Existentialism represents a turning away from systematic philosophy (with its emphasis on metaphysical absolutes and principles of rational certainty) and toward an emphasis on the concrete existence of a human being “thrown” into a world that is merely “given” and contingent. Such a being encounters the world as a subjective consciousness, “condemned” to create its own meanings and values in an “absurd” and purposeless universe.

So, what is an example of a systematic philosophy that emphasises metaphysical absolutes and principles of rational certainty? Was there a specific systematic philosophy that Existentialism was against?

  • 5
    I smell a false dichotomy here...
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 26, 2023 at 20:14
  • 4
    Absolute idealism, neo-Kantianism, positivism. "The wide interest in the nature of pure thought and pure theory for European philosophers (also neo-Kantians and neo-Hegelians) was partially connected to the effort made by philosophy to save its own primacy... However, it was not on behalf of pure thought that the battle was won. On the contrary, the very adjective ‘pure’ soon began to fade, and the research culminated... with the victory of impure existential thought." D’Agostini, From a Continental Point of View, p. 360
    – Conifold
    Mar 26, 2023 at 20:24
  • @Conifold I was skimming the table of contents of a book called Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self, and there's a section called The Rise of the Self in German Idealism; without reading it yet, I just want to ask doesn't the rise of the self imply individualism which would reject a systemic philosophy pre-giving the individual meanings/a place in the world? (Much like the individual rejects systems and embraces existentialism), Is this absolute idealism you are describing - individualist?
    – user65383
    Mar 26, 2023 at 20:52
  • @PhilipKlöcking I just want to identify any philosophies that believe in 'opposite' things an existentialist would believe in, is there a better way I can phrase my question?
    – user65383
    Mar 26, 2023 at 21:21
  • 1
    The counterpoint to Sartre: essence before existence. Which is to say, Idealism. The personal encounter with meaningless, with the need of justifying our life to our self, is directly in contrast to the universalist rationalism of the Categorical Imperative.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 30, 2023 at 1:18

4 Answers 4


On a historical level, the answer to your question will depend on the existentialist you are looking at.

We often credit Kierkegaard as being the first existentialist, in which case the answer to your question is Hegelian philosophy. This is largely based in German idealism, specifically a focus on consciousness and spirit.

If you look further to existential Husserl, early Heidegger, and Sartre, then they have broader opposition towards rationalist positions. Husserl was explicitly against the kind of skeptical positions that rationalism (especially Cartesian rationalism) generates to. Heidegger is explicitly against Cartesian dualism and rationalism. Being and Time and, as part of it, his concept of Being-In-The-World, is explicitly used to deny the Cartesian kind of mind-body separation as incoherent.

Neither existential Husserl nor early Heidegger had clear positions on realism and idealism (though this is debated a little in current literature), though the German idealist positions would have had tension with both of their phenomenological methods.

(While Heidegger was clearly against rationalism, yes, but in B&T he does claim that all philosophy since the Ancient Greeks has been misguided. He's, in some sense, against all of it.)

what is an example of a systematic philosophy that emphasises metaphysical absolutes and principles of rational certainty?

This is Kantian philosophy. Absolutism and rationalism with a healthy dose of idealism.

  • Do any of these thinkers oppose 'relativism/anti-realism of meanings and values'?
    – user65383
    Mar 30, 2023 at 3:05
  • 1
    @user65383 First, yes. Kant's Categorical Imperative, for example, is absolute to all sentient beings. It's an ethical duty that is not relative. Second, I don't think that's what sets it apart from existentialists. After all, at different points in their lives, Heidegger and Sartre would also be anti-relativistic in some sense. Mar 30, 2023 at 21:41

Philosophies generally don't have Hegelian antitheses -- they are too diverse and particualr.

But the closest to the existentialist focus on a) experienced life, b) human agency, and c) an open future, would be:

a-prime) Behaviorism ignores experience, in favor of purely external 3rd person reality. Eliminative materialism says that consciousness is irrelevant, as it reduces to neuronal behavior. Delusionism holds that we are not conscious but are deluded into thinking we are.

b-prime) Non-agency. Both the delusionists, and the eliminativnests basically leave no possible role for agency, so they both hold by b-prime. Behaviorists can effectively believe in agency -- B F Skinner famously set up reward-punishment routines for himself to motivate/train himself to be more productive. But b-prime can be held by all sorts of other people too. All models of psychology that hold that we are solely subject to psychological compulsions fall under b-prime. For instance, a contemporary dualist advocate of libertarian free will, Richard Swinburne, considers psychology SO compulsive, that we can only exercise free will when psychological pressures are almost perfectly balanced.

c-prime) Determinism. Any "compatibilist" holds by determinism, and between hard determinism and compatibilism, that is something like 75% of philosophers, so lots of c-primes. Determinism is an outcome of either a clockwork universe worldview, OR of a block time view Block time is what one gets from Einsten's time space continuum, OR from putting a transcendent God outside time. Our future is knowable in either case.

