Q: What exactly does “existential” mean when used to modify such nouns as “threat” and “crisis”?
A: On a literal level, the adjective “existential” means “of or pertaining to existence,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
So, for example, an “existential threat” would be a threat to existence—that is, to life. An “existential crisis” would be one in which existence itself is held in the balance.
On a personal level, someone facing an “existential crisis” might feel that existence has no purpose, that life is meaningless and perhaps not worth living.
You might say that Hamlet had an existential crisis when he cried, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
But “existential” often isn’t used literally, especially in news reports.
For instance, the term “existential struggle” has been used to describe what’s happening in urban design, art, jazz, shipping, and parenting. And Miley Cyrus reportedly had an “existential crisis” at seeing a photo of her teen-age self as Hannah Montana.
We often hear terrorism called an “existential threat,” one that has the country in an “existential struggle.” And recently an executive for a security firm told CNBC that cyber-hacking was “an existential threat to our society.”
It’s hard to see how some of these uses deserve the label “existential.” But many people now see the term as a handy adjective for conveying a sense of urgency or adding dramatic emphasis, usages that aren’t yet recognized by standard dictionaries.
Oxford Dictionaries online says “existential” has these meanings: (1) of or relating to existence, (2) concerning existence as seen through the philosophy of existentialism (more on this later), (3) of a proposition in logic that affirms or implies existence (ditto).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) adds a couple of other meanings: (4) based on experience and (5) relating to a linguistic construction that indicates existence, such as “there’s” in “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
The word “existential” came into English by way of two medieval Latin terms, the adjective existentialis and the noun existentia (“existence”).
It was first recorded in writing, according to the OED, in Genuine Remains (1693), the posthumously published papers of Dr. Thomas Barlow, Lord Bishop of Lincoln.
In an essay written when he was a Master’s candidate at Oxford (this would have been in 1632 or ’33), Barlow discussed the question, “Whether it is better not to be, than to be Miserable.” (Perhaps he’d seen Hamlet on the stage.)
In one passage, he contrasts the two states: “the enjoying the good of existence, though accompanied with misery,” versus “annihilation: and consequently the being deprived of that existential good.” (We’ve expanded on the OED citation.)
Barlow wrote his exercise in Latin, so “existential” didn’t appear in English until his works were translated in 1693.
“Existential” had that bare meaning—having to do with existence—for quite a while.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, according to OED citations, used it the same way in a weekly paper he edited, the Friend (1809 or ’10): “The essential cause of fiendish guilt, when it makes itself existential and peripheric.”
But later Coleridge used the term in a new way in the field of logic, according to the OED. He used “existential” to describe a proposition that expresses the fact of existence.
Here’s the earliest known use of this sense of the word, from a lecture Coleridge wrote in 1819:
“This necessarily led men … to doubt whether a logical truth was necessarily an existencial one, i.e. whether because a thing was logically consistent it must be necessarily existent.”
The word also has a specific meaning in philosophy, where it has a doctrine all to itself—existentialism.
As the OED explains, existentialism “concentrates on the existence of the individual, who, being free and responsible, is held to be what he makes himself by the self-development of his essence through acts of the will.”
The existential or existentialist movement began principally with the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard in the 1840s.
But, as the OED says, “it was developed in the 20th c. chiefly in continental Europe by Jaspers, Sartre, and others, and the English word existentialism answers to German existentialismus, which is first recorded in 1919.”
It would be interesting to hear what Kierkegaard or Sartre would say about the “existential struggle” to be a good parent.