Philosophy as a Guide to Living

Course No. 4244
Professor Stephen A. Erickson, Ph.D.
Pomona College
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Course No. 4244
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Course Overview

Is there meaning in human life? All of us have asked ourselves this question. But for philosophers through the ages, it was the first question of many, for they needed to know whether such a question was even answerable by philosophy. And if it was, they needed to ask whether any positive answer could be pursued through the practice of philosophy itself.

Today, these questions remain as timely and controversial as ever. But following the pathway of proposed answers on anything other than a level surface—no matter how fascinating we find the subject—can often be difficult for those untrained in philosophy and the profound rigor of its arguments and language.

Provocative, Accessible Lectures

What a delight, then, to be able to offer Professor Stephen A. Erickson's Philosophy as a Guide to Living—a thoughtful, stimulating, and most important, accessible discussion of how some of the greatest minds of the past three centuries have pondered why we are here and what journey we might be on.

It's a chance for you to take your own journey, as Professor Erickson guides you along the intellectual road traveled by post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and other European philosophers. These ideas persist to the present day, as contemporary philosophers have taken up the intellectual route so irresistible to the likes of later intellectuals—Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Foucault, and Habermas.

Each one, says Professor Erickson, "speaks in important ways to the time in which we now find ourselves. They are concerned with exploring the limits of human reason and are focused on the likely course of history. These philosophers tend also to pay close attention to our lives in the world, enmeshed in culture and questing after significant opportunities for self-understanding and personal development."

Most important, you can comprehend what each has to say equipped with your own intellect, curiosity, and fascination with the course's central question. Professor Erickson has designed a course that requires no prior background in philosophy and avoids the often-intimidating language in which serious philosophy can be expressed. And he has done so without diminishing the extraordinary intellectual depth that each of the philosophers included here bring to the debate.

Anyone who has ever studied philosophy at length will understand what a remarkable achievement this course is. From his first lecture, when he removes any threat of confusion about the "axial model of understanding"—one of the few technical terms used in these lectures—it is clear that this is a different kind of philosophy course. Professor Erickson clearly explains that the term is the basic model of understanding life that has dominated philosophical and religious thinking in the West for 3,000 years—the idea that life is a process or journey between two different orders: from darkness to light, from bondage to liberation, from experiencing the world's appearance to understanding its reality.

A Comfortable Approach to Theory

This clarity soon becomes evident as the norm of the course; it is the result of an award-winning teacher's relaxed and contemplative style, free of jargon, and favoring the concrete over the abstract. Professor Erickson is also skilled at weaving in quick summaries of what preceding philosophers had to say about the topic being covered, so it is always clear exactly where each new thinker fits in. The course is an ideal way to become comfortable with philosophical ideas. And it's an approach that brings to life the beliefs and arguments of these great thinkers, as well as the philosophers themselves.

Lecture by lecture, you'll encounter some of the inspirational minds that have helped humankind probe what is perhaps its most fundamental question, including:

  • Karl Marx, whose horror over working conditions in 19th-century England and contempt of the ways of the privileged would ultimately alter the political landscape of the world
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, whose own brand of Existentialism represented a dramatic detour from Kierkegaard's, and who left a lasting imprint on philosophical thought, even though he became hopelessly insane the last 11 years of his life
  • Sigmund Freud, whose impact on the field of psychology cannot obscure the relevance his work has for philosophers grappling with questions about meaning and the foundations of self-knowledge

