I have no grounding in philosophy, but I have just this minute been reading a few articles about existentialism.

I was confused by its apparent rejection of rationalism. I understand that this arises from the belief that people make subjective and irrational choices. But I don't see why this leads to a conflict with the concept of rationalism itself. Surely an appreciation that people are irrational does not make the world itself irrational?

Is it not possible to believe in existentialism while also believing that we live in a rational world, subject to universal laws?

  • 2
    Hello. What specifically in what you read implied a rejection of rationalism? Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 21:29
  • Existentialism denies nothing. Moreover it tries to BRING, to say that human experience is most important to the universe. It tries to look at universe through the eyes of everyday feelings.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 13:57
  • @RamTobolski Thanks for your comment. I didn't reply to your simply because an answerer seemed to appreciate the thrust of my question. I'm just dipping my toe into these waters, but they seem to raise some fascinating questions.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 14:48

2 Answers 2


Existentialism is mostly incompatible with Rationalism

Existentialism goes a little deeper than believing people make irrational choices. It holds rather more broadly that the world itself is an irrational place, and the only meaning in the world is that which we give it. Rationalism says that people are primarily rational and derive meaning from reason, while Existentialism says that meaning is personal.

Example: A grandfather dies. One grandson says he dies because his heart stopped beating. One says he dies because God willed it. One says he died because a lifetime of smoking and eating unhealthily. One says he died because he failed to pray to the great Cthulu for mercy.

Clearly, for each grandson the death carries a drastically different meaning. Existentialists say that each grandson is just applying his own meaning to a random, absurd act of the world. In fact, some Existentialists say that to try to constrict meaning to some set of rational rules the world must follow prevents finding meaning in freedom.

This is pretty much in direct contradiction to Rationalism, which would claim that most people should rationally derive the true meaning of an event given the undeniably true structure that defines the world. Basically, there was a reason of death that fits into a larger structure, and most people should be able to act understanding this structure.

Existentialism does not deny all laws

Just because Existentialism denies that there is a grander meaning to the whole world, it doesn't deny that some things and laws are universal and true. This is Facticity, and this is where it starts to get weird.

Existentialists acknolwedge that some things are true, and that truths carry limitations. If you do not have legs, that is pretty much an undeniable fact. And the limitation of not being able to walk on the beach is a pretty strict one. Nobody denies that. What they do contest is that facticity doesn't have to follow reason, or remain constant. With enough science, or prayer, you may one day in the future grow legs and walk again. The facticity has changed. The important thing is that there is not necessarily a pattern to it. The value one places on facticity is purely free.
You do not have legs: this is a fact.
What this means: is entirely up to you.

  • Thanks for this excellent explanation. Could I venture further and ask: would, then, an existentialist not accept that someone could choose to follow rationalism as their own choice of giving meaning to the world? Or would they dismiss that as intrinsically "inauthentic"?
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 8:04
  • 1
    It's not so much that rationalism would be one option among many to choose how to assign meaning, it's that a rationalist would try to stick to one model or method that was "true" and not think of herself as giving meaning to the world, but rather spend their time and efforts looking for meaning already in the world. Existentialists would indeed see this as "inauthentic", and also inherently limiting and likely to cause angst and despair when inevitably parts of the model fail to give meaning.
    – Cain
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 15:30

Existentialism and rationalism are basically different orientations towards the world. Existentialism is among a wide family of philosophical approaches that might loosely be called irrationalist because of a general disbelief in the whole idea that the world can be fully conceptualized in a way that makes consistent objective sense. Existentialism in particular emphasizes subjectivity, and individual experience and personal choice.

In principle, one could potentially take your middle road, and take an existentialist approach to human nature, and a rationalist approach to the universe. You would in that case, however (at least to my knowledge) be an innovator. In general it seems that thinkers who believe the universe is rational have advocated for rationalizing human nature, while those who gravitate to existentialism in the human realm have viewed that as decisive for the universe as well.

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