Situating Existentialism

Situating Existentialism: Key Texts in Context

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Situating Existentialism
    Book Description:

    This anthology provides a history of the systemization and canonization of existentialism, a quintessentially antisystemic mode of thought. Situating existentialism within the history of ideas, it features new readings on the most influential works in the existential canon, exploring their formative contexts and the cultural dialogues of which they were a part.

    Emphasizing the multidisciplinary and global nature of existential arguments, the chosen texts relate to philosophy, religion, literature, theater, and culture and reflect European, Russian, Latin American, African, and American strains of thought. Readings are grouped into three thematic categories: national contexts, existentialism and religion, and transcultural migrations that explore the reception of existentialism. The volume explains how literary giants such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were incorporated into the existentialist fold and how inclusion into the canon recast the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and it describes the roles played by Jaspers and Heidegger in Germany and the Paris School of existentialism in France. Essays address not only frequently assigned works but also underappreciated discoveries, underscoring their vital relevance to contemporary critical debate. Designed to speak to a new generation's concerns, the collection deploys a diverse range of voices to interrogate the fundamental questions of the human condition.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51967-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-34)
    Jonathan Judaken

    Situating Existentialism is a history of the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought. As such, it reconstructs a shared dialogue about the human condition in the form of a series of reception histories. But it does so in a somewhat disjointed set of frames, for the process of establishing existentialism as a distinctive brand of theorizing about the human predicament in modernity was welded together only in hindsight.

    One might assume that an overview of the history of existentialism would offer a definition of its subject at the outset. But existentialism, in principle, rejects a...

    • 1 Russian Existentialism, or Existential Russianism
      (pp. 37-64)
      Val Vinokur

      It is no accident that this book begins with the Russians. Walter Kaufmann’s classic anthology, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, claimed Notes from Underground as the founding text of existentialism.¹ And the Russians always had a thing or two to tell the French about being worried about existence. After all, it was Russia (according to Freud) that exported the “death instinct” to the West, along with caviar and ballet.² To be Russian is to fret about being—about being Russian or about not being Russian enough, about being human or about not being human enough. Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish “Russian...

    • 2 German Existentialism and the Persistence of Metaphysics: Weber, Jaspers, Heidegger
      (pp. 65-88)
      Peter E. Gordon

      Martin Heidegger was appointed to the chair in philosophy at Freiburg University in 1928 and delivered “What Is Metaphysics?” (his inaugural address) before the assembled faculty, in the main auditorium on Wednesday, July 24, 1929.¹ At once dense and abstract, the lecture was and will surely remain one of the truly classic statements in the canon of European existentialism. Grappling with its themes is an immense challenge, but the task is made all the more difficult thanks to Heidegger’s scrupulous avoidance of any concrete references to his philosophical contemporaries, let alone any explicit appeal to the various sources that inspired...

    • 3 Sisyphus’s Progeny: Existentialism in France
      (pp. 89-122)
      Jonathan Judaken

      Advertisements in Le monde, Le figaro, Combat, and Libération announced that Jean-Paul Sartre would pronounce on the topic, “Is Existentialism a Humanism?” on October 29, 1945. It was only two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mushroom clouds above the Pacific ushering in the age of instant mass death. It was just six months after Hitler’s suicide; the newsreels and photographs of concentration and death camps revealed the horror Nazism had wrought, captured in the mounds of bodies shunted into mass graves. The lecture followed shortly after the anniversary of the euphoric Liberation of Paris...

    • 4 Punching Through the Pasteboard Masks: American Existentialism
      (pp. 123-144)
      George Cotkin

      Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” (1957) assaults its readers with existentially tinged racial fantasies of violence and liberation. In the piece, Mailer sought to celebrate a new figure—“the American existentialist,” otherwise referred to as “the hipster.” Pursuing his version of existential man, Mailer followed along a trail that Sartre had already blazed. Mailer intended by his bold embrace of criminal acts and a revolutionary cultural style to trump Sartre. Sartre had talked about the necessity of the novelist entering into a discourse with the era. Mailer proclaimed his desire to bring about “a revolution in the consciousness of...

    • 5 Angst Across the Channel: Existentialism in Britain
      (pp. 145-179)
      Martin Woessner

      When Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had its English-language premiere at the Arts Theatre Club in London on August 3, 1955, few were prepared for the avalanche of interest this seemingly obscure play would unleash. Originally composed in French by an Irish expatriate, and dripping with what seemed to be a decidedly continental pathos, Godot was an unlikely blockbuster. But a blockbuster was what it quickly became. According to the director of the Arts Theatre production, a young Peter Hall, it did not take long for “Godot mania” to grip London. Equal parts condemnation, bafflement, praise, and satire went into...

    • 6 Existentialisms in the Hispanic and Latin American Worlds: El Quixote and Its Existential Children
      (pp. 180-208)
      Eduardo Mendieta

      Existentialism is the quintessential philosophy of modernity. At the center of all existentialist thinking is the inescapably free subject who must make herself in a world bereft of meaning. Yet the obduracy of this world is determined by the limits of a circumstance that is traced by the freedom of others. I am thrown into the world, condemned to freedom, and what I encounter are always other freedoms. God is useless, for my freedom is never breached by a sovereignty that reigns by granting absolute freedom. I am born unfinished and have nothing but a vacuum at the core of...

