Generally, a philosophical movement is an increase in popularity of a particular school of philosophical thinking. These movements are usually composed of a number of philosophers who agree with the particular school of philosophy. Other groups of people that may be involved in the movements may be scientists, political figures and historians. However, most of the philosophical movements in the past were based on individual thinkers.

These thinkers frequently disagreed with each other and had varying opinions concerning the proposed school of philosophy. Most of the defining ideas of the movements were originally derived based on individual ideas. Most of them are usually given the suffix ‘ism’. Movements can be seen to have existed long in history.

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There are ancient philosophical movements, which existed long ago. Examples include Confucianism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism, among many others. Later on, the medieval philosophical movements came along. They include Neo-Confucianism, Thomism, Scotism and Scholasticism. More recently, the philosophical movements that were developed were referred to as the modern philosophical movements. In this paper, I will address the Existentialism Movement and argue that Sartre made the most controversial contribution to the movement. Therefore, I will concentrate on his contributions.

Existentialism Movement

Existentialism is a concept in philosophy that believes in individualism as the beginning of the understanding of human existence (Appignanesi and Zarate 12).

It began in the mid-19th century. Soren Kierkegaard is believed to be the first philosopher in this school of philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre was also a believer in the Existentialist movement. He wrote an essay on ‘Existentialism and Humanism’ in order to argue his position with regards to human nature (Sartre 54). In his view, he believed that existence comes before essence. This is to mean that the person’s existence determines that person’s essence and not the other way round. In other words, Sartre was trying to imply that nothing dictated the character of an individual, his goals or such personal attributes. In his argument, he claimed that man exists first.

Man then encounters himself. Later on, man surges up in the world after which he defines himself. Sartre strongly argued against what he referred to as ‘deterministic excuses’. He claimed that people should not make excuses but take responsibility for their actions and behavior. He also defined anguish.

He suggested that this was a feeling that one had after realizing that he or she is not only responsible for himself or herself but for all humanity. This feeling makes people to realize the extent of their actions in shaping humanity. Therefore, they judge others based on their attitudes.

Sartre also defined abandonment. He suggested that this is a feeling of loneliness and the atheist suffered from it as they realized that God never existed. They realize that since God does not exist, they do not have some supernatural being to prescribe a way of life. They lack a God who would provide guidance for people on the way of life. They felt abandoned and felt alone in the entire universe.

The work by Sartre has faced mixed reactions with some criticizing it because of the way it presents the superficial view of existentialism. Contrasting views also exist within the philosophical anthropology of the Catholic personalistic tradition. The catholic leaders (pope) have greatly condemned the concept of existentialism (Dulles 146).

Existence precedes essence

In this line of philosophical thinking, existence comes before essence (Sartre 32). This is to mean that the life of a person is what makes up what is referred to as the person’s ‘essence’. This also means that essence is not predetermined and used to define human nature. Other well-known philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger also agreed with this concept.

In this line of thought, a person defines herself or himself. This is believed to be a form of statement of what the person wishes to become and that is what becomes of him or her (Sartre 15). However, other philosophers argue that a person’s perceptions only do not count since this would constitute of inauthentic existence.

They argue that the person is not only defined by his perceptions but also by the actions taken by the person. An example is that of a person who is said to be cruel. Such a person must have acted in a cruel manner towards other people. This gives the person the given identity.

This notion argues against the existence of human nature, which claims that it is embedded in the human genes. This is to mean that a person can choose to act in a different way. One can choose not to be cruel and be good instead.

Therefore, if one has a choice, it means he or she is neither cruel nor good essentially. This argument tries to dispute the existence of human nature since everyone has a choice of what one wants to become or how one wants to act. This also explains the meaning of the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’. Man is not defined by predetermined nature. However, it is his or her everyday actions and choices that give him or her that identity. A person exists first. Later on, he or she defines himself or herself.

