Pop Culture dictionary

existential question

[ eg-zi-sten-shuhl kwes-chuhn ]

What does existential question mean?

To be or not to be, that is the question—the existential question. An existential question is a deep, philosophical question concerning the nature of of someone or something’s existence. “What is the meaning of life?” is an example of an existential question.

Related words

existential crisis, Forky, hello darkness, my old friend, existential threat

Where does existential question come from?

Existential questions are inquiries into the nature and purpose of life. The Big Questions. Existential questions are those that gnaw at you, that keep you up at night, that cut right to your core. Some cheery examples include: “Will anyone ever really love me?”, “Is it really my fault?”,  and “What’s it all for, anyway?” Existential questions don’t have simple answers. 

Existential, in its sense of “of or relating to existence,” goes back to the late 1600s, ultimately from a Latin verb meaning “to emerge, appear, exist.” This sense of existential often concerns the literal, continued being or survival of something. 

The sense of existential in existential question is generally philosophical, however, related to existentialism. This philosophy, developed in the early 1900s, focuses on the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s personal choices.

Humans have long been considering existential questions, from Socrates to Shakespeare. The specific phrase, however, is more recent. One early instance of existential question comes from logician and theologian Ray Harbaugh Dotterer in 1917  in a consideration of God. Fast forward to 2019, when Forky, the plastic spork in Toy Story 4, confronts his own existential question about whether he is trash or toy.

The prominence of existential questions in culture in part influenced to our choice of existential as our 2019 Word of the Year.

Examples of existential question

A two year old just asked me why is taco? I have never been asked a more existential question.  #babysitting #whyistaco
@Mrsfletchtar, June 2019
The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing an existential question ... How will the VA preserve its essence and live up to its founding promise even as it seeks to modernize and provide veterans with better care?
Politico, November 2019

Who uses existential question?

Even without a term for them, actual existential questions have long been asked by philosophers and everyday people facing various existential crises. While individuals often ask their own existential questions, various groups and entities (such as sports teams or countries) may also confront them when they face some challenge to the fundamental nature of who they are or what they are doing.

It is also common to use existential question humorously when asking questions about situations are absurd, funny, or low stakes in some way.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of existential question like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of existential question that will help our users expand their word mastery.