What Is an “Existential Crisis”?: An Animated Video Explains What the Expression Really Means

“Who am I?” many of us have won­dered at some point in our lives, “What am I? Where am I?”… maybe even—while gaz­ing in bewil­der­ment at the pale blue dot and lis­ten­ing to the Talk­ing Heads—“How did I get here?”

That feel­ing of unset­tling and pro­found con­fu­sion, when it seems like the hard floor of cer­tain­ty has turned into a black abyss of end­less obliv­ion…. Thanks to mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, it has a handy name: an exis­ten­tial cri­sis. It’s a name, says Alain de Bot­ton in his School of Life video above, that “touch­es on one of the major tra­di­tions of Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy,” a tra­di­tion “asso­ci­at­ed with ideas of five philoso­phers in par­tic­u­lar: Kierkegaard, Camus, Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger, and Sartre.”

What do these five have in com­mon? The ques­tion is com­pli­cat­ed, and we can’t real­ly point to a “tra­di­tion.” As the Inter­net Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy notes, Exis­ten­tial­ism is a “catch-all term” for a few con­ti­nen­tal philoso­phers from the 19th and 20th cen­turies, some of whom had lit­tle or no asso­ci­a­tion with each oth­er. Also, “most of the philoso­phers con­ven­tion­al­ly grouped under this head­ing either nev­er used, or active­ly dis­avowed the term ‘exis­ten­tial­ist.’” Camus, accord­ing to Richard Raskin, thought of Exis­ten­tial­ism as a “form of philo­soph­i­cal sui­cide” and a “destruc­tive mode of thought.” Even Sartre, who can be most close­ly iden­ti­fied with it, once said “Exis­ten­tial­ism? I don’t know what it is.”

But labels aside, we can iden­ti­fy many com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics of the five thinkers de Bot­ton names that apply to our par­a­lyz­ing expe­ri­ences of supreme doubt. The video iden­ti­fies five such broad com­mon­al­i­ties of the “exis­ten­tial cri­sis”:

1. “It’s a peri­od when a lot that had pre­vi­ous­ly seemed like com­mon sense or nor­mal reveals its con­tin­gent, chance, uncan­ny, and rel­a­tive nature…. We are freer than we thought.”

2. We rec­og­nize we’d been delud­ing our­selves about what had to be…. We come to a dis­turb­ing aware­ness that our ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty is to our­selves, not the social world.”

3. “We devel­op a height­ened aware­ness of death. Time is short and run­ning out. We need to re-exam­ine our lives, but the clock is tick­ing.”

4. “We have many choic­es, but are, by the nature of the human con­di­tion, denied the infor­ma­tion we would need to choose with ulti­mate wis­dom or cer­tain­ty. We are forced to decide, but can nev­er be assured that we’ve done so ade­quate­ly. We are steer­ing blind.”

5. This means that anx­i­ety is a “basic fea­ture” of all human exis­tence.

All of this, de Bot­ton admits, can “seem per­ilous and dispir­it­ing,” and yet can also enno­ble us when we con­sid­er that the pri­vate ago­nies we think belong to us alone are “fun­da­men­tal fea­tures of the human con­di­tion.” We can dis­pense with the triv­i­al­iz­ing idea, prop­a­gat­ed by adver­tis­ers and self-help gurus, that “intel­li­gent choice might be pos­si­ble and untrag­ic… that per­fec­tion is with­in reach.” Yet de Bot­ton him­self presents Exis­ten­tial­ist thought as a kind of self-help pro­gram, one that helps us with regret, since we real­ize that every­one bears the bur­dens of choice, mor­tal­i­ty, and con­tin­gency, not just us.

How­ev­er, in most so-called Exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­phers, we also dis­cov­er anoth­er press­ing prob­lem. Once we become unteth­ered from pleas­ing fic­tions of pre-exist­ing real­i­ties, “worlds-behind-the-scene,” as Niet­zsche put it, or “being-behind-the-appear­ance,” in Sartre’s words, we no longer see a benev­o­lent hand arrang­ing things neat­ly, nor have absolute order, mean­ing, or pur­pose to appeal to.

We must con­front that fact that we, and no one else, bear respon­si­bil­i­ty for our choic­es, even though we make them blind­ly. It’s not a com­fort­ing thought, hence the “cri­sis.” But many of us resolve these moments of shock with vary­ing degrees of wis­dom and expe­ri­ence. As we know from anoth­er great thinker, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, who was not an Exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher, “Free­dom makes a huge require­ment of every human being…. For the per­son who is unwill­ing to grow up… this is a fright­en­ing prospect.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Human, All Too Human: 3‑Part Doc­u­men­tary Pro­files Niet­zsche, Hei­deg­ger & Sartre

The Absurd Phi­los­o­phy of Albert Camus Pre­sent­ed in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film by Alain De Bot­ton

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Lucia says:

    So your take on exis­ten­tial cri­sis is to have the ghost of Eleanor Roo­sevelt scold anx­ious peo­ple by say­ing they are “unwill­ing to grow up?”

  • GregH says:

    This seems like a bour­geois & very British view of “exis­ten­tial”. Let’s all learn how to find our place in the cur­rent con­struct and get on with it. (For extra points, guess what adjec­tive I delet­ed before “bour­geois”!)

  • Suky says:

    Alain de Bot­ton is bour­geois and British. What did you expect?

  • LKH says:

    Exis­ten­tial… a com­men­tary on the human con­di­tion. That is if you are male. because it’s all about “man“kind, right. Good grief.

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