Anxiety in Translation: Naming Existentialism before Sartre

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This article examines the international debate over the most appropriate name for what became known as ‘existentialism’. It starts by detailing the diverse strands of the Kierkegaard reception in Germany in the early inter-war period, which were given a variety of labels—Existentialismus, Existenzphilosophie, Existentialphilosophie and existentielle Philosophie—and shows how, as these words were translated into other languages, the differences between them were effaced. This process helps explain how over the 1930s a remarkably heterogeneous group of thinkers came to be included under the same label. The article then shows how the word ‘existentialism’ and its cognates in other languages gained prominence because they were considered to represent best the diversity and richness of the movement. In detailing this process the article helps elucidate how existentialism emerged as an international philosophy in the period immediately following World War II, and sheds light on the ambivalence with which many have viewed both the term and the philosophy it represents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)470-488
Number of pages19
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 19 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • Jean Wahl
  • Karl Jaspers
  • Martin Heidegger
  • dialectical theology
  • transnational intellectual history


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