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.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell
Category: Pop-Nonfiction | Length: 464 pages | Published: 2017
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. …
Basic Writings of Existentialism – Gordon Marino
Category: Anthology | Length: 528 pages | Published: 2004
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.
The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism – Steven Crowell
Category: Comprehensive Overview | Length: 428 pages | Published: 2012
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.
The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening – Søren Kierkegaard
Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1849
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.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings – Jean-Paul Sartre
Category: Classic | Length: 352 pages | Published: 2000
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.
The Ethics of Ambiguity – Simone de Beauvoir
Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1947
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Introduction to Existentialism – George Washington University
- Existentialism – Georgetown University
- Existentialism – University of Hawaii
- Introduction to Existentialism – University of Victoria
- Existentialism – University of Oregon
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Existentialism
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Existentialism
- Books on existentialism.
- Anyone recommend a good reference book on Existentialism
- Book or readings on existentialism ?
- A Beginner’s Guide to Existentialism?
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:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the Meaning of Life
- The Best Books on or by Kierkegaard
- The Best Books on or by Sartre
- The Best Books on or by Simone de Beauvoir
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.