Søren Kierkegaard's and Jean-Paul Sartre's conception towards meaning of life

A critical reflection

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

46 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents









I shall begin with God the almighty, and I want to use His own word to praise Him: “I will praise You forever, because You have done it”. All the Glory for this achievement and success goes to Him.

I would like to thanks my advisor Mulata Hiluf for his timely insightful comments and guidance throughout this research work. And the whole staff members of philosophy department especially my gratitude goes to M/r Adane Teklay head department of philosophy, M/r Zemenfes T/Mariam, M/r Girmay G/Hiwot who have helped me in my work in many ways who give breath for this senior essay and who helped me in many dimension when I was lost in the desert and when I feel hopeless. Thank you for supporting and encouraging me.

Words are not enough to thank my wonderful families, my Mother Birke Nigatu , brothers, sisters and my friends and my former teachers M/r Amanuel Weldu and M/r Yehisak Wegene For their incredible support to share all my burdens throughout the entire process.

Finally, my gratitude goes to those of you who have helped me in my work in many ways Teachers, families, relatives, friend that I stated above and that I didn’t because such relationships have meant a lot it is undeniable that they made my life meaningful. To all of the persons who have a part in my life and in this senior essay I want to forward a quote which I found it through reading “ There is no meaning if there is not shared” Thanks for sharing my meaning and for make me to share yours.


The focus of this paper is to explore how existentialists have approached the question “what is meaning of life?” Throughout time this question has vexed humans. This philosophical question “What is the meaning of life” is come as human exists and it has received especial attention in philosophy world many philosophers dealt with this question. This study does so through recourse to the philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, and give more emphasis on Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul-Sartre arguments. Therefore the main purpose of this study is to analysis some existential philosophers arguments towards the meaning of life and to show how much the question of the meaning of life is influential. In doing so, this senior essay discuss the main arguments of the above philosopher in detail. Finally, this paper give kind of reminder or introduction for peoples to search there own meaning of life.



According to the widely accepted definition, ‘Existentialism’ defined as a philosophic stand point which gives priority to existence over essence. From the dictionary meaning, Existentialism can also defined as a ‘philosophy of existence’. It is’’ an irrational trend in bourgeois philosophy which appeared in the 20th century in an attempt to create a new world outlook corresponding to the frame of mind of bourgeois intellectuals.’’1 (Raosaheb, 2016, p. 2)

Existentialism first emerged in the writing of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In the decades that followed, existentialism grew into a philosophy that placed stress on individual ethics and on the authentic experience of selfhood, on freedom and choice.2

The term ‘Existentialism’ only gained currency after the second world war, so it applied retrospectively to earlier thinkers. Heidegger refused to accept the label. At first Sartre himself was extremely uncomfortable to be called existentialist, by the1970s less so. The word features in the tittle of the famous October 1945 lecture existentialism and humanism (L’Existentiaisme est un humanism) which Sartre regarded as an inadequate substitute for regarding his denser works. the text remains an excellent introduction to Sartrean themes to existentialism3 (Priest, 2001, pp. 20-21)

In Existentialism ‘Existence’ is important because the meaning of
being is always grasped through human experience for which the
Existence is the first and basic point. This philosophy continues to
remark that Existence is what man foundationally has and everything
else is offered to him as range of choices to choose from and act upon.
Man he himself has to solve the problems and is fully responsible for
what he does, even though he is not responsible for his coming into the
world. He, in this way, should consider himself as an individual who is
condemned to be free and must choose his choice freely in the world.
4 (Motiee & Sheikhzadeh, 2015, p. 1)

There are two kinds of existentialists: on one hand, the Christians, among whom I would include Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and, on the other, the atheistic existentialists, among whom we should place Heidegger, as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in Common is simply their belief that existence precedes essence; or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure.’’5 (Sartre J. P., 2007, p. 20)

Theistic existentialism is one of the branch of existentialism which regards God as ultimate reality. Kierkegaard is regarded as the founding father of theistic existentialism. For the Theistic existentialist, God is the considered as Ultimate Reality and unlike the atheist existentialist they believe in the existence of God. God for Kierkegaard, is the deepest subjective truth, is the supreme person. For him the greatest problem was how to be a true Christian and according to him, the solution to this problem lies only in accepting the reality of God. However, the conception of God as a being expressing himself through nature, human history and lives of man was rejected by him. Along with Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, Karl jasper also belong to this branch of existentialism.6

