Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2017

Existentialism, a Very Short Introduction, by Thomas R. Flynn

Oh dear, it looks as if I’ve been bandying around the term ‘existentialist’ without really knowing what it means…

In the Preface to my latest adventure with the Very Short Introductions series, Thomas R. Flynn tells me that most people associate existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the  Left-Bank Parisian cafés where they hung out.  And the problem with that is that existentialism tends to get ‘packaged’ as a cultural phenomenon of a certain historical period which tends to get linked to the problems of that era and not really relevant to our own.  Flynn is on a mission to correct that because he says that existentialism is a way of doing philosophy that is still current.

So his first chapter, ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ is about demolishing the idea of philosophy as a doctrine or system of thought.  Philosophy, he says, and I agree with him in principle, is about addressing the issues in our lives and examining the human condition. (The problem is, IMO, that some philosophy is very difficult to engage with incomprehensible, (yes, Wittgenstein, I’m looking at you) and some of it is dead boring and long-winded (yes, Rousseau I’m looking at you too.)  But philosophy can be illuminating and helpful as I’ve found by reading Peter Singer, Damon Young, Alain de Botton, and more recently Simon Longstaff.  It can also be very annoying when it seeks to justify political or economic ideas I disapprove of. 

There are five themes of existentialism, nicely summarised in a chart on page 8.  These are

  • Existence precedes essence.  What this means is that what you are is not your destiny.  You are what you make yourself to be.
  • Time is of the essence.  We are time-bound, and lived-time (‘not yet’, ‘already’ and the ‘present’) is not the same as clock time.
  • Humanism.  Existentialism is person-centred. Though not anti-science, its focus is on the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning amidst the social and economic pressures of mass society for superficiality and conformism. 
  • Freedom/responsibility.  Freedom is paramount, but with freedom comes responsibility. [This is the theme of Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason which I read a while ago. See my thoughts here].
  • Ethical considerations are paramount. You can understand ethics and freedom in your own way, but the underlying concern is to invite us to invite us to examine the authenticity of our personal lives and of our society.

Existentialism sometimes gets a bad press for being anti-science.  Flynn rebuts that like this:

The existentialists are not irrationalists in the sense that they deny the validity of logical argument and scientific reasoning.  They simply question the ability of such reasoning to access the deep personal convictions that guide our lives.  As Kierkegaard said of the dialectical rationalism of Hegel: ‘Trying to live your life by this abstract philosophy is like trying to find your way around Denmark with a map on which that country appears the size of a pinhead.’ (p.9)

Who knew that Kierkegaard could be so pithy?

I think my most common use of the adjective ‘existential’ has been to raise some dilemma where a character faces an ‘existential choice’.  But if I understand Flynn correctly (and I’m not sure that I always do) an existential choice, the ‘fork in the road’, implies something more than an impersonal question.  There has to be some kind of fateful consequence.

That is what makes the option for subjective reflection an ‘existential’ choice.  Were it simply a question of an impersonal claim about a fact or a law of nature, we would be dealing with ‘objective certainty’ and the wager of one’s personal existence would be irrelevant.  (p.10)

In other words, it’s not just a dry argument. When Socrates’ continued to teach his students in defiance of the State, his life was at stake but for him it was crucial that his life was in harmony with his beliefs.  His focus wasn’t theoretical, but about reflecting on the proper way of acting.  This is the painting chosen to accompany the text, annotated as ‘Socrates discourses over personal immortality as he is about to take the poison as commanded by the state’.  (In the book, the illustrations are all only in B&W).

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787) Wikipedia Commons.

It’s easy to see why existentialism, with its focus on moral truth, had resonance in Europe after WW2.

I was especially interested in what Flynn has to say about Sartre’s 1948 essays What is Literature?  (I have this on the TBR).

