“That individual”: When Søren Kierkegaard suggested this epitaph for himself, he unknowingly summarized a diverse collection of ideas and philosophies that would later become known as existentialism. It has become a truism to observe that existentialism is impossible to define with precision. Many philosophers who have traditionally been called existentialists either did not apply this label to themselves or repudiated it altogether. In his excellent overview of existentialism, Luther J. Binkley points out that every person, according to Kierkegaard, “is subjectively very much an individual and has the inalienable right to be himself.” This emphasis on the “primacy of the individual” is something that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have in common, despite their many differences, and this theme recurs throughout the writings of philosophers who are called existentialists. In the words of Edward Tiryakian, “existential thought quite early insisted upon the needs peculiar to the individual, and in fact viewed those needs as having primacy over the needs of society.”
The links between existentialism and libertarianism are theoretical and hypothetical, rather than historical and concrete. That is to say, although the emphasis on individuality that we find in existentialism has clear libertarian implications in the field of political theory, few existentialists have explicitly made this extrapolation. “In politics,” Alasdair MacIntyre notes, “existentialism appears to be compatible with almost every possible standpoint.” Kierkegaard was a conservative, Jaspers was a liberal, Sartre was a heretical Marxist, Heidegger was sympathetic to Nazism, and Nietzsche’s political beliefs defy classification.
This diversity is to be expected in a tradition that arose in opposition to the formal academic philosophy of an earlier era. Although many existentialists have expressed libertarian sentiments—as when Nietzsche characterized the state as “the coldest of all cold monsters” that “bites with stolen teeth”—we will look in vain for a systematic libertarian theory from an existentialist perspective, however much the key insights of existentialism cry out for such a development.
Existentialism is best known through the aphorism “existence precedes essence.” This phrase underscores the role of individual choice in existentialist philosophy. Man, unlike a rock or tree, does not have a fixed essence or nature. Man is in a continuous process of creating himself, of becoming, and this process entirely depends on his or her subjective choices. People create their own natures through the choices they make, which are not necessitated by society or other deterministic factors. As MacIntyre puts it: “If any single thesis could be said to constitute the doctrine of existentialism, it would be that the possibility of choice is the central fact of human existence.”
Thus, although existentialism is often criticized for its supposed nihilism, owing to its rejection of objective moral standards, it also is true that existentialists have typically emphasized that individual responsibility comes with the ability to choose. Indeed, to many commentators, nothing seems more antithetical to the existentialist notion of self-creation that the state’s attempts to shape our wishes and our nature.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Stuart Gilbert, trans. New York: Knopf, 1948.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Marion Faber, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit, and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
Originally published .