Atheistic existentialism is that branch of existentialism which regards Being-in-itself as the reality. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jean-Paul-Sartre and Albert Camus are well known atheist existentialist which vehemently reject the idea of God . Nietzsche is regarded as the founding father of atheistic existentialism.7 Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness argued that:

If God does not exist, he could not have created being-in-itself. In fact,
nothing created being-in-itself. It is “self-contained” — “in itself.” This
doesn’t mean it produced itself. It means it wasn’t produced at all. Being-
in-itself is, more or less, eternal (although we shall see soon that this is
not the correct way to speak about it). It is not caused. 8 (Sartre, 1996, p. 75)

Existentialism initiates a new style and method of philosophizing with new objectives , and themes some of the main themes to be found are Existence, essence, personal choice, anxiety, freedom, death, suicide responsibility, death of God, absurdity, metaphysical conception of truth, existential situation, meaning of life, authentic existence, life, existence precedes essence, love, crowd and other terms however in this paper the massive emphasis will be revolve around on the meaning of life

In existentialism, primacy is given to existence of man not his essence. According to existentialist, man is a conscious subject and exists not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization or system but as conscious being. To explicate Sartre says:

‘’ The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence
as a necessity. To exist is simply to be there: those who exist let themselves
be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. I believe that
there are people who have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this
contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being. But no necessary being
can explain existence: contingency is not delusion, a probability, which can
be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift.’’
9 (Cappelorn & Lisi, 2010, p. 92)

Existentialist philosophers emphasizes that individual existence, freedom and choice, it is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. As we see the history of existentialism, it is not a defined uniform school. Because as I discussed earlier generally speaking, at least, we can find two kind of existentialists: The atheist existentialists focus on the question of human existence and the feeling that there is no God given value, purpose or explanation at the core of existence. On the other hand, Christian existentialists hold that, as there is God or any other transcendental force, and the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing God and its existence.

The question of the meaning of life seems simple and trivial question, however it is one of the basic questions that human being is facing now this days. Specifically, in the domain of philosophy this question is considered to be one of the most important issues in philosophy, and human life in general. One the Existentialist philosophers, Albert Camus writes:

I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see other paradoxically killed for the ideas and illusions that give them a reason for living. I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent question. 10 (Jhoira, 2007, p. 2)

This statement assures that how much the question: what is meaning of life? is very important and urgent. So apparently, the meaning of life is related to everybody that exist. Therefore, to find meaning of life one must first answer the very essence of life. To explicate Camus writes : “Each person for the answers in life discovers something profound.”11 (Payne, 1992, p. 23)

So, What is life? Is it something we feel after someone leaves us? Or is it something which we feel when we are happy? Or is it something which we feel when we are sad? What is the point of living, when life is full of pain ?how can person find meaning and fulfillment in his/her life? So I investigated the problem in life and the task for searching life one of the problem is peoples are not willing to question there meaning of life.

The meaning of life can be questioned by human beings. If we ask people what is there view of life is, each person may give different perspectives: One might say that life is good or beautiful thing, many might say they really don’t know what the very essence of life is and why they are living for, and some might didn’t care about life anymore. But to investigate or to assume about life one must be willing to analysis what his/her life is all about. The above mentioned views implies that the investigation of life in general and the meaning of life in particular. Someone cannot give ultimate definition of other person meaning of life because there is specific or subjective meaning of life which vary person to person. Also most of the time the peoples begin for searching meaning of life they start with question. As Tolstoy puts his question on meaning of life in his confession:

What is it for? What does it leads to? Why? What then? What for?
But what does it matter to me? What of it? Why go on making any
effort? How go on living? What will come of what I am doing today
shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should i
live, why wish for anything? Is there any meaning in my life that the
inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy? What am I, with my
desires? Why do I live? What must I do? What is the meaning of my
life? Why do I exist? (Tolstoy, 2005) 12

The above statement shows that questioning about meaning of life there are many related question that follows in searching meaning of life as Tolstoy puts it well manner it can be easily understand as how it related with other themes like death, desires futurity, wish and so on.

so, apparently philosophy is needed here to address this important question , to analyze the question rationally and to shed light on the meaning of life.