… Sartre develops the concept of ‘committed literature’.  His basic premise us that writing is a form of action for which responsibility must be taken, but that this responsibility carries over into the content and not just the form of what is communicated.  The experience of the Second World War had give Sartre a sense of social responsibility that, arguably, was lacking or at least ill-developed in his masterpiece Being and Nothingness (1943).  In fact, the existentialists had generally been criticised for their excessive individualism and apparent lack of social consciousness.  (p.13)

Later on in the book, Flynn emphasises the close relationship between existentialist philosophy and imaginative literature.  Sartre and Camus are the best-known existentialists to use literature to explore the dilemmas of life, but Flynn also cites the example of Saul Bellow’s Herzog:

But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago.  Perhaps it should be stated Death is God.  This generation thinks – and this is the thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have nay true power.  Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.  The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that.  And this is how we teach metaphysics on each other.  (Herzog, by Saul Bellow, cited by Flynn on p.54.)

By 1948 Sartre was addressing the moral responsibility of the prose artist which is interesting given the social novels that were gaining prominence in Australia.  Though obviously not as intellectually lofty as the novels of Camus and Sartre which were written for the purpose of elucidating an existential position, nevertheless the social preoccupations of Dickens obviously pre-dated this concept, and between the wars those of Australians Christina Stead and Katherine Susannah Prichard did too.  (You can read more about Prichard at Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth).  During the war Eve Langley and Kylie Tennant spring to mind as well.  By the postwar era there were plenty of Australian novelists writing social novels bringing attention to inequity – Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, Eleanor Dark, Vance Palmer and Mena Calthorpe are some that I have read.  But were they influenced by Sartre’s ideas, or were they continuing an Australian literary tradition that was focussed on progressive politics?  In the biographies that I’ve read about these authors I don’t remember reading that any of them were influenced by Sartre, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t.  Or have I missed some crucial point?  Maybe I’d better read What is Literature, eh?

The rest of this chapter gets a bit technical, using terms like ‘phenomenological’ without explaining clearly what it means, and I was a more than a bit puzzled by the explanations of the principle of intentionality and eidetic reduction.  (The first two are in the glossary at the back, but eidetic isn’t).  At one stage I got out my trusty The Philosophy Book to re-read the section on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, because I needed a simpler summary of what they were on about.  I struggled with Chapter 3 ‘Humanism: for and against’ as well… and found the beginning of Chapter 4 ‘Autonomy’ almost incomprehensible until I had read it three times.  Perhaps this is just indicative of existentialism being ‘difficult’ anyway, or maybe I’m just not up to it, but for me this raises again the occasional problem with these Very Short Introductions. They are all written by academics, not all of whom can communicate clearly enough for the generalist reader, for whom they are presumably intended.  Chapter 6 ‘Existentialism in the 21st century’ continues the project of showing the relevance of existentialism to our own time, but the discussion about Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, not to mention Hermeneutics went right over my head.  My university education (mercifully) predates all these theories and the explanations given were too scanty for me to make much sense of any of it.

Still, I did learn a fair bit from this VSI: I enjoyed reading about Simone de Beauvoir and I now understand more of the intellectual foundations of The Second Sex  than I did I read it back in the 1980s.  And I was interested to discover a new-to-me philosopher called Karl Jaspers who (in the wake of WW2 which he was lucky to survive because his wife was Jewish) wrote a book called The Question of German Guilt (1947) which seems to me to have applicability to Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers.  He said there are four categories of guilt:

  • criminal guilt (the violation of unambiguous laws);
  • political guilt (the degree of political acquiescence in the actions of the Nazi regime);
  • moral guilt (a matter of personal conscience formed in dialogue with one’s ethical community); and
  • metaphysical guilt (based on the solidarity of all humans simply as human and resulting in a condition of co-responsibility, especially for injustices of which one is aware and which one does not do one’s best to resist. (p.87, dot points are mine).

This conception of guilt as collective was new to existentialist thought, but it was entirely consistent with Sartre’s view of bad faith, i.e. that you can’t just cop out of responsibility by saying ‘that’s just how things are’ and ‘I can’t do anything about it.’

And from now on, I’ll be more careful when I bandy around terms like existential and angst!

