Existential Dictionary

How to Use the Existential Dictionary: This dictionary is intended to help readers become familiar with the terminology of existential psychology and philosophy, particularly as these terms are understood by existential-humanistic psychology. It is important to note that many of these terms may be defined differently by different writers within existential theory. Additionally, some terms are understood differently in the context of other branches of psychology and theoretical orientations.

Agency: Agency refers to one’s ability to live as a free agent, as opposed to the more determined or controlled aspects of a person. Being a free agent means that a person is living freely and responsibly in the context of their 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 is the aspects of oneself that are denied or repressed; by repressing them, they gain more power or influence over the individual. This concept is similar to Jung’s idea of the shadow; however, May felt a different term was necessary and used the daimonic as a broader term that extends beyond Jung’s conception.

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). Depth psychology is also sometimes used to refer specifically to Jungian therapy; however, in the context of most existential scholarship, it refers to the broader definition.

Destiny: Rollo May (1981) used the term destiny to refer, in a broad sense, to that which influences individuals that they are unable to control. Destiny is a mixture of our thrownness, the impact of existential givens, and other aspects of human finitude. Existentially, destiny should be understood in the context of freedom and one’s ability (and responsibility) to live in relation to destiny. Destiny does not deny freedom, but acknowledges that people 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. This can be contrasted with the idea of destiny, which recognizes human limitation in relation to freedom.

Dionysian: This term emerges from Nietzsche’s writing beginning in The Birth of Tragedy. The meaning is difficult to 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; however, in existential theory, it is an important unifying force and concept which must be integrated into one’s being.

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

Existential Givens: See givens.

Finitude; Finite: Finitude refers to human limitations, including death, which is often understood as the ultimate human limitation.

Givens (or Existential Givens):  The 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 does not 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) is best known for his organization of four existential givens: 1) Death, 2) Isolation, 3) Freedom, and 4) Meaninglessness. However, while Yalom is the scholar most associated with the givens, he was not the first to write about them. Additionally, there are problems that have emerged from Yalom’s conceptualization of the givens. For Yalom, the givens necessarily and universally were experienced as a challenge or difficulty. However, this adds a values perspective with the given that is not universally shared. It is more culturally appropriate to recognize the givens as a universal reality that relates to one’s psychological functioning.

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-humanistic psychology understands myths are meaning systems or basic orientations to how meaning is organized. May (1991) 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. Referring to these as myths is not to stating that any of these are untrue, but rather that they reflect beliefs systems that 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 that describes things as they are. It assumes that bias can be and 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 believed to be objective are influenced by one’s subjectivity, even if this is not recognized. 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 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 generally not a disconnect between thought and activity and, when there is, this is problematic. At the same time, praxis is used to refer to the point or process of action as it flows from this larger process.

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

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 symbols point to a meaning that individuals are often are not aware of and that symbols 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, often reify them. 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 individuals are thrown into. For example, individuals cannot chose to whom they are born or when they are born. They are similar to givens in that people cannot control them; however, the 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 one’s existential reality. Umwelt refers to the world-around or one’s environment, particularly one’s biological environment (as opposed to the people in one’s environment, which is Mitwelt). It can also be thought of as referring to being-in-the-world.


Last Updated April, 2017