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Sartre might be a good place to start

  1. May 12, 2007 #1
    I am a complete novice of philosophy but my imagination was recently captured by the notion of existentialism - in particular the notion that humans have complete responsibility for attaching meaning to their lives. I'd like to read more and was told that Sartre might be a good place to start. Can anyone recommend a tome or two that might be suitable.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 13, 2007 #2
    With regards to Sartre, "Existentialism & Humanism", is a short read, its a book based on one of Sartre's lectures and its very accessible. Probably available on Amazon. Also, you might check out Nietzsche's 'Twilight of the Idols'.
  4. May 14, 2007 #3
    Thanks I'll take a look.
  5. May 14, 2007 #4
    Yeah, You and every other college student.
    Sartre's boring. Read Nietzsche. Kierkegaard's cool too, but Dostoevsky's "Underground Man" is my favorite. That's my recommendation.
  6. May 15, 2007 #5


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    Sartre is worth reading, but he is very boring. If you can't put up with the language and tone, you might want to try a book about Sartre (which I hate recommending) or at least an anthology that places his work in some form of context and gives a reading by someone else to compare to your own. I realize there's the danger of uncritically accepting the author's interpretations, but honestly, that shouldn't be as big a concern as it usually is when you're first being introduced to a topic. Believe me, as you read more of him and become a relative expert, your opinions and interpretations will change and sometimes you will agree with an anthology editor, and sometimes you will not.

    Just don't do what I did eight years ago and try jumping straight into Being and Nothingness. You'll either be reading it for the rest of this decade or you'll give up very quickly.
  7. May 15, 2007 #6
    Sartre can be difficult, but the book I suggested is somewhat like Existentialism for dummies. Its short, by the man himself, and very readable, even for someone not versed in philosophy jargon. On the other hand if one really wants to abuse oneself, they could always jump right into Heidegger.
  8. Sep 21, 2007 #7
    I read Being and Nothingness. It's a great book, challenging and not boring. My copy had a glossary which I found to be essential.
  9. Sep 24, 2007 #8
    What exactly is boring about Sartre? Sartre is fantastic. This is an extremely oversimplified, abridged version of Sartre’s basic philosophical introduction of existentialism.

    Sartre develops the notion that essence precedes existence. Consider the example of a chair. It is not as though a chair exists, and then we contemplate what the chair is, or what is function might be. Instead, we conceptualize the idea of the chair, and then we develop and create it. The essence, or the concept, must be constructed before the object itself can emerge or exist.

    However, if we accept the nonexistence of god (Sartre said to Forlorn that we are condemned to be free), and we consider the emergence of humanity, then the original notion appears in the contrary. Existence precedes essence. Humanity did not choose to emerge, nor is there a description of our purpose or our design. Instead, we were forced into existence, and we have defined ourselves. We are at first nothing, but once we have realized that we are nothing, then that is when we decide what we will be. He said that “subjectivity is the starting point,” and that we must first realize that we have the ability to define ourselves. Each individual must come to this realization, before they can construct an independent definition of themself.

    There is no objective purpose of humanity, nor is there a specific function. It is our own subjective perception and model of reality, that dictates what our independent purpose and function is. Our existence is nothing more than the models of experience that we have constructed, and our subjective perception of those models. Man is not connected to a priori definitions, or connotations of what it is that we are.

    However, this creates an issue of morality. If we are free to choose our purpose and function, what stops us from killing each other, or destroying everything that we decide necessary? Since humanity is defining itself independently, and we are developing our own subjective notions of who we are, we are at the same time defining humanity as a whole. The objective perspective of humanity, exists as a co-operative group of each of our individual sets of subjective perceptions. Morality is derived from our ability to choose our interactions with reality; and our ability to choose is derived from our human freedom. We must not negatively impact or interfere with another individuals ability to choose freely, as that will affect our ability to choose freely. The individual consciousness is responsible for its own actions, and choices that it makes, regardless of the consequences. We are condemned to be free because our actions and choices are ours alone, and we are condemned to be responsible for our free choices.

    It's been a while since I have read Satre, so feel free to correct my understanding.
  10. Sep 24, 2007 #9
    You seem to have a good handle on things, with this one exception. In existentialism 'existence precedes essense'. You mention this later in your post, but what you write here is not accurate.

    Essence preceding existence is an old idea. When we say someone was born noble, or born to be king. This is what we are talking about. They have pre-existing attribute that defines their destiny. Plato also thought this way and said that the 'real' stuff are the 'forms'. A chair we sit in is just a manifestation of the 'truer' form of 'chair' that exists in a higher reality. With regards to humans, the idea of a soul, as an ineffable defining quality is in line with this sort of thinking.

    Sartre repudiates this.
    The idea of being thrown into the world, is the idea of 'existing' before one defines oneself. And the only essence one can have is in that definition. Its only after one exists that one can decide to take responsibility for one's existence and define what one is. Essence is that definition, not some pre-existing soul or form.
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2007
  11. Sep 24, 2007 #10
    It is accurate. He describes this exact idea, in his philosophy. He introduces this concept, so that you can understand what is meant by 'existence preceding essence.' It is accurate to say that when we construct a chair, we must first develop the concept or the essence of the chair, before it can emerge into existence. Understanding this idea, allows for a comparative analysis of the notion that 'existence precedes essence.'

    You misinterpreted what I had written my friend. I didn't state that 'essence precedes existence,' as a metaphysical construct. I was not discussing the forms, the good, the problem of the one and the many, etc.

    I was simply saying, if a guy wants to make a chair, he has to personally think about how he would create the chair, and what the purpose of the chair is. In this example, 'essence precedes existence.' I am not referring to the images and the copies, or Platonic Dualism.

    However, with humanity, 'existence precedes essence,' which I described.
  12. Sep 24, 2007 #11
    My mistake, if that is what you meant then you are correct.
  13. Sep 24, 2007 #12
    No worries. I probably worded it poorly.
  14. Oct 14, 2007 #13
    My advice is to read the words written by the authors themselves, to never trust anyones interpretation of what they said or meant. Instead, read what they said, and interpret it to the best of your ability.

    For instance, if I told you that the ancient metaphysicists said that the earth was flat. How would you interpret that? Well some guy might tell you that it means that the earth was flat, and that if you sailed to its edge you would fall off? The question is whether they said that it was flat in shape or function. Is the earth like a column or tambourine in shape or function?

    You see, it is very important to read things, original works, for yourself and not to rely on the interpretations of others.
  15. Oct 15, 2007 #14
    Sounds foolish to me.

    I'm certainly not going to redo every scientific experiment just to confirm others have done it correctly, nor am I going to learn every language necessary to read everything in its original language. I don't have the time and quite frankly we rely on specialists all the time. Human knowledge is just too big for one brain.
  16. Nov 8, 2007 #15
    You might also read some Camus. A fictional book "The Stranger" captures existentialism very nicely.
  17. Nov 10, 2007 #16
    Well then, Sartre philosophy is falsified by the existence of the moon. Existence always precedes what humans imagine as being essence--there is no essence to essence outside existence. If I sit my butt on a boulder then the object (e.g., boulder) has the function of a chair, and the object is priori to my conception of it as a place to sit my butt. All concepts ultimately derive from perception of that which exists. Philosophy of Sartre is a dead end--literally.
  18. Nov 10, 2007 #17
    Dead, indeed. You should read Sartre before you make such pronouncements.

    Or you know, maybe just take a moment to read more than one posting in this discussion.
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2007
  19. Nov 17, 2007 #18
    Thank you--I reacted too soon without proper reading of your posts.
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