Existentialists 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:
death and non-being
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.