Existentialism for Beginners (For Beginners)

existentialism-header.jpgDoes your entire knowledge of existentialism come from the Simpsons quote "Camus can do Sartre is smar-tre"? Then do yourself a favor and check out this handy guide to all things existential, courtesy of author David Cogswell.



192 pages; $14.95 (paperback)

(W: David Cogswell; A: Joe Lee)


Existentialism is one of those words which has become entrenched in our common vocabulary despite the fact that few Americans could tell you what it means. When I was in school, the hip way to say goodbye was "It’s been existential." We weren’t sure what that meant, but it sure sounded cool, and existentialism was shorthand for cool: it stood for rejection of the bourgeois world of our parents and was embodied in behaviors like dressing in black, scribbling in journals, and drinking lots of coffee while smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

But at some point posing and vague references become an unsatisfying substitute for real knowledge. So if you yearn to find out what existentialism is about, and why it has such enduring appeal to people who wouldn’t be caught dead discussing, say, the relative merits of deontology and consequentialism, a good place to start would be Existentialism for Beginners by David Cogswell, with illustrations by Joe Lee.

The cover to Existentialism For Beginners by Joe Lee. Click for a larger image.In the interests of full disclosure, let me state up front that I’m neither a professor of philosophy, nor do I play one on TV. I’m just a somewhat educated person interested in ideas, and I think I’m a fair representative of the market for the "For Beginners" books. Other titles in this series of "documentary comic books" (they use the form of the graphic novel to present nonfiction material) include African history, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism, and they all sound pretty interesting to me.

But back to the matter at hand. According to Cogswell, "existentialism" never had a single founding doctrine or dominant spokesperson. It’s more a way of thinking about life, and those associated with it tended to be unconventional and express themselves in many forms, including fiction and plays as well as philosophical articles and books. Many were the opposite of ivory-tower academics, and liked it that way: Sartre said he had more time to write while serving on the front lines with the French army than he did in civilian life. 

So the existentialists were a varied and motley crew. But it’s possible to identify common concerns in their writing, which explains why some people get labeled "existentialist" and some do not. These concerns include a consistent emphasis on the importance of the individual and of individual, a rejection of the so-called objective point of view, and a desire to make their writings relevant to the everyday life lived by ordinary people.

Most of Existentialism for Beginners is an historical overview of the main philosophers associated with existentialism, as well as some of their precursors. Cogswell begins with Hegel, as a representative of the philosophic idealism which gave the existentialists something to react against. He finds many traits of existentialist thought in the works of Schopenhauer and Dostoyevsky, and cites Kierkegaard as the founding father of existentialism. The historical survey continues with Nietzsche, Kafka, Jaspers, Dilthey, Husserl, and Heidegger, bringing us up to Jean-Paul Sartre, the one person almost anyone would name as an existentialist. Camus and Simone de Beauvoir follow, as do Marcel, Merleau-Ponty, and Ortega y Gasset.

This historical survey is written with admirable clarity and eschews academic-speak. Each section is illustrated with quotations which give the reader a feel for each writer’s style as well as the content of their thought. Cogswell also takes pains to place each writer in their social and historical context, a particular necessity when discussing writers for whom the specific experience of the individual was paramount. Lee’s illustrations sometimes reinforce essential points of the text, sometimes provide a counterpoint, and most of all set up the context from which all this philosophy sprung. The cover shows Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, clad in conservative dark suits, drinking coffee in a café surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke: if that doesn’t say existentialism to you, I don’t know what will!

A final section discusses existentialism in the arts, psychology, politics and popular culture. Although interesting, this material is less satisfying because it is so brief (one page for theater, two for film) relative to the discussions of individual philosophers, and the author sometimes takes refuge in generalities and name-dropping. The only other criticism I have of this otherwise admirable volume is careless proofreading. Misspellings (you’ll search the library catalog in vain for the "Freidrich Hölderhin" cited on p. 74, although you may find quite a few works by the poet "Friedrich Hölderlin") and missing words ("Life is the fundamental fact which must for the starting point of philosophy"—and that’s in a quotation attributed to William Dilthey on p. 83) are more common than they should be in a published book.

The release date for Existentialism for Beginners is October 14, 2008, and copies may be pre-ordered from online book dealers such Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/).  Further information about the "For Beginners" books, including a catalog of all their titles, is available from the company web site at http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh


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