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How To Write An Essay On Existentialism

Author: Addison Ellis
Category: Phenomenology and Existentialism
Word Count: 1000

Mr. White

Mr. White is many things—a teacher, a husband, a father, a college graduate, and a medical patient, to name a few. Some of his features may be counted as accomplishments, others failures, and yet others unlucky accidents thrust upon him by the world. But is this all there is to Mr. White? According to the philosophical tradition of Existentialism, something is missing in this characterization. For the existentialist, we are not merely a collection of facts; we are also self-conscious, living,caring beings. While trees, seagulls, and fish are all similarly alive, they do not live the same sorts of lives that we do. Existentialism is the philosophical science of our peculiar sorts of lives.1

Our lives are ongoing activities. Mr. White’s existence, just like the existence of every similarly self-conscious, caring being, is more than a series of events or a set of facts. In providing such an understanding, Existentialism breathes new life into old ideas about the nature of value, freedom, and even more broadly into questions about the nature of reality and knowledge. In this essay, we will restrict our focus to what existentialists have to say about human nature and living a meaningful life.2

Existence Precedes Essence

Many philosophers, both historical and contemporary, believe that the way something is is determined by its essence. That is, essences are fixed determinants of the way things are. Those who follow this line of thought may take essences to be the non-physical and eternal standards to which things conform.3 Thus, the essence of a table is what determines table-like behavior. Likewise, the essence of a human being is what determines what a human being is like. These fixed determinants can range from principles given by God to those we attribute to society. Martin Heidegger helpfully points out that we often speak of the way “one” does things, referring to no one in particular. We say things like “this is the way one does x,” because doing x correctly means doing it in accordance with some pre-established standard.4 But Heidegger believes that this way of thinking should not extend to our ways of living. That is, we should not understand ourselves as living correctly only when we live “as one lives.” Existentialism reverses this picture by suggesting that it is our living which determines our essence, and not the other way around.

Let’s go back to Mr. White. In order to understand what sort of being he is, we must understand that who he is is not a fact he was born with, nor is it a fact that was established merely after some important events in his life unfolded. He is who he is because of what he chooses, and one can never stop choosing. For even by trying to decide that I will no longer make choices, I am making the choice not to choose. Jean-Paul Sartre, the most famous of the historical existentialists, expresses the idea that we are who we make ourselves, and not who we are pre-determined to be, with a concise slogan: “existence precedes essence.”5

Freedom & Authenticity

If Sartre is right and our lives are essentially up to us, then existentialists must also be committed to a robust kind of freedom, since we are not determined by what happens to us. But if Mr. White’s essence is up to him, and he’s free to craft his essence as he pleases, then on what standards does he draw to guide himself in his crafting? It would seem that existentialists cannot simply draw from a set of independently existing standards. If this were so, then who we are is again simply a matter of conforming to some pre-established standards.

If the standards are up to us, then why should we choose any one set of standards over any other? That is, how can we make sense of the idea that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live if there is no external standard for judging whether we have made the right choice?6 This is a difficult issue in Existentialism, one that is grappled with by all the major figures in the tradition. The answer we will entertain here is that it is possible to find a standard within our own activities that determines whether they are being performed well or poorly. This is what existentialists refer to as authenticity.7

Mr. White, knowing that he has terminal lung cancer, can arrange the final years of his life in a variety of ways; it is up to him how he will structure his remaining time. But there are two ways in which he can choose: (i) he can see his choices as simply thrust upon him by the world—i.e., he can believe that he really doesn’t have a choice at all, or (ii) he can see his choices ashis own while taking full responsibility for them. Only by acting in this way is Mr. White acting authentically, since it is only under these conditions that he is true to himself. Acting inauthentically, then, involves excusing oneself from responsibility by ignoring one’s freedom. The existentialist hopes to have shown that despite the lack of external guidance, we are perfectly capable of telling from within our own activities whether we are acting authentically or inauthentically.8


Existentialism gives us some tools for understanding (i) our essence, and (ii) how it is possible to live a meaningful life. The ideas defended by existentialists have been thought to have both positive and negative implications for us. On the one hand, our lives are not determined by God, society, or contingent circumstances; on the other hand, absolute freedom can be a burden. As Sartre puts it, “man is condemned to be free.”9 That is, it was never up to us to be free, and we cannot cease to be free. Since we must be free, and because freedom entails responsibility, we can never opt out of being responsible. Thus we are simultaneously unencumbered and encumbered by our freedom to choose who we will be.


1This is not to denigrate the lives of things radically different from us, but merely to point out that paradigm human creatures live peculiar sorts of lives. The demarcating line here between lives like ours and lives unlike ours needn’t be drawn along purely biological lines. There are potentially things—certain non-human animals, futuristic artificially intelligent systems—that have lives like ours, and whose lives are properly studied by Existentialism. Similarly, there are some biological humans—the very young, the severely mentally handicapped—whose lives are not like ours, and hence, whose lives are not properly studied by Existentialism.

2Existential themes can be traced as far back as St. Augustine in his Confessions. Most philosophers today agree, however, that 19th-Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and 19th-Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did much to provide the framework for what Existentialism would become in its more definitive era. The major figures of Existentialism include not only Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also (perhaps more importantly) Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, in the 20th century.

3What Plato calls “forms.”

4This is an expression of what Heidegger calls the They-self, Being and Time Section 129

5Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism (20)

6There is some debate about whether Existentialism is actually a moral theory. One reason for the doubt is precisely this one – that there is nothing action-guiding about Existentialism.

7Steven Crowell makes this point in his SEP article when discussing Nietzsche’s idea of a ‘ruling instinct.’

