What Is an Existential Crisis?

People often talk about experiencing an existential crisis during the most challenging phases of life, but what does the term really mean?

Aug 29, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

what is an existential crisis


Many of us periodically experience moments of crisis in our lives, when we struggle to find direction or meaning. We often refer to such crises as ‘an existential crisis’. But what does that term really mean, and what can philosophy add to our understanding of this phenomenon? We take a closer look at the meanings behind this loaded term to find out more.


Loss of Meaning

Paradise Lost (Shepherd’s Dream), Henry Fuseli, 1793
Paradise Lost (Shepherd’s Dream), Henry Fuseli, 1793, via Tate


One way of thinking about an existential crisis is to think of it in terms of meaning. But what is meaning? There are various ways in which philosophers have attempted to understand meaning. In the philosophy of language, for instance, we refer to the meaning within sentences. However, in ethics, meaning is more colloquial. As in, the answer to questions like “does my life have meaning”, or indeed “what is the meaning of life?” In this respect, we can think about meaning both in terms of something which we discover, and something we create. Certain philosophical perspectives imply that what we should look for in terms of meaning in our lives is fundamentally a matter of discovery.


Other perspectives imply that meaning is either something which we construct, or which emerges organically from the relations we have with others, our perception of the world, and so on.


Embracing Faith in the Search for Personal Meaning

Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1577-87
Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1577-87, via The Met


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Let’s look in more detail at the first idea – that of discovered meaning. That is, a form of meaning which is pre-existent in the world (or which transcends the world) which we can come across. One way of allaying an existential crisis would be to articulate this kind of meaning for ourselves. An existential crisis in this context can, therefore, be understood as a crisis of faith. But what is faith? Faith in a religious context is often conflated with belief, but this is a misunderstanding. Faith is a component of belief – it is the component of belief that allows us to believe whether or not believing is strictly rational.


In other words, faith does not require the form of meaning we choose for ourselves to be true. Faith can also be evident when we simply continue to hold that this kind of meaning is out there.


An Existential Crisis Is a Failure of Creativity

Still Life With a Skull and Writing Quill, Pieter Clasz, 1628
Still Life With a Skull and Writing Quill, Pieter Clasz, 1628, via The Met


We have already seen how an existential crisis can take the form of a crisis of faith. This would be so under philosophical conceptions of meaning which take meaning to be something which can be discovered. Theisms – philosophies which hold that God exists – are an example of this.


However, other philosophical perspectives hold that meaning is something we create for ourselves, and so a crisis of meaning that constitutes an existential crisis is not a result of failing to discover something (or retain our faith that a certain thing can be discovered), but a failure to construct the meaning we require in our lives for ourselves.


What does this mean in practice? Well, for one thing, it might mean that we have failed to recognize those parts of our lives which could, in principle, be the source of meaning. We haven’t sufficiently appreciated what is around us. Or, on another conception, we haven’t thought hard enough.


Certain ancient philosophers, like Aristotle and other Greeks, took one of the central questions of philosophy to be the question of what makes a human life good as whole. They didn’t think the answers to this kind of question were obvious – in fact, it required real intellectual effort to get to an answer. Creativity and intellectual activity go hand in hand, and making our lives genuinely meaningful is as much a question of learning how to think hard about what matters to us as it is simply learning to appreciate what we have.


A Philosophical Crisis

Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787, via The Met
Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787, via The Met


Once we accept that an existential crisis is most often a philosophical crisis, the question then becomes – what kind of philosophical solution could we find to this philosophical crisis? The answer, if there is one, will lie in attempts to philosophize about existence as a whole. This has sometimes been the job ethicists take for themselves. As we’ve mentioned, Aristotle took it to be a major task of philosophy to characterize what a meaningful, good, useful human life looks like.


More recent philosophical traditions have been focused squarely on the questions of existence – what is it to exist, and how should we exist in the world? Existentialism – the philosophical movement centered around the school of Jean-Paul Sartre – offers a response to these problems, by focusing on the radical, emancipatory potential of freedom.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.