No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life

Course No. 437
Professor Robert C. Solomon, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
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Course No. 437
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Course Overview

The message of Existentialism, unlike that of many more obscure and academic philosophical movements, is about as simple as can be. It is that every one of us, as an individual, is responsible—responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is.

It is, in a very short phrase, the philosophy of 'No excuses!' We cannot shift that burden onto God, or nature, or the ways of the world."

—Professor Robert Solomon

If you believe that life should be a quest for values, reasons, and purpose—filled with passion and governed by individual responsibility—then yours is the sort of mind to which the Existentialist philosophers were speaking.

More than a half-century after it burst upon the intellectual scene, Existentialism has continued to exert a profound attraction for individuals driven to re-examine life's most fundamental questions of individual responsibility, morality, and personal freedom.

  • What is life?
  • What is my place in it?
  • What choices does this obligate me to make?

If you want to enrich your own understanding of this unique philosophical movement, the visionary thinkers it brought together to ponder these questions, and the prominent role it still plays in contemporary thought, you now have an opportunity to do so with this 24-lecture course.

Professor Solomon is Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. He has written several books on a variety of philosophical topics that have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

He is the recipient of teaching awards and honors, including the Standard Oil Outstanding Teaching Award, The University of Texas Presidential Associates' Teaching Award (twice), a Fulbright Lecture Award, University Research and National Endowment for the Humanities grants, and the Chad Oliver Plan II Teaching Award. He is also a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a movement, a "sensibility" that can be traced throughout the history of Western philosophy. Its central themes are:

  • Significance of the individual
  • Importance of passion
  • Irrational aspects of life
  • Importance of human freedom.

"Existentialism is, in my view, the most exciting and important philosophical movement of the past century and a half," states Professor Solomon.

"Fifty years after the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave it its identity, and 150 years after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gave it its initial impetus, Existentialism continues to win new enthusiasts and, in keeping with its still exciting and revolutionary message, vehement critics."

In this series you:

  • Explore the religious Existentialism of Kierkegaard
  • Hear the warrior rhetoric and often-shocking claims about religion and morality of Nietzsche
  • Absorb the bold and profound fiction of Camus
  • Comprehend the radical and uncompromising notion of freedom championed by Sartre
  • Consider the searching analysis of human historicity and finitude offered by Martin Heidegger.

You see how these thinkers relate to one another and to the larger tradition of philosophy itself.

"This lesson taught me how to think—not what to think," writes customer Tony Pope of Auke Bay, Alaska.

Beyond Its Basic Message, Nothing Straightforward About It

To say that the basic message of Existentialism is quite simple and straightforward is not to say that the philosophers or the philosophies that make up the movement are simple and straightforward.

The movement itself is something of a fabrication. None of the major Existentialist figures—only excepting Sartre—would recognize themselves as part of a "movement" at all. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were both ferocious individualists who vehemently rejected all movements.

Heidegger was deeply offended when he was linked with Sartre as one of the Existentialists, and he publicly denounced the association. Camus and Sartre once were friends, but they quarreled over politics and Camus publicly rejected the association.

The Existentialists' writings, too, are by no means simple and straightforward. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche write well but in challenging, often disjointed exhortations.

Heidegger is among the most difficult writers in the entire history of philosophy, and even Sartre—a lucid literary writer when he wants to be—imitates some of the worst elements of Heidegger's notorious style.

Much of the challenge of this course of lectures, accordingly, is to free the exciting and revolutionary message of Existentialism from its often formidable textual enclosures.

The Great Existentialist Writers

Albert Camus, Lectures 1–6. After an introduction to Existentialism, the course begins with a discussion of the 20th-century writer and philosopher Camus (1913-60). Chronologically, Camus is late in the game (you trace Existentialist ideas as far back as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the mid-19th century).

You start with his most famous novel, The Stranger, published in the early 1940s. You also examine The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he introduces his infamous concept of "The Absurd"; The Plague; and The Fall.

Professor Solomon's aim in opening with Camus is to "set a certain mood for the rest of the course, a rebellious, restless, yet thoroughly conscientious mood, which I believe Camus exemplifies both in his writings and in his life."

Søren Kierkegaard, Lectures 7–9. Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a deeply religious philosopher—a pious Christian—and his Existentialist thought was devoted to the question, "What does it mean to be—or rather, what does it mean to become—a Christian?"

