Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish have loomed large in the last six weeks of writing and studying Stoic philosophy. The method of comparing and contrasting the practical philosophy of Existentialism and Seneca’s Stoicism has demanded more research. Which meant a deeper dive into Existential philosophy. And that has needed a better way into Existentialism than just reading primary texts.
Like many, my introduction to Existential thinking came through the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre. Especially the Roads to Freedom trilogy. Although Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Sartre’s Nausea were the first books to start me on a philosophical journey. Reading novels was always important for me. Patrick White, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Kafka to start with. Later there was William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. Luckily for my future in philosophy Sartre’s Being and Nothingness did not make it’s way to my reading list before studying philosophy at university.
Not that going to university to major in philosophy was a great help with mastering existential thought. No doubt due to deficiencies in my philosophical capability. Yet I am far from alone in struggling with the works of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Kierkegaard. The introductory textbooks were of little help to me. I was able to write essays and grasp enough to obtain ok grades, but never found myself thinking I know what is going on in a chapter by, or even about, Husserl for instance.
Books analyzing existentialism
Over the last ten years my primary engagement with Existential philosophy has been through the British school of Existential counseling and coaching. My experience reading those texts has been similar to what happened at uni. While the counseling techniques are easy to grasp and apply, how it actually relates to existential philosophy remains tenuous.
In order to get to the bottom of it all I’ve taken to reading Jonathan Webber’s books: Sartre’s Existentialism and Rethinking Existentialism. Here I have finally found an accessible way into Sartre’s work that makes sense to me. As part of coming to terms with the Existentialists again I’m also reading Living with Nietzsche: what the great “immoralist” has to teach us by Robert Solomon. I was fortunate enough to meet Solomon during my PhD study. He and his wife Professor Kathleen Higgins, along with Webber, are my guides for this sortie through the forest of Existential philosophy.
Which brings me to this weeks reading – Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge. This is a book of essays, many of which analyze a work of literature for philosophical understanding. What Nussbaum sought by turning to these novels was a better understanding of love. The essays are framed by a long chapter on Philosophy and Literature. This helps me re-frame what I seek to understand through philosophy, novels, and in a few months, biographies. For those with a literary bent, this Nussbaum book is an interesting way into philosophy as an art of practical reasoning.
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