Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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."
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."