There are many factors that play a significant role in influencing someone to commit suicide people motivated to commit suicide when they are fade up of living, when they become hopeless, when peoples quality of life become low and when they lack meaning in life and other factors can be counted as motivating factors that can inspire someone to do so. Here it is quite important to see what is ‘existential vacuum’ Frankl coined the term for mode of existence without any life-meaning and purpose, characterized by boredom and attempts to escape this by distraction, and prone to neuroticism.13 (Loonstra, Brouwers, & Tomic, 2007, p. 11). Furthermore, Frankl describes a person experiencing the existential vacuum as living in a world in which the person may not even what she wishes to do. A person in this situation may then simply do what others do (conformism) or do what others tell her to do (totalitarianism). The existential vacuum can also affect attitudes. It may be characterized by: a provisional attitude toward life-living as if there is no tomorrow, a fatalistic attitude toward life-acting as if one has no control over one’s destiny, collectivist thinking a denial of one’s own personhood, and fanaticism a denial of the personhood of those who think differently. Frankl give the solution to existential vacuum, according to him the solution is development of a sound philosophy of life. Such a philosophy would demonstrate that life has meaning for each and every human circumstances14

The following questions are guiding questions, for answering the meaning of life, in this paper.

Is it possible for there to be meaning for life?
Is there meaning for meaningless life?
Why people search for meaning in life?
What is the relation between meaning of life and suicide?

The objective of this senior essay is to analysis philosophical arguments particularly in existentialist thought on meaning of life. In doing so, as I have mentioned it earlier, I highly stick on the two prominent existentialist philosophers Soren Kierkegaard on the side of theist existentialist and Jean-Paul-Sartre in the side of Atheist existentialist. In doing so I discussed the main argument on both sides in detail by using other supportive existential philosophers and then I come up with my reflection on the issue. As such its general objectives are: to introduce the kinds of argument raised in relation to meaning of life and other related issues through existentialists perspective, the other objective is to show how much the question of meaning of life is influential.

In doing so the paper constituted Four chapters:

Chapter one provided general background of the existentialism philosophy and general frame work of this senior essay.

Chapter Two constituted what nineteenth century philosophers and early twentieth century existentialist philosophers have had to say about the meaning of life. The chapter provided existentialism prominent philosophers argument for making chapter three clear and aims for catching the concept of meaning of life in existentialist view and to use the thinkers as way to understand Sartre and Kierkegaard arguments. Initially the chapter gave kind of rough recapitulation of the existentialist conception on meaning of life in general and then the chapter focus on the existentialist famous perspectives towards meaning of life distinctively. This chapter used four figurative thinkers of existentialist philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus. For instance Schopenhauer case: he pose the question on the meaning of life. One of the central preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s thought is the meaning of life , in answer to which Schopenhauer posits a grim view that denies any inherent to human existence whatsoever which holds that meaning is absolutely absent from human life. The other existentialist philosopher Nietzsche implicitly demonstrate that an unexplored personal potentiality of existential meaning resides within the province of individual human existence here and now, requiring no further recourse beyond this world.15 (Wardle, 2016, p. 23)

The Third chapter provided argument that were posed by Soren Kierkegaard and jean Paul Sartre. As the historical culture of philosophy give lesson for us that there is no any appropriate, perfect knowledge which is distinct from critical examination and there is no longer any taboo that is untouched. So this chapter constituted two distinct kinds of argument that shed light in the term ‘’meaning of life’. So as highlight in the first part of the chapter there is general summarization of Kierkegaard and jean Paul Sartre arguments towards meaning of life and related terms. This two philosophers addressed the question of meaning of life in different dimension. For instance in one hand Kierkegaard argued that “’ … a person whose sense of doing the will of God as his/her source of meaning in life will be intelligible just to extent that his/her action kowtow to the universal dictates of ethics’’.16 (Obinyan, 2014, p. 3)(paradoxically, Sartre concludes’’…Life has no meaning a priori. life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning that we give it.’’17 (Wegene, 2018, p. 43)

Chapter Four constituted general summarization ,reflection and conclusion of arguments that discussed in the former chapters.

In this term paper my position is against pessimistic understanding of meaning of life I tried to criticize this kind of conception. I argue that there is some supernatural being who give persons meaning of life so in my perspective this kind of meaning of life is not clear for every one rather it is something that being hidden or it can be taken as a secret one . So it wants person to search for it and to dig out consciously if the person fail to search for it the person will use other alternative like suicide or he/she might conclude that life as meaningless. Generally, this is my standpoint to do the research paper ahead.

