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What is the existential perspective?

Updated on May 4, 2015


It emphasizes our uniqueness during our quest for values and meaning and in our freedom for self-direction and self-fulfillment. It is seemingly similar to the humanistic perspective and many existential psychologists are referred to as humanists.

This perspective does, however, represent a less optimistic view of human beings and focuses on the irrational tendencies in human nature and the difficulties inherent in self-fulfillment. The concept of day to day living seems more of a confrontation for these existentialists, especially in a bureaucratic and dehumanizing mass society. Furthermore, they place less faith in modern science and more in the inner experience of the individual in his or her attempts to understand and deal with the deepest human problems.

What are the central themes and concepts of the existential perspective?

Existentialism is essentially a highly systemized school of thought but is, however, unified around a central concern with the ultimate challenge of human existence, namely, to found sound values, to grow as a person and to build a meaningful and socially constructive life. Existential concepts were inspired by the work of European philosophers such as Heidegger, Jasper, Kierkegaard and Sartre. Furthermore, the theologies of Paul Tillich and the psychologists Rollo may were quite influential in the development of existential thought in the United States.

Existence and essence

A central theme of existentialism is that our existence is given but what we make of it, or essence, is based on our decisions that we make. Whether we are asked to be born or not we are in this world and answerable for ourselves, for one human life. It becomes our responsibility to shape the kind of person we are to become and to live a meaningful and constructive life.

This does not become easy in an age of profound change in which many traditional values and beliefs are being questioned. We tend to experience deep and spiritual strain concerning the kind of people we should be and become and the way of life we should try to build for ourselves. We should therefore give up the quest and find some satisfaction in blind conformity and submergence in the group. The other alternative is to strive for increased self-definition in the reality of our own existence to finally find self-fulfillment.

Choice, freedom and courage

Essence is created by our choices as they reflect the values on which we base and order our lives. When we choose to become the person we want to be we exercise absolute freedom – even refusing to choose represents a choice.

Choice, however, requires the courage to break away from old patterns if need be and to stand on your own. Many lack this courage and do not want their essence to be left up to them, rather they seek some outside authority such as religion or their social group to advise them on what to believe and how to act. To flee from one’s freedom and responsibility does lead to a life that is unauthentic, showing bad faith and a tendency to live in despair.

Meaning, value and obligation

Will-to-meaning is another central theme to existential perspective which is considered to be a basic human characteristic and is essentially a matter of finding satisfying values and guiding your life to them.

The emphasis on individual value patterns should not be confused with moral nihilism as there is a basic unity in humankind. There will thus be an underlying continuity in the value patterns chosen by different individuals who are trying to live authentically.

Regarding obligations, the important consideration is not what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to it. Our lives will only become fulfilling if it involves socially constructive values and choices.

Existential anxiety and the encounter with nothingness

Human beings are the only creations who live with the constant awareness of the possibility of non-being. This awareness allows us to fully grasp what it means to “be” and adds a crucial dimension to our existence and immediate experience.

Introduction to Existentialism


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