Add as bookmark

The Impact of Existential Philosophy on Modern Psychology

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 40 - May 1999

It is now some 50 years since existentialism swept through the salons of European intellectual life. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) may be considered one of the leaders of the existential philosophy movement. Few philosophers today are interested in this approach, but for some psychologists the influence of existentialistic ideas has been profound.

The existential world-view allows for a re-vamping of traditional psychological theory… a fruitful alternative to the Freudian map of the human Psyche. One of existentialism's key gifts to the contemporary psychologist is perhaps the basic notion that existence precedes essence; thus, a philosophical slap in the face of those who would have the psychologist classify people into neat compartments.

Instead, the existentially-aware psychologist avoids pinning fixed labels on patients. He is more prepared to try to enter the patient's world, to see how he exists – start with the phenomena themselves… since no label or categorisation will ever fit a live human being.

Thus, phenomenology enters the study of human behaviour. It was Sartre's thrust which aided psychologists in their move away from the static 19th century taxonomic view of mental states, with its detached Kretschmerian classifications of patients (as if one were classifying stones or plants). But man is a living creature, always changing, and thus beyond psychiatric rubrics. Most patients confound diagnostic labelling. Ask yourself if this is not true with your own clients – do they ever truly fit those neat categories (or is the use of a label a mere convenience for institutions and thus a betrayal of the patient's humanness?).

Sartre adopted the phenomenological method from Husserl by way of Heidegger. But he was the first to apply it rigorously to understanding human action. Another notion he took from Husserl was the idea that there is always some object for our conscious perception. Sartre's small book on the emotions extends this study of the phenomenology of consciousness. Here he points to the startling conclusion that an emotion is a way of apprehending the world. (Perls: our emotions give us valuable information). An emotion is not simply a discordant, disturbing item that must be suppressed or repressed – which is the traditional Freudian and behaviourist view.

But the salient principle taken from Sartre is that elusive existential concept of freedom, which he brought to bear on human psychology.

Man tries to conceal from himself his endless freedom, attempting instead to take refuge in the notion of a fixed or determined self (viz. 'id', 'unconscious') but the Sartrean view is that man makes himself by his choices. True, I cannot alter my past, but I can choose what meaning I wish to give it. Some people choose to allow the past to influence them, thereby diminishing responsibility for the present. Thus, they may select episodes from the past which they can then use to say – "See, this is why I'm lazy, my mother didn't love me." But for Sartre this is bad faith or self-deception. Man deceives himself when he hides his freedom.

Man is free… that is Sartre's existential message. It depends on what values he chooses to live by. Now, opponents may argue that society pressures us to receive some specific ethical values or norms. But endorsement of these values is ultimately a choice.

Society's values become my values only through my own actions. One can always choose, as many do, to be an 'outsider', to go against the grain of social coercion. Indeed, this is the Kierkegaardian existential dilemma facing humanity… the core conflict we all must face – and the root of existential angst. Whether to go along passively with society and 'do what everyone else expects' (Heidegger's Das Man, following the crowd) or to resist the others and risk suffering existential anxiety of uncertainty (and freedom). Remember, Sartre himself refused to join the prestigious French Academy and also chose to reject the Nobel Prize.

Thus, existential psychology allows no merit for simple adjustment to social norms. To be an existentialist is to choose for oneself. And one may make a 'wrong' choice – that is the price of human freedom.

Yet there is always this search for meaning, the Sartrean 'project' of individual goals, becoming oneself and forging personal integrity in a nauseatingly chaotic world full of pressures and – since the Death of God announced by Nietzsche, with no given meaning.

Viktor Frankl built his existential therapy, 'Logotherapy' by further developing this theme of man's search for meaning. The existential psychology school of Rollo May, Ludwig Binswanger, Eugene Minkowski, et al is based on this approach (see the fundamental anthology edited by Rollo May, Existence, 1958, published by Basic Books, New York). And Fritz Perls based his Gestalt Therapy on existential and experiential principles.

* To be continued in the next issue


  1. dame taye said..

    i want to learn especial on assessment psychology

« Prev Next »

Post Your Comments:

About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

top of the page