Is Existentialism the doctrine that existence is meaningless, and that man exists in a universe that is hostile and indifferent to his existence?

If not, what is it the doctrine of?

  • 1
    I would call that statement 'reality', not an -ism.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 16 at 23:26
  • @ScottRowe I wouldn't. Commented Jun 17 at 13:51
  • No. Generally existentialists, while accepting there is no meaning imposed on us by our universe, allow for the selection of personal meaning. Camus, who rejected the label, is a notable exception who refused to admit, a source of tension between him and Sartre, and declared himself an absurdist. See plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism, plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre, and plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus for a strong introduction to the topic.
    – J D
    Commented Jun 17 at 16:47
  • FYI: existentialism is mainly anti-soteriological: it opposes the idea that there is a metaphysical salvation to be found outside or beyond human existence. Therefore existentialist philosophy is tasked with understanding the nature of human existence in its bare sense. There are different flavors of this, but it's worth noting that they all sprang up in post-World-Wars Europe, where the horrors of technological warfare and the nationalist tendencies towards genocide eroded confidence in religious ideation. It makes them all a bit sour-sounding. Commented Jun 17 at 18:11
  • Existentialism doesn't FORCE meaning, but it doesn't DISALLOW it. Legitimate meaning arises from within us. Nietzsche didn't say, "You're free, now go do evil." He said, "You know that you are free to do bad, therefore I expect from you higher men the good." Commented Jun 20 at 23:25

3 Answers 3


I discovered this blog article recently on Existentialism and The Absurdist Paradigm:


Existentialism is broadly defined as a philosophical theory emphasizing the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining his or her own development. Existentialism is conceptually underpinned by the Absurdist paradigm, which Camus described as defining the basic paradox or ‘confrontation’ between an individual’s search or desire for significance and meaning in their life on the one hand, and the ‘silent, cold universe’ on the other. In other words, while it seems like the things we do in our daily lives have meaning, in the context of the universe they are purposeless, and indeed, it is difficult to ultimately define any purpose or meaning to the universe itself – the universe is essentially indifferent towards humankind. The reason for calling this an Absurdist paradigm is thus that it is therefore absurd to ascribe meaning to anything in life, given that our lives are so irrelevant in the context of the universe, and there is no meaning in the world beyond the meaning we ourselves personally give it.


It may come as a surprise to some, as students following orderly education for example, that beyond survival and Maslow's hierarchy of needs, life imposes no actual meaning or purpose upon a person. They are free to find their own path, hopefully with intelligence and taste, (artfully). Meaninglessness and nihilism feature in Nietzsche's philosophy, but his nihilism challenged prevailing ideas which he considered held people back from developing, e.g.

What does Nihilism mean?—That the highest values are losing their value. There is no bourne. There is no answer to the question: "to what purpose?" WTP,2

Having rejected the old ideas Nietzsche built a system according to a rationalisation of "value".

The standpoint of "value" is the same as that of the conditions of preservation and enhancement, in regard to complex creatures of relative stability appearing in the course of evolution. WTP, 715

The guiding light for him is art, presumably in a broader sense than merely fine art.

Art and nothing else! Art is the great means of making life possible, the great seducer to life, the great stimulus of life. WTP, 853, II

Nietzsche's influence on 20th c. existentialism is tangible in his understanding of perspectivity of values.

To the extent to which knowledge has any sense at all, the world is knowable: but it may be interpreted differently, it has not one sense behind it, but hundreds of senses.—"Perspectivity." WTP, 481

And he understood that there are only perspectival value judgements.

That the worth of the world lies in our interpretations (that perhaps yet other interpretations are possible somewhere, besides mankind's); that the interpretations made hitherto were perspective valuations, by means of which we were able to survive in life, ... The world that concerns us at all is false—that is to say, is not a fact; but a romance, a piece of human sculpture, made from a meagre sum of observation; it is "in flux"; ... WTP, 616

So we cannot know the truth of the universe. It's a mystery.


Is Existentialism the doctrine that existence is meaningless, and that man exists in a universe that is hostile and indifferent to his existence?

No, it is not. I.e. it is not a doctrine. It is unclear what it is.

To quote the SEP on Existentialism:

With this broad and diverse range of incarnations, it is difficult to explain what the term “existentialism” refers to. The word, first introduced by Marcel in 1943, is certainly not a reference to a coherent system or philosophical school.

Instead of copying more from there, I encourage you to give that page a read. At the very least you will get a feeling for how diverse the topics surrounding Existentialism are, and how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Wikipedia has this simple, somewhat circular definition:

Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the issue of human existence.

It continues to list a broad swath of quite complex fields or topics related to it.

The description you are having in mind could be more applied to Nihilism, maybe, which is also a very complex topic, but as such more focussed and opinionated than Existentialism, as far as I am concerned. Note that Nihilism does not, as far as I know, generally say that reality is "hostile".

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