Tag: Jean-Paul Sartre

Existence Precedes Essence: Understanding Existentialism

Posted December 5, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Philosophy / 4 Comments

When thinking about the term existentialism, a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre may come to mind; “existence precedes essence”. 1 This was a relatively new way of thinking within philosophy. The idea criticises the concept that everyone has an essence and our lives tend towards the actualisation of our essence, which dates back to Aristotle. Over the years, this idea of essence evolved into predestines, as philosophers leaned more towards religious ideas. For Sartre, this was an absurd way of thinking and this might have been connected to his atheist beliefs. However, this is not a universal idea in existentialism, many disagreed with Sartre, but it did start a new philosophical movement.

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Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre

While Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky are all considered existentialists, the term was actually coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is widely believed that Kierkegaard may have been the first existentialist philosopher but he used the word ‘individualism’ to refer to his philosophical ideas. When looking as his writing, it is easy to see why it is closely associated to existentialism. In his book The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” 2

This leads us to ask, ‘What exactly is existentialism?’ which is not an easy question to answer. If you consider historical events that were happening at the start of existentialism (early twentieth century), you notice the world was a confused and complex place. When Sartre started his works, the world had already experienced one World War and was about to head into a second one. The political landscape was very unstable; Marxism, Communism and Fascism were all growing movements. Western ways of thinking were not providing the answers people craved about the meaning of life or at least a way to address the human condition.

Existentialism became a new philosophical way of thinking; a new way of facing a confused world that they could not accept. It was not a doctrine or a philosophical system rather existentialism was a movement. It was an inwards approach to thinking, when Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence”, he was stating we exist first, and it is up to us to find what defines us then live our lives accordingly.  Which linked back to Søren Kierkegaard who said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” 3 This was the foundation of existentialism; it did not matter if other philosophers believed existence came before essence, what mattered was living life authentically. To do so, there were three main sides to this form of thinking to consider: individualism, freedom and passion.

Individualism is the ethical idea that we are all responsible for our own actions. Rather than living by the morals set out by our society, religion and our elders, we must seek our own individual self-relevance and liberties. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” 4 Moral individualism should not be confused with selfishness or a desire for anarchy; rather it simply suggests that humanity must be defined by the individual. No two people are alike; thus, having set rules and ideas for everyone imposes restrictions on living authentically.

Freedom was a response to the current social/political situations; without freedom there was no possible way to allow people to be individuals and is considered the primary virtue to authenticity. This is more than the freedom to do whatever one desires. Existentialist often use the term facticity as a term to mean the limitation and a condition to freedom. For example, our birthplace, past choices and so on, may either limit or aid our quest to live our life authentically. If we are born blind, that may take away our freedom to read this text but does not mean we can never read.

Passion is self-evident, the need to find a purpose to life. A primary concern to “existence precedes essence” was simple to find a reason to live – your passion. For me, my passion would include literature, philosophy and writing articles like this. I am motivated in working towards a way to make my passions my career. That is not to say that there are no other reasons to live; such as loved ones or the simple pleasures in life.

meaning-of-lifeOnce you establish these four philosophies as the backbone of existentialism, you may have started on the journey down the rabbit hole into the existentialist way of thinking. Having definitive answers to life maybe be attractive but we realise life is not that simple. When adopting existentialism as your personal philosophy, be warned that many of the great existentialists did abandon their own philosophies. To quote Søren Kierkegaard once more; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 5 Existentialism has its appeals; it is often adopted by young adults as permission to be an individual and focus on themselves. However as the quote above stated, it is only in reflection that we understand our lives and where we went wrong and life is not that easy, you cannot simply rely on other people’s ways of thinking.

Essentially, existentialism suggests that we should all live our lives authentically and free. Our goal in life is to find our essence – our reason to live. Albert Camus has been quoted as saying “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” 6 which suggests that something as simple as a cup of coffee is enough to continue living. There are two major branches of existentialism that I have not mentioned, nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) and absurdism (life has no purpose and the universe is chaotic) but I will not be going into details about the differences at the moment.

