Existentialism all that matters – making the best of being “left alone without excuse”.

This is my review of  Existentialism All That Matters by David Cerborne

Despite my desire to understand more about philosophy as an important but neglected aspect of our education,  my interest usually runs aground on the sheer opacity of many books on this subject combined with the sense that  their authors often seem to be stating the obvious as they dance on the point of pin.

David Cerbone’s  encouragingly slim volume struck me as being different in its synthesis of  “what really matters in existentialism”, the fruit of  years spent teaching students, developing his own ideas as he tries to approach mind-bending ideas from a viewpoint they can grasp. Although I am sure purists will judge him to have oversimplified matters, he  selects and explains with skill  the key ideas of the main philosophers associated with existentialism.  Before homing in on Jean-Paul Sartre, who reluctantly accepted the “existentialist” label the better to control its meaning, also on  his companion Simon de Beauvoir, with a quick look at Albert Camus,  the author devotes a chapter each to  three important influences on Sartre: Kierkegaard, Nietzche and Heidegger,  who foreshadowed  ideas fundamental to existentialism.

In a nutshell, this book suggests in effect that the key players in existentialism have been atheists,  who believe that since there are no absolute notions of meaning, purpose,  or value in life, we are, as Sartre observed  “condemned to be free”, but this need not be a negative source of mental confusion and despair. As self-aware beings, we have the freedom to interpret our situation, make choices on an open set of opportunities and so take responsibility for the future direction of our lives, taking account of what has happened in our past and also subject of course to the constraints of the society to which we happen to belong. We can feel liberated, rather than terrified, by the fact that there is no “higher being”, no  preordained meaning to our existence and no afterlife.  If we extend our sense of responsibility to include others, the results are likely to be mutually beneficial and we will feel more positive about life, and live it “better”, although that can only be defined in subjective terms.

The one aspect of this book that disappoints me is David Cerbone’s  ‘book-ending’ of his interesting analysis between references to the Hasidic (Jewish) Parable of Rabbi Zusya: “Why were you not Zusya?” i.e. yourself, as fully developed a conscious individual as you could be.  I appreciate that religions may be considered akin to existentialism in that all are the result of human efforts to make sense of the fact of being alive.  I understand that existentialists like De Beauvoir have clearly drawn, perhaps unconsciously, on Christian values to inform their ideas. Yet I would have preferred an approach that did not seem to link existentialism to any specific religious, in this case Jewish, belief . The specific suggestion in the Postscript that we may one day have to answer for our actions – or inaction, that is, “the judgement which awaits us will always ask about our failures and shortcomings in the project of becoming who we are”,  makes me uneasy because it seems to introduce an element of religious thinking in what is otherwise  presented as  an analysis of a god-free existence.

Those drawn to existentialism will probably relate more to the ideas of  our physical existence as human beings “always being on the way to becoming who we are” and to the truth of the irony that “it is far easier to say what failure looks like than give an adequate account of success”.

In short, I feel that the author has given us a good basic introduction to existentialist thought. He has defined some of the jargon for us, providing a useful glossary and reading list at the end. However, when he goes beyond analysis of the theories to present his own thoughts on  what is meant by a “specific individual human being” I feel that he becomes too subjective and woolly.



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