Author: Thomas R. Flynn
Title: Existentialism, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions series, 2006
ISBN: 9780192804280
Review copy courtesy of OUP

Available from Fishpond: Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. This is one VSI I do have. I tend to think of myself as an existentialist. It arises, quite naturally out of my continual effort to frame and reframe my experience of being in the world which tends to sit at cross purpose with the way others—especially those with whom I expected to conform even in opposition to norms (ie as a queer person). I see it as an awareness of the uniqueness of the individual experience of existence. The existential writers I connect with most are Kiekegaard and Kafka.

    • Yes, I can see how the emphasis on being who you make of yourself would be a natural fit. I’ve read a fair bit of Kafka, but nothing of Kierkegaard in his own words, only about him, and not much of that. But French philosophy interests me more than German philosophy does, though perhaps I should put that down to my struggles with Wittgenstein. (Though he was Austrian, I think).

  2. I did a year of existentialism, under Max Charlesworth, at Melbourne in 1971, which I enjoyed and understood as long as I was studying it, and which I have continued, but only broadly, to use as a guiding principle. The philosophy I’m now annoyed I missed was post modernism, which in theory at least, had already been around for 15 years by then.

    • Well, I think a year of it would give you a much better understanding of it than a fortnight of reading this little VSI! That’s both the charm and the limitation of this series, it gives one a taste of the subject but it inevitably assumes some prior knowledge…

  3. Thank you for your useful summary. I think I can skip the VSI and rely on your post instead. When I was in college I took several philosophy courses with the expectation that I would get answers to questions which troubled me. I received not answers but more and better questions.

    • Hi Nancy, I know I haven’t made this VSI very enticing, but there’s a lot I learned from it that I haven’t even mentioned here because it would be (a) much too long and (b) not fair to the author if I did.
      I think the best by-product of reading it is that it’s made me want to read more so I’m very pleased to see the suggestions coming from penwithlit, Brendan and Becky.
      (This is why I love blogging books!)

  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I only want to say that the clearest exposition of such philosophical concepts comes from the books and YouTube interviews by the Labour politician (U.K.) Bryan Magee. He interviewed Iris Murdoch – the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch who wrote much about Existentialism. It is of course a philosophy which has a strong connection with literature of various sorts. Thanks for your short introduction to V.S.Is!!

    • Thanks for the suggestion, I shall certainly check it out.
      I have read two or three of Iris Murdoch’s novels, a good while ago now, but *SmacksForehead I don’t think I made the connection with existentialism when I did. I’ll have to dig out my reading journals to be sure, but I think I mainly focussed on the symbolism. I still have a couple on my TBR so I’ll read those with fresh insight, thanks:)

  5. You may already know of it, but in case it hadn’t yet crossed your path there’s a great book by Sarah Bakewell called At the Existentialist Cafe:Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Very readable and entertaining introduction to a range of those French and German thinkers of the last century.

  6. I ditto Brendan’s comment about At the Existentialist Cafe – by Sarah Bakewell. Excellent book on the inner workings of existentialism and where it came from. I read and reviewed it in 7/2017:

    • And your review of Flynn’s book is amazing – it really made me want to try it and pick up on more stuff – but I”m getting ready to read another Bakewell. (such is the life)

  7. Brendan, Becky – I should have remembered The Existentialist Café because I read Becky’s review of it at the time and put it on my wishlist. No more mucking about, I’ve ordered it now!

  8. Accessibility such be a basic requirement for this series! I needed a book like this one aspires to be at seventeen after reading Nausea and John Fowles and identifying with existentialism.

    • The one small book that might have helped is Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism (E is a Humanism in French) 1946

      • Yes, I think I did get to that, but not before knocking myself out on the first few pages of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

        • Yikes, I think I might pass on that one, then…

    • It’s a tricky balance to achieve, I think. I think the writers of the series are entitled to assume that their readers have the capacity to make sense of difficult concepts and ideas, as first year university students would, but they ought to be careful about the prior knowledge they assume.

  9. […] after a gap of a fortnight due to my struggles with Existentialism, I am back here with Finnegans Wake and starting to entertain ambitions to be done by the end of […]

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