Is Existentialism a Humanistic Theory? Exploring the Connection

Have you ever stopped to ponder your purpose in life? Why are you here? What is your meaning? These are questions that have plagued humans since the dawn of self-awareness. While many religions and philosophies attempt to answer these questions, existentialism does so by emphasizing personal freedom and individual choice. But is existentialism a humanistic theory?

At its core, existentialism is concerned with the experience of existence and personal freedom. It views individuals as responsible for their own actions and choices, rather than being determined by external forces. This focus on personal freedom aligns with the principles of humanistic psychology, which emphasizes the potential for personal growth and self-awareness. In fact, many humanistic psychologists have drawn on existentialist ideas in their work.

However, existentialism can also be seen as a critique of humanism, in that it highlights the realities of human suffering and the limitation of human knowledge. Rather than placing faith in the potential for human greatness, existentialism acknowledges the struggles and difficulties that come with being human. So, while existentialism shares some commonalities with humanistic theory, it also offers a unique perspective on the limitations and challenges of the human experience.

Overview of Humanistic Theories

Humanistic theories are a set of psychological theories that focus on understanding the individual’s potential and the inner experiences that form the basis of an individual’s personality and behavior. These theories emphasize the holistic understanding of the human experience and reject reductionist and deterministic explanations, which reduce human beings to mere machines or animals.

  • The Humanistic approach emphasizes self-awareness and self-understanding. It advocates for taking responsibility for one’s life, making choices, and living authentically.
  • According to humanistic theorists, individuals have inherent worth and deserve respect and dignity. They believe that all people have the potential for growth, creativity, and happiness.
  • Humanistic psychology emerged in the 1950s as a response to the limitations of the behaviorist and psychoanalytic approaches. It was developed by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who believed that psychology needed to focus more on human experiences and personal growth.

Existentialism is often considered a humanistic theory, although some scholars argue that it is a separate philosophical theory. It is based on the idea that individuals must create their own meanings and values in life, and that there is no inherent meaning to existence. According to existentialism, people must face their own mortality and the inherent anxiety that comes with it. However, by facing their fears and embracing their freedom and responsibility, individuals have the potential to create their own lives and meanings, rather than living according to societal expectations or pre-determined roles.

Similarities Between Existentialism and Humanistic Theories

Existentialism and humanistic theories share a number of similarities in terms of their philosophical outlook on life. Both emphasize the importance of individualism, autonomy, and personal growth, and both view humans as active agents in creating their own lives rather than passive objects of circumstance or fate.

  • Individualism: Both existentialism and humanistic theories place a strong emphasis on the individual and their unique experiences, values, and aspirations. They reject the notion of universal or objective truths and instead embrace subjective perspectives and personal responsibility.
  • Autonomy: Both existentialism and humanistic theories emphasize the importance of personal autonomy and freedom in the face of external constraints. They reject deterministic views of human nature and encourage individuals to take an active role in shaping their own lives.
  • Personal Growth: Both existentialism and humanistic theories view personal growth and development as essential parts of the human experience. They see life as a journey towards self-discovery and fulfillment, and emphasize the importance of taking risks and facing challenges in order to grow and evolve as individuals.

However, there are also some key differences between existentialism and humanistic theories. While both share a focus on the individual, existentialism tends to emphasize the darker, more pessimistic aspects of human existence, such as the experience of anxiety, meaninglessness, and death. Humanistic theories, on the other hand, are more focused on the positive aspects of human potential, such as creativity, love, and self-actualization.

Despite these differences, both existentialism and humanistic theories offer valuable insights into the nature of human existence and the challenges and opportunities that confront us as we make our way through life.


Author Title Publisher Publication Date
Yalom, I. D. Existential psychotherapy Basic Books 1980
Rogers, C. R. On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy Houghton Mifflin 1961

Yalom and Rogers are two prominent figures in existentialism and humanistic psychology respectively. Their works not only provide a comprehensive overview of their respective fields, but also offer valuable insights into the similarities and differences between existentialism and humanistic theories.

Differences Between Existentialism and Humanistic Theories

Existentialism and Humanistic theories are often compared as they share similar ideas of individualism and self-exploration. However, they differ in their core beliefs and principles and the way they approach human existence and behavior. Here are some key differences between these two theories:

Existentialism vs. Humanistic Theories: Key Differences

  • Definition of Human Nature: For Humanistic theories, human nature is inherently good, and individuals have a natural tendency towards self-actualization and personal growth. On the other hand, existentialism believes that human nature is neither inherently good nor bad but rather characterized by anxiety and a search for meaning and purpose.
  • Role of Consciousness: Humanistic theories emphasize the role of consciousness in shaping behavior, whereas existentialism posits that much of human behavior is driven by unconscious desires and impulses.
  • Freedom and Responsibility: Humanistic theories view individuals as having complete freedom and responsibility for their actions and decisions. In contrast, existentialism asserts that individuals have an inherent sense of freedom but also recognize the inherent limitations of this freedom.