This Thiess:

Addressed the above questions and give critical reflection based on the thinkers argument that I used in this paper.

Tried to solve the problems that are stated as the statement of the problem

Proposed the key to success and happiness is finding meaning of life.

Suggested how discovering meaning and purpose in life is surest way to find out what we are best at.

And after discussing so the readers of this paper will have general understanding on meaning of life and the paper will help them to question themselves about their meaning of life at once in there life.



In this chapter a massive emphasis will be made in order to discuss meaning of life with respect to some Existential philosophers. Initially, I will attempt to discuss Existentialist general outlook concerning meaning of life . Following this, I will try to bring about four crucial thinkers from existential school of thought: Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Fredrick Nietzsche and Albert Camus, After doing so, in the last part of the chapter I will have some critical reflections.


It is arguably through the philosophic discourse of existentialism that the question of existential meaning has received the most direct attention. Thinkers that stated above address the question of existential meaning in various ways and to various degrees.


Arthur Schopenhauer is the first western philosopher to link the ideas of life and meaning, and to ask expressly “what is the meaning of life?’’ At least he was the first to ask the question and get it noticed by other philosophers. He can be regarded as the springboard that launched modern western philosophical inquiry into the problem of the meaning of life.

Furthermore, in the question of meaning of life Schopenhauer posits a grim view that denies any inherent meaning to human existence whatsoever. Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy is one of the first major western discourses on existential nihilism, or the philosophy which holds that meaning is absolutely absent from human life18 (Wardle, 2016) here is the passage in which Schopenhauer explicitly asked the question:

Since a man does not alter, and his moral character remains
absolutely the same all through his life: since he must play out
the part which he has received, without the least deviation from
the character: since neither experience, nor philosophy, nor
religion can effect any improvement in him, the question arises,
what is the meaning of life at all?19 (O'Briem, 2017, p. 25)

Nietzsche would say that in order to understand a philosophy you must understand the philosopher’s genealogy. Schopenhauer was called ‘’ The pessimist’’ Arthur Schopenhauer was pessimistic about life because of his biography. So we might begin to see why he was pessimistic. His biography explains that he was born in to a family that owned commercial cargo ships. In modern terms he was born in to a billionaire family. In his early life he was surrounded by sycophants, gold diggers and swindlers, and he became pessimistic very early in life. Existential pessimism, in this regard, refers to the view that human existence is inherently without merit, meaning, or transcendent truth.

Schopenhauer never marries or developed lasting friend ships, and in his famous tome he advises his young readers to avoid the female gender at all costs. The best life, in his opinion was to drop out of society, and join a monastery of some sort, and just stay here for life.

Schopenhauer argues that there are three factors that decide human happiness:
What one is , What one has, and How one is regarded by
Others. Of these, he claims the first one to be by far the most
Important and yet neglected, and the latter two by far the
least relevant and yet those on which most of us spend an
inordinate amount of time and energy20 (Pigliucci, 2006, p. 1)

According to Schopenhauer we human beings are all caught up in a hopeless cycle of wanting things, getting them , and then wanting more things. It doesn’t stop until we die. Whenever we seem to get what we want, we start wanting something else. You might think you would be content if you were a millionaire, but you wouldn’t be for long. You’d want something you hadn’t got. Human beings are like that. We’re never satisfied, never stop carving for more than we have . it’s all very depressing.’21 (YaleBooks, 2013, p. 2)

The circumstance under which concern with the problem of the meaning of life were, in Schopenhauer’s case, not merely academic but real and personal. Well off financially, but struggling with personal misery and a sense of loneliness and isolation, he felt driven to find some understanding of himself and of the world around him that seemed so bleak and senseless.

His influential work, The World As Will And Representation examines the role of humanity’s main motivation, which Schopenhauer called will. This will is an aimless striving which can never be fully satisfied, hence life is essentially dissatisfaction. Moreover, consciousness makes the situation worse, as conscious beings experience pain when thinking about past regrets and future fears.

In his concept of life Schopenhauer share Buddha’s attitude or he can be taken as modern variety of Buddhist. For instance Buddha proposed the Noble Fourfold Path as follows(1) Life is suffering (2) The cause of suffering is desire :(3) The cessation of suffering is the cessation of Desire: (4) These are eternal truths.

