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With Existentialismus (also existentialism ) is predominantly French in the general sense philosophical flow of the existence philosophy referred. Their main representatives are: Jean-Paul Sartre , Simone de Beauvoir , Albert Camus and, in a Christian special form, Gabriel Marcel . Him stood Peter Wust close.

Furthermore, the term “existentialism” is used as a term for a general attitude of mind that understands man as existence in the sense of existential philosophy. ("Man is his existence.")


One of the best-known existentialist statements, which can already be demonstrated in Schelling's work , is Sartre's statement “Existence precedes essence” from the essay published in 1946 Existentialism is a humanism .

Here is thematically to the system specifications (essence) of man in philosophy is linked. By defining the human being as a biological being, as a rational being, as a divine being, etc., the human being is given a meaning before his existence, that is biological, reasonable, god-like. Existentialism criticizes this definition of meaning, which precedes existence, and opposes it with existence: Man cannot be grasped as man unless his own individual existence is assumed. According to the critique of existentialism, every definition of essence always contains a theoretical aspect that is not nourished from a direct experience of existence, but is formed “subordinately” in existence.

This also explains the focus of existentialism on the subjects of fear, death, freedom, responsibility and action as elementary human experiences. Man understands himself only in the experience of himself. Accordingly, existentialism no longer refers to a divine or cosmological order, but develops its theory from the individual. As a result, a basic religious attitude is not rejected (even if this is often intended by Sartre's writings), but rather belief itself becomes an existential experience.

In terms such as thrownness , self-design , freedom and self-determination , the centering of existentialism on the problem of the liberation of man to his own possibilities shows. The necessity of this possibility to be shows in the experiences of absurdity , disgust , fear , worry , death and boredom and shows impressively that it is precisely this subjective feeling that determines the life of the person, claims of objectivity fade against the background of these experiences.

“The atheistic existentialism I stand for is more coherent. He explains that if God does not exist, there is at least one being whose existence precedes the essence, a being that exists before it can be defined by any concept, and that being is man, or as Heidegger says that is human reality. What does it mean here that the existence precedes the essence? It means that man first exists, meets, appears in the world and then defines himself. "

Basic positions of existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre

The main philosophical work of Sartre's Being and Nothing ( L'être et le néant , 1943) is considered to be the theoretical foundation of existentialism. Here Sartre shows that human being ( for-itself ) differs from other being, things , animals , things etc. ( in-itself ) through its relation to nothing.

Man is a being "that is not what it is and that is what it is not".

As the only being that can deny, that has a relation to the not-yet or no-more, that can lie, that is, say what is not, man has the burden of freedom and thus also the responsibility. In analyzes of human situations, the main work shows how freedom imposes itself in all aspects of human being, how people flee from this responsibility and how the specific relationship to the other shows them this responsibility and freedom. The prejudice that Sartrian existentialism is an egoistic individualism cannot be maintained in this way. On the contrary: In his analyzes, Sartre comes to the conclusion that human life can never be understood as an isolated life. With this he argues against solipsism .

Methodically, Sartre proceeds phenomenologically by questioning the above-mentioned existentials such as freedom , fear , fear , love , shame as witnesses for human freedom. Through these analyzes he finally arrives at the other as the freedom confronting me and shows that our freedom and responsibility have an ontological correspondence. Thus Sartre cannot make any moral demands, but he basically affirms them, even though they must be replaced by supra-individual references and find their real equivalent in the responsibility of each individual.

“But if the essence is really preceded by existence, then man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first step of existentialism is to bring every human being into possession of what he is and to let the entire responsibility for his existence rest on him. And when we say that people are responsible for themselves, we don't want to say that people are just responsible for their individuality , but that they are responsible for all people. "

Now, however, the objection often arises here as to why people then act immorally or do not take their responsibility when we are free. According to Sartre, man has a relation to nothing because he is himself nothing in his own structure of being, ie the sentence quoted above expresses that we ourselves can repeatedly flee from responsibility: Sartre calls this ontological structure of man mauvaise foi , the insincerity or self-lie. He describes how we are liar and lied to in one person at the same time when we lie to ourselves, and shows why this obviously logically absurdity can be understood: Since we cannot be clearly determined, as the analysis of the mauvaise foi suggests, we do it again and again a so-called draft.

“The human being is first a design that lives itself subjectively instead of just being a foam or a rot or a cauliflower; nothing exists in advance of this design, nothing is in heaven, and man will first be what he has planned to be, not what he will want to be. For what we usually understand by willing is a conscious decision that, for most of us, follows what we have made ourselves. I can want to join a party, write a book, get married, all of which is just the announcement of a more original, more spontaneous choice than what is called will. "

In his literary works this - drafting and changing a basic draft - is made a topic again and again.