Existentialism: A Unique Take on Humanistic Theory

While existentialism is often considered a humanistic theory, some philosophers argue that it is a separate intellectual tradition. Existentialism puts a greater emphasis on the search for meaning, individualism, and the examination of the self. Existentialism also acknowledges the role of death and the limitations of human existence, as opposed to Humanistic theories, which explore the potential for growth and self-realization.

A Comparison of Key Theorists

To better understand the differences between these theories, let’s compare some of the key theorists:

Theorist Humanistic Theory Existentialist Theory
Carl Rogers Self-actualization: the natural tendency for people to strive for growth and self-realization through personal experiences Authenticity and the search for meaning: the need to live a life that is true to oneself and in search of meaning
Maslow Hierarchy of Needs: The belief that people have certain basic physical and emotional needs, and that fulfilling these needs is necessary for human growth and development. Freedom and the limitations of existence: The recognition that individuals have both freedom and inherent limitations, which shape their lives and choices
Jean-Paul Sartre Being-in-the-World: The idea that humans are unique in possessing self-awareness and that they are the only ones responsible for creating their own meaning and purpose Existentialism: The philosophy that human beings act as free and responsible agents, making their own choices and determining their own values

Overall, while there are similarities between existentialism and humanistic theories, key differences in their beliefs about human nature, consciousness, and freedom and responsibility set these theories apart. Each theory offers a unique perspective on human existence and behavior and can be explored to gain a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Existentialism as a Standalone Philosophy

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that originated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its central focus is on the individual experience, freedom, and meaning in life. Unlike other philosophical theories, existentialism does not depend on any particular ideology or systematic framework. It is a standalone philosophy that explores the human experience in a subjective and personal way.

  • Individual Freedom
  • Subjectivity
  • Authenticity

At the core of existentialism is the concept of freedom. Existentialists believe that individuals are free to choose their own paths in life, regardless of external factors such as social or cultural norms. This means that individuals must take responsibility for their own actions and choices. In addition, existentialism emphasizes the subjective nature of human experience. Each individual has their own unique perspective and way of understanding the world around them.

One of the most important ideas in existentialism is authenticity. This means that individuals must be true to themselves and their own experiences. They must reject external pressures and expectations and make choices that are in line with their own values and beliefs.

Key Figures in Existentialism Key Ideas in Existentialism
Søren Kierkegaard Subjectivity, Leap of Faith
Friedrich Nietzsche Will to Power, Eternal Recurrence
Martin Heidegger Being and Time, Dasein

Existentialism has had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, including literature, psychology, and art. Its focus on individual experience and freedom has contributed to the development of humanistic psychology, which emphasizes the importance of individual growth and self-actualization. In addition, existentialist themes can be found in many works of literature and art, including the works of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Vincent van Gogh.

Notable Existentialists and their Works

Existentialism was a prominent philosophical movement in the 20th century, which emphasized individual freedom, choice, and responsibility. Many notable thinkers contributed to the development and popularization of this movement. Here are some of the most noteworthy existentialists and their works:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche was one of the earliest philosophers who influenced existentialism. His works like “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and “Beyond Good and Evil” explored the concept of the “will to power” and the importance of individualism.
  • Martin Heidegger: Heidegger was a German philosopher who wrote extensively on the nature of Being. His book “Being and Time” is considered one of the most important works in existentialism.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: Sartre was a French philosopher who popularized existentialism. His book “Being and Nothingness” is considered a classic of existentialist literature. Sartre emphasized individual freedom of choice and the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who is often considered the “father” of existentialism. His works like “Either/Or” and “Fear and Trembling” explored the individual’s relationship with God, faith, and the importance of subjective experience.
  • Albert Camus: Camus was a French philosopher and writer. His works like “The Stranger” and “The Plague” explored the absurdity of human existence and the human search for meaning in an indifferent universe.

Key Works of Existentialism

Existentialism produced a number of important texts that are still studied and analyzed today. Here are some of the most notable:

  • Being and Time (1927) by Martin Heidegger: This book is considered the foundation of existentialist thought.
  • Being and Nothingness (1943) by Jean-Paul Sartre: This book explores the human search for meaning in a world where there is no inherent purpose.
  • No Exit (1944) by Jean-Paul Sartre: This play depicts the claustrophobic existence of three individuals locked in a room with no exit and explores themes of freedom, choice, and responsibility.
  • The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus: This essay explores the absurdity of human existence and the search for meaning in a world that has none.
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885) by Friedrich Nietzsche: This book explores the concept of the “Übermensch” and the individual’s quest for transcendence.

Existentialism and Humanistic Psychology

Existentialism shares many similarities with humanistic psychology, a popular approach to therapy that emerged in the mid-20th century. Both movements emphasize individual freedom, choice, and responsibility. They also reject determinism and view humans as capable of shaping their own destiny. However, while existentialism is primarily concerned with philosophical inquiry, humanistic psychology is more focused on practical applications, such as counseling and therapy.