The avenues opened by these thinkers, and by all the minds explored in these lectures, do not, of course, explain the meaning of life. Or even if such a meaning exists. But they do take us further along a journey that will almost certainly never end.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Axial Model
    The philosophical and religious understanding of life in the West has been axial for almost 3,000 years. This lecture explores how axial thinking, the understanding of life as a journey, came into being and how it has shaped our belief systems. x
  • 2
    Kant’s Hopeful Program
    We review some examples of the axial model at work in Western philosophy before turning to the beginning of its collapse during the Enlightenment c. 1750, most notably in the writings of Immanuel Kant. x
  • 3
    The Kantian Legacy
    We look at Kant's claims regarding both human nature and the limits to our knowledge, particularly his account of how a moral life ought to be led in the face of our irremediable ignorance of ultimate things and the consequences of this understanding for religion. x
  • 4
    Kant and the Romantic Reaction
    Kant becomes subject to criticism for comprehending the trajectory and ideal of human life too restrictively as a battle between moral duty and personal inclination. In reaction, a philosophical agenda that we now call Romanticism emerges, which glorifies the individual and the exceptional. x
  • 5
    Hegel on the Human Spirit
    Enlightenment philosophers pay little attention to human history, focusing on a future in which reason, science, and education overcome tradition and superstition to achieve human equality. Georg W. F. Hegel dramatically alters this picture and seeks to undermine its assumptions. x
  • 6
    Hegel on State and Society
    Hegel understands human history to be the progressive, though problematic, journey to human freedom. His notion of freedom and of human rights in general is different from and more inclusive than our Anglo-American versions. x
  • 7
    Hegel on Selfhood and Human Identity
    We examine Hegel's seemingly counterintuitive conception of Self, which involves relational elements, and we consider Hegel's three dimensions of our selfhood. x
  • 8
    Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
    An unusual figure in philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer offers an account of our nature that is most bleak, earning him the title of pessimist. We see how his own life makes his pessimism understandable. x
  • 9
    Schopenhauer’s Remedies
    Optimally, a guide to living delivers us not only from something, but also for or to something. The latter is lacking in Schopenhauer. In the end there is nothing, and the solution cannot be found in philosophy. We look at the four suggestions he offers. x
  • 10
    Alienation in Marx
    For Karl Marx, it is not our reason but socioeconomic forces that constitute our fundamental relations with the world. He asserts that not thought, but the concrete—the work activities we engage in—reveal, determine, and distort our natures. x
  • 11
    Marx’s Utopian Hope
    We examine Marx's belief that we belong to history and that we will find the meaning of our lives through it. We also study his claim that revolution, not philosophy, is necessary to overcome our alienation and transform our spirit. x
  • 12
    Kierkegaard’s Crises
    For Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, often called the father of Existentialism, the large and pervasive phenomena that preoccupy Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Marx fall away, and an intense focus is placed upon the individual. x
  • 13
    Kierkegaard’s Passion
    We look at Kierkegaard's argument for a passionate commitment to an ethical life devoted to the discovery and becoming of who we really are, which in turn leads to a direct passage toward religious salvation. x
  • 14
    Why God Died—Nietzsche’s Claim
    This lecture examines Nietzsche's indictment of both philosophy and religion as contributions to human decadence and analyzes his claim of the "death" of God, heralding pervasive disorientation, the arrival of a time of potentially courageous nihilism, and the power of human creativity. x
  • 15
    Nietzsche’s Dream
    There are no facts, says Nietzsche, only interpretations, especially in the realm of morality. He offers a fundamental and provocative distinction between a slave morality that conforms to assumed norms and a master morality that creates values through its activities. x
  • 16
    Freud’s Nightmare
    Is making shrewd compromises the best we can do with life? The philosopher in Sigmund Freud asserts that such compromises are both highly costly and terribly necessary. We focus on Freud's two pivotal means of achieving what he considers salvation: work and love. x
  • 17
    Freud on Our Origins
    Freud declares that raising metaphysical questions about our origins and destinies is symptomatic of illness. Part of the reason for this bleak view came from what he understood of those origins. x
  • 18
    Psychoanalytic Visions in and after Freud
    Some say that through psychoanalysis, sin is converted to guilt and the soul is replaced by the unconscious. We look at different perspectives on fundamental human drives that power us as Freud and those who followed him sought to understand and come to terms with those drives. x
  • 19
    Heidegger on the Meaning of Meaning
    Has our era become so misguided that we no longer concern ourselves with questions of meaning but only calculate costs and practical, material benefits? The man considered by many to be the 20th century's most influential philosopher claims this is the case. x
  • 20
    Heidegger on Technology’s Threat
    Heidegger claims that art can perhaps replace a Nietzschean world in which God is dead and the gods have fled, and puts the source of our core problem—dehumanization—in technology. x
  • 21
    Heidegger’s Politics and Legacy
    However great a philosopher, Heidegger was also a National Socialist in Nazi Germany—and for far longer than he later chose to admit. We examine the key turning points of his life and the implications of his politics. x
  • 22
    The Human Situation—Sartre and Camus
    Is isolation to be considered a means of liberation or estrangement? Is freedom a goal to pursue or a sentence to avoid? Two French philosophers raise provocative questions about our human situation. x
  • 23
    Power and Reason—Foucault and Habermas
    This lecture examines the theories of two of the 20th century's most challenging thinkers as they explore relationships among institutions, power, communications, and reason. x
  • 24
    Today’s Provocative Landscape—Thresholding
    The final lecture looks at the ideas and questions explored during the course and reflects on the role of philosophy in bringing us closer to answers about the meaning of life. x

