What Does Existentialism Say About Free Will?


Existentialism asserts that individuals are responsible for creating meaning in their lives and that the choices they make have profound implications. Free will, therefore, becomes a crucial aspect of existentialist thought, as it directly influences the way individuals navigate their existence.

Existentialism, rooted in the works of philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus, seeks to understand the subjective experience of human existence. It emphasized individual freedom, responsibility, and authenticity. One of the fundamental questions addressed by existentialism is the concept of free will. Free will refers to the capacity of individuals to make choices and decisions that are not predetermined by external forces. Below we delved into what existentialism has to say about free will, by examining various perspectives within the existentialist framework.

Existentialism and Free Will

image: Julian Jagtenberg via Pexels

Existentialism offers a distinctive perspective on the nature of free will. According to existentialists, free will is not an inherent or predetermined quality of human beings. Instead, it is a continuous process of choice-making that occurs in response to the unique circumstances and possibilities that individuals encounter. Existentialists argue that external factors, such as societal norms, cultural influences, and personal histories, shape the range of choices available to individuals. However, despite these external limitations, existentialism emphasizes the importance of embracing one’s freedom and actively engaging in the decision-making process.

Individual Responsibility

In existentialism, individual responsibility is a central concept intertwined with the notion of free will. Existentialists contend that individuals are not only free to make choices but also bear the responsibility for the consequences of those choices. This concept emphasizes that free will entails taking ownership of one’s actions and their impact on oneself and others. Existentialist philosophers argue that avoiding responsibility by blaming external factors undermines the authenticity and freedom of individuals.

Freedom and Authenticity

Existentialism emphasizes that free will is closely connected to personal freedom and authenticity. According to existentialists, authentic existence requires individuals to acknowledge their freedom, accept the responsibility that comes with it, and actively shape their lives in alignment with their values and beliefs. True freedom, from an existentialist perspective, is not simply the absence of external constraints but the conscious choice to live in accordance with one’s inner truth.

Sartre’s Existentialist Views on Free Will

Sartre argued that human beings are fundamentally free and that freedom is an essential aspect of human existence. He famously stated, “Existence precedes essence,” which means that there is no predetermined essence or nature that defines what it means to be human. Instead, individuals define themselves through their choices and actions.

According to Sartre, human beings are radically free to choose their actions and determine the meaning of their lives. This freedom includes not only the ability to make choices but also the responsibility that comes with it. Sartre believed that individuals must take full responsibility for their choices and the consequences that follow from them.

However, Sartre also acknowledged that freedom can be a source of anguish and anxiety. The burden of making choices in a world without predetermined values or guidelines can be overwhelming. He described this experience as “existential angst” or “existential dread.” The individual is faced with the inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of existence, leading to a sense of anguish.

Sartre rejected the notion of a predetermined human nature or essence because he believed that it would limit human freedom. He argued against the idea that there is a fixed human nature that determines individuals’ actions or destinies. Instead, he emphasized that individuals create their own values, meaning, and identity through their choices.

For Sartre, free will is not just a theoretical concept but a lived experience. He believed that individuals are constantly making choices and that these choices shape their existence. Even in situations where external circumstances seem to restrict freedom, Sartre maintained that individuals still have the freedom to choose their attitude toward those circumstances.

Nietzsche’s Perspective on Free Will

Friedrich Nietzsche, another influential figure in existentialist thought, presented a critical examination of traditional notions of free will.  He argued that these concepts were born out of religious and moral traditions that sought to impose a set of values and judgments on human behavior. Nietzsche believed that traditional morality suppressed the true nature of human beings and hindered their individual flourishing.

Instead of conceiving of free will in the traditional sense, Nietzsche proposed the idea of the “will to power.” According to Nietzsche, all living beings, including humans, have an inherent drive to assert their power, overcome obstacles, and achieve dominance. This will to power is a fundamental aspect of human nature and motivates individuals to act and create.