Existentialism Humanistic Psychology
Emphasizes individual freedom and choice Emphasizes personal growth and self-actualization
Rejects determinism and views humans as capable of shaping their own destiny Believes that individuals have inherent potential for growth and development
Explores the concepts of anxiety, despair, and the search for meaning Emphasizes the importance of positive self-regard and empathy towards others

Overall, while existentialism and humanistic psychology have some notable differences, they share a common thread of emphasizing the importance and potential of the individual.

Criticisms of Existentialism as a Humanistic Theory

Existentialism as a humanistic theory has been criticized for various reasons. Though it offers a profound understanding of human existence, some argue that it falls short as a philosophical and psychological framework. Below are some of the criticisms of existentialism as a humanistic theory.

  • Subjectivity: One of the biggest criticisms of existentialism is its subjectivity. Existentialism emphasizes that human beings are free to choose what they want to be, but this can lead to moral relativism and lack of objective standards. Without these objective standards, morality becomes subjective and arbitrary, leaving individuals without a basis for ethical decisions.
  • Nihilism: Another criticism of existentialism is that it leads to nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless. Because existentialism teaches that there is no inherent meaning or purpose to life, some argue that it can lead to despair and a sense of hopelessness.
  • Self-Absorption: Critics of existentialism argue that it can lead to self-absorption and a lack of concern for others. Existentialists place great emphasis on individual freedom and self-determination, but this can come at the expense of others. Without an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness, it can lead to a narrow focus on the self.

Existentialism as a humanistic theory has also been criticized for its lack of empirical evidence and scientific method. Some argue that it relies too much on subjective experiences and personal perspectives, making it difficult to test and apply to wider populations.

Despite these criticisms, existentialism remains a powerful and relevant framework for understanding human existence. It offers a unique perspective on the human experience and challenges individuals to take responsibility for their own lives and choices. However, it is important to acknowledge and address these critiques in order to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of existentialism as a humanistic theory.

The Relevance of Existentialism and Humanistic Theories Today

Existentialism is a humanistic theory that emphasizes individual freedom, choices, and responsibilities. This philosophy is still relevant today since it can help us in dealing with modern issues and challenges that we face.

  • Personal Identity: Existentialism helps us in discovering the meaning of life and personal identity. In today’s ever-changing world, we need to have a clear sense of who we are and what we want in life to cope with constant change and uncertainty.
  • Mental Health: Existentialism emphasizes the importance of mental health. In modern times, mental health issues have become a significant problem, and existential therapy can help us deal with these issues by providing us with ways to discover our own inner strength and resilience.
  • Relationships: Humanistic theories, along with existentialism, focus on relationships and interpersonal communications. In today’s world, where technology has reduced the importance of face-to-face communication, it is essential to develop good communication skills and establish healthy relationships with others.

Moreover, existentialism and humanistic theories apply to various fields, including psychology, social work, education, and business.

Finally, the following table shows how existentialism and humanistic theories compare to other philosophical approaches:

Philosophy Key Concepts
Existentialism Freedom, Choice, Responsibility, Anxiety, Authenticity
Humanistic Personal Growth, Self-Actualization, Empathy, Positive Relationships
Cognitive-Behavioral Thinking Patterns, Behavior Modification, Problem-Solving
Psychodynamic Unconscious, Inner Conflicts, Childhood Experiences, Defense Mechanisms

Overall, existentialism and humanistic theories are still relevant today, and we can apply their principles in our daily lives to make meaningful choices, improve our relationships, and promote positive mental health.

FAQs about Is Existentialism a Humanistic Theory

1. What is existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual existence and freedom. It is focused on the human experience of being in the world, rather than on abstract ideas or theories.

2. What is humanism?

Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence over acceptance of dogma or superstition.

3. Is existentialism a humanistic theory?

Yes, existentialism is often considered a humanistic theory because it places a strong emphasis on human experience, free will, and personal responsibility.

4. What are the main themes of existentialism?

Existentialism is focused on themes such as anxiety, authenticity, death, freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning and purpose in life.

5. Who are some famous existentialist philosophers?

Some famous existentialists include Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus.

6. How is humanism related to existentialism?

Humanism and existentialism share many concepts and beliefs, including the belief that individuals should be free to determine their own values and goals. Both also emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and the search for meaning in life.

7. Can one be a humanist and an existentialist at the same time?

Yes, many people consider themselves both humanists and existentialists. Both philosophies share a belief in the importance of individual experience and the search for meaning in life.

Closing Thoughts

Thanks for taking the time to read about whether existentialism is a humanistic theory. While this philosophical movement may seem complex, it ultimately emphasizes the importance of individual experience and the search for meaning in life. We hope this article has left you with a greater understanding of existentialism and its relationship to humanism. Be sure to check back later for more interesting and informative articles.