I believe that philosophy is defined by its method, which is based on logical analysis. It is not merely any discipline that investigates the world's conditions and the meaning of life. To be a philosophical idea, that idea has to be based on reason. As support for that claim, see the dictionary definition of philosophy, below:

the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. (source)

However, the existentialist philosophers - Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard especially - had intuitive rather than rational justifications for their claims about life and ethics. They were not interested in building a logically constructed philosophical system, but in expressing ideas about life as it is lived. Often, they appealed to literary ideals rather than logic. For example, Nietzsche justified his rejection of slave morality with an appeal to the ideal of strength, not logical reasoning. As another example, Camus actually denied that he was a philosopher, saying that he did “not believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a system” (source).

Why then is existentialism considered philosophy? Its primary means of justification is not reason. Shouldn't it should occupy a category of its own, a realm of thought between philosophy and religion (as it is both post-philosophical and post-religious)?

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    But more broadly, the question doesn't seem to be a question you are having about philosophy but rather a problem with (a) terms and (b) asking whether your assessment is right. (Maybe there's a great question somewhere in what you're asking, in which case, we can work on rewording your question).
    – virmaior
    Jan 25, 2016 at 23:52
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    Apart from the question about matters of fact (Did the existentialist philosophers had really no use for rational inquiry?), it might be worth noting that the definitions you find in the dictionary are descriptions of usage, not prescriptions of how words should be used. I'm sure there are other definitions of philosophy in use that track exactly the kind of thinking that characterizes existentialism. And why not take any other of the definitions of philosophy?
    – DBK
    Jan 26, 2016 at 1:29
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    @virmaior I vote for reopen: The OP chooses a definition of philosophy from the literature and argues that certain existentialists are not philosophers in this sense because they lack a rational system of philosophy. I consider this a sound philosophical proceeding. Other participants can now go on to discuss the OP's claim by philosophical argumentation. E.g., you could expand your first comment - relating to "philosophy" and "intuitive" - to an answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 26, 2016 at 5:16
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    I have edited to highlight the on-topic question and remove the solicitation for opinions. I have voted to reopen. Jan 26, 2016 at 14:10
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    I don't have voting privileges, but if this question is not on-topic, then what is?
    – user16869
    Jan 26, 2016 at 18:08

4 Answers 4


This question largely boils down to a question of definitions -- but these are politically contentious definitions. As such, I want to divide my answer into three parts: (a) difficulties with your definition of philosophy, (b) problematic or questionable interpretative choices regarding the "existentialists", and (c) is existentialism philosophy when these things are clearer?

First, you helpfully give us your definition of philosophy:

I believe that philosophy is defined by its method, which is based on logical analysis.

This is an interesting claim, but this does not explain what "logical analysis" entails. Presumably, you're harping to the logical positivists. An immediate question presents itself, why should we privilege this mode of analysis? And then why, even if we privilege it, should we call that philosophy?

It is not merely any discipline that investigates the world's conditions and the meaning of life.

I don't exactly know what you mean by "world's conditions", but philosophy isn't most assuredly is the discipline that tries to evaluate things. If it isn't so, then your first sentence's definition collapses through an identity (biconditional if you prefer) a pretty simple reductio:

  1. Philosophy is not about finding the meaning of things.
  2. Philosophy should do logical analysis.
  3. Logical analysis looks at the meaning of things (i.e., the value of things is that they should fit under logical analysis).
  4. Ergo, philosophy is not about logical analysis.

To be a philosophical idea, that idea has to be based on reason

Sure, but what does reason mean here? Is it a pure synonym for "logical analysis"? If so, then what justifies that choice? Can logical analysis itself justify itself? (your dictionary definition suffers from the same ambiguity.

First, regarding the thinkers you categorize as existentialists, the term "existentialist" is mostly a term coined by Sartre and applied retroactively to Kierkegaard.

Second, you state:

the existentialist philosophers - Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard especially - had intuitive rather than rational justifications for their claims about life and ethics.

This seems pretty dubious to me. Intuitive means depending on intuitions, but that would be closer to say Reed's common sense philosophy or the empiricists than to Kierkegaard or Sartre (I don't know too much about Camus).

They were not interested in building a logically constructed philosophical system, but in expressing ideas about life as it is lived.

This again is a bold assertion and interpretation. Depending on what is meant by "logical constructed system" (avoiding the circularity in your claims of calling that "philosophical"), you might be right that they didn't see the point of doing philosophy as trying to break the world down into analyzable bits and pieces.

