This overview of existential theory should be considered a postmodern, integrative overview. In stating this is a 'postmodern' approach, I am intending to emphasize that this is one of many valid approaches to existential theory and therapy. I am very passionate about existential theory, which I hope is reflected in this web site. However, I also recognize that when someone is invested in a theory, it often becomes more difficult to differentiate what they believe in the context of the theory from the general trends in the theory.
While this is a limitation, I do not believe this is entirely problematic. A colleague of mine, Dr. Mark Stocks, is fond of stating that "you must become greater than your theory." In other words, you must make your theoretical orientation your own. Similarly, Nietzsche (1892/1966) stated, "One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil." These ideas reflect the anti-dogmatic basis of existential theory and therapy. You must make it your own or it is inauthentic and ineffective. For those reading this who are interested existential approaches or in the process of becoming an existential therapist, I hope that this information is informative, yet remains a place that you will move beyond as you develop your own approach. Similarly, those who are already practicing existential therapists, I hope the different ways in which I have developed this theory can be helpful to you. As I continue on my journey as an existential therapist, I am sure this web site will develop and change also. This is part of the process of growth.
In stating this is an integrative existential approach, I am borrowing from Schneider and May's (1995) terminology. The reader who is familiar with Existential and Depth Psychology which see the influence of Humanistic, Jungian, Psychodynamic (particularly contemporary or relational approaches), Experiential, and Gestalt approaches. Yet, hopefully the strong existential base remains clear.
As previously noted, Yalom (1980) has done an exceptional job at providing an organizational structure for attempting to understand existential theory. He focused on the four main givens of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness; however, there are other conceptualizations of the givens. He has also provided a wonderful brief summary of these themes in Love's Executioner (Yalom, 1989). Yet, it should not be assumed that Yalom's (1980) Existential Psychotherapy is a comprehensive overview of existential theory. The theory itself is far too broad to be thoroughly summarized in any singular volume. In many ways, it is best to think of the existential theories instead of a singular existential theory. While there are many shared values, there are few, if any, places where there is complete agreement amongst existential theorists.
One of the major distinctions between theorists is their view on whether the major givens or questions of our existence can be answered. In general, theorists will agree that it is not possible to completely answer these questions while still in our finite form. However, some philosophers and psychologists believe there are no ultimate answers to these questions. John Paul Sartre and Irvin Yalom are two primary examples of this group. Prominent voices purporting this approach to existential theory has caused many to believe that existentialism is inherently atheistic, nihilistic, and pessimistic. However, this is not true of many of the existential thinkers. It is evident that people who purport this singular view of existentialist theory do not have a good grasp of the breadth or foundation existential thought.
Other existentialists provide a very optimistic viewpoint focusing on the potential for good and growth that is inherent in the human condition. Oftentimes, although not always, these theorists will claim a spiritual or religious basis for their optimism. Even when the existential thinkers take a more positive viewpoint, there is still an emphasis that we should not deny the terrors or challenges that are also part of being human. Some examples of this perspective include Soren Kierkegaard (philosopher), Paul Tillich (Christian Theologian/Philosopher), Martin Buber (Jewish Theologian/Philosopher), and Rollo May (Psychologist).
The distinction between these two groups could be seen as the difference between a spiritual existential approach, which Schneider would refer to as "awe-based," and an atheistic or non-spiritual existential approach. The spiritual existential approach is not necessarily a religious approach in the sense of believing in God, although it often could be viewed this way. The spiritual approach is one in which some type of transcendent or embodied answer to the major existential questions is believed to exist. The non-spiritualist existential approach, then, includes those who do not believe there are answers to these questions.
Before going into the givens, I want to make a brief note on structure from an existential perspective. This more abstract conception is a little more difficult to grasp, and some may wish to skip directly to the sections on the primary themes below. It is important to note that these themes are not intended to be discrete or orthogonal categories. Rather, there is significant overlap in these categories. Furthermore, existential thought will general be skeptical of any such categorical approaches because of the tendency to reify the categories. A more consistent viewpoint of this structure from an existential perspective is to acknowledge that any organizational system is a human construction used to help understand the theory. Yet, any structure by its nature is forced to oversimplify and distort abstract concepts.
Last, I should note that this discussion does not follow Yalom's organization, although it was influenced by it. There have been other less comprehensive attempts to classify the givens. The approach here could be seen as an "integrative," in that it combines the different approaches drawing particularly from the work of Bugental, Heery, and Yalom. In doing this, I use a different vocabulary that I believe is more inclusive and categorize the givens into 5 major themes.
Existential Given #1: Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency
Existential Given #2: Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness
Existential Given #3: Isolation and Connectedness
Existential Given #4: Meaning vs. Meaninglessness
Existential Given #5: Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment
Original Version added 2004. Updated 2009.