Albert Camus

Albert Camus (1957)

Albert Camus is the second important great exponent of French existentialism. In his book Der Mythos des Sisyphus ( Le mythe de Sisyphe ), published in 1942, Camus developed the philosophy of the absurd . Not understanding himself as an existentialist and standing more in the tradition of the French moralists, however, in a similar way to Sartre, he sees the world as not of itself meaningful, because it only gains meaning through man. However, Camus does not share the basic assumption typical of existentialism that existence precedes essence:

“Two common fallacies: existence precedes essence or the essence of existence. You go and both get up in the same step. "

For Camus, philosophical questions culminate in the only important question for him, that of suicide. Suicide is intended here as a solution, detachment from a meaningless world: Why live when everything is meaningless? However, Camus' suicide is rejected; to kill oneself would be to succumb to the absurd.

With the awareness that everything is absurd, live on, face the absurd like this is the revolt against the absurd that Camus should strive for. If we can neither trust in a God nor in our reason - what is left as security? Nothing! This security does not exist for modern man. This is also where his rejection of existentialism as a system lies: a system suggests an order that Camus did not see. In doing so, he takes the considerations of existentialism to extremes. His answer lies in the constant revolt of man. By recognizing the absurd relationship between man and the world, man accepts himself as a being that is free. In the myth of Sisyphus this is exemplified by the aforementioned myth. By enduring and accepting his punishment, but not being shaken by the burden of eternal torment, but laughing at the gods, Sisyphus shows the greatness of modern man who consciously lives his absurd fate. The idea of ​​revolt against the absurd is further elaborated in the essay Man in the Revolt .

His philosophical thoughts can also be found in his literary works. Again and again the people explain the attitude of the person revolting against the senseless world. B. Meursault's conversation with the chaplain and his subsequent thought processes in Der Fremde . This attitude is also used in the fight of Dr. Rieux against the plague in the novel of the same name.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (1967)

Simone de Beauvoir's most significant contribution to existentialism can be found in her work The Other Sex , in which she analyzes the situation of women from an existentialist perspective. De Beauvoir explains: “You are not born a woman, you become one.” Assuming that there is no feminine “essence”, Simone de Beauvoir examines how women are constructed as “the other”, the “for Immanence damned "is.

Existentialism as pop culture

In the 1950s in the Parisian existentialist scene in the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the cliché of the melancholy, mostly black-clad young existentialist who frequented the jazz cellar , café and university emerged.

Criticism of existentialism

Existentialism, because it saw itself as politically active, among other things, received a lot of criticism from all areas of society, in particular from the Catholic Church , but also from politicians from various parties and representatives of other philosophical directions.

The philosophical criticism is mostly directed against an absolutizing concept of existence and an insufficient differentiation of human life forms, an excessive polarization and finally a solidification of the dichotomy of subject and object. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are against the expression of Sartre's philosophy in order to emphasize the differences in all similarities.

Works (selection)

  • Simone de Beauvoir :
    • L'Invitée (she came and stayed)
    • Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944) (Pyrrhus and Cinéas)
    • Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté (1947) (For a morality of ambiguity)
    • Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) ( The opposite sex )


Jean-Paul Sartre

  • To exist, that is to be there, very simple; the existing ones appear, can be found, but one cannot deduce them
  • For dialectical totalization must encompass actions, passions, work and needs as well as economic categories; it must at the same time classify the actor and the event in the historical complex, define him in relation to the direction of becoming and precisely the meaning of the Determine the present.
  • If existence precedes being, that is, if the fact that we exist does not relieve us of the need to create our being through our actions, then we are condemned to freedom as long as we live ...
  • The "paradox of our historical situation" consists in the fact that "our freedom today [...] is merely the free decision to fight for freedom".
  • Marxism will degenerate into an inhuman anthropology if it does not reintegrate man as its foundation
  • ... there is no way out. A way out is being invented
  • It is not the “harshness of a situation and the suffering it inflicts” that motivates us to imagine a different state of affairs, in which the world would be better; on the contrary, from the day one can imagine a different state of affairs, a new light falls on our hardships and sufferings and we decide that they are unbearable.

Albert Camus

  • The protagonist opens up for “the tender indifference of the world” (French: “la tendre indifférence du monde”) at the end of the novel “The Stranger”, when he is on death row shortly before his execution.

