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n. a philosophical and literary movement that emerged in Europe in the period between the two World Wars and became the dominant trend in Continental thought during the 1940s and 1950s. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to sum up in a single definition—partly because many who might be identified with the movement reject the label, and partly because the movement is itself often a rejection of systematization and classification. The origins of existentialism have been traced to a range of thinkers, including French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). However, the first fully developed philosophy of existentialism is usually taken to be the existential phenomenology elaborated by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) in the 1910s and 1920s. Heidegger’s concept of Dasein was a key influence on the work of the French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), who is usually seen as the existentialist thinker par excellence. In the immediate postwar years, Sartre popularized both the term existentialism and most of the ideas now associated with it.

Existentialism represents a turning away from systematic philosophy, with its emphasis on metaphysical absolutes and principles of rational certainty, and toward an emphasis on the concrete existence of a human being “thrown” into a world that is merely “given” and contingent. Such a being encounters the world as a subjective consciousness, “condemned” to create its own meanings and values in an “absurd” and purposeless universe. The human being must perform this task without benefit of a fixed essence or inherent nature, and in the absence of any possibility of rational certainty. However, by accepting the burden of this responsibility, and refusing the “bad faith” of religion and other spurious rationalizations, he or she can achieve authenticity. Various forms of existential psychology have taken up the task of providing explanations, understandings of human behavior, and therapies based on existentialist assumptions about human existence. They have emphasized such constructs as alienation, authenticity, and freedom, as well as the difficulties associated with finding meaning and overcoming anxiety. —existential adj. —existentialist n., adj.

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March 1st 2024