The term has been defined as an attempt to philosophize from the standpoint of the actor, rather than, as in classical philosophy, from that of the detached spectator. The word derives from the German Existenzphilosophie. The movement grew in Germany after World War I and flourished in France from the time of World War II. It is best regarded as indicating an approach rather than a fixed body of philosophical doctrines. Its leading exponents have tended to coin their own vocabulary of technical terms and to develop their thought in their individual ways. Some are atheists, others profess Protestant or Catholic faith. The existentialist protest against philosophical systems has in the hands of some of its advocates been transformed into highly elaborate systems.
The origins of existentialism have been traced back to S. Kierkegaard* with his attack on absolute idealism and concern for individual existence, to the atheism of F.W. Nietzsche,* and to the disenchantment of F.M. Dostoevsky* with rationalistic humanism and his saying: if God did not exist, everything would be permitted. The premise of atheistic existentialism is that God does not exist, therefore man must fend for himself. He must work out his own values and create his own existence. At the same time he has a sense of the absurdity of it all. The choices he has to make are often impossible, giving rise to profound anxiety.
Existentialism represents a revolt against external authority, ready-made world views, authoritarian and conventional moral values and codes of conduct. Man has been dumped into the world whether he likes it or not. He has to make his own way in it, creating his own values and determining his existence as he goes along. It is this which distinguishes man from things and animals. But if he refuses he relapses into the kind of existence that things have, instead of living an authentic human existence.
In Germany, [[Karl Jaspers]]* and Martin Heidegger are the best- known existentialist thinkers. The latter's Being and Time (1927; ET 1962) was a seminal work which set out what was virtually an existentialist metaphysics. Leading French existentialists have not only written philosophical treatises, but have expressed their ideas in plays and novels. Among them are the communist Jean-Paul Sartre, the atheist Albert Camus, and the Catholic Gabriel Marcel. Sartre's philosophical studies include Being and Nothingness (1943; ET 1957) and Existentialism and Humanism (1946; ET 1948).
In his demythologizing program, [[Rudolf Bultmann]]* has made use of Heidegger's existentialism, interpreting the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ as a challenge to men to choose between authentic and inauthentic existence. In their different ways [[Paul Tillich]]* and John Macquarrie have combined existential analysis with ontological speculation in an attempt to provide a new metaphysical basis for interpreting the Christian faith.
Although existential analysis has yielded rewarding insights into aspects of human existence, the speculative systems have been sharply criticized from the standpoint of linguistic analysis for category mistakes in the use of language. The attempt to restate Christian belief in existentialist terms has tended to eliminate the transcendent and divine personal element of biblical theism.
H.J. Blackham, Six Existentialist Thinkers (1952); J.M. Spier, Christianity and Existentialism (1953); F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (1954); J. Macquarrie, An Existentialist Theology (1955), The Scope of Demythologizing (1960), Studies in Christian Existentialism (1966), and Existentialism (1971); W. Kaufmann (ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956); F. Copleston, Contemporary Philosophy (1956); W. Barrett, Irrational Man (1961); M. Warnock, The Philosophy of Sartre (1965); S. Keen, Gabriel Marcel (1966); C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (2nd ed., 1971).