Existentialism By Taylor, Simon
Existentialism is the term given to an interdisciplinary school of thought that focuses on the lived experience of human beings. Existentialism was especially popular in Western Europe and the United States in the decades immediately before and after World War II, where it was seen to reflect the popular mood of the time. Although precursors to Existentialism can be found in the earliest philosophical and religious texts of classical antiquity—the work of St. Augustine is of particular relevance in this regard—the modern incarnation of existentialism can be traced to mid-19th-century Europe. While there is considerable controversy regarding the genesis of Existentialism, a plausible beginning can be found in the series of lectures delivered by the German philosopher and theologian F. W. J. Schelling in Berlin in 1841. Among other prominent 19th-century intellectuals in attendance was the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, whose 1843 works Either/Or and Fear and Trembling formalized many of Schelling’s key themes, above all an emphasis on the radical dimensions of human freedom. In this regard, Existentialism can be understood as a rejection of the metaphysical system building of German idealism. Kierkegaard’s philosophy was especially directed against the work of G. W. F. Hegel, who held that human actions must be understood as an expression of the historical unfolding of spirit [Geist] in the pursuit of freedom. In response, Kierkegaard argued that the everyday practices and lived experiences of individuals ought to form the basis of philosophical inquiry, rather than metaphysical abstractions.