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What Is Existentialism?

With our upcoming production of "No Exit" opening in a few days, we thought we would inform you about the philosophical theory that serves as a foundation for this play.

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First of all, what is existentialism?


In a broad sense, existentialism is a philosophical belief that the nature of humankind is problematic and that the best way to address this problem is through ontology (the study of the nature of being, of existence, etc).

Existentialism may be one of the most well known philosophical movements. Most of the philosophers who are considered existentialists are from Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Interestingly, many of these individuals would disavow or never use the label "existentialist".

Philosophy as a way of life


Philosophy must be fully integrated within life, and life can be lived philosophically without a technical knowledge of philosophy. Existentialists draw from two historical references to validate this. First, is Socrates who was non-professional, and in his pursuit of the good life his teachings often took place in public spaces. The second is German idealism that arose after Kant. It was believed that the point of philosophy is not to know things but to change them. They looked at philosophy as an integral part of specialization of manual and intellectual labor, they studied life from the inside, and were concerned with the significance of both life and death.

Anxiety/ Authenticity


Anxiety is the recognition that our existence as humans is in a way "on its own". Depending on the philosopher, this concept of being "on its own" may mean different things. For example, it could refer to the irrelevance of rational thought, moral values, etc. when it comes to making fundamental decisions concerning one's existence. Or it might mean the uniqueness of human existence, and thus the fact that it cannot understand itself.

Authenticity refers to the "good life", essentially an acceptance of the nature of existence and living in harmony with that.

Freedom / Via

Freedom is linked to the previous theme of anxiety because it is in part defined by the isolation of one's decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge. Freedom also entails an individual's responsibility over their actions.



Even if one's freedom is absolute, it still takes place within a specific context. One's freedom is influenced by their body and its characteristics, their circumstance in a historical world, and their past experiences.

We are also socially situated in the sense that our freedom is always subject with respect to the judgment of others.

Existence / Via

There is an important distinction between existence and specifically human existence. Therefore, our existence can not be understood from the knowledge of things, as objects of knowledge.

There is a general notion of striving for existence, that existence is action. Therefore a human being is only what that being does. For many existentialists, authentic existence involves a certain tension be recognised and lived through, but not resolved.

Irrationality/ Absurdity


Absurdity is one of the most famous themes of existentialism. It refers to how human existence is considered "absurd". Depending on the philosopher, it may be viewed as absurd because nature as a whole has no design, and thus there is no reason for existing. A second meaning is that freedom will be undetermined by knowledge or reason, and so is viewed as absurd. Absurdity is thus closely related to the theme of 'being on its own'. Or human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself. A free action, once executed, is no longer free; it has become an aspect of the world, a thing. The absurdity of human existence then seems to lie in the fact that in becoming myself (a free existence) I must be what I am not (a thing).

The Crowd


Existentialism also involves a social/ political component. Referred to as "the crowd", this idea captures inauthentic social interaction that causes individuals to accept their values from others because ‘that is what everybody does’, rather than formed themselves authentically.

So How Does This Relate to "No Exit"?

"No Exit" deals with Existentialism by focusing on the devouring gaze of the other and how this can restrict one's freedom. When our validation and identity derive from others, these others in turn become hell.

Overall, "No Exit" causes us to face the unavoidable truth that as individuals we must face ourselves and the consequences of our actions, and in turn encounter the moral judgment of others.

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