Sartre, Camus, and the French existentialists
Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most well-known existentialist and is one of the few to have accepted being called an "existentialist". Sartre developed his version of existentialist philosophy under the influence of Husserl and German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Being and Nothingness is perhaps his most important work about existentialism. Sartre was also talented in his ability to espouse his ideas in different media, including philosophical essays, lectures, novels, plays, and the theater. No Exit and Nausea are two of his celebrated works. In the 1960s, he attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason. A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility.
Albert Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Summer in Algiers. Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be concerned with people facing the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Critic Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd pointed out how many contemporary playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Arthur Adamov wove into their plays the existential belief that we are absurd beings loose in a universe empty of real meaning. Esslin noted that many of these playwrights demonstrated the philosophy better than did the plays by Sartre and Camus. Though most of such playwrights, subsequently labeled "Absurdist" (based on Esslin's book), denied affiliations with existentialism and were often staunchly anti-philosophical (for example Ionesco often claimed he identified more with 'Pataphysics or with Surrealism than with existentialism), the playwrights are often linked to existentialism based on Esslin's observation.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life alongside Sartre, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre, de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time, resulting in alienation from fellow writers such as Camus.
Frantz Fanon, a Martiniquan-born critic of colonialism, has been considered an important existentialist.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an often overlooked existentialist, was for a time a companion of Sartre. His understanding of Husserl's phenomenology was far greater than that of Merleau-Ponty's fellow existentialists. It has been said that his work, Humanism and Terror, greatly influenced Sartre. However, in later years they were to disagree irreparably, dividing many existentialists such as de Beauvoir, who sided with Sartre. Michel Foucault would also be considered an existentialist through his use of history to reveal the constant alterations of created meaning, thus proving history's failure to produce a cohesive version of reality.