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6 essential books on existentialist philosophy
Wander into the deep recesses of the mind and never return the same with these existentialist books.
- Existentialism deals with the search to find meaning through free will and choice, among other things.
- Philosophers considered are existentialists who hailed mostly from Europe in the 19th and 20th century.
- Many existentialists believe that humans should make their own worth regardless of rules, laws or tradition.
There is a wide variety of diverse ideologies that makes up the existentialist school of thought. These views may vary, but each is concerned with the individual and their freedom within the world and society. In the realm of philosophy, existentialism is one of those labels that came after the fact in order to describe a wide variety of a set of similar ideals.
Many of the ideas in the so-called existentialist strain are difficult for some people to deal with and will put your mind to the test. Some wallow in the pure dread of an uncaring world and others laugh in the face of suspected meaningless. But that's the fun of it anyhow.
So if you make it through all of these books without developing a crippling hollowness inside your soul or blackened void (you decide), well then head on over to this diverse metaphysical book list for some lighter reading... and develop that philosophical palette even more! Or not because well… who cares anyways? But ye I also say! Ascend to greater heights and become greater than yourself and say yes to the day. And as you'll see existentialism is quite diverse.
Here are six essential books on existentialism philosophy.
The writings of Albert Camus are the premier oeuvre of existentialist literature. The Stranger follows the story of a regular guy, Meursault, who is unintentionally drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. Translated into English by Matthew Ward, the novel explores what Camus himself referred to as "the nakedness of man faced with the absurd." Anything by Camus will leave you in awe, but The Stranger really delivers.
The famous opening lines "Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don't know," set the stage as emotionless and removed Meursault drifts through the absurd situations he's placed in.
Throughout his books, Camus would eventually develop a philosophy he considered absurdism. "The Absurd" being the conflict between man's tendency to seek meaning paired with the usual inability to ever find anything purely meaningful in an irrational existence. This is best explained in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.
Albert Camus believed that the best life lived should embrace this inherent contradiction.
It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.
Being and Nothingness
Novelist, playwright, and biographer Jean-Paul Sartre is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most profound philosophers of the 20th century. Being and Nothingness is a fundamental text of existentialism. It's also a hefty read for those not already familiar with a lot of philosophical texts.
Sartre begins his roaring treatise first on the subject of nothingness, which he contrasts to the fact that it is supported by being, although it does not have it. Eventually he establishes two main points which are considered Being-for-itself and Being-for-others.
The most important theme of the book deals with the idea of people fleeing from their own freedom. Sartre's philosophy and main ideas are formed at the bedrock by his knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, biology, physics, among others — at least up to the time he wrote this book in 1943.
For Sartre, humans define their meaning and have absolute control and freedom over all of their choices. He considers the following a basic statement of fact.
"I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant."
Thus Spake Zarathustra
Zarathustra is Friedrich Nietzsche's absolute masterpiece. An influential philosophical work that would go on to inspire some of the greatest minds of the 20th century and will continue to do so for many years to come. It's also a tremendous work of literature with its highly stylized poetic language. If you're looking to dive into Nietzsche, this is a book you might want to put off until you've read some of his earlier works. It is in this book that he fully lays out, albeit quite poetically, the crowning ideal of the Übermensch, or "overman." Which he believes will be the grand and ultimate goal for the human race.
Vastly misunderstood throughout the years by despotic regimes and countless other misguided idealogues, one wonders if any of these people actually even read Nietzsche past a quick secondary source blurb or other bastardized and blurry reading. Nietzsche would have had a good laugh at their expense as he'd predicted many of these misrepresentations of himself and his philosophy with the character called Zarathustra's ape.
Yet falsehoods aside, Nietzsche is a writer who is still a great anomaly even to the greatest adepts of his philosophy and readers. He requires a lot of time and contemplation, whether or not you agree or disagree with his views.
The following quote beautifully captures one of the most noble, supreme and highest ideals ever laid to the page:
"Man is something that shall be overcome. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end."
Written sometime in 1914, while Franz Kafka still believed himself to be a failure of a writer – this book would not be published until 1925, a year after Kafka had died. Inspiring the great turn of a phrase — Kafkaesque — The Trial is Kafka at his clearest and most absurd. The book follows a bank officer Josef K., who suddenly gets arrested without reason and without being able to figure out what the charge is. The book begins in a similar fashion to The Metamorphosis, a story in which his character Gregor Samsa is inexplicably turned into a giant bug without explanation.
"Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested one fine morning."
The rest of the novel follows suit. It's a great tale of nonsense bureaucracy, maddening absurdism and just plain existential dread. This is an unfinished novel, but in a way that just adds to the brevity for the many themes of this book.
The Last Messiah
Peter Wessel Zapffe flips the script with The Last Messiah, an essay taken from his book Om det Tragiske, a book written in obscure and idiosyncratic Norwegian that still hasn't been translated into English. (Author's aside — someone please do a full English translation.)
This is the text that brings antinatalist thought to the forefront. Zapffe posits that the human condition is a state of eternal despair and it's all due to humans being over-evolved with a superfluous brain. We are, to Zapfee, a supra-cosmic mistake. Or, as he puts it:
... a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature.
He likens humanity's intellect to an ancient deer, whose over-evolved antlers proved to be its doom. He states:
"The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment. In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendor pinning its bearer to the ground"
Zapffe considers any wondering from this frightening reality to be part of four defensive strategies in which humans use to cope and shield ourselves from this horrendous tradition. As far as Zapffe was concerned, and pretty much anyone alive today can attest to, we still haven't figured out any sufficient answer to those deep piercing great questions of existence.
Here are the defense mechanisms:
- Isolation: "By isolation I here mean a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling."
- Anchoring: "The mechanism of anchoring also serves from early childhood; parents, home, the street become matters of course to the child and give it a sense of assurance."
- Distraction: "A very popular mode of protection is distraction. One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions."
- Sublimation: "The fourth remedy against panic, sublimation, is a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects."
"Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye."
Either / Or
One of the earliest books for Søren Kierkegaard, it is considered to be a fundamental text for existentialist thought. Kierkegaard wrote many of his works under a pseudonym, and he'd continue to do that throughout most of his career. At around 835 pages for some versions, this is a monstrous treatise, in which Kierkegaard compares two radically different modes of existence: aestheticism and ethics.
In the first part of the book, he follows a young man called "A" who reflects on a great deal of aesthetic topics. If you've read Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray or that devious little book which Dorian falls prey to, À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, you'll recognize a lot of similarities in the exploration of sensual dandyism, epicurean pleasure and other assorted delights. Part two departs from this and meditates on the conflict between the ethical and aesthetic, opting for a more moral type of life.
Kierkegaard oscillates between dread and triumph, either / or, this or that, in which he concludes somewhere later on that:
"I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both."
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.