the thinkers

Many philosophers of the 20th century hotly debated whether they were "existentialists," often distancing themselves from the movement or contesting its very definition. However, there is no doubt that all of the following greatly influenced existentialism and its self-identified adherents.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986) was a French author, philosopher, and anthropologist who founded Les temps moderne with her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Although she is frequently overshadowed by her connection to Sartre, Beauvoir became a central existentialist figure in her own right. She largely focused on integrating existentialism with feminism, something that alienated her from many of her male counterparts in the movement, especially Camus. Some of her most important contributions were The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) was an Algerian-born French author, philosopher, and journalist who became one of the central figures in the movement. Although he was fiercely opposed to nihilism, he also refused to label himself an existentialist. Camus believed that "t]he absurd is the essential concept and the first truth" and believed that the only one to achieve understanding on any level was to rebel. More than perhaps any other existentialist figure other than Sartre, Camus achieve an incredible level of notoriety through his writings, which earned him the Nobel Prize.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881) was a Russian author and one of the central foundational figures in existentialism. Best known for his novels War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky repeatedly explored existentialist themes in his works, later publicly adopting Christian existentialist ideology. His Notes from Underground (1864) is often cited as the most important text leading up to the existentialist movement, since it rejected the idea of utopianism and put its emphasis on the "irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative" (Wikipedia) nature of humankind. Both Sartre and Nietzsche cited Dostoyevsky as a major influence on them.

Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976) was a German philosopher perhaps even more closely linked to phenomenology and hermeneutics. Deeply interested in metaphysics, Heidegger began his association with the growing existentialist movement in the 1930s, though he consistently spurned the title of existentialist. His classic work Being and Time proved to be one of the most singularly influential texts in the fields of existentialism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction. His concept of Dasein was the primary concept existentialists used to explore the nature of Being versus existence; it was influential upon, amongst others, Jacques Derrida and Hannah Arendt.

Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) was a German philosopher and psychiatrist who, like Heidegger, put much of his intellectual energy into exploring the idea of the primal nature of Being, preferring his own idea of Existenz over Heidegger's Dasein. Like the other existentialists, Jaspers focused on the concept of individual freedom and was largely inspired by the works of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. To Jaspers, the Existenz "designates the indefinable experience of freedom and possibility; an experience which constitutes the authentic being of individuals who become aware of 'the encompassing' by confronting suffering, conflict, guilt, chance, and death." (Wikipedia)

Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924) was a German-Bohemian fiction-writer who wrote some of the most pivotal pieces of philosophical literature of the 20th century. Although most of his works were never finished and were published after his death, Kafka's writings provided many of the ideas that inspired the existentialist movement of the 1940s. Kafka's texts, most notably "Die Verwandlung" ("The Metamorphosis"), explore most of the central theme of existentialist thinking, particularly the absurd and the idea of authentic existence. It also is heavy in religious allegory, a tool often used by the largely secular existentialist movement.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1835) was a Danish philosopher and theologian who is generally considered to be the modern founder of existentialist thought, though he is often considered to have been more of a postmodernist, humanist, and individualist than a strict existentialist. Kierkegaard is considered the first thinker to have explicitly raised existentialist questions in his writings, and he made the theme of human existence and its crisis the central one that he explored. He is also seen as the first philosopher to point out the roles of angst and despair in humankind. A quotation from one of his journals – "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die" – is often considered the unofficial "motto" of existentialism.

Gabriel Marcel (1889 - 1973) was a French theologian, playwright, and philosopher who perhaps first raised the idea of Christian existentialism as a subfield of the larger ideology. He also was the first person to coin the term existentialism itself, but preferred to call himself a "neo-Socratic," borrowing the term from Kierkegaard. Marcel was adamantly against technology and argued that subjectivity could not survive in a materialistic society. Like other Christian existentialists, Marcel agreed with Kierkegaard that the universe is a paradox created by a paradox (that being two beings in one) and that "following social conventions is essentially a personal aesthetic choice made by individuals." (Wikipedia)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) was a German philosopher who is also strongly linked with the largely opposing view of nihilism. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to stress the importance of tragedy as an affirmation of life, and believed in the need for individuals to have free choice and control over how those choices changed their own selves. His Übermensch is considered to be one of the ultimate expressions of existentialist free will and self-definition. In addition to existentialism and nihilism, postmodernism and psychology were also greatly influenced by Nietzsche's works and ideas. Some of his major works that influenced existentialism include Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980) was a French philosopher and novelist who, like Camus, achieved mainstream notability in both fields. His 1946 text L'existentialisme est un humanisme is considered perhaps the greatest single definition of existentialism, detailing the central ideas of existentialism as optimism, existence preceding essence, humans only being defined by what they make of themselves, the complete freedom of humans, and the lack of a pre-established morality. The text also contained the line "Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards," which is another central quotation in existentialism. Sartre also repeatedly explored the ideas that angst and despair result from humankind's realization of its own responsibility and the lack of a higher power in the universe to exist with them.