Continental Philosophy: Phenomenology & Existentialism

Continental Philosophy is one of the two western philosophical schools of thought in the 20th century. According to Grayling its critics from the other school, Analytic Philosophy, are often impatient or even contemptuous of the alleged confusions or even deliberate abuses of language in the Continental school. The result, according to some at least, is thinking that is at best misleading or at worst complete nonsense. In contrast, Analytic Philosophers consider their ideas firmly grounded through an emphasis on logic and a natural respect for science. I would say that any reasonably impartial person must accept that the Analytic school does not have all of the answers, and that there is much to learn from within the Continental School.


Edmund Husserl lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. Grayling writes that Husserl is the originator of ‘phenomenology’, which is the study of subjective consciousness. To explain further, the first thing to say is what phenomenology is not. We all consciously experience things that happen in the world (including things that happen inside our bodies, such as a stomach pain caused by too much stomach acid). These experiences are not part of phenomenology, which instead is the investigation of consciousness itself. To focus only on consciousness itself is not easy and requires mentally withdrawing from everything else, so as not to be distracted from the world around us. This distinguishes phenomenology from psychology, which is an empirical scientific study of the mind, including how the mind interacts with the world. When we experience something by seeing it we gaze outwards on to things. Husserl wanted to gaze inwards in reflection in order to understand the mental experience itself. He wanted (for example) to understand the mental experience of seeing, rather than what is being seen. 

Husserl asked what things are part of consciousness itself and which are not. Noting the Kantian influence on Husserl’s work, the answer leads to ‘a priori’ knowledge of consciousness (i.e. knowledge based on reason rather than sense-perception). This is where things get difficult, but the conclusion seems to be that there are two aspects to consciousness; one is the activity of consciousness itself and the other is the content of the activity. Also consistent with Kant, Husserl’s work revealed to him that that experiences are not objectively the same for everyone, but are affected by the subjectivity of our consciousness.


Husserl’s ideas may appear excessively abstract, but he believed that phenomenology was a new science, and that he would inspire other thinkers to establish and mature it, leading to many great and useful discoveries. Martin Heidegger was undoubtedly inspired by Husserl and for a while acted as his assistant, but he would take phenomenology away from Husserl’s ‘transcendental’ (relating to knowledge known ‘a priori’) origins in a more ‘existential’ direction. Heidegger took up a question that had been asked but not answered by Aristotle, who had said that there are different types or meanings of the word ‘being’ (such as substance, mental existence etc) but what is the single definition of ‘being’ which captures its essence?

Heidegger uses phenomenology as a starting point to define being. In short, the result is that ‘a being’ is something that has a conscious awareness of existing in the world. Further, the world is not just the things in it, but is also the understanding of the things and why they exist, and that understanding comes from conscious beings. While everyday objects exist, Heidegger suggests they are concealed, until a conscious being comes along to experience and understand them. At that point they ‘come out of concealment’, to quote Heidegger’s terminology.

Heidegger said that beings naturally feel a general sense of dread or anxiety, and the only way to overcome this feeling is to live ‘authentically’. This can mean different things for different people, but fundamentally it relates to the way we have concern or care for things and for other beings (this could involve but is not limited to: producing, looking after or making use of something, or accomplishing something). The anxiety comes from not knowing why we exist. We naturally look around for things to help us escape our feeling of anxiety, and we often fail to live authentically.


Jean-Paul Sartre is best known for his contribution to existentialism. He lived a very public life, was a committed Marxist and was no stranger to political protest, including being arrested for a role in the Paris riots of 1968. Grayling recounts an anecdote that during Sartre’s funeral in 1980, one young person claimed to be attending a protest against his death. Sartre was attracted to phenomenology for its promise to overcome the opposition between realism and idealism, because it both recognised the objective existence of the material world (realism), but also gave special importance to consciousness (idealism). An existentialist would reject the strictly scientific and materialistic view that humans (and what it is like to exist as a human) can be adequately understood by studying what physically exists and can be observed. There is more to it than that. They would also reject the strictly idealist view that a study of consciousness and the mind is sufficient. The way that our consciousness interacts with everything else is also necessary to understand ourselves. Sartre studied both Husserl and Heidegger, but developed their views in new directions.

