The Seven Best Books on Existentialism

Lennox Johnson Books

From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on existentialism, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on existentialism. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.

It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on existentialism in no particular order.

An Introduction to Existentialism – Robert G. Olsen

Category: General Introduction | Length: 1240 pages | Published: 2017
Publisher’s Description: At one time or another almost everyone has reflected upon the major existentialist themes: the sources of despair and suffering, the triumph over adversity, the nature and limits of reason, the encounter of the individual with other humans and with society, authenticity, death, and freedom. This book is for serious readers for whom previous accounts have been either too impressionistic or too limited in scope, and who wish to approach the original texts with perspective and critical understanding.
Although this is a first-rate work of scholarship, no previous training in philosophy is required of the reader. The topical treatment introduces not only the existentialist position on each topic but also supporting arguments, historical context, and the line of criticism adopted by contemporary philosophers who oppose the existentialist stand. Readers will also be rewarded with a good knowledge of individual representatives of the movement, particularly Sartre and Heidegger.

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At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot CocktailsSarah Bakewell

Category: Pop-Nonfiction | Length: 464 pages | Published: 2017At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. “You see,” he says, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”

It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate Phenomenology into his own French, humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as Existentialism. …

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Basic Writings of ExistentialismGordon Marino

Category: Anthology | Length: 528 pages | Published: 2004Basic Writings of Existentialism Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: Basic Writings of Existentialism, unique to the Modern Library, presents the writings of key nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers broadly united by their belief that because life has no inherent meaning humans can discover, we must determine meaning for ourselves. This anthology brings together into one volume the most influential and commonly taught works of existentialism. Contributors include Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ralph Ellison, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo.

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The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism – Steven Crowell

Category: Comprehensive Overview | Length: 428 pages | Published: 2012The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: Existentialism exerts a continuing fascination on students of philosophy and general readers. As a philosophical phenomenon, though, it is often poorly understood, as a form of radical subjectivism that turns its back on reason and argumentation and possesses all the liabilities of philosophical idealism but without any idealistic conceptual clarity. In this volume of original essays, the first to be devoted exclusively to existentialism in over forty years, a team of distinguished commentators discuss the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir and show how their focus on existence provides a compelling perspective on contemporary issues in moral psychology and philosophy of mind, language and history. A further sequence of chapters examines the influence of existential ideas beyond philosophy, in literature, religion, politics and psychiatry. The volume offers a rich and comprehensive assessment of the continuing vitality of existentialism as a philosophical movement and a cultural phenomenon.

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The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening – Søren Kierkegaard

Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1849The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: One of the most remarkable philosophical works of the nineteenth century, famed for the depth and acuity of its modern psychological insights

Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of “despair,” alerting readers to the diversity of ways in which they may be described as living in this state of bleak abandonment—including some that may seem just the opposite—and offering a much-discussed formula for the eradication of despair. With its penetrating account of the self, this late work by Kierkegaard was hugely influential upon twentieth-century philosophers including Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The Sickness unto Death can be regarded as one of the key works of theistic existentialist thought—a brilliant and revelatory answer to one man’s struggle to fill the spiritual void.

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Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings – Jean-Paul Sartre

Category: Classic | Length: 352 pages | Published: 2000Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century. The principle founder of existentialism, a political thinker and famous novelist and dramatist, his work has exerted enormous influence in philosophy, literature, politics and cultural studies.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings is the first collection of Sartre’s key philosophical writings and provides an indispensable resource for all students and readers of his work. Stephen Priest’s clear and helpful introductions set each reading in context, making the volume an ideal companion to those coming to Sartre’s writings for the first time.

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The Ethics of Ambiguity – Simone de Beauvoir

Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1947The Ethics of Ambiguity Book Cover

Publisher’s Description: In this classic introduction to existentialist thought, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity simultaneously pays homage to and grapples with her French contemporaries, philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, by arguing that the freedoms in existentialism carry with them certain ethical responsibilities. De Beauvoir outlines a series of “ways of being” (the adventurer, the passionate person, the lover, the artist, and the intellectual), each of which overcomes the former’s deficiencies, and therefore can live up to the responsibilities of freedom. Ultimately, de Beauvoir argues that in order to achieve true freedom, one must battle against the choices and activities of those who suppress it.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is the book that launched Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist and existential philosophy. It remains a concise yet thorough examination of existence and what it means to be human.

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about existentialism, you can find a collection of free articles, videos, and podcasts here.

You might also be interested in the following reading lists:

Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.


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