Nietzsche criticized the idea that individuals have absolute freedom or complete autonomy over their actions. He argued that human behavior is shaped by various internal and external factors, such as instincts, desires, social norms, and cultural influences. Nietzsche believed that individuals are not the masters of their own destiny, but rather products of their historical and cultural contexts.

Furthermore, Nietzsche rejected the concept of moral responsibility. He saw traditional morality as a system of values imposed by those in power to control and oppress individuals. Nietzsche viewed moral judgments as arbitrary and contingent on the interests of those who create them. He questioned the idea that individuals should be held accountable for their actions based on moral standards that he considered to be illusory.

Instead, Nietzsche advocated for a reevaluation of values and the development of a new morality that would be more in line with human nature and the will to power. He emphasized the importance of embracing individual desires, passions, and drives as sources of personal fulfillment and self-actualization.

Existentialist Paradoxes and Contradictions

Existentialism, while highlighting the significance of free will, also grapples with inherent paradoxes and contradictions. On one hand, existentialists emphasize the importance of individual agency and the capacity to shape one’s life. On the other hand, existentialist thought acknowledges the existence of external constraints that limit human freedom. This tension between determinism and free will creates a philosophical challenge within the existentialist framework, as individuals strive to find meaning and purpose in a world characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty.

Criticisms of Existentialist Views on Free Will

Existentialism’s perspective on free will has not been without its critics. Some argue that existentialism places too much emphasis on individual freedom while neglecting the influence of social structures and systemic factors that shape human existence. Critics contend that existentialism’s focus on personal agency overlooks the ways in which individuals are shaped by their environments and subjected to external constraints.

The Practical Implications of Existentialism and Free Will

While existentialist views on free will can be intellectually stimulating, they also have practical implications for individuals seeking to live more authentically and intentionally. By embracing the existentialist principles of free will and individual responsibility, individuals can cultivate greater self-awareness and agency in their decision-making processes. Existentialism invites individuals to question societal expectations, reflect on their values, and make choices that align with their authentic selves.

Read About: Is Hypnosis an Existential Technique?


Existentialism offers a unique perspective on free will, emphasizing the individual’s capacity to make choices and assume responsibility for the consequences of those choices. The existentialist understanding of free will connects personal freedom, authenticity, and the creation of meaning in one’s life. While existentialism may present paradoxes and face criticism, its ideas can serve as a framework for individuals seeking to live more purposefully and consciously.

Common Questions Related to Free Will

Can determinism and free will coexist within existentialism?

Existentialism grapples with the tension between determinism and free will, acknowledging the existence of external constraints while emphasizing individual agency. While some existentialists argue for radical freedom, others acknowledge the influence of external factors on human choices.

How does existentialism differ from other philosophical perspectives on free will?

Existentialism emphasizes the subjective experience of individual existence, focusing on personal responsibility, authenticity, and the creation of meaning. It offers a unique perspective that places significant importance on personal agency.

Can existentialist principles be applied to everyday life?

Absolutely. Existentialist principles, such as embracing free will, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and living authentically, can be applied to personal choices, relationships, and decision-making processes.

 Is free will an illusion according to existentialism?

Existentialism does not view free will as an illusion. Instead, it acknowledges external constraints and the influence of various factors on individual choices. However, existentialism emphasizes the importance of recognizing one’s freedom and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

 How can existentialism contribute to personal growth and self-discovery?

Existentialism encourages individuals to question societal norms, reflect on their values, and make choices that align with their authentic selves. By embracing existentialist principles, individuals can cultivate self-awareness, agency, and a deeper understanding of their own existence.


Li, P. F. J., & Wong, Y. J. (2020). Beliefs in Free Will Versus Determinism: Search for Meaning Mediates the Life Scheme–Depressive Symptom Link. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(4), 451-469. [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342313392_Beliefs_in_Free_Will_Versus_Determinism_Search_for_Meaning_Mediates_the_Life_Scheme-Depressive_Symptom_Link]


Ignite your personal growth journey with our handpicked collection of inspiring content. Sign up now for a life-changing dose of motivation and wellness.

You may also like...