Sartre distinguished conscious from non-conscious being. Both types of being apply to humans, but non-conscious being is passive and exists inertly. Conscious being requires non-conscious being to exist, but is dynamic and fluid, and is constantly battling to transcend it. The tension is that the conscious part of us always wants to define what we are, but our consciousness does not materially exist. What we physically are will always be our non-conscious being. The dynamism of our consciousness means that it is never happy and settled. It always wants to be something more than or different to what we are. Our conscious being is always striving for possibilities against the inertness of our non-conscious being.

Sartre defines a third type of being which he calls ‘Other’. This is the understanding we get of ourselves from other beings. Without others we would only have our own opinions to understand ourselves (imagine how you would think differently about yourself if you had never met another human being). Other represents our consciousness looking outwards rather than inwards. According to Sartre the primary way that people relate to each other is through conflict, hence his view that ‘hell is other people’. Emotions such as shame and pride come from how we feel we are perceived by others. Consciousness is in conflict with and trying to transcend Other just as much as with non-conscious being. These conflicts mean we are always trying (and failing) to be something that we can’t be. In this context, love can be understood as the attempt to resolve the conflict between consciousness and Other by merging them together. However it is impossible not to exist partly as Other (i.e. not to have an understand of yourself through the eyes of others), so love is a guaranteed source of conflict.  

Two thoughts are central to Sartre’s thinking. The first is that ‘existence precedes essence’. By essence he means the purpose of our existence. In other words, just because we exist doesn’t necessarily mean there is a purpose to our existence. We do not arrive in the world with a purpose or plan waiting for us. The second related thought is that we are radically free. Unfortunately this freedom comes with the burden of responsibility, specifically the responsibility to determine our own purpose for existence through our actions and choices. Grayling’s quote of Sartre is worth reciting, ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does.’ This responsibility in Sartre’s view is a great source of unhappiness.


Finally I would like to give some attention to two philosophers whose distinct contribution, according to Grayling suffered from a close association with Sartre. Albert Camus is often bracketed with Sartre as an ‘existentialist’, but described himself as an ‘absurdist’. The absurd position being that the only bond between humanity and the rest of the world is that neither has any intrinsic meaning. This leads to one of three solutions: one is suicide (because life is pointless), another is what Grayling calls a sort of intellectual suicide where you find solace in some irrational belief system, and lastly ‘a courageous acceptance and embrace of the absurdity of things’. Camus used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate absurdism. Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push a large boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again at the top of the hill. However, given that the struggle itself confers meaning ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’.

De Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir is best known as a feminist and novelist, but her contribution to philosophy is also significant. Two examples show how De Beauvoir applied Sartre’s often abstract ideas to provide understanding of specific issues. Earlier I wrote that according to Sartre, part of our being is ‘Other’ which relates to how we understand ourselves through others. We are constantly in conflict between how we understand ourselves through others and our own subjective understanding of ourselves, generally preferring our own view of ourselves to that of others and trying to suppress the understanding that comes from others. De Beauvoir identified that this relationship plays out between men and women, where women are the Other. The role of women in a patriarchal society is to allow their own views of men to be suppressed, and to be supportive and to validate men’s views of themselves, regardless of how grounded they are in reality. The opposite relationship occurs in how women see themselves, where their own understanding of themselves is suppressed in favour of the Other, i.e. the subjective view of them held by other men.

De Beauvoir took Sartre’s view that we come into existence without purpose or meaning and have to develop those things afterwards, and concluded that in a patriarchal society women are forced to find purpose through their relationship to men. This encourages some women to feel that they exist for men, and this feeling is part of the essence of being a woman. Hence De Beauvoir wrote in her book The Second Sex that one is not born a woman but becomes one. The book was first published in 1949. Society has without doubt come a long way since then, but set in the context of existentialism, one can’t help feel that the roots of sexual inequality run very deep.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

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