Who believes in A-prime, B-prime and C-prime? Daniel Dennett is a delusionist, so has A and B prime, and a compatibilist, so has c-prime. There are no doubt other philosophers as well, as the primes are pretty widely held views.

  • 1
    I would add though that there's no reason for an existentialist to be committed to c. A compatibilist can still hold on to Sartre's analysis of freedom, for example. After all, the compatibilist thesis is that you freely do action X if action X is related to you in the right way, i.e. you are responsible for action X. A key part of Sartre's analysis is also this sense of responsibility for your actions, i.e. your actions are what determine who you are. Mar 30, 2023 at 21:45
  • @TheThoughtDetective -- Yes. compatibilists claim that compatibilism is true, and freedom is compatible with determinism. But in my experience those who are attracted to Existentialist agency, responsibility, and angst, tend not to hold the scaled back compatibilist view of "freedom", and instead tend to embrace incompatibilism, and full libertarian free will. As an aside, since physics is not deterministic, (see this answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/87093/…) compatibilism is irrelevant.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 31, 2023 at 0:54
  • While I agree that key existentialist thinkers don't generally discuss compatibilism, I'm not sure it's the case that they hold full libertarian views of free will. My instinct is that most of them don't care about this debate/would say that it's a false dichotomy. (As Heidegger kind of does in "The Question Concerning Technology). Nothing in their theses seems to contradict compatibilistic theories. And as far as irrelevancy goes, just because physics isn't deterministic doesn't mean we can influence it. We can be determined by the universe even if it isn't fixed. Mar 31, 2023 at 8:32
  • @TheThoughtDetective I agree on both points. However, when one is starting one’s philosophizing from existence and agency, and the need to create goals and values, surreptitiously dumping all that agency backhandedly onto the universe is psychologically incompatible with the rest. And while we can never know if anything we think we know is really really true per indirect realism, resorting to “you can’t prove my idea is wrong because empiricism can’t prove anything” is usually treated as checkmate for any serious idea.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 31, 2023 at 12:01

A human being “thrown” into a world that is merely “given” is a basis of rational certainty. Subjectivity (the world as a subjective consciousness) is moot, since the subject is just as given as the objects. They are in it together. For all their indeterminacies, are the phenomena. What is not, is the noumena, (or at most it is deeply unconscious). So the anti-thesis of "rational certainty" would be if the noumenon was awake and saying hello.

  • Perhaps the deeply unconscious can become conscious, or known to consciousness? The noumenon / phenomenon distinction feels to me like a made-up idea.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 30, 2023 at 0:26
  • @ScottRowe Indeed Kant invents the noumenon only to serve as a contrast, to emphasise that perceived phenomena have limited truth content. (For instance one might mistake a stick insect for a stick.) So for Kant there are actually only phenomena. For Heidegger the equivalent of noumenon is the clearing; the being which facilitates beings/phenomena, likewise brought to nothing: "The nothing is the "not" of beings, and is thus being, experienced from the perspective of beings." (On the Essence of Ground, Preface). Beings can create their own meaning. Anti-thesis is panpsychism, Being's meaning. Mar 30, 2023 at 11:50
  • 1
    It reminds me of "the two real things": the Void (all possibility, no actuality) and Experience (what is). Enlightenment is seeing that they are one thing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 30, 2023 at 17:31

There are several such antitheses, one for each major existentialist thinker.

For Pascal, the system that he opposed was that of Descartes. Cartesian system was rational, systematic, and a clear self-sufficient subject (cogito) is the centre.

Kierkegaard opposed the Hegelian system. For Hegel, individuals are insignificant parts that are parts of the spirit that moves dialectically. The real is the rational, and the rational is the real.

Nietzsche opposed Plato's system. In that system, humans have rational minds that can lead us to the good, and obtaining the good is the ultimate goal of life.

Heidegger opposed Descartes's epistemology. He did not think that we understand the world as a spatio-temporal continuum.

  • 1
    Do any of these thinkers oppose 'relativism/anti-realism of meanings and values'?
    – user65383
    Mar 30, 2023 at 3:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .