With roots in the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism gained an audience within the post-World War II European community where it found form and voice. Emerging from the atrocities of war, vanquished idealism, and fragmented family life, the philosophers of this period developed a perspective reflecting the realities of their harsh existence. In the midst of the destruction, people reverberated to the philosophical writings of Nietzsche (1889) almost 50 years earlier: In the midst of so much ruin, God must also be dead. People saw death as the core event permeating their existence. These experiences with mortality led to a perspective that, although not always optimistic, was based in reality.
Kierkegaard (1944) pursued scientific truth from the landscape of the human perspective. People's greater problems were not a result of a lack of knowledge or technology, he believed, but a lack of passion, love, and commitment (May, 1983). Kierkegaard was convinced that the goal of pure objectivity was not only unattainable but also undesirable and immoral. Kierkegaard had the revelation that, unless science is examined in a relational context, truth is not possible (Bretall, 1951). Objective, detached understanding is an illusion; a subject can never be truly separated from the process of being observed and the context of that observation. It is no small wonder that Kierkegaard was not favored among the more objective, cognitive, and behavioral theorists influenced by Rene Descartes.
According to Descartes, an objective, rational examination was crucial to the development of empirical science. From Descartes emerged a mechanistic theory of mind and body only causally interacting. In the midst of a Cartesian mindset, Martin Heidegger (1949) built on Kierkegaard and developed an alternative paradigm. Heidegger's concept was antimechanistic and antitheoretic in a Cartesian sense. To Heidegger (1962), theories and humans were imperfect, and an objective reality was not reality at all. Existence is only understood in terms of being in the world through subjective participation. Heidegger noted that in striving for exactness, the Cartesian system was missing reality.
Heidegger's notions of choice also influenced the existential psychologists (Barnett, 2009). It was Heidegger's idea that each choice represents the loss of an alternative. The past becomes important in terms of lost opportunities. People have the freedom to choose but must balance this with the responsibility for their choices. By encountering these limitations, people may experience nothingness, loneliness, guilt, and anxiety. These core concerns reverberated among authors around the world. The field of literature was ripe for existential development, and the best literary minds echoed existential rumblings (e.g., Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Stein, Ellison, Faulkner, Wolfe, Pound, Blake, Angelou, Kidd, Martel, Hosseni, Rand, Doctorow, Walker, Rowling, Page, Lao-Tzu, Meyer, Waddell, and Frost).
In as many ways that meaning can be gleaned from life, there are avenues to describe the process of finding meaning. Just as some existentialists are more humanistic (Bugental, 1999; Maslow, 1998; Schneider, 2008), others are dynamic in their orientation (Yalom, 2009). Some existentialists have a transpersonal (Wilber, 2004) and a spiritual (Cooper, 2007; Yang, 2009) frame of reference. All existentialists have a deep respect for the individual struggle "to be."