"We should thus be advised that, contrary to some popular misunderstandings, Existentialism is by no means an antireligious or unspiritual philosophy. It can and often does embrace God, as well as a host of visions of the world that we can, without apology, call spiritual," notes Dr. Solomon.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Lectures 10–13 . Nietzsche (1844–1900) is perhaps best known for his bold declaration "God is dead." He is also well known as a self-proclaimed "immoralist."

In fact, both of these phrases are misleading, argues Dr. Solomon. Nietzsche was by no means the first person to say that God is dead (Martin Luther had said it three centuries before), and Nietzsche himself was anything but an immoral person.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Lecture 14. Professor Solomon turns briefly to three diverse figures from literature who display Existentialist themes and temperaments in their works: Dostoevsky (1821–81), the great Russian novelist; Kafka (1883–1924), the brilliant Czech novelist and story writer; and Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), a 20th-century Swiss writer who combined a fascination with Asian philosophy with a profoundly Nietzschean interest and temperament.

Edmund Husserl, Lecture 15. The German-Czech philosopher Husserl (1859–1938) invented a philosophical technique called "phenomenology." Husserl is not an Existentialist, but you study him because of his influence on Heidegger and Sartre, both of whom, at the beginning of their careers, considered themselves phenomenologists.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Lectures 18–23. Professor Solomon suggests that much of what is best in Postmodernism is taken more or less directly from Sartre (1905–80), despite the fact that he is typically attacked as the very antithesis of Postmodernism.

Existentialism, Dr. Solomon argues, was and is not just another French intellectual fashion but a timely antidote to some of the worst self-(mis)understandings of the end of the century.

The series concludes with a comparison and contrast with French philosophy since Sartre's time.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    What Is Existentialism?
    Existentialism is best thought of as a movement, a "sensibility" that can be traced throughout the history of Western philosophy. Its central themes are the significance of the individual, the importance of passion, the irrational aspects of life, and the importance of human freedom. x
  • 2
    Albert Camus—The Stranger, Part I
    This novel is an excellent example of the new existentialist literature of the 1940s. Meursault, the title character, is critically devoid of basic human attributes. But then he kills a man, and we get to see him forced into philosophic reflection and humanity. x
  • 3
    Camus—The Stranger, Part II
    The Stranger captures the philosophical conflict between reason and experience. It raises the question of the meaning and worth of rationality and reflection. It also raises basic questions about self-consciousness, good and evil, innocence and guilt. x
  • 4
    Camus—The Myth of Sisyphus
    Here is Camus's vision of "the absurd." The absurd is born, Camus says, out of our increasingly impersonal, abstract, scientific view of the world. Only truly personal experience, he insists, can be ultimately meaningful. x
  • 5
    Camus—The Plague and The Fall
    In this, the most "social" work by Camus, the plague is a metaphor for the absurd. The theme of the novel is impending but unpredictable death, both individual and collective. Camus represents himself (more or less) as Tarrou, who faces the plague with both determination and irony. x
  • 6
    Camus—The Fall, Part II
    Here Camus displays reflection and guilt in extreme form. Clamence the attorney has become a "judge-penitent," and he confesses his supposedly hypocritical life to the reader. But is his intent expiation or seduction? x
  • 7
    Søren Kierkegaard—“On Becoming a Christian”
    This 19th-century Danish philosopher was, in many ways, the first existentialist. Why did he, a devout Christian, reject so much of what his contemporaries meant by "being a Christian"? x
  • 8
    Kierkegaard on Subjective Truth
    Kierkegaard took subjective truth, embraced with inwardness and passion, to be the central element in a meaningful life. Are there, he asked, any but subjective answers to the question, "How should I live?" x
  • 9
    Kierkegaard's Existential Dialectic
    Kierkegaard cannot be understood apart from his critique of Hegel. In the Dane's version of the dialectic, there is no predetermined direction, only subjective "modes of existence," but no purely rational ground for choosing one over another. x
  • 10
    Friedrich Nietzsche on Nihilism and the Death of God
    Friedrich Nietzsche blames Plato and the Judeo-Christian tradition for "nihilism," and praises the ancient Greeks of Homeric epic and Periclean Athens. Claiming that "God is dead," Nietzsche offers an alternative to Jesus in the form of the "this-worldly" Persian prophet Zarathustra. x
  • 11
    Nietzsche, the “Immoralist”
    Nietzsche was neither immoral nor a foe of morality as such. But he did take aim at Judeo-Christian morality. By contrast, he praised an aristocratic and independent "master" morality. x
  • 12
    Nietzsche on Freedom, Fate, and Responsibility
    Nietzsche often praises fate and fatalism. But at the same time, he encourages existential self-realization. Struggling with Schopenhauer's pessimism, Nietzsche insists that we can and should "give style to our character" in order to "become who we are." x
  • 13
    Nietzsche—The Übermensch and the Will to Power
    Though he appears in only one book, the Übermensch is Nietzsche's best-known invention and the alternative to the smug and hateful "last man." Ultimately, both the Übermensch and the spiritualized Will to Power that he embodies represent passion and the love of life. x
  • 14
    Three Grand Inquisitors—Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hesse
    Three important figures surrounding Nietzsche are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and Hermann Hesse. Dostoevsky was a contemporary who also investigated the dark side of human reason. Kafka wrote fiction that powerfully explored the absurd. Hesse was an admirer of Nietzsche who also became heavily influenced by Buddhist thought. x
  • 15
    Husserl, Heidegger, and Phenomenology
    Edmund Husserl founded phenomenology, a philosophical method seeking certainty. His greatest student was Martin Heidegger, who took Husserl's method into the realm of existentialism with a remarkable account of human being as "being there." x
  • 16
    Heidegger on the World and the Self
    For Heidegger, Dasein approaches the world less as an object of knowledge than as a set of tasks. Why, then, does Heidegger also question technology, the task-doing science? x
  • 17
    Heidegger on “Authenticity”
    What are the three "existential" features of Dasein? What are the essentials of authenticity, according to Heidegger? How does recognition of our own mortality prompt us to achieve them? x
  • 18
    Jean-Paul Sartre at War
    Jean-Paul Sartre named existentialism and popularized it. His philosophy can best be summed up by the phrase "No excuses!" Whatever the situation, he insists, we have choices. We are all responsible for what we do, what we are, and the way the world is. x
  • 19
    Sartre on Emotions and Responsibility
    Sartre was an early foe of psychologists such as William James and Freud, whose theories he found deterministic. Sartre insisted that emotions are not mere "feelings," but freely chosen strategies for coping with a difficult world. x
  • 20
    Sartres Phenomenology
    Borrowing from Husserl, Sartre tells us that consciousness is freedom. It is also "nothingness": as intentional, it is always about something other than itself and outside the network of causal relations. How does such a phenomenology of human nature replace traditional philosophical arguments? x
  • 21
    Sartre on “Bad Faith”
    What does Sartre mean by the terms Being-for-Itself, Being-in-Itself, and Being-for-Others? What is the meaning of his distinction between facticity and transcendence? Finally, where and why does Sartre see "bad faith" coming into the picture? x
  • 22
    Sartre’s Being-for-Others and No Exit
    Many philosophers have argued that we know the existence of others through an obvious kind of inference. Sartre, however, insists that our knowledge of them comes first from being looked at by them. Or as one of the characters in No Exit famously says, "L'enfer, ce sont les autres." x
  • 23
    Sartre on Sex and Love
    What consequences follow when Sartre's analysis of Being-for-Others is applied to love and other intimate human relationships? How does his view of love and friendship as struggles for self-definition and authenticity compare with traditional treatments of these phenomena in Western culture? x
  • 24
    From Existentialism to Postmodernism
    What is postmodernism? Has it really eclipsed Sartrean existentialism? Is there a postmodernist debt to Sartre? And more importantly, are there emphases and insights in Sartre that postmodernism loses sight of and could stand to learn from its predecessor? x

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Robert C. Solomon

About Your Professor

Robert C. Solomon, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
Robert C. Solomon (1942–2007) was the Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he taught for more than 30 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Michigan. He held visiting appointments at the University of...
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No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Immediate and Lasting Change For me, this was a game-changer. It was all-practical. I listened to it, went through it again immediately afterward, and found myself changed. The changes, it appears, are both permanent and beneficial.
Date published: 2020-09-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from No excuses, but no fulfillment Yea! The streaming from TGC web site has CC! But not the DVD? Go figure... For me, the offering is remarkably evoking and insightful, with strong caveats. The European Existential non-humanistic heritage that emphasizes ethics as "integrity" and personal choice, trying to bring the best subjective passion to personal choice, is made convincing and essential. The problem is that the word "self- actualization" is used only once, and to miss Rogers, Maslow, May, Watts, and the host of American "humanist" thinkers (not referred to until the last lecture) that in my mind displaced the convoluted and difficult European tradition, is unfortunate. The various European philosophers were Nazis, defenders of the worst Stalinist nightmares (not only in Russia, but also the various European and Cuban nightmares), passionate defenders of mass religious authority (despite denials of that). To find a convincing idea of personal choice with integrity is a tough sell here; real tough. But it is achieved, and many of the ideas fit in a consideration of personal ethical choice. The offering achieves its stated purpose, to explain the "philosophical art" of Existentialism (even if it resembles a Rauschenberg collage). The explanation is "attitudes", expressions, and views that for me serve as the basis of modern working ethics for personal life (without fulfillment). The path is opened, but not taken, to more modern humanistic vantages needed for business and government. Solomon's book "Existentialism" is not only a great European philosophical foundation comparison, but also a great comparative literary compendium, and well worth acquiring. Still, a warning would be that most of the selections are ironic, critical, comic, absurd, downbeat; Solomon would prefer Camus, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Hesse at his most paranoid (rather than "Siddhartha"). My favorites, Paul Tillich and Viktor Frankl, have all too few companions for the "courage to be" needed to do innovative, fulfilling, and profitable things in the face of uncertainty and failure. I encountered "Existentialism" as an undergrad, as an Operation Research (Management) major. Took the course as lots of my young readings included Camus, Kafka, and Hesse, and I was interested in the philosophical foundation my advisors recommended. I was taking grad courses that invited "humanistic" speakers (I think Colin Wilson was among them). Solomon is a Prof of "Business and Philosophy", without actual experience; and has also authored various "ethics of business" books (which I do not recommend). My caveat is that this offering serves as a strong basis for personal ethics, but misses the "self- actualization" humanistic fulfillment part so necessary for modern management at any level in any venue. Enjoy, but beware.
Date published: 2020-08-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Solomon is a "Nerd" but he knows his stuff. I am half way through the program and love it. So much of Existentialism fits todays world. I recommended the program to my brother-in-law.
Date published: 2020-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great, insightful introduction to Existentialism Robert Solomon really needs no introduction as a professor. I'm thrilled to be able to learn about existentialism from such a great teacher. This course is is kind of an in-depth survey. Meaning each lesson goes into some detail on the life of the author and the main ideas of certain texts. If you have time, read the texts ahead of time so you really know what he's referencing. But even if you don't have the time to do so, the lectures are insightful and illuminating. A great presentation on an important topic. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2020-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great overview of existentialism Solomon gives us a very solid overview of existentialism, which he rightly sees as a vital, powerful philosophy that can be directly relevant and applicable to our lives. Far from seeing existentialism as a museum piece, or merely a cultural response to the wreckage of WWII, Solomon traces it back into the nineteenth century and then up through its greatest exponent, Sartre, and shows how its roots go deeper still, not only in history but in humanity itself. Solomon also quite rightly spends time on the creative output of those existentialists who wrote literature and quasi-literature, such as Camus, Sartre and Nietzche, and touches on literary writers who dealt with related themes such as Kafka and Doestoevsky. If the course had been longer he could have gone even farther in this direction, which in fact he does in the book he has edited entitled "Existentialism", containing philosophical and literary excerpts from many works relevant to his theme.
Date published: 2019-05-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Challenging Course But Worth It I'm not gonna lie to you, this course was challenging for 2 reasons: the professor and the content. The professor clearly knew his stuff, but unfortunately he was not an enthusiastic speaker and his voice may leave some drifting off to sleep, forcing you to concentrate on what he is saying (I spaced out a few times while he was speaking and had to rewind the lectures). Existentialism in-and-of itself is a challenging topic and is like a wild stallion that needs to be broken in with patient determination. Fortunately for me, I had some understanding of the subject and had read some of the numerous philosophers' books and the whole reason I bought this course was to clarify what I had been reading. Bottom line: If you want an intellectually stimulating challenge, buy this course immediately. If not, then you may want to reconsider, as this course is demanding and requires your full attention if you are unfamiliar with the content.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The absurdity of human existence Well done for my intellectual purposes. A real professional presentation.
Date published: 2018-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Instructor! I wanted to have these lectures because I took Existentialism as an undergraduate and Robert Solomon was the author of our text book. I wanted to see him lecture on the subject and I'm very happy with these set of lectures! I did not want to lose touch with what I learned from existentialism and now I have these lectures for the rest of my life to enjoy!
Date published: 2017-06-27
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