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This book has 1 recommendation

David Heinemeier Hansson (Co-Founder/Basecamp)

As a newcomer to existentialism, it can be hard to wrap your brain around the core concepts when reading novels like The Stranger or Nausea, or writers like Kierkegaard. You get a great feel for the existentialist ambience, but what are the core tenets? This (short) book delivers it about as directly as you can get it, as it’s basically just two parts: 1) An account of a lecture/defense that Sartre gave of existentialism, complete with a debate with someone in the audience, and 2) Sartre’s review of Camus’ The Stranger.

The key concept that Sartre explains is the notion of Existence Precedes Essence. It’s one of those concepts that sounds intimidatingly highbrow, but really just means that we are not born with a purpose before we are “thrown into this world”. That then sets the stage for reaffirming human choice. That we always have a choice. That destiny or divine purpose is just an excuse we use not to make (hard) choices.

This description of existentialism really resonated with me and provides a wonderful alternative vision to the stoic philosophy. There’s much agreement between the two views of the world, but also enough disagreement to provide interesting tension. Especially between the Aurelius version of stoicism, which endlessly belabors the point of doing “what the universe asks you to do”.

Amazon description

It was to correct common misconceptions about his thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, the most dominent European intellectual of the post-World War II decades, accepted an invitation to speak on October 29, 1945, at the Club Maintenant in Paris. The unstated objective of his lecture (“Existentialism Is a Humanism”) was to expound his philosophy as a form of “existentialism,” a term much bandied about at the time. Sartre asserted that existentialism was essentially a doctrine for philosophers, though, ironically, he was about to make it accessible to a general audience. The published text of his lecture quickly became one of the bibles of existentialism and made Sartre an international celebrity.

The idea of freedom occupies the center of Sartre’s doctrine. Man, born into an empty, godless universe, is nothing to begin with. He creates his essence—his self, his being—through the choices he freely makes (“existence precedes essence”). Were it not for the contingency of his death, he would never end. Choosing to be this or that is to affirm the value of what we choose. In choosing, therefore, we commit not only ourselves but all of mankind.

This book presents a new English translation of Sartre’s 1945 lecture and his analysis of Camus’s The Stranger, along with a discussion of these works by acclaimed Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal. This edition is a translation of the 1996 French edition, which includes Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre’s introduction and a Q&A with Sartre about his lecture.

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Jean-Paul Sartre


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