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Existentialism -Philosophical Exposition of Soeren Kierkegaard

A Philosophical Exposition of Soeren Kierkegaard’s Existentialism


Existentialism: In his book, Philosophy and the African Predicament, Obi Oguejiofor began the first chapter with the topic: “the promise of philosophy”. His aim in this chapter was to show in a lucid manner the knowledge a philosopher is endowed with or the knowledge philosophers claim. He states:

Such knowledge is presented as enabling its possessor to have special insight into reality without bound, including God, angels, spirits, the universe and all it contains, including human beings, their activities and existential problems…[1]

Coming to the last chapter, “what use philosophy”, he seemed to be denying these abilities to the philosophers. But the point remains that at the onset, philosophy was a concrete way of life, which went with it a vision of man and the cosmos. This character made philosophers special people; and they were consulted to give explanations to problems. The first philosophers among Greeks were seers, poets, shamans, as well as thinkers. And their philosophy was permeated with myth and intuition. One peculiar thing about these earliest philosophers was that most of them regarded their philosophies as revelation; so that their job was to unveil this revelation. Thus, learning philosophy was concomitant to learning how one was to live life (different from what was the case before).Plato understood philosophy also as a way of life; that is why William Barrett stated that:

Philosophy is the soul’s search for salvation, which means for Plato deliverance from suffering and evils of the natural world…[2]

Furthermore, if the Orientals took up philosophy, it was on the basis that in it theyfind release or peace from the torments and perplexities of life”[3]. Thus, one can simply say that philosophy is a discipline that takes care of human life, from its origin. And this character should continue to dominate in the minds of philosophers (this is the stand of the existentialist as we would see latter), since the absence of it reduces the importance of the discipline before the individual person. This view corroborates what we find in Barrett in these lines;

Philosophy can never quite divest itself of these aboriginal claims. They are part of the past, which is never lost, lurking under the veneer of even the most sophisticatedly rational of contemporary philosophers…[4]

Unfortunately, philosophy, almost in the verge of its beginning, lost this goal in the philosophy of Plato. Plato divided the world into world of ideas and world of particulars and maintained that human life is real to the extent it participates in the real ideas in the world of forms. Human existence becomes something that is sought for outside the concrete individual. Western philosophy carried on this view till in the modern period when science has sprouted up in its full nature. The era of science equally chased philosophy into the tight-comers of searching for a specialized problem. The result of it all was to advance the Plato’s view into the level that philosophy completely lost contact with the concrete individual. It becomes more and more an academic discipline that studies man at a detached level. The individual now becomes a member of the universal with no reference to his abstruse nature again. Many who had foresight then like Shelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche etc. reacted vehemently against this philosophic atmosphere. But not until after the Second World War was this reaction flowered into a philosophical movement through the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jaspers, Heidegger etc. This movement is what is called existentialism. It is a philosophical movement that stands out to make a detailed description of the concrete individual as an existing being. And it is this existentialism as it is conceived by Kierkegaard that has formed our major discourse in this essay. Meanwhile, in order to make our work academic, we organized it into four chapters. Chapter one deals with the origin and the concept of existentialism. In chapter two, we enumerate what serve as the cause and the themes of existentialism. The chapter three of this work is on Kierkegaard and his notion of existentialism. Lastly, we evaluate Kierkegaard’s thoughts and conclude this work in chapter four.





Existentialism could be traced back to the beginning of philosophy itself; and to Socrates whose interest in philosophy was on the knowledge of the individual philosopher: (man know thyself). As a philosophical movement, it would be convenient to attribute it to Jean-Paul Sartre. This is based on the fact that he was one of the existentialists who publicly accepted his membership into this movement and wrote extensively to support it. However, to define this term is very difficult since it connotes more than one thing. Again, the grouping of some philosophers under the theme existentialism does not necessarily suggest that these existentialists agree on a cardinal point. Be that as it may, Walter Kaufman has made effort to show us the common features of these existentialist philosophers in the following way.

The refusal to belong to any School of thought, the repudiation of adequacy of any body of beliefs whatsoever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with the traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life – that is the heart of existentialism.[5]

Thus, existentialism is a general name for thinkers of 19th and 20th century who made the individual central to their thought. It is a philosophical doctrine on human existence. Derived directly from existence, it calls for a radical return to the existential realities proper to man. Its goal is to grasp the image of the whole man; including all that is dark and questionable in the human existence. For William Barrett, “It is an attempt to gather all the elements of human reality into the total picture of man”[6].

