ImageExistentialists concentrate on the topic of human existence, and some of the primary existentialists are Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, and, of course, Søren Kierkegaard. Just as in phenomenology, existential thinkers have differing philosophies, and these variations are largely attributed to opposing personal world-views. Sartre stated that existentialism could be easily defined but problems would inevitably arise because of atheistic and Christian interpretations. This makes sense, and has definitely been the case in existential thought. However, despite these vast disagreements about faith, the fundamental ideas of existentialism remain constant.  In ALL existential inquiry, both atheistic and Christian thinkers believe “that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point” (Sartre, 1965/1993, p. 34).

Existentialism is broken down into specific themes:


existential anxiety

death and non-being


personal responsibility

aloneness and relatedness



As mentioned, variations of thought exist among all of these existential themes, but there are still universal agreements. For example, the existential theme of meaning-making varies from one philosopher to another – What is meaning? Is there meaning? How does one make meaning? One philosopher would say that meaning truly exists in life and can best be attained through human suffering (Frankl) while another would say that life is meaningless so we create our own meaning (Sartre). Despite these varying degrees of interpretation, both existentialists would agree with their fellow philosophers that all human beings search for meaning and personal identity in life.

Let me elaborate more on the theme of meaning and how philosophies differ in terms of faith and personal world-views. Let’s start with Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist…

Sartre believed that human beings try to find meaning in a world that is void of meaning by creating various religions to support the belief of life beyond material existence.  In essence, according to Sartre, human beings create an artificial construct through self-serving illusions, and this created construct is not truly meaningful, since there is no “meaning” in any absolute sense. Sartre believed that it was meaning-less that we live and it is meaning-less that we die because all of life is meaningless. Therefore, people must make meaning by what they choose to do in life, through their intentions and interactions.

Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and man of faith differed substantially from Sartre. He believed that human beings could find meaning through suffering and through life experiences.  By having a will to live through adversity, human beings found meaning in their lives.  Frankl stated that meaning was ever-present in the world and that the quest in life was to find meaning.  This journey required human beings to step outside of themselves – meaning-making, for Frankl, was not introspective; it was transcending.

Søren Kierkegaard was also a man of faith, a devout Christian. He also believed that individuals had to suffer despair throughout their inadequate humanity. However, he emphasized the necessity to move beyond this notion of a deficient human existence in order to find meaning in the world and with God.  Kierkegaard encouraged doubt. He believed that doubt was the rational part of a human being, and, in order for individuals to have faith, they also needed to have doubt because, without doubt, faith has no value.

While Frankl, Sartre, and Kierkegaard emerged from vastly different personal belief systems, all three philosophers represented this theme of meaning-making through their world views and personal beliefs systems. Yet all believed that every human being searches for meaning and personal identity in life. I hope that these descriptions also help illustrate how appropriate it is for counselors to first construct their personal understandings of human development before they can adequately use existential theory in the counseling relationship.

*Sartre, J. P. (1993).  Essays in existentialism.  New York: Carol Publishing Group.


ImagePhenomenology is literally defined as the study of phenomena. Phenomenology is the study of things that appear in experience in a way that they appear as they truly are. In essence, phenomenology is directed at examining things in terms of their meanings. The primary phenomenological concepts are:

(a) intentionality or the “about-ness” of a thing

(b) intuition or knowledge not based on perception

(c) memory or introspection

(d) answering the meaning of “being” (Audi, 1995).         

Let’s backtrack a little and define what a phenomenon actually is. What is phenomenology studying exactly? What IS a phenomenon?

                Heidegger stated that a phenomenon is “that which shows itself from itself” (1927/1962, p. 51).  Phenomena are experienced and are independent of any theories and assumptions. For example, a person experiences a flower as the phenomenon of a flower rather than something that is composed of atoms and particles.  Even though physicists state that flowers are composed of atoms and particles and psychologists try to understand people in terms of their minds, neither atoms, particles, nor minds appear when a person walks through the park and sees a garden of flowers, right? Of course not. The experience of the flower is the phenomenon (Wrathall, 1993). 

                Now it gets more varied…

                Despite the core definitions of a phenomenon and of phenomenology, phenomenological scholars differ in the HOW. How does one make meaning of a phenomenon? Philosophers differ quite substantially on this topic. This does not mean that one scholar is correct while another is incorrect, however. There are multiple ways of finding meaning! You might say that one theory is not better than another but rather, it is the interpretation and usefulness of a theory that will speak to one thinker over another. An example of differing thoughts about a similar concept can be clarified through the philosophies of three primary phenomenological scholars: Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.

1)      Husserl (1960), the Father of Phenomenology, focused on epistemological differences – what is the nature of knowledge?

2)      Heidegger, Husserl’s pupil, concentrated on ontological differences – what is the nature of being?

3)      Merleau-Ponty, whose philosophy, like Heidegger’s, was also ontological, diverged when he united Husserl’s and Heidegger’s theories and generated a philosophy of the lived body. He contended that all consciousness was created from a pre-reflective bodily existence. In essence, he believed that everything individuals knew of the world (even when that knowledge was based in science) was understood through their personal views and lived experiences (which are fundamentally founded in the body).

                 Again, all branched out to differing thoughts of the HOW of meaning, and all theories shaped the way these thinkers thought about the world and the people around them. Counselors and therapists do this as well. Look at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when compared to Gestalt Therapy. They inherently differ, but neither is right or wrong. Rather, each theory is shaped by the individual who buys into that theory and helps create a format for helping others.  It is the map one clinician follows versus another – the destination is usually the same!

So…just like phenomenological thought differs among philosophers, so does existential thought.

Stay tuned!

Audi, R. (Ed.). (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962).  Being and time.  New York: Harper & Row.

Wrathall, M. (1993). How to read Heidegger.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.