An Introduction To Existentialism
Book Review: Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre
This book deals with 10 thinkers that are associated with existentialism: Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Ortega, Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus. The collection was organized by Kaufmann, an American philosopher.
The book is an anthology, which took me by surprise since it’s not mentioned anywhere. I think anthologies are useful, but I think it’s rather dishonest to not state it up-front. I would rather have an actual book on the topic, which I think it’s often best as an introduction.
The book starts with an introduction by Kaufmann. What is existentialism? This is difficult to answer. The very concept assumes uniformity among the thinkers that are placed within that label, but ironically enough many rejected such labels, and it’s not easy to find a coherent philosophy among them. Topics like freedom, anxiety, individualism, authenticity, nihilism, and death are often touched, but very often emphasized differently, and sometimes with a different take from each thinker. Rather than a specific philosophy, Kaufmann instead identifies the heart of existentialism as the refusal to belong to a pre-made school of thought (this often includes the entire philosophical canon) and bringing back philosophy to everyday life. Then the book features selected writings from the authors I initially mentioned, in that order. Sometimes from a single body of work, sometimes many. An introduction to the thinker is given by Kaufmann, and then the original text begins. Some of them were translated for the first time by the author himself.
I enjoyed the book, although at times I felt very dense to go through. Some thinkers, like Jaspers, were very hard to read. I often spend countless paragraphs with almost zero idea what the hell he was saying. I think I did get the main gist of it, and often great insights, but a very hazardous task, and I kept getting annoyed that I bought a book to help me better understand existentialism, and yet I was thrown into it with minimal help. I liked the fact that I was introduced to some thinkers that I wasn’t familiar with, and even those that I already knew, I liked reading a primary source, which I should do more of. Ortega, in particular, was very enjoyable and seemed to have everything I liked about Heidegger in a more accessible language. But I think to some degree I found something valuable in every chapter (of each author).
One thing I disliked was the distribution of the different authors. A very large portion of the book was dedicated to Jaspers, which I found unnecessary. Over 70 pages in a 360-page book with 10 different thinkers. Ortega, for example, which I really enjoyed reading, had a pathetic 6 pages. Satre and Camus were both giants of the movement, yet Satre had almost 100, and Camus had 4.
If you’re interested in existentialism, I’m sure this is helpful. However, just be mindful that it is an anthology, and while the author does give an introduction before each thinker, it’s rather short and not sufficient. Nevertheless, if you have an interest in diving into primary existential literature, but yet you rather dig your toes into several philosophers rather than commit to a single one, this is a great resource.
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