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The Great Courses: No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life Audio CD – Audiobook, 2000
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What is life? What is my place in it? What choices do these questions obligate me to make? More than a half-century after it burst upon the intellectual scene - with roots that extend to the mid-19th century - Existentialism's quest to answer these most fundamental questions of individual responsibility, morality, and personal freedom has continued to exert a profound attraction. Now, in a series of 24 probing and thoughtful lectures, you can enrich your own understanding of this unique philosophical wave, the visionary thinkers it brought together to ponder and debate these questions, and the prominent role it still plays in contemporary thought. "Existentialism is, in my view, the most exciting and important philosophical movement of the past century and a half," says 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, it continues to win new enthusiasts and, in keeping with its still exciting and revolutionary message, vehement critics." Plumbing both sides of the debate, these lectures examine a wide range of Existentialist thought. You'll be exposed to the religious approach of Kierkegaard; the bold fiction of Camus; the warrior rhetoric and often-shocking claims about religion and morality posed by Nietzsche; the radical and uncompromising notion of freedom championed by Sartre; and the searching analysis of human historicity and finitude offered by Martin Heidegger. And you'll encounter the reluctance - often angrily expressed - of many of Existentialism's major figures to be thought of as part of any philosophical movement or even as intellectual allies!
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Top Customer Reviews
I purchased "Existentialism for Dummies" and I'm much happier with its focus on core issues. Solomon's course mostly talked about novels written pertaining to the subject of Existentialism but not about the subject. My feeling is his course missed the mark. I infer that he has not "tasted" it himself.
The meaning of life is beyond reason and rationality - this is at the base of the work of the four major philosophers covered. In other words, the belief is that our passions, emotions and actions are supreme in defining the essence of existence and the rational philosophers were mistaken in ignoring them. Assuming the premise is true - a huge assumption with as little basis as the rationalists had in their faith in reason - the existential notions still had little holding them together. Rationality is narrow if not one. Lack of it is everything else, and so much that their proponents like the four in the book were as divergent in their views from each other as they possibly were from the rationalists.
To paraphrase, existentialism seems to be defined by what it is not or does not believe in - ie, the supremacy of the reason. However, the constructs created atop this foundation are not only massively varied but also highly tentative primarily because they don't believe in using the logic as the glue. Sartre's extreme position on "we always have a choice" is an assertion squeezed by almost distorting the definition of choice; if the same definition is applied or tweaked some more not only a chained man or a worker in suppressed regimes but fetuses, animals and trees or even the quantum particles have a choice.
Camus to Dostovosky, Kafka and Hesse - the lectures provide brief (and at times not so brief) of some great literary work. It gives a good account of the life of the four major philosophers covered. These accounts make the lectures extremely listenable even though the threads connecting them or even the interpretations appear tenuous and almost always too assertive.
His approach is actually fairly low key, and I think that has the virtue of moving us away from the caricature of existentialists as moody people dressed in black and brooding in cafes, to instead a more accurate portrait of serious thinkers earnestly and rigorously grappling with fundamental questions related to the meaning(s) of life. Rather than being dramatic, Solomon holds back and leaves room for us to reflect, sort of like a sage who nudges us gently along our own path, rather than pulling us by the nose.
As a result, the course starts slow -- with the early lectures on Camus almost seeming too simplistic -- but then the pace and intensity of the course continue to pick up as Solomon probes deeper and deeper, progressively unfolding subtleties and nuances. By the time we work through Sartre and climax with the final lecture on postmodernism, the material has become quite complex, and the student is probably ready for the course to end (as I was), having more than enough material swimming in the head to continue reflecting on. Indeed, this is a course which warrants repeating, as I surely expect to do when I'm ready (but it could be a while!).
The only precaution I want to mention is that, because of Solomon's subtle and nuanced approach, and because much of the material is inherently challenging, this course might not engage people who aren't already at least somewhat receptive to existentialism. But for those who feel compelled to grapple with the big questions, and feel (hope?) that a study of existentialism can contribute to that effort, I can highly recommend this course.
After listening to the tapes a second time, I am even more pleased with Solomon's work than I was initially. Solomon takes the complex ideas of Heidegger and Sartre and makes them not only intelligible, but genuinely interesting and important. Most people will find ready application of Solomon's teaching on existentialism to their life and work. Excellent program in every respect!