When watching this speech by the Atari founder, he says (at 09:19):

If you're a true existentialist [...] you want to have an interesting life.

Thus, if someone says he or she is an existentialist, in the way he did, what might this mean in essence? I looked at the Wikipedia article for Existentialism; yet I'm still unsure as to what it means in a nutshell if stated in a colloquial way.

  • Haha, this reminds me of how the "cool philosophy kids" at my college would always state "I'm an existentialist" like it was some fad or something. When I learned what it meant, I just began to laugh at them. :P To start, it's a really broad term (I don't think those cool kids realized that they weren't really saying anything because of how broad the term is); it is used by a lot of philosophers to mean a wide variety of things. I'm not really versed enough in the breadth of it to give the most appropriate and thorough answer though. – stoicfury Nov 23 '11 at 18:50
  • This strikes me as too basic for the site as formulated; is there any way we might persuade you to tell us a little more bit about your context and motivations here? What might you be reading or studying that made this problem an urgent or interesting one for you? What have you found out already? – Joseph Weissman Nov 23 '11 at 19:33
  • Agreed. This is impossible to answer beyond a cursory reference to an english dictionary. The question requires more detail if a precise answer is expected. – user678 Nov 23 '11 at 22:22
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    Thanks for your answers. I now understand that this may not be clear cut. My reference probably meant it in a more colloquial sense. I updated my question with the speech where I heard it. – Michael Nov 24 '11 at 4:13

Jostein Gaarder gave the explanation which I have found most satisfying in his book, Sophie’s World. I have pieced together several excerpts below.

Existentialism is a collective term for several philosophical currents that take man’s existential situation as their point of departure. Sartre said that “existentialism is humanism”. Existentialists start from nothing but humanity itself. Sartre’s allegiance was to what we might call an atheistic existentialism. His philosophy can be seen as a merciless analysis of the human situation when “God is dead”. The being of man is not the same as the being of things. Man is conscious of his own existence. Man’s nature is not fixed in advance. It is therefore useless to search for the meaning of life in general. We are condemned to improvise. When people realize they are alive and will one day die—and there is no meaning to cling to—they experience dread. Man feels alien in a world without meaning, and this creates a sense of despair, boredom, nausea, and absurdity. We haven't asked to be created as free individuals. Nevertheless we are free individuals, and this freedom condemns us to make choices throughout our lives. There are no eternal values or norms we can adhere to, which makes our choices even more significant. We are totally responsible for everything we do. It is we ourselves who create meaning in our own lives. To exist is to create your own life.

  • "Merciless, useless, condemned, dread, despair, boredom, nausea, absurdity" - and this before I die. Even if I'm not a Christian, I might become one, at least hell happens after I die... – Mozibur Ullah Jan 4 '13 at 23:40

I think the most concise (and yet still useful) explanation you are likely to find is Sartre's brief essay Existentialism is a Humanism.

If you read that and still have questions, post them.

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    @sindikat: Sorry, but trying to summarize a work of philosophy as concise as that is a fool's errand. I think that in this case, providing the reference is a sufficient answer to the question. If the link ends up broken at some time in the future, it is not a problem, because the essay is widely anthologized and available in any number of paperbacks. – Michael Dorfman Aug 30 '12 at 6:35

I believe Heidegger set the foundations of existentialism in his attempt to renew the occidental metaphysic by analyzing the existence of the man, he calls dasein by opposition to the Being in his seminal work “Being end time”. The dasein has an unformulated worry, he is cast in the world and abandoned by the Being, he exists by opposition to the Being which is. In German and French there are two words for being, the fact to be and the Being. The ontology of the dasein, the analysis of its existence is certainly the foundation of existentialism even if Heidegger did not recognized himself as an existentialist. The dereliction of the man is at the root of this philosophical movement.

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    As you point out, Heidegger didn't consider himself an existentialist. And, Kierkegaard is generally considered an existentialist, and he preceded Heidegger. These two facts would seem to make a prima facie case against Heidegger as the founder of existentialism. – Michael Dorfman Nov 28 '11 at 19:32
  • Heidegger did not want to be tied to this movement, but there is no doubt he deeply influenced the existentialists, even the title of Sartre's book "Being and nothingness" is an evidence. But yes, this question of existence against the being emerges from the abyss of the first world war. Franz Rosenzweig in the "Star of Redemption" starts by a sharp critic of idealism from Ionian islands to Iena, abandoning man when he is confronted to his death. But to come back to Heidegger and his Saint Germain's followers, the link is obvious at least considering the way they revered him. – Mauceric Nov 29 '11 at 19:27

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