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 91.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought provoking, maybe life changing I first listened to these lectures over a year ago, renting the series from my local library, and it was a tremendously pleasant surprise. I knew nothing of the existentialists then, but now I've read nearly every philosopher discussed in this course. Honestly, I was (naiievely) shocked to not see fully positive reviews on this course, so I thought I'd contribute my part. I had a minor in philosophy coming into the series, so I had some idea of the other philosophers Dr. Solomon contrasts with the existentialists, which probably helped me enjoy the material. This professor seems very adept at making obscure thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger hit close to home; he translates ideas of consciousness into examples like catching a bus, being a student, faking one's birthday, etc. Existentialism isn't systematic, or even all that "rational" - it is in many ways reactionary towards the Rationalism of the Enlightenment - so I think enjoying this course depends more on pondering the "deep questions" than trying to gain a raw mastery over the material. All this said, I have also tried other Great Courses on philosophy and utterly failed to engage with the professor/material. So, maybe some courses just aren't for everyone... still, I have listened to this series probably a dozen times as I read through each existentialist author, and can't recommend it highly enough.
Date published: 2008-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite TC course This is my favorite TC course and I've purchased over 20 of them. I don't know why anyone would give this a bad review, but to each his/her own I guess. I wouldn't let this dissuade you from purchasing it. Solomon is the coolest prof, teaching the coolest subject. Worst-case scenario is you return it using the guarantee but I doubt that will happen.
Date published: 2008-12-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Perhaps the most boring of my 30 odd TC courses Much as I was interested to learn about existentialism, Dr. Solomon's teaching style had a soporific effect on me.
Date published: 2008-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Greats University of Texas Professor Bob Solomon had a genius for distilling the essence of the subject matter down into sweet, intoxicating lectures. His passion for the subject is obvious. His intellect was first rate. I miss this man tremendously. My regret is that he didn't do more courses for the teaching company before his death.
Date published: 2008-11-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Just didn't work for me This lecture just didn't work for me at all. I don't think it was the lecturer although he really didn't have that extra-something that turned me one. I think it mostly was the subject. Unlike other lectures which I couldn't wait until the next track, this one bored me to pieces. I had of course heard of Existentialism before but didn't really know that much about it. After the first few lectures I felt as though it wasn't really even a subject or a philosophy or even a movement, but rather a collection of fuzzy-headed pseudo-intellectual ideas presented as though they were some brilliant manifestation of the human drama. But I didn't buy it at all; I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. Maybe it picked up after the half-way point, I don't know, because I couldn't bare it anymore. Sorry, wish I could say something positive about this one but it just didn't work for me.
Date published: 2008-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging, provocative, and anything but passe. Dr. Solomons's no nonsense, take no prisoner delivery commands the attention this subject so richly deserves in an age of confused righteousness and suicide bombers.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is the 3rd time I've gone through this course - every time I enjoy it more and learn more. Excellent professor.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As a result of this course, I have purchased several books by Dr. Solomon. Although I was very familiar with the subject, and had read all the material discussed, his lectures enriched my understanding.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from This is hard material to teach - needed more A/V, non- verbal "helps".
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Course reflects deep scholarship and teaching experience. It is a great value for money and the Teaching Company's supplementary support and delivery systesm are superb. Preperation & content of course make easy what are normally difficult for stude
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Karl Jaspers is one of the founders of Existentialism, yet in the above course his name was not mentioned!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Solomon deepens my insight into works I've known by heart since early teens 40 years ago. Great, thoughtful work.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As a retired educator, a life long learner and an avid reader of non-fiction. I find your courses to be "top shelf."
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The most excited I've been about "education" in a long time, including my college years. Thank to Professor Solomon for putting this old brain to work!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course provided, to me, a new and comprehensive view of existentialism.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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