8There is a serious worry here that must be addressed by the existentialist, and I will leave it as an exercise for the reader. While it seems better to act authentically than to act inauthentically, don’t we need to meet even more standards in order to count as living a truly good life? In other words, we might worry about whether authenticity is the only guiding principle that we really need. Perhaps it is possible to be an authentic genocidal dictator. If so, then perhaps Existentialism does not, on its own, suffice as a moral theory.

9Sartre, op. cit. (29)


Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie. Ed. Edward Robinson. New York: HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism = (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme) ; Including, a Commentary on The Stranger (Explication De L’Étranger). Ed. John Kulka and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007.

About the Author

Addison is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a B.A. in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently interested in philosophy of mind (especially problems of intentionality), epistemology (especially the role of philosophical intuitions in philosophical practice), Kant, and post-Kantian philosophy. Apart from philosophy, he is interested in playing good music, hanging out with his dog, Chessie, and watching/thinking about movies.

by 1000wordphilosophy

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The secrets of human nature have always been the subjects of many philosophers who aimed to find out the answers to the eternal questions. Jean-Paul Sartre was one of those thinkers who considered the fiction literature as the way to disclose the philosophical arguments. He is known to be a great supporter of the existentialist movement that centered on the human freedom, happiness, and consciousness. The philosopher was concerned with the issue of people’s feelings and emotions, their behavior and reasons for it. One of the most influential works that present the ideas of existentialism and person’s identity is Sartre’s “No Exit” where he managed to portray the eternal problem of individuals’ falling values and principles.

The first point to make is to say that the existentialism shows us with the issue of individuality which is alone in the whole world, who is lost in their own prejudices and sins but still tries to find the way out and be saved. Sartre puts hi main ideas in the fiction play, attempting to explain the philosophical theories in the new light, to make the reader find the answers in the literature work with the imaged characters and absurd situations.

Sartre emphasized on the argument that the existence precedes the essence and “No Exit” only proved it, presenting people as free to choose their life. To be more precise, the real existentialist would always be true to themselves, would feel the responsibility for their actions, would never lie or hide something because they are confident in their deeds and choices. The main Sartre’s characters Garcin, Estelle, and Inez are just ordinary people who found themselves in the hell and do not want to declare the reasons for their damnation. The philosopher was confident that the existence of a person is their beliefs, their principles in life and views on the reality which they construe differently. The characters in the play are people who lost their values and faith, they are sinful but still, want to justify their deeds. It is important to say that Sartre here negatively depicts his existentialist ideas, telling the reader about the straight dependence of our identity and existence from others and their opinions. “Remember you’re not alone; you’ve no right to inflict the sight of your fear on me” (Sartre, “No Exit”) Moreover, we are those whom others want us to be, people try to be recognized and accepted and that is their core of existence.

Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are just playing the roles, they pretend to be somebody else just to hide their real faces and actions in the past. All of them try to avoid the judgment of the others; they are always in search of the mirrors not to see the eyes that despise or look down. “Don’t be afraid; I’ll keep looking at you for ever and ever, without a flutter of my eyelids, and you’ll live in my gaze like a mote in a sunbeam” (Sartre, “No Exit”). In this particular case, we can speak about Sartre’s primary idea of existence preceding the essence. He portrayed the characters as those who make their own choices, even the wrong and sinful ones, but still, it is their will to act in such a way, that is comparing to the inanimate objects, people define their existence. They can change everything around them, be free to dictate their own rules of life because they are conscious of the reality. What is more, Sartre aimed to show that very often our decisions depend on the other’s opinion because people lose their freedom of choice feeling too weak to withstand or make their decision. Garcin can not leave the room because he relies on Inez’s opinion, Estelle does not believe that she is real just till the moment other people become her mirror. “I’m your lark-mirror,my dear, and you can’t escape me…There isn’t any pimple, not a trace of one. So what about it? Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes – as he is doing – and refused to look at you, all that loveliness of yours would be wasted on the desert air. No, don’t be afraid, I can’t help looking at you” (Sartre, “No Exit”). People are very cunning when it is about their own benefits in the life game. That is why, being so reliant on others, it turned out with the result that the only person we can trust in our self-perception is we. All in all, all the characters’ feelings, their perception of themselves are the product and of others’ decisions and view on them. Sartre wanted to prove that the existence is the ability of the individuality to have a choice in life regarding their status, profession, relationships, and self-identity.

It has to be said that the philosopher did not intend to show the real hell with the horrible tortures, Sartre wanted to present people with the hell on Earth when people themselves create it. Garcia, Inez, and Estelle are just the small members of the society, that ruin ones’ lives, being the victims of others’ opinions, prejudices, and stereotypes. “Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!” (Sartre, “No Exit”). The main characters realize that all their problems came from their lack of self-identity, their blind reliance on others’ judgment and loss of faith in themselves. People suffer because of others, and they want others to suffer from them in return. It is the rule of human existence to put the masks because it is easier to please the other’s needs and tastes, otherwise you will be excluded.

Jean-Paul Sartre managed to create the representation of the human existence,  as being the significant part of the others’ views. Moreover, he showed the reader how false principles and lack of faith could end up in the pretending and self-delusion. The main characters of “No Exit” proved to be the society where the human existence depends on the existence of others and therefore construct it in their desired way. The most important is to remain themselves even if others do not believe in you and even reject your choices. It means you are somebody; you are strong existentialist who tries to single out something special, not subjected to the rest of the world.

In conclusion, Sartre and his fiction play present the new view on the philosophical arguments proved to be even more successful in explaining the ideas of existentialism. It means it is easier to answer the human questions, putting the individuals in the situations of life choice when their destiny and the future depend only on them, their self-perception and relationships to others’ decisions.

Works Cited

“Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre 1946.”, 2017,
“Existence Precedes Essence: Understanding Existentialism – Knowledge Lost.” Knowledge Lost, 2017,
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. 1st ed., 1944,