The essence of existentialism

Existentialism emerged from the early 20th century as a philosophical and cultural movement (theology, drama, art, literature and psychology) wherein the experiences of the individual are at the center of understanding human existence, rather than moral or scientific thought. It was a rejection of systemic modes of thought associated with earlier philosophy, religion or romantic belief, emphasizing a reliance on authentic experience rather than external idea.

The Existentialist movement came to prominence in Paris in the 1940s and 50s with the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Religious belief had faltered through the first half of the 20th century and was temporarily replaced by nationalism during World War II, but when the war ended there was little left to fill the void.

A central tenet of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence,” which means that the most important consideration is the fact that one is an individual rather than the labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individual fits into. Followers of the idea often did not label themselves as such, as it undermined a fundamental principle.

Waiting for Godot is often called an existentialist drama, which in some ways it is, but Beckett never ascribed the philosophy to his work. In the world of the play, devoid of systems, purpose and markers of time, all that is left is to simply exist. The fact that Vladimir and Estragon do little except exist highlights some existential themes. It is more accurately described as absurdism, which contains the idea that there is no meaning found in the world beyond the meaning we give it.