My goal of this was to give you a better understanding into existentialism but as you might have discovered, it can be complex. I hope you now have a basic understanding, allowing you to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about philosophy and what you believe. For more information about existentialism and the people behind this philosophical movement, I would recommend the book At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. 7 This covers the history of existentialism as well as a little about people involved, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and so many others. I felt very inspired after reading At the Existentialist Café, that I have gone down a rabbit hole exploring philosophy and hope to write more about it in the near future.


Down the Non-Fiction Rabbit Hole

Posted November 2, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature, My Essays / 6 Comments

The quote by Socrates “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know” has been on my mind for quite some time. There seems to be no truer statement to describe how I feel at the moment. One of the reasons I spend so much time reading is because I want to learn. Fiction can tell us so much about the world around us, and the experiences faced by different cultures. I am drawn to translated fiction because of what it can teach me about the world. It has taken me some time but I am slowly been drawn to non-fiction as well. Reading recently Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Bela Shayevich) and Wild Swans by Jung Chang I discovered just how much about the world I still need to learn.

While Russia is a particular interest of mine, Secondhand Time gave me some insights I did not realise I needed. This is a stunning collection interviews collected by Svetlana Alexievich of people just talking about their personal experience with the collapse of the USSR. I thought I had a decent grasp of the history of the Soviet Union but this book shattered it completely. It is not enough to understand the basic history, life is much more complex and there is so much more to learn. I need to know more about post-Soviet Russia and I plan to learn, starting with The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky.

Wild Swans is a biography of three generations of women living in China. Jung Chang tells the story of her grandmother, her mother and then herself, the experiences they all faced in a rapidly changing country. Her grandmother, grew up in a world of foot binding and warlords, while her mother saw the rise of Chairman Mao and communism. This is a story that spans from the Manchu Empire to the Cultural Revolution. It was here I discovered a deeper understanding of communist China; I would never have known about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in such detail without the personal accounts found in this book. If I combine my love for Soviet history, I find myself wondering if I should learn more about communism in other countries. Do I dare to try and compare the differences?

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There is so much to learn and I feel myself being drawn down the rabbit hole. I have identified three major interests that seem to be the current focus of mine when it comes to non-fiction. This is Russian history, philosophy and books about books. I know this is only the tip of the iceberg and I will be venturing down so many more paths in the future but for now I will start here.

With my love of Russian literature, I feel the need to have a deeper understanding of their history, especially surrounding the politics. Not only will this aid my understanding into the literature I am reading but it will also help me better appreciate the satirical nature that is often found in Russian literature. I am slowly working my way down this rabbit hole with books like Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum, a look into the way the USSR treated Eastern Europe and Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (translator: Antonina W. Bouis), an oral history into the nuclear disaster in 1986. Even a book like The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée has been useful; not only does it explore the story of Doctor Zhivago but the impact it had on the world around it.

A new love for philosophy started with At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell and now I want to know so much more about Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Søren Kierkegaard. But I do not plan to just stop at the existentialists, I have so much to learn. My knowledge of philosophy may have come from a novel called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (translator: Paulette Møller). There is a lot more I could learn from the philosophers, and I have started my journey, with Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche (translated by R.J. Hollingdale) and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant.

Finally, my love for literature has drawn me to reading about literature. Not just memoirs and biographies, although you may notice in my reviewing that I find context important. So a memoir or a biography gives me a deeper appreciation of the literature. A memoir like Little Failure gave me a greater understanding about its author Gary Shteyngart and a collection of letters and diary entries called Manuscripts Don’t Burn (translated and edited by J.A.E. Curtis) was a valuable insight into Mikhail Bulgakov. But then there are books about the reading journey that are entertaining to read, while still being a valuable part of my own reading life. I am talking about books like The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I can be very particular about books about books, the tone has to be right, their taste in literature and the way they talk about literature is equally important, and so for my money I would recommend Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman as the pinnacle in this genre of non-fiction. My reading journey is far from over, in fact it is only just beginning. Having only spent six years as a reader, I have so far to go. It is all part of my never ending quest to become well read. I will be focusing on reading more non-fiction, starting with these three interests and branching out.

