No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life
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Author: Robert C. Solomon Ph.D
The message of Existentialism, unlike that of many more obscure and academic philosophical movements, is about as simple as can be. It is that every one of us, as an individual, is responsible—responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is.
It is, in a very short phrase, the philosophy of ‘No excuses!’ We cannot shift that burden onto God, or nature, or the ways of the world.”
—Professor Robert Solomon
If you believe that life should be a quest for values, reasons, and purpose—filled with passion and governed by individual responsibility—then yours is the sort of mind to which the Existentialist philosophers were speaking.
More than a half-century after it burst upon the intellectual scene, Existentialism has continued to exert a profound attraction for individuals driven to re-examine life’s most fundamental questions of individual responsibility, morality, and personal freedom.
What is life?
What is my place in it?
What choices does this obligate me to make?
If you want to enrich your own understanding of this unique philosophical movement, the visionary thinkers it brought together to ponder these questions, and the prominent role it still plays in contemporary thought, you now have an opportunity to do so with this 24-lecture course.
Professor Solomon is Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. He has written several books on a variety of philosophical topics that have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
He is the recipient of teaching awards and honors, including the Standard Oil Outstanding Teaching Award, The University of Texas Presidential Associates’ Teaching Award (twice), a Fulbright Lecture Award, University Research and National Endowment for the Humanities grants, and the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award. He is also a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
What is Existentialism?
Existentialism is a movement, a “sensibility” that can be traced throughout the history of Western philosophy. Its central themes are:
Significance of the individual
Importance of passion
Irrational aspects of life
Importance of human freedom.
Existentialism is, in my view, the most exciting and important philosophical movement of the past century and a half,” states Professor Solomon.
“Fifty years after the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave it its identity, and 150 years after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gave it its initial impetus, Existentialism continues to win new enthusiasts and, in keeping with its still exciting and revolutionary message, vehement critics.”
In this series you:
Explore the religious Existentialism of Kierkegaard
Hear the warrior rhetoric and often-shocking claims about religion and morality of Nietzsche
Absorb the bold and profound fiction of Camus
Comprehend the radical and uncompromising notion of freedom championed by Sartre
Consider the searching analysis of human historicity and finitude offered by Martin Heidegger.
You see how these thinkers relate to one another and to the larger tradition of philosophy itself.
“This lesson taught me how to think—not what to think,” writes customer Tony Pope of Auke Bay, Alaska.
Beyond Its Basic Message, Nothing Straightforward About It
To say that the basic message of Existentialism is quite simple and straightforward is not to say that the philosophers or the philosophies that make up the movement are simple and straightforward.
The movement itself is something of a fabrication. None of the major Existentialist figures—only excepting Sartre—would recognize themselves as part of a “movement” at all. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were both ferocious individualists who vehemently rejected all movements.
Heidegger was deeply offended when he was linked with Sartre as one of the Existentialists, and he publicly denounced the association. Camus and Sartre once were friends, but they quarreled over politics and Camus publicly rejected the association.
The Existentialists’ writings, too, are by no means simple and straightforward. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche write well but in challenging, often disjointed exhortations.
Heidegger is among the most difficult writers in the entire history of philosophy, and even Sartre—a lucid literary writer when he wants to be—imitates some of the worst elements of Heidegger’s notorious style.
Much of the challenge of this course of lectures, accordingly, is to free the exciting and revolutionary message of Existentialism from its often formidable textual enclosures.
The Great Existentialist Writers
Albert Camus, Lectures 1–6. After an introduction to Existentialism, the course begins with a discussion of the 20th-century writer and philosopher Camus (1913-60). Chronologically, Camus is late in the game (you trace Existentialist ideas as far back as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the mid-19th century).
You start with his most famous novel, The Stranger, published in the early 1940s. You also examine The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he introduces his infamous concept of “The Absurd”; The Plague; and The Fall.
Professor Solomon’s aim in opening with Camus is to “set a certain mood for the rest of the course, a rebellious, restless, yet thoroughly conscientious mood, which I believe Camus exemplifies both in his writings and in his life.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Lectures 7–9. Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a deeply religious philosopher—a pious Christian—and his Existentialist thought was devoted to the question, “What does it mean to be—or rather, what does it mean to become—a Christian?”
“We should thus be advised that, contrary to some popular misunderstandings, Existentialism is by no means an antireligious or unspiritual philosophy. It can and often does embrace God, as well as a host of visions of the world that we can, without apology, call spiritual,” notes Dr. Solomon.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Lectures 10–13 . Nietzsche (1844–1900) is perhaps best known for his bold declaration “God is dead.” He is also well known as a self-proclaimed “immoralist.”
In fact, both of these phrases are misleading, argues Dr. Solomon. Nietzsche was by no means the first person to say that God is dead (Martin Luther had said it three centuries before), and Nietzsche himself was anything but an immoral person.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Lecture 14. Professor Solomon turns briefly to three diverse figures from literature who display Existentialist themes and temperaments in their works: Dostoevsky (1821–81), the great Russian novelist; Kafka (1883–1924), the brilliant Czech novelist and story writer; and Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), a 20th-century Swiss writer who combined a fascination with Asian philosophy with a profoundly Nietzschean interest and temperament.
Edmund Husserl, Lecture 15. The German-Czech philosopher Husserl (1859–1938) invented a philosophical technique called “phenomenology.” Husserl is not an Existentialist, but you study him because of his influence on Heidegger and Sartre, both of whom, at the beginning of their careers, considered themselves phenomenologists.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Lectures 18–23. Professor Solomon suggests that much of what is best in Postmodernism is taken more or less directly from Sartre (1905–80), despite the fact that he is typically attacked as the very antithesis of Postmodernism.
Existentialism, Dr. Solomon argues, was and is not just another French intellectual fashion but a timely antidote to some of the worst self-(mis)understandings of the end of the century.
The series concludes with a comparison and contrast with French philosophy since Sartre’s time.
01. What is Existentialism?
02. Albert Camus, The Stranger, Part I
03. Camus, The Stranger, Part II
04. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
05. Camus, The Plague and The Fall
06. Camus, The Fall, Part II
07. Søren Kierkegaard, ‘on Becomming a Christian’
08. Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth
09. Kierkegaard’s Existential Dialectic
10. Friedrich Nietzsche on Nihilism and the Death of God
11. Nietzsche, the ‘Immoralist’
12. Nietzsche on Freedom, Fate and Responsibility
13. Nietzsche — The Übermensch and the Will to Power
14. Three Grand Inquisitors — Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hesse
15. Husserl, Heidegger and Phenomenology
16. Heidegger on the World and the Self
17. Heidegger on ‘Authenticity’
18. Jean-Paul Sartre at War
19. Sartre on Emotions and Responsibility
20. Sartre’s Phenomenology
21. Sartre on ‘Bad Faith’
22. Sartre’s Being-for-Others and No Exit
23. Sartre on Sex and Love
24. From Existentialism to Postmodernism