But the second half of the claim ( "but in expressing ideas about life as it is lived" ) seems to be much more dubious to me as a description of their philosophies. I'd be interested to see it defended from the text. Sartre and Kierkegaard do start from the subject -- but that's not the same thing as trying to engage in a description of "life as it is lived."

Instead, I take it that both accept Kant and Hegel's idea that we cannot escape our cognitive (and rational) apparatus well enough to do pure analysis. Kierkegaard, for instance, does not deny that there are objective truths. Instead, his point is (greatly simplified) that we don't have limitless access to these and we are limited beings.

In terms of your comment about Nietzsche, Nietzsche speaks in many poetic ways, but his critique there is actually quite close to the logical positivists. The point being, that it is slavish (i.e. without reason) to derive morality from the instruction of others rather than from your own reason and power.

As I stated above, I do want to address your conclusion in the question and the thought that existentialism should not be called philosophy.

First off, if we grant your definition of philosophy, i.e. "logical analysis" and fill out what that means, you're probably right -- existentialism should not then be called philosophy. But if what you mean parses to "the application of symbolic logic to claims" and the consideration of things insofar as they are bound and unbound variables, then all sorts of other things we regularly consider philosophy aren't either.

On that definition, the first philosophers appeared in the late 19th century, because the methodologies prior to that were not largely based on symbolic logic. That seems problematic.

Given this dichotomy, it seems best to reject this as the definition of philosophy. Why, then, would someone assert this definition? Clearly, the goal is to exclude certain methods and views from the realm of philosophy.

A better definition might be either the tradition of thinking that grows out of Plato. This would put most everything we've thought of as philosophy over time into philosophy. Maybe in the 21st Century, we can give it a less Euro-centric version and refer to the equivalent considerations in other traditions as well.

If you want to heap opprobrium onto "existentialists," writing them out of philosophy by definition does not seem very viable to me. I would instead suggest the following -- instead, assert that you think "existentialists" do philosophy poorly, that they get caught up on immaterial things and don't focus on questions that grasp the nature of reality well. And then argue as to how this is so (preferably in a non-question-begging manner if we're trying to do philosophy).

  • This is a good answer. The kind of undergraduate anti-philosophy positivism that the OP smacks of is rife, and an answer like this (thought out and not condescending) can only be a very positive thing.
    – M. le Fou
    Jan 29, 2016 at 8:29
  • You misinterpret my question. I am not a logical positivist. Actually, I would say that I'm more of an existentialist. Feb 1, 2016 at 16:50
  • Also, I am not trying to "heap opprobrium" onto existentialism. Actually, while reading existentialist literature, I find that it is so radically different from traditional philosophy that I question if it should be categorized in the same way. This isn't an insult to existentialism. There is no reason that an idea being labeled "philosophy" would give it higher value. Also, your answer would be improved if you didn't include thinly-veiled personal derogation along with your reasoning. Feb 1, 2016 at 16:57
  • I'm sorry that you don't feel i've understood your question. I don't believe I said you were a logical positivist...
    – virmaior
    Feb 1, 2016 at 17:04
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    @JeremyHadfield "1 believe that philosophy is defined by its method, which is based on logical analysis." This idea is the legacy of a particularly vulgar form of logical positivism - the attempt (or often, the demand) to turn the philosophical concept into a proposition. And of course, as is implied by your question, any kind of thought that does not appear to be a proposition with a truth-value (x is red or the house is y) is relegated to the status of non-philosophy, something which philosophers (and indeed, humans at large) cannot, or should not bother to think about
    – M. le Fou
    Feb 2, 2016 at 22:55

Philosophy is a rare field where self-definition is a major topic within the field itself. The definition you proposed and the one you cited have been promoted by those who practice some prominent variants of philosophy. To the extent that they are widely accepted, they appear to affirm those schools of philosophy and delegitimize the others. As you might well expect, however, such definitions are controversial, and highly contested by those who practice other kinds of philosophy.

The word literally means "the love of wisdom." It is surprisingly difficult to produce a good working definition of philosophy-in-practice that is objective, and free of any hidden agenda, but based on common intuitive understandings of philosophy, we might say that it typically deals with large, general principles, questions that start with "why" rather than "how," interdisciplinary concepts, and what we might call "meta" questions, those being questions about a field rather than of a field.