Lecture Titles

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 152-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Timeline

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Your professor

Stephen A. Erickson

About Your Professor

Stephen A. Erickson, Ph.D.
Pomona College
Dr. Stephen A. Erickson is Professor of Philosophy and E. Wilson Lyon Professor of the Humanities at Pomona College, where he has been teaching for more than 40 years. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. Professor Erickson has received awards from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Earhart Foundation. He is the recipient of Four Wig Awards for...
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Philosophy as a Guide to Living is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Self, the elephant Self the Elephant While enjoying listening to these lectures, it reminded me of a song, ‘Let’s draw a picture, a picture of an Elephant, wouldn’t it be nice to draw a picture of an Elephant’ - Sesame Street inspired. An ancient Buddhist tale is of blind men (or perhaps philosophers in this case) describing different parts of an elephant. Each tells a different “story” depending on whether they feel the leg or trunk or torso, and then bicker among each other about what this “thing” could “really” be. The point of this tale is that though each may be describing some truth about it, they go wrong in claiming to have the whole truth. Likewise, the philosophers presented in this course, all attempt to draw a picture of an Elephant – called the Self. Though blinded and/or biased by their historical time, cultural conditioning, mental and/or physical health, ambition and/or vanities, etc., all felt they had found the whole truth, but it was only some truths, not a totality. Professor Erickson does a very good job with his slow and articulate presentation, which allows time for realization, idea formation and instantiation. The high quality and quantity of his presentations reflects the complexity of knowledge he has gained from years of study, analysis, and presentations. The professor’s backgrounds on these philosophers are deep, very interesting, informative, and provides a window into the ‘life and times’ from which their thinking was derived. But, it’s not their torments and/or acclaims that provide the true guidance that one seeks in constructing their own (drawing) understanding of Self. It’s the key insights, somewhat hidden in complexity of meanings that he provides, in his in-depth analysis of those he has chosen to lay out that point towards the realizations of Self - the Elephant. The guidebook is a good primer, but I would recommend the transcript of his lectures for a greater richness that allows one to add-clarify-validate, a wider and deeper awareness to their own thinking about Self.
Date published: 2019-01-31
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Title is misleading The delivery was slow and hard to follow. I found myself asking, what did he say? I would rewind and then it would be the same. I never finished listening.
Date published: 2018-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Some new insights The content and presentation are up to the usual standards I've come to expect the material is clear and concise. There is a particular problem in that it won't play on a tablet (Galaxy tab E) with the latest SW. It won't play via the app or the website. Others (I have about 7) play fine. I have to use a DVD player to watch them which is not always convenient. Otherwise I love all the courses; and I have more than 10
Date published: 2017-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Despite title, not a biology course I thought this was a "Guide to Living" in the biological sense. It's not. It's a "guide to living" in the "ideas" sense. So, instead of learning about photosynthesis and zygotes, I learned about Kant and Schopenhauer and a few other thinkers. Of course, the title says "philosophy", but I only saw "Guide to Living" because I think we humans see what we want to see and block out other stuff. That's what happened to me. Anyhow, I liked this course. The presentation style is not especially exciting, but it's clear and the topic was compelling to me. I liked that this course dealt with Schopenhauer, who doesn't seem to get too much attention from other philosophy courses on this website. I also liked the three lectures on Freud. Also, Kierkegaard. There should be entire courses on these thinkers. Maybe there will be soon. I'm hopeful. This doesn't seem like a very helpful review to me. Sorry. I wish I could do better. I listened to the audio version, and it seemed adequate. If you're looking to save a few bucks, the audio might be the way to go, but not everything is an economic consideration. One other thing about philosophy here: it's not so much about conceptual clarity and getting the nature of the questions right. Rather, it's about the brute fact of existence and which ideas might prove most convivial. Much more in the continental than the analytic tradition, in other words.
Date published: 2016-12-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Course Audio Dowload. This is a good course which I would recommend as an introduction to philosophers of central importance in the history of Modern European thought. Professor Erickson's "meaning of life" theme works well to organize the course. Many of the lectures were thought provoking: he has interesting things to say about Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. And, unlike other reviewers, I believe his inclusions of Marx, Freud and Heidegger were justifiable and relevant. One downside was that I believe Professor Erickson could have gotten closer to the actual if difficult terminology and arguments of the philosophers. At times, he tended to oversimplify ideas and gloss over arguments. A second downside was that he stuck very closely to his lecture notes: I prefer a professor who can expand and amplify his lecture points more fully. Finally, the late coupling lectures on Sartre/Camus and Foucault/Habermas felt imbalanced against the earlier lectures. Nevertheless, my interest in the course never flagged until the last lecture on "thresholding" the widely-held contemporary faith in technology to substantially alter humanity, which left me "chilly and grown old." All in all recommended.
