Guide Introducing the Existentialists

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Introducing the Existentialists: Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus. Robert C. Solomon. Hackett Publishing Company.
Table of contents

In the s and s, French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre , Albert Camus - , and Simone de Beauvoir - wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes , such as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment and nothingness. Existence, then, is prior to essence essence is the meaning that may be ascribed to life , contrary to traditional philosophical views dating back to the ancient Greeks.

As Sartre put it: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.

Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism humans use to counter their existential anxiety , their fear of being in the world. Sartre saw rationality as a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a fundamentally irrational and random world of phenomena "the other". This bad faith hinders us from finding meaning in freedom, and confines us within everyday experience.

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Kierkegaard also stressed that individuals must choose their own way without the aid of universal, objective standards. Friedrich Nietzsche further contended that the individual must decide which situations are to count as moral situations. Thus, most Existentialists believe that personal experience and acting on one's own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth , and that the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer similar to the concept of Subjectivism.

According to Camus, when an individual's longing for order collides with the real world's lack of order , the result is absurdity. Human beings are therefore subjects in an indifferent, ambiguous and absurd universe , in which meaning is not provided by the natural order , but rather can be created however provisionally and unstable by human actions and interpretations.

Existentialism can be atheistic , theological or theistic or agnostic.


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Some Existentialists, like Nietzsche , proclaimed that "God is dead" and that the concept of God is obsolete. Others, like Kierkegaard , were intensely religious, even if they did not feel able to justify it. The important factor for Existentialists is the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe.


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Existentialist-type themes appear in early Buddhist and Christian writings including those of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the 17th Century , Blaise Pascal suggested that, without a God , life would be meaningless, boring and miserable, much as later Existentialists believed, although, unlike them, Pascal saw this as a reason for the existence of a God.

He even wrote a few lyrics for songs. He was willing to explore ideas in whatever format worked. And the genres were often mixed. With Nausea , the drama unfolds as a philosophical drama. But when you turn to Being and Nothingness — which is supposed to be a work of philosophy — you find that a lot of the ideas in it unfold as little stories, little narratives. All these little stories are ways of embodying and dramatizing the philosophy.

There are so many vivid images, particularly images of horror — of people turning into these strange, hallucinogenic lobster-like creatures. It looks like the beginning of a love story or a murder scene — an adventure of some kind.


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He has a serious point to make, but he conveys it through a fictionalized moment. Your next book is different again. Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp survivor and a psychotherapist and psychologist. In it, he tells the story of his experience and how you can maintain your inner freedom and your human identity in the face of a situation that is designed to completely destroy and demolish all human dignity.

Introducing the Existentialists : Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus

He also writes about his experience after the end of the war, when he started to write about psychology and existentialist psychology, which he was one of the founders of. That was equally difficult, finding meaning in a world after all meaning has been destroyed, and all human dignity has been dismantled. Again, this reverses the usual way of understanding human existence. We are not just sets of symptoms and conditions. We are thrown into a situation — which might be an absolutely unendurable, impossible situation — but we always have the freedom to make of it what we will, according to our own choices, to impose our own meaning on it.

The difference is that there is more emphasis on the need for human beings to find a meaning and an individual purpose in what they do. And if all else fails — as it tended to in the concentration camps — and all the usual sources of meaning fall apart, there is always the chance of finding a meaning in the suffering itself.

Existentialism is often characterised as a rather morbid philosophy, dwelling on angst and anguish and the difficulty of making choices. Your next choice is The Existentialist Reader , which helps demonstrate the variety of things that go under the name existentialism. Why did you include this book? This book is edited by Paul S. Some are by fairly familiar authors — Sartre is in there, so is Camus.

But he also includes key works by writers who are less the celebrity names, but who are very much worth reading and provide different directions to explore. Among the people he includes are Gabriel Marcel, who is a Christian existentialist philosopher, and who is very interesting. There is also a selection in there by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, again a fascinating figure.

So the idea of including this book is that it provides lots of pointers, lots of lines you might follow if you want to explore less-well-known parts of existentialism. Karl Jaspers is another one. So this is just a fantastic compilation of existentialist arrows that you might want to follow into different thinkers. Heidegger is so important, and so fascinating.

About Introduction to Existentialism

Once you immerse yourself in Heidegger — and you do have to immerse yourself in order to understand him at all — you realize he is writing about things that are crucial in the twentieth and twenty-first century. He writes about technology, he writes about our relationship with the physical world and the way that the human being is embedded in the planet Earth. This is an extraordinary theme to derive a philosophy from, and he makes it crucial to his sense of what a human being is.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. The book is filled with great examples. Polt has a very good way of making Heidegger seem clear, which is not the first word that comes to mind if you go straight to Heidegger. I think it would be crazy to say we can separate out two things that are so close to each other. But that is not to say that Heidegger is not worth reading.

Introducing Existentialism

So yes. In dealing with technical issues like the nature of truth or knowledge, human beings have been pushed further into the background. In constructing complex philosophical systems, no room is left for real people anymore. That is why existentialists focus primarily on matters such as choice, individuality, subjectivity, freedom, and the nature of existence itself. The issues addressed in existentialist philosophy involve the problems of making free choices, of taking responsibility for what we choose, of overcoming alienation from our lives, and so forth.

A self-conscious existentialist movement developed first in early twentieth century Europe. Even religion no longer held the luster it once did, failing not only to provide sense and meaning to people's lives but even failing to provide basic structure to daily living. Both the irrational wars and the rationalized sciences combined to undermine people's confidence in traditional religious faith, but few were willing to replace religion with secular beliefs or science. As a consequence, there developed both religious and atheistic strands of existentialism.

The two disagreed on the existence of God and the nature of religion, but they did agree on other matters. For example, they agreed that traditional philosophy and theology had become too remote from normal human life to be of much use.