Furthermore, existentialism aims to Philosophize from the stand point of the actor, rather than, as has been customary from the standpoint of the spectator”[7].This target was of interest to the existentialists because the individual human beings have been considered, all along, as part of the universal by philosophical and scientifically systems. Therefore, in a broad sense, existentialism arose as a reaction against those systems that pay attention to things as part and parcel of the universals without consideration to the particular objects. This is what Charles Guignon meant when he asserts that;

Existentialism in this broader sense arose as a backlash against philosophical and scientific systems that treat all particulars, including humans, as members of a genus or instances of universal laws.[8]

Hence the existentialists’ thrusts are to study man as the individual with feelings; and in his special effort to self-actualization. This effort that marked out the existentialists, no doubt, can be spotted in the historical development of philosophy; like in the philosophies of Socrates, Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Miguel de Unamuno, Norman Mailer, Gabriel Marcel, etc. But for clarity we shall trace the origin from the individuals that gave much concern to this aberration caused by philosophic and scientific system in the study of the individual human beings. More importantly, we considered them as they appear in the list of the proponents of existentialism in the contemporary era. Among these are Shelling, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc.

  • JOSEPH SHELLING (1775 – 1854)

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von Shelling was born in 1775. He studied philosophy and theology. In the later part of his life he was called up to Berlin; where he was to fight against Hegelian Philosophy. Our concern about this man is in his “Positive” philosophy, which was a development to replace Hegelian philosophy which he regarded as purely negative because it neglects the empirical elements and substitutes the logical concept for what is real and living.[9] In the “Positive” philosophy, Shelling “argues on identification of reason and nature, of subject and object in which these parts exist as two separate poles which mutually presuppose the demand for one another”.[10] This is a blow on the idealists, especially Hegel; that is why Shelling branded Hegelian philosophy as a development of logic or the science of the rational and he holds that it has no place for the irrational which has become what really exists. For Shelling, this irrational which is not found in Hegel is existence. Therefore, ‘Positive’ philosophy,” according to Shelling, “is concerned with the existence which cannot be grasped by logic alone: it aims to broaden human consciousness which has been confined within the boundaries of the merely rational…”[11]

In Summary, Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy is a reaction against abstract thinking which he found in Hegel’s philosophy. And he bemoaned this thinking for not being able to grasp all reality. Hence, positive philosophy shall complete, according to Shelling, this grasping of the existence not captured by Hegel. Kierkegaard, however, was an audience in the lectures where this “positive” philosophy was propounded.


  • FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE (1844 – 1900):

Nietzsche’s own was a violent reaction against Hegel’s type of philosophy and his philosophy of history. He held that history is valid as long as it allows man to live and act spontaneously and creatively…”[12] He has what he called “unhistorical” living which is the power to confront life spontaneously and courageously”[13]. Meanwhile, this advancement by Nietzsche was caused by his ill-feeling about histories which he noticed as tending to disfigure, emasculate or falsify life by subjecting the individual to a process of causal determination or of teleological purpose or to systems of cultural norms”[14].

         Thus, Nietzsche held that man’s freedom is the ability to forget history so that he can make choices that would lead him away from causal determination. That is why it could be said that, for Nietzsche, there is no need resting comfortably on social convention, authority, metaphysical principles or revelation. The only thing true to man’s nature, he believes, is just the confidence to say, “my judgment is my judgment”[15]. Furthermore, he calls attention to urgent necessity of existence known as “psychological realities”. The individual alone determines the values for his existence; so that by this he takes care of his “psychological realities”. Because he is no longer subject to any law or destiny beyond himself; he should determine his values. This is what he means when he says:

Now that the origin of these values is becoming clear, the universe seems to have lost values, seems meaningless—but that is only a transitional stage.[16]

This transitional stage, no doubt, is the stage of revaluation, which is man’s duty to accomplish. This state of mind actually would not escape his famous statement of God’s death.

              On Hegel, Nietzsche recognized “a disguised secular vision of Christian eschatology[17]. And for Nietzsche this is destruction. He held equally that “there is no historical goal for humanity as such, no progressive development of the human species in time, no future eschatological or utopic fulfillment of history.”[18] Man is to create for himself his forms and values; and by so doing he shall have fulfilled the purpose of mankind­­: the creation of superior individual.

         Common to the thoughts of these individuals is that agitation against the thought system of their time, which has no provision for the reality they designated existence. Whereas Shelling tried to build a replacement for this thought system, Nietzsche thought that the best thing was to overlook this system; and to actually take up the goal one has for oneself and this is for him the meaning of existence. These sparks of thoughts which was against what was in vogue in this period became what was to be elaborated by philosophers after them to form existentialist movement and this movement was championed by Sartre, Heidegger and Jaspers. Kierkegaard is among the originators of this thought but because of the special place he occupies in this discussion, we shall develop his idea in detail in chapter three of this essay. Now let us turn to what existentialism means for its proponents.



