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Existentialism Period And Its Influence

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What is the purpose of life? What is death? Who am I and what do I want out of life? These are all questions deriving from the period known as Existentialism. Many philosophers contributed to existentialism thinking and helped to push the existentialist movement along. Even now, existentialism lives in our modern day society and helps some people to define their way of living. Some of the major contributions to the existentialism period include philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Through the novel written by Albert Camus called The Stranger, existentialist thinking is portrayed through the protagonist of the story Meursault as he go about his life from a remote, disconnected way of life after he lose his mother. Before continuing however, one should understand what is existentialism?

The existentialism period started in the mid to late 19th century and reached its maximum height in France around the 20th century. The dictionary definition of existentialism is “a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” This essentially means that human beings are born without any meaning or purpose so they must define their own meaning in life and make rational decisions in a irrational universe. Existentialism emphasizes human freedom, human existence, and human choice. Because existentialism believe that there is no natural purpose to life, no God, or any other transcendent force, they are entirely free. This freedom also means however that each individual must find the purpose for living and be held personally responsible for all the decisions and action they do. This is why existentialist individuals always keep in mind these questions such as what does it mean to live and what is my purpose in life?

The first major contributor to the philosophy of existentialism is named Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, religious writer, satirist, psychologist, journalist, literary critic, poet, and theologian. He was the first philosopher that created and defined existentialism as a concept. Many people also considers Kierkegaard as the father of existentialism due to his knowledge and contribution to the existentialism period. It helped that he was born into a wealthy family, which allowed him the opportunity to pursue his intellectual interests and philosophy. Before his works got translated and published in Germany, Hegelianism was the primary philosophy in Germany. After Kierkegaard’s death, his works got translated and spread across Germany, and the ideas and concepts in those works directly opposed the concept of hegelianism which states that all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories. This opposition to hegelianism helped to set the framework for existentialism. Many other philosophers took those ideas of Kierkegaard and expanded the idea across Europe.

The next major contributor to existentialism is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist. The main idea of existentialism that is associated with him is the idea that future has no meaning. This idea of everything we do is essentially pointless brought on the idea that human itself must finding meaning to its own existence and to the existence of the world. This new idea changed many people’s perspective on life. If there was no meaning in life, then there’s not a set of guidelines that human beings need to follow, there’s not a right or wrong thing to do. Nietzsche existential philosophy includes believing that things and people has no value or truth, that people must be powerful and the powerful you are the more value you have, that freedom and greatness is essential to live a life of truth and to embrace life, and that people only have one life so they should live it how they want. Some of these ideas are very similar to what other existentialist philosophers think.

Being true to yourself and being authentic and living an authentic life is not only portrayed through Friedrich Nietzsche but also another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger(1889-1976). He stated that people should live an authentic life, meaning human should live and do things that are true to themselves, that are exactly the same as what they believe and value, not just someone that they think they should be or doing the things they think they should do. One of the most important concept associated with Heidegger is the concept of “Being” and what does it mean to exist? Human beings, unlike other animals, lead their life, they don’t live just to survive and reproduce, allowing them to be who they want. Heidegger think of human life as a plant with different branches and when human beings reach crossroad branch, they must choose what they want to be and accept the consequence. This goes along with what Nietzsche said about living a life full of truth and what Kierkegaard said about personal responsibility.Heidegger wrote a book called Being and Time that primarily focuses on the question of Being and the book became pretty popular in Europe. A lot of great philosophers read the book and either challenged or supported Heidegger’s philosophy on existentialism.

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One philosopher that challenged Heidegger on some of his philosophies is Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Sartre was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. In the book Being and Time, Heidegger argued that human beings are responsible for their actions. Sartre however states that human are not only responsible for themselves, but also other human beings. Sartre believes that existence precedes essence which means that because human beings create what they want to be, it directly affect how they exist in this world. Out of all the philosophers, Sartre was the one that was most well known for his existentialism contribution. He combined all these ideas of existentialism into his works. His works are also very popular with readers, which helped to spread the philosophy of existentialism even more than before. Due to the popularity of his works, in the public’s eye, Sartre was essentially the main central figure of existentialism. Like the other existentialist philosophers, Sartre goal was to understand human existence and that human beings are free to choose their actions and are personally responsible for them, and human should live an authentic life.

Sartre didn’t accomplish all the things that he accomplished alone, he had a lifelong partner named Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). Beauvoir was a French writer, intellectual, political activist, and feminist and social theorist. She didn’t consider herself to be a philosopher, but she contributed significantly to existentialism philosophy. Although she worked alongside Sartre, she had some different opinions then him on the subject of freedom. She states that moral issues also must be considered when talking about freedom. De beauvoir wrote a book called Notebooks for an Ethics that made the general public sort of rethink Sartre’s philosophy. The main theme of existentialism for De Beauvoir included freedom, responsibility, and ambiguity, all of these could be found in any of her works. She argues that “Human existence is always an ambiguous admixture of the internal freedom to transcend the given conditions of the world and the weight of the world which imposes itself on us in a manner outside of our control and not of our own choosing. In order for us to live ethically then, we must assume this ambiguity rather than try to flee it” (Simpson David). She is say to embrace this conflict of freedom instead of trying to get away from it, which will result in human doing things that might be unethical.

And last but not least, another person that greatly contributed to existentialism is Albert Camus (1913-1960). Albert Camus is a French philosopher, author, and journalist that wrote many books that reflected the ideas and concepts of existentialism, but doesn’t claim the title of existentialism for himself. Many people considers him to be existentialist but he always refuse the title of being an existentialist and stating that “I am not a philosopher, because I don’t believe in reason enough to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how we must behave, and more precisely, how to behave when one does not believe in God or reason” (Simpson David). Because of how existentialism is closely related to what he wants to know, in finding the answers he want, he also helped to contribute to existentialism.

Albert Camus also expressed existentialism through literature. He wrote many books that contained elements of existentialism either incorporated into the plot or expressed through a character. One book that portrays some elements of existentialism through the actions of a character is called The Stranger.

Existentialism influenced people in a positive manner right after the Great Depression and World War II due to its way of thinking that individuals has their own freedom to choose one’s moral belief and to act upon those belief and living an authentic life. Existentialism essentially means one’s search for true self and personal meaning in life. This could be seen everyday as people learn what they want and like and who and what kind of person they want to be when they grow up. It also means to not just accept other people’s belief if it is imposed on you when you didn’t want it. Existentialism means everyone has the freedom to choose and to accept the consequences of those choices. All of these things could still be seen today in our modern day society as people grow up, go to college and figure out who they are.

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Existentialism Period And Its Influence. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-period-and-its-influence/
“Existentialism Period And Its Influence.” Edubirdie, 09 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-period-and-its-influence/
Existentialism Period And Its Influence. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-period-and-its-influence/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Existentialism Period And Its Influence [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 09 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-period-and-its-influence/
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