It is always a matter of choice. Man can choose to conform to the status quo or to try to fit into the society by being what is expected of him. This way, the society or human nature defines you. However, this reduces the person to a mere object.

It is also a matter of choice when it comes to defining yourself differently. One can project himself or herself towards a new horizon of possibility. This way, the possibilities are endless and you can become what you want to become. This means that man is what he wants to be. He has the power to become a slave of human nature or to project towards greatness. In essence, you are what you make of yourself.


The philosophical thought behind existentialism revolves around the individual and his experiences. What is meant by being absolute individuals? When this is looked at thoroughly, it is seen that every individual is alone in the universe.

Every individual experiences pain, fear or pleasure individually and from the inside. These feelings are subjective. Other individuals cannot understand the feeling because they are viewing objectively.

The same things apply to us. We may want to understand what one feels but we can only see them externally. In other words, one cannot feel what someone else is feeling and it is impossible to understand what is going on in another person’s mind. Essentially, what man perceives immediately and directly is his or her own thoughts. When one looks at another person or object, what one sees is not the person or object as it is. One only views it as a representation of his or her own experiences. What one perceives is usually one’s self and the kind of experiences one has.

Therefore, it is as if every individual is trapped within his or her own mind. This renders the person unable to feel anything else but his or her own feelings and experiences.

Existentialist view of human freedom

Sartre defines existentialists as both Christians (Catholics) and atheists. He argues that it is common to both that existence precedes essence. This is to mean that it always begins with the subjective (Sartre 65).

Sartre, as an atheist, does not believe in the existence of God. However, he believes in the existence of man. This is a being that exists before being predefined. Since he does not believe in the existence of God, he does not believe in the existence of human nature. He claims that there is no God to conceive human nature. He argues that man conceives himself and then comes into existence. To him and other existentialists, it is embarrassing that God does not exist.

This is because (to them) there is no possibility of there being a heaven. Sartre quoted the work of another philosopher who claimed that if God did not exist, nothing would be restricted. Sartre agrees with him because he believes that man is condemned to be free. He is responsible for his own passion. In order to explain the concept of freedom, Sartre gave an example of Jesuit who had joined that order not because it had been predetermined (calling) but because he saw an opportunity and seized it. When this Jesuit was a little boy, his father died and this left him in poverty.

He also suffered from low self-esteem in school. In his later years, he attempted to join the military but failed due to some issues. He would have regarded himself as a failure but instead, found a clever way of getting himself out of the situation. He took it as a ‘sign’ that leading a religious life was what had been purposed for him. Therefore, according to Sartre, this was a decision made only by the man and he would have chosen to become a revolutionary or a carpenter if he had so wished. Most of the concepts proposed by Sartre conflicted with the beliefs of the Christians. These were particularly on the issue about the origin of man and the existence of God.

The Christians believe in the existence of a supreme God. In the ‘new evangelization’ by Pope John Paul II, the church should focus on proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to all those who have not received the message (Gibbs 327). This shown existence of God. In the anthropology of the Pope, every individual is created in the image of God (Dulles 145).

This reflects a form of human nature that is predetermined before the existence of man. Contrary to this, Sartre believes that that existence comes before essence. He believes that man exists first then the rest follow.


Existentialism is one of the modern philosophical movements of the 19th century. It was based on the belief that a philosophical thought begins with an individual and his or her experiences.

Sartre made several contributions and the concept he developed was that existence precedes essence. He also argued against the existence of human nature. Several of his beliefs were controversial and faced resistance especially among the Christians.

Works Cited

Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate. Introducing Existentialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Dulles, Avery. The Reshaping of Catholicism: Current Challenges in the Theology of Church. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Print. Gibbs, Philip. “The Transformation of Culture as New Evangelization for the Third Millennium in Oceania.” Studia Missionalia 48 (1999): 327-347.

Print. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. London: Methuen, 1948. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human emotions. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957. Print.


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