Following the path of knowledge wherever it might take me. I look forward to talk about my journey as I continue and would also appreciate any recommendations.


What Is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre

Posted December 16, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

What Is Literature? by Jean-Paul SartreTitle: What Is Literature? (Goodreads)
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Translator: Bernard Frechtman
Published: Routledge, 1947
Pages: 280
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

What Is Literature? (Qu’est ce que la littérature?) by Jean-Paul Sartre has also been published as Literature and Existentialism. It is a collection of freestanding essays originally published in the French literary journals Les Temps Modernes, Situations I and Situations II. Jean-Paul Sartre is best known as the French philosopher who played a key part in the schools of existentialism and phenomenology. It is sometimes forgotten that he was also a literary critic and a Marxist who was often vocal about the abuses of human rights by the Soviet Union.

The reason I mention that Jean-Paul Sartre was a Marxist is because this plays a big part of What Is Literature? To understand his political standing is useful because it plays an important role in his literary criticism; Sartre was very vocal political, and though he embraced Marxism he never joined the communist party. While his literary criticism is always focused on Marxism, his schools of thought in philosophy are relevant, as well as his views on sociology and post-colonialism.

There are four essays found within What Is Literature? “What is Writing?”, “Why Write?”, “For Whom Does One Write?” and “Situation of the Writer in 1947”. “What is Writing?” is probably the most fascinating (for me, anyway) of the four essays, exploring the ideas of writing that distinguish it as an art form apart from poetry, painting and music. I found it interesting how Sartre has separated poetry and journalism out of his thoughts of writing to focus on literature as an art form. Whether you believe his idea of not, Jean-Paul Sartre will give you plenty of food for thought and I have to admit that a sufficient amount of it went over my head.

Jean-Paul Sartre has spent a great deal of time thinking about literature and writing as an art and philosophical idea, more than I could ever imagine. Because of this, it can be difficult and as a reader I had to admit that I wouldn’t understand everything. What Is Literature? did however leave me with plenty to think about and offer me a fresh perspective and that is all I wanted from this book. Let’s face it, this is a pretty pretentious book to read but I still think it is worth exploring the ideas within What Is Literature?


Reading Non-Fiction

Posted September 15, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 0 Comments

I’m not a non-fiction reader, much to my own disappointment. A few of the non-fiction books I have read have been good and the book that inspired me and turned me into a reader was in fact a non-fiction book. Recently I’ve been inspired with an idea; this idea will require a lot of non-fiction reading and research. So I need to motivate myself in becoming a bigger non-fiction reader.

My research will require some reading up on philosophy, art history and maybe even pop culture which will be good for my blog Knowledge Lost and hopefully will give me some new posts for that poor neglected site. Here is what I need, I want to become a better non-fiction reader so I would love some recommendations of books that I might be interested in and are really interesting reads. It doesn’t have to be related but that would be a bonus; I just want some motivation and I hope some great recommendations will help. Also I need tips and advise to become a non-fiction reader. Do audiobooks make for a good way to get through a non-fiction book?

My idea may never be realised but I feel inspired to research it, even if it takes me a lifetime. My goal to become a non-fiction reader will hopefully be a result in this inspiration. My goal is to read at least one non-fiction a month; this challenge may turn me into the type of reader I want to become. I love learning new things but I need to force myself into reading those non-fiction books. One of the biggest problems is working out how to review these books, so I might just do a mini review or something in order to take some of my pressure off.

I’m not going to tell you about my idea but I will give you a list of books I plan to read; this is a very random list but these books I hope will give me some inspiration and guide me down different paths that might help. I know some of these books will be a big help, others are just interesting or books on my shelves already that might help in one form or another.

  • Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
  • If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
  • Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo
  • The Culture Club by Craig Schuftan
  • The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
  • The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan
  • The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr
  • You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney
  • Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay