Best books on existentialism
Existentialism is one of the most influential philosophical movements of the 20th century. It has sparked debates on issues such as freedom, identity, and choice. These issues are as relevant today as they were when first explored by great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and one-time Marxist Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev.
This article will explain existentialism, discuss its history, and dive into a variety of great reads about existentialism that offer valuable insights.
What is existentialism?
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that grew out of nineteenth-century Europe, particularly France. It has had an immense influence on culture, psychology, and the history of philosophy. The movement was particularly relevant during World War II when the people of most countries were facing an existential crisis.
Existentialist philosophy is driven by the insight that human beings are autonomous and can find meaning through their own choices. Existentialists focus on the subjective experience of an individual’s existence in the face of what they see as the meaninglessness or nihilism of the world. Christian theologians such as Soren Kierkegaard (Danish), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (German), and Blaise Pascal (French) sought to reconcile faith with their new understanding of life.
Existential philosophy has been described as “the belief that human existence precedes essence”—i.e., that human beings exist before they define themselves and determine who they will become. This means individuals have free will to make decisions and take responsibility for their consequences.
Existentialist thought also emphasizes subjectivity: each person has their own way of seeing things, and there is no objective truth (good and evil) available to everyone at once. In other words, there’s nothing like “human nature,” and one’s perspective is shaped by personal history and beliefs.
Existentialist themes are also addressed in psychotherapy, which often includes exploring how one arrives at meaning in life by examining how beliefs are formed and critically evaluating them. These themes were particularly relevant during World War II when Europe faced an existential crisis. Existentialist thinkers reject determinism (the idea that all events are predetermined) in favor of greater freedom for individuals to construct their own lives.
Notable existentialist philosophers include Gabriel Marcel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, and Albert Camus, among many others. Their works discuss questions related to consciousness, being in the world, ontology (the nature of being), and phenomenology (the study of experience).
Best books on existentialism
Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialism is a Humanism is a foundational book exploring the implications of existential philosophy for our understanding of the human condition. In this work, Sartre offers an analysis of human freedom and how people can take ownership of their lives despite the limitations and absurdities of the world.
He examines how individuals must make meaningful choices that are ultimately motivated by their own values and ethical standards. This book is essential to gaining insight into existential philosophy and its relevance to our daily lives.
The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
This book is a landmark exploration of the moral complexities which arise from the experiences of freedom in modern life. De Beauvoir examines the different meanings and components which comprise human identity to pinpoint why individuals exist with such ambiguity.
She argues that it is precisely this ambiguity which allows individuals to create their own meaning and lead meaningful lives even amid chaos and uncertainty. This book provides invaluable insights into living authentically while recognizing existing limits.
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
Being and Nothingness is often considered one of his most important works on philosophy and existentialism. In this book, he discusses how humans are essentially composed of nothingness or “nothingness within being,” which gives them an extraordinary capacity for freedom but also renders them vulnerable to absurdity due to the gap between their potential for action and reality’s constraints.
He further explores issues like consciousness, emotions, social relationships, responsibility, bad faith, and authenticity as key elements in understanding human behavior in an existentially meaningful way.
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
One of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century, Being and Time by Martin Heidegger is a foundational text in the field of existentialism.
The book analyzes human existence (Dasein) as being in the world, exploring the fundamental structures of time, modernity, and truth. Heidegger’s work has been referred to as the cornerstone of existentialist thought, providing a deep insight into how we exist in the world.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
A classic work of absurdist literature, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus explores humanity’s search for meaning in an irrational universe. In this essay, Camus outlines his famous “Myth of Sisyphus”—a mythical Greek figure doomed to forever push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again, symbolizing our futile efforts at finding purpose in life.
With its evocative exploration into existence and despair, The Myth Of Sisyphus remains one of the most important books ever written on existential philosophy.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Dostoyevsky)
Letter to His Father by Franz Kafka
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
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Whether you’re looking for books by a humanistic author like Friedrich Nietzsche or a staunch existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre, you’ll always find something to read.
What are the three beliefs of existentialism?
Phenomenology, freedom, and authenticity
Do existentialists believe in God?
Existentialists do not believe in the existence of a traditional, omniscient god or any other supernatural being.
What does existentialism say about the meaning of life?
Existentialism believes that life has no inherent meaning; it is up to each individual to create their own unique and personal meaning of life. This means that the purpose of life is determined by the individual, not by any external source or predetermined structure.
What is the difference between existentialism and nihilism?
Existentialists place emphasis on individuals creating meaningful lives by actively choosing certain values and paths. Nihilists assert there is no universal truth about anything, and nothing matters.