The philosophy of Schopenhauer is worldly, lengthy, long-winded way of restating the Noble fourfold Path. Life on earth is not intended to be happy . Life is not meant for happiness. It is far from a heaven, and far closer to a hell.

The ‘’meaning’’ of Life, if it has any for Schopenhauer and for Buddha, is to gate out of it and attain Nirvana- the place of no desire- and that means , says Schopenhauer- no desire for life.

Reason and Meaning journal elaborates that Schopenhauer claims that (1) existence is a mistake, (2) there Is no meaning or purpose to existence (3) the best thing for humans is non-existence (4) life is essentially suffering and suffering is evil (5) this is the worst of all possible worlds.22 (summary of schopenhauer's Pessimism, 2017, p. 2)

If we ask what we should do , how can we give our lives worth and meaning Schopenhauer does have an answer. “Salvation” lies in the total denial of the will. Knowledge of the will. Knowledge of the will and its horrific phenomena can and should function as a quieter of the will, bringing it to state in which it stops willing and effectively abolishes itself. Thinking in this vein, a schopenhauerian might say that the meaning of life is to deny , quite, and eventually abolishes the will to live that is essentially oneself23 (O'Briem, 2017, p. 25)

With regard to suicide Schopenhauer is against it because he argues that suicide is itself a powerful act of willing.

He points out that the meaningfulness of one’s life depends not on one’s outer circumstances but rather on the way one looks at life. People look at life differently, and so the meaningfulness of her life varies considerably from person to person life is barren, dull and superficial; to another rich, interesting and full if meaning.


1 Raosaheb, M. V. (2016). Existentalism: A philosophic stand point to existence over essence.

2 (Modern Art concept: Existentalism in Art)

3 Priest, S. (Ed.). (2001). jean-Paul- Sartre: basic writings . London: British library cataloguing .

4 Motiee, M., & Sheikhzadeh, E. (2015). the controversy over the conept of Existentalism from kierkegaard to sartre. academicresearchjournal, 3(5).

5 Jean-Paul-Sartre. (2007). Existentalism is a Humanism. (C. Macomber, Trans.) united states of America: Yale university press.

6 (n.d.). Retrieved 2019, from http;//www.googel.com?url

7 (http;//www.googel.com/url)

8 Sartre, J. P. (1996). Being and Nothingness. proffesor Spade Fall.

9 Cappelorn, N. J., & Lisi, L. F. (2010). kierkegaard studies (Vol. 21). Berlin: Deutsche Nationalbibliothek.

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12 Tolstoy, L. (2005). A confession. MineolaNY: Dover publications.

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14 Lewis, M. H. (n.d.). Retrieved 2019, from https://www.googel.com/url?

15 Wardle, D. (2016). Rhe Meaning(s) of Life: A contemporary perspective Between Nietzsche, Sartre, & Nancy. university of Pretoria.

16 Obinyan, v. E. (2014). Nature of human existencein Kierkegaard's ethical philosophy: A atep towards self-valuation and transformation in our contemporary world . Interanational Journal of Philosophy

17 Wegene, Y. (2018). Modal Existential Nihilism:Its Truth and Practical Consistency. Beau Bassin: LAMBERT Acadamic Publishing.

18 Wardle, D. (2016). The Meaning(s) Of Life A Contemporary Perspective Between Nietzsche,Sartre, & Nancy . Pretoria: University Of Pretoria .

19 O'Briem, W. (2017). The Meaning Of Life Early Continental and Analytic Perspectives. Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy.

20 Pigliucci, M. (2006). Schopenauer and the meanig of life . Rationally Speaking;, 1

21 YaleBooks. (2013). 'Life without pain has no meaning': Arthur Schopenhauer. Yale University Press, 2.

22 summary of schopenhauer's Pessimism. (2017). Reason and Meaning, 2.

23 O'Briem, W. (2017). The Meaning Of Life Early Continental and Analytic Perspectives. Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

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Søren Kierkegaard's and Jean-Paul Sartre's conception towards meaning of life
A critical reflection
Mekelle University  (Mekelle University)
Senior Essay Project
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The thesis has awarded a Gold and certificates by Mekelle University in the during graduation program.
søren, kierkegaard, jean-paul-sartre
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Eden Abate Getahun (Author), 2019, Søren Kierkegaard's and Jean-Paul Sartre's conception towards meaning of life, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/505465


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