The philosophers who have thought in an existentialist manner that we shall consider are Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Jean-Paul Sartre. Our preoccupation with them is on what they mean by the word existentialism or existence.


1.2. MARTIN HEIDEGGER (1889 – 1976):

Martin Heidegger was one of the greatest exponents of existentialism. He adopted phenomenological method to the study of being. In one of his famous works, Being and Time, he declared his interest to revisit the problem of being. This, according to him, is necessary because the concept of being has not been given proper treatment. Thus, he argues that “to ask of being is not to ask of a grammatical question”, rather “it is to ask what the being (Das Sein) of beings (Die Seiende) is”[19]. His problem then becomes what is the actual meaning of the Being of beings and how does one arrive at it. To arrive at the being of beings, Heidegger suggests that it will be necessary to begin with the being of the questioner – man.

Man means existence in the understanding of Heidegger. But this is not definite existence; it is potential existence. This immediately reveals his reason for classification between being and things or entity and the being of the entity. Coming to man he said that man is continually in advance of himself, so to speak, searching out into the future, transcending himself”[20]. But then, the first thing to be known about man, according to Heidegger, is that man is “being-in-the-world”. And this begin-in-the-world is characterized by the fact that he stands in relation with other things and persons. This is what he observes in the following:

The world is always the one that I share with Others. The world of Dassin is a with-world. Being-in is a Being-with Others.[21]

This character of man to preoccupy himself with others constitutes a mode of existence, in which he exists as being preoccupied or concerned with the others.”[22] Hence, the world for man becomes a system of objects standing in intelligible relation to one another and to man himself. And this relationship with the others in the bid to realize his possibilities constitute one’s meaning of the world. With this, man understands himself as an individual subject living within the world and again living in relation with other persons. Characterizing his existence at this understanding then, is social interdependence, being with, or living as a member of “the one”.

But man as potential being is not condemned to one way of realizing himself or of existing. Man can decide to deny his membership with ‘the one’. Thus, he can take responsibility and direct himself in the pursuance of his destiny. This is what Heidegger calls authentic existence. If man maintains his existence with ‘the one’ or lives in the crowd, it means inauthentic living for Heidegger.

Furthermore, Heidegger holds that these two paths of existence is discernable from the fact that man is in the world. He has been thrown into it. He can choose to retain membership with “the one” where reality becomes what happens to ‘the one’. At the same time, he can decide to face the world and assume responsibility; this is authentic living.

From the analysis so far, we find out that existence for Heidegger is that act of continuous struggle to realize oneself and the supposed experience that goes with this. To maintain one’s life in this terrain is authentic living whereas to absorb existence in the “they” or the “crowd” is inauthentic life.


1.2.2  KARL JASPERS (1883 – 1969):

As a professor, Jasper’s major publication in existentialism is the three-volume philosophie (1932). Nevertheless, a general consideration of his thought reveals that he was of the view that science has failed in its claim of exhaustive study of reality. For him, the declined nature in the human condition is as a result of this failure. Quoting Jaspers, Stumpf states that:

Each of the sciences has carved out a special area of its subject matter, and each science has developed its own method[23].

The idea lurking under this argument is that in this specialization among sciences, one thing was not taken into cognizance. And this one thing, according to him, is existence. Furthermore, he holds that if in their specialization, science is only concerned with objective data, the realities outside the confines of objective data are, by this, ruled out; and are untouched. Deducing from this, he suggests that reality is more than objective data. The reality he has in mind here is that which underlies human life. This is what he calls existence. Thus, since sciences have covered other fields of objective study, philosophy therefore shall make existence its object of study. That is why philosophy for him shall be an existential philosophy. The task of the existential philosophers is then, to consider existence not like the sciences. But to do this, the philosophers must begin from “their own immediate inner and personal experience”[24]. This is what he made clearer this way as Stumpf observes:

Decisive in a man’s inward attitude, the way in which he contemplates his world and grows aware of it, the essential values of his satisfaction these are the origin of what he does[25].

