Existential Dictionary

How to Use the Existential Dictionary: This dictionary was created to help readers become more familiar with the basic terms of existential psychology and philosophy. It is important to note that many of these terms may be defined differently by different writers within existential theory and, in particularly, may reflect a different understanding of these terms than is held within other theories. In this sense, it reflects a postmodern linguistic position which recognizes and respects differences in definitions. Readers may also find assistance from Postmodern Dictionary.

** Please note this is still in development **

Agency: Agency refers to our ability to live as free agents, as opposed to our more determined or controlled aspects. Being a free agent means that we are living freely and responsibly in the context of our destiny or limitations.

Biological Determinism: See Physiological Determinism.

Daimonic: Rollo May (1969) defined the daimonic as “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” Often, the Daimonic winds up being those aspects of ourselves which we deny or repress; by repressing them, we give them power or strength. This concept is similar to Jung’s idea of the shadow, but May felt a different term was necessary and used the daimonic as a broader term which extends beyond Jung’s conception. For more information, see the book review of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.

Depth Psychotherapy: Depth psychotherapy is a collection of psychotherapy approaches that value self-awareness, the power of the unconscious, life-long growth, a breadth of human experience, and intimate (depth) relationships. “Depth psychology is that specialized branch of psychotherapy that concerns itself with the phenomenology of the ‘unconscious'” (Diamond, 1996, p. 89).

Destiny: Rollo May (1981) used the term destiny to refer in a broad sense to that which influences us that we are unable to control. Destiny is a mixture of our thrownness and the impact of existential givens. Existentially, destiny must always be understood in the context of freedom and our ability (and responsibility) to live in relation to our destiny. Destiny does not deny freedom, but acknowledges that we are not absolutely free.

Determinism: This refers to the belief that people’s lives and decisions are determined by factors beyond their control. The two most common approaches to determinism in psychology are Physiological Determinism and Psychological Determinism. Determinism generally assumes that humans are not free and do not have a free will. Contrast with Destiny.

Dionysian: This term emerges from Nietzsche’s writing beginning in The Birth of Tragedy. The meaning is difficult to grasp or succinctly define. Essentially, it refers to the more creative, artistic, and intuitive powers or realms of existence. It often is viewed as being more of the emotions and irrational. But in existential theory, it is an important unifying force and concept which must be integrated into one’s being.

Eigenwelt: One of three German, along with Umwelt and Mitwelt, terms often used together in existential theory to represent different aspects of our existential reality. Eigenwelt refers to our relationship with our self or our own-world.

Existential Givens: See givens.

Finitude; Finite : Finitude refers to our human limitations. It refers to the givens that we all die, that we are not all powerful, and that we are not completely free. Compare with Infinitude.

Givens (or Existential Givens):  Givens are existential realities or basic truths about existence. For example, death is an existential given in that all people die. The idea of a given doesn’t necessitate a specific ultimate truth in regard to the meaning of the given, rather that it exists. In other words, the reality that everyone will die does not necessitate a particular values statement on the meaning of death or metaphysical questions related to death. Yalom (1980)identified the four main existential givens as 1) Death, 2) Isolation (or relationship, the given that we are social creatures), 3) Freedom, and 4) Meaninglessness (or meaning). Compare with Thrownness.

Infinitude; Infinite: The infinite is that which has no limitations. For example, God is often considered to be infinite by religious individuals; Similarly, space is often to believed to be infinite. Compare with finite.

Mitwelt: One of three German terms, along with Umwelt and Eigenwelt, often used together in existential theory to represent different aspects of our existential reality. Mitwelt refers to the world of fellow people or relational context.

Myth: Existential theory defines myths are meaning systems or basic orientations to how meaning is organized. May states that myths are not false, but cannot be proven to be true. Everyone organizes their lives through myth systems such as religion, political positions, and psychotherapy orientations. This not to say that any of these are untrue, but rather that they reflect beliefs systems which can not be proven to be true. (See also An Existential Perspective on Myth; and May’s (1991) The Cry for Myth.

Objectivity: This refers to a view or perspective which describes things as they are. It assumes that bias has been contained, bracketed, or eliminated. In general, existential theory tends to be skeptical of objective truth. Stated differently, existential theory tends to believe most things which are believed to be objective are actually more subjective than realized. See also reification.

Physiological Determinism: Physiological determinism purports that human behavior is determined by our biological and physiological make-up, including our genetics. See also Determinism and Psychological Determinism.

Praxis: Praxis is used in a number of different ways in the history of philosophy and psychology. In general, it has to do with activity or ‘practice’ in some manner. Occasionally, praxis is used to as a more pragmatic activity devoid of too much reflection or thought. In existential theory, praxis is intricately connected to knowledge, insight, self-reflection, and even potentially many abstractions. The assumption is that there is not a disconnect between thought and activity for most people and, when there is, this is problematic. At the same time, praxis is generally used to refer to the point or process of action as it flows from this larger process.

Psychological Determinism: Psychological determinism is a position which assumes that we are primarily determined by our past experiences. Most psychological deterministic positions also allow that some aspects of ourselves are physiologically determined. See also Determinism.

Reification: Reification is the process by which something is turned into something that is believed to be real. For example, a theory is reified when it is believed to be objective truth. Similarly, when an subjective position is goes through a transition through which it is believed to be objective, or objective truth, it is reified.

Reify; Reified: See Reification.

Subjectivity: This refers to a position or belief based upon an individual’s own experience or perspective. In opposition to objectivity, subjectivity assumes bias and that one’s own personal perspective or experience is valid.

Symbol: “A symbol is a condensed way of saying something below our customary discursive language. For that reason, symbols speak on several levels at once” (May, 1985). Symbols have a meaning beyond themselves or, stated differently, they point to a deeper meaning. Their power resides in that they point to a meaning that we often are not aware of and that they are often able to combine many different meanings into one symbol. The problem with symbols is that people, in attempts to make symbols more concrete or understandable, they often reifythem. This distorts and corrupts the symbol.

Thrownness: The concept of thrownness emerged from Heidegger’s phenomenology. It refers to the basic conditions of the world that we are thrown into. For example, we can not chose to whom we are born or when we are born. They are similar to givens in that we can control them; however, givens refer to existential realities while thrownness refers to existential conditions. Thrownness could be conceived of as an existential given.

Umwelt: One of three German terms, along with Mitwelt and Eigenwelt, often used together in existential theory to represent different aspects of our existential reality. Umwelt refers to the world-around or our environment, particularly our biological environment (as opposed to the people in our environment, which is Mitwelt). It can also be thought of as referring to being-in-the-world.