Existentialist ideas have seen a remarkable comeback during the COVID-19 pandemic, from Albert Camus’s frequently invoked novel The Plague, Friedrich Nietzsche’s turn to tragedy, and Simone de Beauvoir’s and Jean-Paul Sartre’s critique of bad faith, to Giorgio Agamben’s Carl Schmitt–inspired musings about the state of emergency and what Michel de Montaigne, Martin Heidegger, and Blaise Pascal can teach us about facing death.
The thread running through all these appeals to existentialism is a sensitivity to human fragility felt to be especially pertinent in the midst of a global pandemic and stark disruptions of social order. Even Jürgen Habermas, not typically thought of as an existentialist philosopher, said in a recent interview that we have never had so much knowledge about our non-knowledge and about the necessity to act and live in conditions of uncertainty. As the writer Rebecca Solnit describes it:
We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken up residence in not knowing. We are in terra incognita, which is where we always are anyway, but usually we have a milder case of it and can make our pronouncements and stumble along.
This resurgence of interest in existentialism is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society. Its major advocates and sole explicit supporters were Beauvoir and Sartre, who gained immense popularity in postwar France. They followed German existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Barth, who had already risen to fame in interwar Weimar with their readings of Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. Though their work varied in the details, they all shared a type of thinking that rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.