Thus, to philosophize, for Jaspers, means to communicate “not about objects or objective knowledge, but about the content of personal awareness produced by individual’s inner constitution”[26]. He goes further to describe philosophy as that through which we seek to become ourselves. It is not philosophizing from the standpoint of a spectator, but a way of thinking that elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker”[27]. He enumerates three stages in existence. In the first stage there is the consciousness of object. In the second stage the individual discovers himself in the foundation of existence. The last stage is the level the individual stands face to face with his finitude. In this awareness of one’s contingency Jaspers asserted that the individual becomes conscious of the opposite: the transcendent. And he believes that this latter takes place on a personal level which the individual will not be able to explain or proof. Jaspers believed also in freedom. For him, freedom means a choice to either affirm oneself with the transcendent or do otherwise. The affirmation of oneself with the transcendent is what Jaspers called authentic existence. Finally, one can find existence to mean, living on the psychological realities of man. Then to philosophize, which is existential, would mean for him to make present these realities. And because the awareness of these psychological realities would reveal to man his finiteness, philosophy shall enable man to fix himself to the infinity, which he called transcendent. This is authentic life for Jaspers.

1.2.3            JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905 – 1980):

Sartre’s understanding of existence is embodied in his analysis of conscious being and unconscious being. But before this analysis, Sartre believed that being is nothing than what we see. The existence of objects, he warned, does not point to or reveal reality outside the objects. Thus, objects are beings and beings are the objects we see. And so he writes:

The object does not possess being and its existence is not a participation in being, nor any other kind of relation. It is. That is the only way to define its manner of being.[28]

But then, according to Sartre, there are two different kinds of beings: being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Being-for-itself involves existing as a conscious subject, which only human beings do; and being-in-itself involves the way stone is. Consciousness is, by Sartre, identical to “emptiness”, “negativity” and “nothingness”.

Man is, by this, separated from his being and he is placed in a distance from himself and other beings. For Sartre, man cannot be said to be anything because his existence is constituted by perpetual negation. This implies that man is something in which “emptiness” or “nothingness” exists. And the presence of these qualities has led man into constant denial of his being to search for what he is not. Omoregbe in line with this states thus:

Its [or His; when man is referred to instead of consciousness] whole existence with all its [his] activities is one big project to overcome this emptiness, this nothingness, which is at the want of its [his] being and which separates it [him] from itself [himself] in such a way that it [he] is not what it [he] is and he [he]is what it [he] is not.[29]

Again, Sartre believed that this constant effort will always be futile, since what man tries to escape from is what defines him and makes him the foundation of nothingness in the world. Being-in-itself is the opposite of the conscious being. It is pure positivity and contains no nothingness. Its being is full in itself.

The notion of freedom in Sartre is similar to the analysis above. He conceived freedom as that which is identical to negation, nothingness and nihilation. Like we have said, the capacity of these sets man into motion. It prompts man into asking questions. And to ask question implies a move to affirm what his being is. And according to Sartre man has no pre-given purpose or essence laid out for him by any being; man must become what he is, and he is free to become what he is. Therefore he shall not subject himself to any causal order because to do so is bad faith. So, freedom exists in man. He is freedom and he is not free not to be free. He is condemned to be free.

In all, one can understand existence to mean, in Sartre’s Opinion, man’s effort to overcome the gap in his being. It is to put the man in possession of what he is by negating what he is not. Anyway, two types of existence can be suspected even though he made consciousness part and parcel of human nature.

Finally, in this review, we have seen what constitutes the subject matter for these philosophers. All of them talked of existence, human freedom, living authentic and inauthentic life. All these are taken from man’s perspective of himself.

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[1] J. O. Oguejiofor, Philosophy and the African Predicament. Ibadan: Hope Publications.2001. p. 13.

[2] W. Barrett. Irrational Man: The Study in Existentialism. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1958. P. 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] K. Walter, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: A meridian Book, New American Library. 1975. P. 12.

[6] W. Barrett; Op Cit. p. 19

[7] F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Logical Positivism and Existentialism. New York: Continuum.2003. p. 127.

[8] C. B.Guignon, “Existentialism” in E. Craig, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. CD-ROM. (Cf: Existentialism).

[9] J. T. Wilde et al (ed), The Search for Being: Essays from Kierkegaard to Sartre on the Problem of Existence. New York: Twayne Publication Inc. 1962. P. 31.


[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. p. 98

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil .trans, W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books. 1966. P. 49

[16] F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power. trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books. 1968. P. 7

[17]J. T. Wilde et al (ed), Op Cit. p. 99.

[18] Ibid.

[19] F. Copleston, Op Cit. p.177.

[20] Ibid. p. 178.

[21] M. Heidegger, Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.1996. p.

[22] F. Copleston, Op Cit. p. 178.

[23] S. E.Stumpf, Philosophy: History and problems. 6th Ed. New York: Mcfiesser, J. Graw-Hill. 2002. P. 457.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] J. P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Tran. H. E. Barnes. London: Methuen and co. Ltd, 1958, p.xxv.

[29] J. I. Omoregbe, A Simplified History of Western Philosophy. Vl. 3. Lagos: Joja Education Research and Publishers Ltd.1991. p. 90.


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