In short, while many rationalist philosophers support a definition of philosophy that only includes their work, the term as more generally used covers a much wider range of deep thinkers, including existentialist figures like Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus, and also non-Western, non-rationalist philosophers such as Lao-Tzu or the Zen Buddhists.

  • Categorizing "arguing about philosophy/definitions" as itself counting as "philosophy" reminds me of Robert Pirsig's denigration of such malarkey as "philosophology" (the study of philosophy, rather than of wisdom).
    – Jeff Y
    Jan 29, 2016 at 20:52
  • @JeffY There's actually a good reason for this, however. Arguably, a question like "what is science?" is a philosophy question, not a science question. Along those lines, it is fairly well-accepted that, in general, the question "What is X?" is a philosophy question, not an X question (which is why you get your doctorate in "philosophy" even if your field is X). But when X IS philosophy... Jan 29, 2016 at 21:03
  • When X IS philosophy, then the system breaks down, and when the system breaks down... youtube.com/watch?v=aTyJ3QruoaM&t=73 :-) (Barnes on metaphysics, the is/ought distinction, and the fallacy of division.)
    – Jeff Y
    Jan 29, 2016 at 21:14

Philosophy differs from purely logical systems in the same way that humans differ from machines. Philosophy has a history... or histories. And it struggles to retain its history lest it fall into a sort of synchronic Alzheimer's syndrome, logical but without meaning, value, development, or content.

The non-philosophers you cite may be called "philosophers," even against their own devout wishes, because they are familiar with and responding quite precisely to this historical evolution of philosophical ideas and problems. Specifically, the modern existentialists were responding to Heidegger and Hegel, among many others, who were in turn responding to Husserl and Kant. Even Camus, arguably more of a literary influence, is hardly abandoning reason or the heightened "self-consciousness" of metaphysics.

By the time we trace this complex, running dialogue back to Kant, we are already dealing at a rather deep, complex level with the insufficiencies of your definition and the many failed attempts to reduce philosophy, by rationalism or empiricism, to some inarguable logic... and then the logic to some, certain, "value-free" axioms, and so forth. Had you posed your question in 1780, say, the answer would already be "been there, done that."

You are certainly not alone in your complaint. Quine and many other notables protested strenuously when Cambridge offered Derrida an honorary degree, causing a great hubbub. But Derrida too was very much an interpreter and historian of philosophy, reason, and its concerns. We have to remember that philosophy's origins among the pre-Socratics were hardly "logical" and mingled physics with poetry, argumentation, and morals.

Empedocles, Diogenes, Rousseau, Newton, Marx, Herder, Freud, Weil, Mach, Parsons, Cioran, Habbermas, Kuhn, Foucault, Derrida...there are thousands who could arguably be or were cashiered from "philosophy proper" and probably didn't care. But the danger in narrowing this self-conscious history is to reduce philosophy to amnesia, futile logic chopping, and the repetition to which ahistorical minds are supposedly doomed.

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    "Philosophy has a history... " Very well said. I would add that logical systems cannot be removed from their originary psychological dimensions without thereby becoming incoherent, and this is ultimately why (I think) the 'Analytic' philosophers fail in their attempt to equate logic with philosophy, which always moves upward beyond the (merely) psychological, into (amongst other things) the historical
    – M. le Fou
    Feb 2, 2016 at 23:03

Why then is existentialism considered philosophy?

Because your definition of philosophy ("philosophy is defined by its method, which is based on logical analysis.") is not widely (or at least not unanimously) held.

So, existentialism is considered philosophy by those with a different definition of philosophy than yourself.

An example of a concept of philosophy that is explicitly opposed to your own can be found, I believe, in Deleuze & Guattari's Qu'est-ce que la philosophie? ('what is philosophy?'). Here is a passage from the chapter 'Prospects and Concepts' taken from the English translation by Burchell and Tomlinson:

Logic is always defeated by itself, that is to say, by the insignificance of the cases on which it thrives. In its desire to supplant philosophy, logic detaches the proposition from all its psychological dimensions, but clings all the more to the set of postulates that limited and subjected thought to the constraints of a recognition of truth in the proposition. And when logic ventures into a calculus of problems, it does so by modeling it, isomorphically, on the calculus of propositions. It is less like a game of chess, or a language game, than a television quiz game.

  • There is more philosophy in your comments and this answer than I have found by reading a hundred other posts. Thank you. Very good.
    – Gordon
    Aug 11, 2017 at 16:15

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