into itself.

Which Existentialist, do you think, has influenced the world the most?

See results

Sources And Resources

Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre

Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre

Existentialism: An Introduction by Kevin Aho

Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

© 2017 Monami


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