My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a challenging read for me, evidenced by the length of time it took. I kept reading a few pages, setting it aside, digesting, reading a few more… The Existentialists were obscurants; I needed some help (I started listening to The Teaching Company’s Great Courses lecture series “No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life”.) Disclosure: I was given a review copy of an Uncorrected e-proof from the publisher, Harper-Collins, through Edelweiss+. My copy had place-holders for, but no Epilogue, Acknowledgements, or References. I’m not sure what if anything else will change with the final publication.
I requested this because I’d not explored much of the Existentialists, though I thought I’d identified with at least some of the talk. Now I’m not so sure. I had to do a little research; as it turned out I had a less than cursory knowledge of the group. Learning that it is essentially exclusively a Western phenomena, by the time I was finished with this book I determined that most of the existentialists seemed constrained in focus by geography and cultural fetters. Kierkegaard was particularly hamstrung by his affinity to Christianity (so were Newton, Pascal, Descartes, to name a few…so that’s not new), but even Nietzsche, as anti-Christian as any of his age, was a Christian atheist. That colors a perspective. Even if they manage to decouple from religion they fall to an unimaginative trap of searching for a replacement….meaning.
Imbuing “meaning” seems to be a core requirement for philosophers, regardless of the school. Marino interprets the meanings expounded by Kierkegaard and his “ilk” (a term used in the description that grabbed my attention enough to request this book)…not an easy task. Philosophers seem to spend a considerable amount of time and energy trying to answer questions that either don’t need answers, or can’t have any meaningful answers. And they sometimes imagine questions that didn’t need to be asked.
Do philosophers (or any writers) have an obligation to make sure that their messages are understood by others? One thing virtually every philosophical species seems to have in common is an intentional languaging up of their work – refer to Dawkins’ Law of Conservation of Difficulty (“Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.”) – and existentialism keeps pace with, often exceeding, its peers. Here’s an example, not in this book, but a very good illustration from Sartre:
“I have never ceased to believe that one is and one makes oneself of whatever is made of one.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted by Robert C. Solomon, No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, Great Courses from The Teaching Company
So…what he was saying was “We make ourselves.” But languaged up (Sartre was trapped in the “post-modernism” of his day…) I think studying philosophy is a matter of unraveling the language to see if there is anything underneath, and if so, exposing it. I’m sure that Marino summarized the philosophy well. Still, absent an explicit first person interview (all of the subjects were dead), everything is speculation and prone to the analyst’s projections (and Marino does project.)
A content note, Marino shares a lot of a personal nature; maybe to form a connection with the reader. He is a boxer and boxing coach…Hemingway-ish, I suppose (he says “Today, the young and privileged get very little practice in sparring with their angst.” And then suggests they take up boxing. Yep. Hemingway.) I could have done without all of that. But that’s me. Also, I don’t think he answered the question of the subtitle. Actually, for me…he didn’t.
Whenever I examine philosophy, I wonder which is more challenging: a life spent thinking about these things, or a life spent thinking about the people who thought about these things. Existentialists are no different than other philosophers in their search for the “meaning” of life. And they miss the point. Life just is.