    • 7 Fear and Trembling and the Paradox of Christian Existentialism
      (pp. 211-236)
      George Pattison

      If existentialism is identified with the atheistic existentialism of Sartre, then to speak of Christian existentialism would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Thus, when Catholic apologists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain sought to recapture the vocabulary of “existence” for Christian theology, they did so by opposing the Sartrean disjunction of essence and existence and invoking scholasticism’s definition of God as that being whose essence is to exist, a definition rendered in the Thomist affirmation of “He Who Is” as the most appropriate of the divine names.¹ Although this seemed to suggest a certain transcendence of existence...

    • 8 Jewish Co-Existentialism: Being with the Other
      (pp. 237-255)
      Paul Mendes- Flohr

      A distinctive Jewish school of existentialism is most widely associated with Martin Buber (1878–1965) and his philosophy of dialogue. Introduced in 1923 with the original German publication of I and Thou (Ich und Du), his concept of dialogue or the I–Thou relation has exercised a seminal influence extending far beyond Jewish philosophical circles. Written with a nigh-musical cadence, evocative inflections, and aphoristic formulations, this relatively thin volume has with some justification been characterized as a philosophical poem. Indeed, Buber explicitly rejected the traditional form of philosophical discourse. He regarded the function of philosophical thinking to be that of...

    • 9 Camus the Unbeliever: Living Without God
      (pp. 256-276)
      Ronald Aronson

      Albert Camus, a master of unforgettable images in his fiction and philosophy, left us none more striking than that of Sisyphus. Condemned to forever roll his rock up the hill only to see it roll back down, then to descend and begin again, Sisyphus incarnates a twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century sense of life’s absurdity, its “futility and hopeless labor.”¹ Yet there is something triumphant in his endless effort, his intense consciousness. He is the absurd hero: “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole...

    • 10 Anxiety and Secularization: Søren Kierkegaard and the Twentieth-Century Invention of Existentialism
      (pp. 279-304)
      Samuel Moyn

      The renown of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most compelling proofs there is of how the canon of philosophy is constantly reinvented as time passes—a process that collective forces and historical contingencies rule and that personal brilliance and textual power can do startlingly little to affect by themselves. At the dawn of the twentieth century, none of the standard histories of philosophy—except one by Harald Høffding, who was (predictably enough) then the main Danish thinker of European note—stopped at Kierkegaard’s tomb in their tours of the graveyard of thought, and then only briefly.¹ At...

    • 11 Rethinking the “Existential” Nietzsche in Germany: Löwith, Jaspers, Heidegger
      (pp. 305-335)
      Charles Bambach

      In an idiom from his philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo that betrays the marks of both prophecy and irony, Nietzsche proclaims: “I am a destiny.” “My truth is dreadful,” he writes. “I am by far the most terrible human being there has ever been.” As the herald of this dreadful truth, Nietzsche positions himself as the thinker of both ascent and decline, the one who prepares “a decision evoked against everything that until now has been believed in, demanded, sanctified.” “Have I been understood?” Nietzsche asks. “The unmasking of Christian morality is an event [Ereignis] without equal, a real catastrophe. He...

    • 12 Situating Frantz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience
      (pp. 336-359)
      Robert Bernasconi

      In 1952, when Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was published, a new era was already beginning in the discussion of race.¹ For the first time in more than 150 years, the dominant discourse about race was no longer under the dark shadow of racial science. It was now governed by a growing recognition of the evils of racism. One sees this most notably in the UNESCO declaration on race, which was authored primarily by Ashley Montagu yet with the signatures of other anthropologists (most notably Claude Lévi-Strauss and E. Franklin Frazier) attached. Together they called for “an ethic of...

    • 13 Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought
      (pp. 360-385)
      Debra Bergoffen

      It is impossible to know where Simone de Beauvoir’s thinking would have gone had she been spared the depravation and fright of living in Nazi-occupied Paris. What we do know is that coming face-to-face with forces of injustice beyond her control gave a new urgency to the questions of evil and the other. Beauvoir spoke of the war as creating an existential rupture in time and spoke of herself as having undergone a conversion.¹ She could no longer afford the luxury of focusing on her own happiness and pleasure. The question of oppression became a pressing concern. One cannot refuse...

    • 14 The “Letter on Humanism”: Reading Heidegger in France
      (pp. 386-414)
      Ethan Kleinberg

      In what follows I situate the first “Heidegger Affair” and Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” in relation to the initial reception of Heidegger’s philosophy in France.¹ To do so I present what I have defined as the first three “readings”—or understandings of Heidegger’s work in France—in order to clarify the relationship between Heidegger’s own work and existential philosophy. Yet I do this also to articulate the ways that Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” led to the demise of “existentialism” as the leading philosophy in France. All three of these readings can be traced to differing French interpretations of Heidegger’s work...

  7. List of Contributors
    (pp. 415-418)
  8. Index
    (pp. 419-432)