Simone de Beauvoir

  • “You are not born a woman, you become one. No biological, psychological or economic determination determines the shape that women assume in society. "

See also


Philosophy Bibliography : Existentialism - Additional Bibliography on the Subject

  • Nicola Abbagnano: Philosophy of Human Conflict. An Introduction to Existentialism. Rowohlt, Hamburg 1957.
  • Sarah Bakewell : The Existentialists' Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails . German by Rita Seuss. CH Beck, Munich 2016. ISBN 978-3-406-69764-7
  • Cornelia Blasberg u. Franz-Josef Deiters (Ed.): Thinking / Writing (in) the Crisis - Existentialism and Literature. Röhrig University Press, St. Ingbert 2004. ISBN 3-86110-379-6
  • Arthur C. Danto : Jean-Paul Sartre. Steidl, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-88243-172-5 .
  • Helmut Fahrenbach : Kierkegaard's existential dialectic ethics , Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt a. M. 1968.
  • Helmut Fahrenbach: Existential philosophy and ethics , Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt a. M. 1970.
  • Thomas R. Flynn: Existentialism. A brief introduction. , from the Amerik. by Erik M. Vogt, Turia + Kant, Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-85132-488-4
  • Haim Gordon (Ed.): Dictionary of existentialism. Fitzroy Dearborn, London a. a. 1999, ISBN 1-57958-167-6
  • Helene Harth; Volker Roloff (Ed.): Literary Discourses of Existentialism. Stauffenburg, Tübingen 1986, ISBN 3-923721-55-2
  • Alexander Lohner : Death in Existentialism. An analysis of the fundamental theological, philosophical and ethical implications , Schöningh, Paderborn 1997, ISBN 3-506-75245-6 ( digitized BSB Munich )
  • Wilhelm Antonius Maria Luijpen: Existential Phenomenology. An introduction. Manz, Munich 1971, ISBN 3-7863-0135-2
  • William L. McBride (Ed.): Sartre and existentialism. Philosophy, politics, ethics, the psyche, literature, and aesthetics. So far 8 vols. Garland, New York, NY a. a. 1997ff.
  • Leo Pollmann: Sartre and Camus. Literature of existence. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart a. a. 1967.
  • Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann : Sartre. Philosophy as a way of life. Beck, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-406-51138-4
  • Robert C. Solomon (Ed.): Existentialism. 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, New York a. a. 2005, ISBN 0-19-517463-1 (collection of source texts)
  • Josef Speck (Ed.): Philosophy of the Present V - Basic Problems of the Great Philosophers , (Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Wust, Marcel), Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1992, ISBN 3-525-03309-5
  • Rainer Thurnher, Wolfgang Röd, Heinrich Schmidinger: History of Philosophy Vol. 13: Philosophy of the late 19th and 20th centuries 3: Philosophy of life and existential philosophy , CH Beck, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-406-49275-4
  • Urs Thurnherr , Anton Hügli (eds.): Lexicon Existentialismus / Existential Philosophy , WBG, Darmstadt 2007.
  • Yves Trottier, Marc Imbeault: Limites de la violence , Les Presses de l'Université Laval, Québec 2006.
  • Weiland, René : Philosophy of Lifestyle. Ethical thinking between existential philosophy and constructivism. transcript, Bielefeld 2016, ISBN 978-3-8376-3632-1 .

Web links

Wiktionary: existentialism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre: Is Existentialism a Humanism? Three essays, Ullstein, Frankfurt 1989, p. 11
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre: Das sein und das Nothing , Reinbek rororo, 1993, page 191
  3. Jean-Paul Sartre: Das Sein und das Nothing , Reinbek rororo, 1993, page 325
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre: Is Existentialism Humanism? Three essays, Ullstein, Frankfurt 1989, p. 20
  5. ^ Albert Camus: Diary: March 1951 - December 1959 . 3rd edition, new edition. Rowohlt Taschenbuch, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1993, ISBN 978-3-499-22199-6 .
  6. Albert Camus: Der Fremde , Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2013, 66th edition, ISBN 978-3-499-22189-7 , from p. 150.
  7. Simone de Beauvoir: The opposite sex . Reinbek. Rowohlt. 2008, p. 334
  8. ^ Thomas Blech : Education as an event of the foreign. Freedom and historicity at Jean-Paul Sartre Tectum Verlag , 2001, ISBN 3828882846 , p. 53
  9. Albert Camus: Der Fremde , Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2013, 66th edition, ISBN 978-3-499-22189-7 , p. 159.
  10. Simone de Beauvoir: The opposite sex. Woman's Customs and Sex . 19th edition. Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg 2018, p. 334 .