Date published: 2016-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I have seriously mixed feelings about this course. On the one hand, there are some excellent discussions of Kant and Kierkegaard and some others. On the other hand, the professor gives three lectures to Freud, whose work has been rejected by people with knowledge of the subject,. For one thing, Freud says that relations with the opposite gender are the primary human drive; he could say that because none of his patients ever went hungry. If he worked with the people typical of his time, he would have realized that the drive to eat is much stronger than the drive he put in first place. Professor Erickson also gives two lectures to Marx, whose conclusions likewise have generally been repudiated as out of touch with reality.. I particularly am dismayed by his endorsement of Marx's idea that all work should be a satisfying exhibition of our personal creativity. This idea would make it impossible to create anything one couldn't complete on one's own, and my mother-in-law would have spent her whole life scrubbing the clothes for her husband and 10 children on the washboard she started out with, even in a Michigan winter, because there would have been no assembly lines to build inexpensive washing machines. As the period of the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, Marx's views are some of the most toxic ever spewed out by philosophers. I also was disturbed by the professor's waiting until his third lecture on Heidegger to mention that he was a Nazi. He was an important one, and that should not be downplayed. So you will learn a great deal about philosophy of recent centuries; you will spend a fair amount of time on men who aren't worth it.
Date published: 2015-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A history of philosophical thinking This is a very though-provoking set of lectures by an eminently knowledgeable philosophy professor in Dr. Erickson. While the course might not at first seem to be the guide to living that its title suggests I do believe that the course lives up to its name because of the in-depth look at so many different European philosophers and the general focus on identifying a tradition of philosophical thinking from the 18th century onwards and then seeing how that thinking can potentially make sense to our own views on the meaning of life. First of all Prof. Erickson outlines for his listeners (I listened to the audio version, and I think that's all anyone needs) a very accessible way of considering how to regard philosophy in the first place, primarily as a kind of journey of the mind. What follows in his lectures becomes itself a journey, as we consider predominant ideas related to philosophy from about the 18th century onwards. Sometimes the lectures can seem quite dense with information. Particularly, if one is new to this subject, there is a lot to retain. Not only do listeners need to know the various philosophical positions described by Prof. Erickson, but they also need to place these philosophers in their proper historical contexts. However, I was impressed by the way Prof. Erickson would return to key ideas as a way of catching up to a presently considered philosophical position. That is, we don't simply encounter Kant at the beginning of the series when he is introduced and his ideas outlined, but we frequently return to his ideas as a way of providing some background for subsequent positions. In this way, the lectures return again and again to key concepts as they relate to and inform later ideas. I found that this was a great way to help reinforce ideas as they were presented and make them relevant to subsequent developments in the history of philosophical thought. What Prof. Erickson does, rather brilliantly in my opinion, is to try to help us understand how each of these selected philosophers attempts to grapple with the question of "What is the meaning of life?" The answer to this question is not simply a prescription for how to live our daily lives but instead becomes something of a meditation on the history of European thought. That is, in order to consider the question of the meaning of life from a philosophical perspective, Prof. Erickson wants us to consider how significant ideas and approaches came about. This involves not only an examination of some of the important ideas put forward by some well-known philosophers, but also a recognition of the historical influences on those individuals. In this way, Prof. Erickson seems to be working with the notion put forward by Peter Drucker that as time passes we become unable to recognize the ways of thinking of those from past eras. In other words, Prof. Erickson wants us to try as much as we can to recognize those ways of thinking and to see how they have led to subsequent philosophical positions, including those of the present day. This is a challenging endeavour, but it is what kept me own interest in the lectures. I must confess that I did become concerned as the lectures continued because of the close connection between the philosophers under consideration and the general idea of philosophy as a guide to living. That is, the more Prof. Erickson insisted on looking at these philosophers in the context of their lives and the world around them, the more alarming became the prospect that we could learn about the meaning of life from these deeply flawed individuals. The more I listened to the lectures, the more I considered that philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre were men who seemed to have exceptional difficulties living in their own worlds and did not seem enamored of life at all, let alone convinced of its inherent value. This seemed to detract from their credibility as philosophers, particularly as we were trying to keep a close connection between philosophy and its application in our lives. This is not a flaw in the course or in Prof. Erickson's approach, but rather simply a topic worthy of further discussion and consideration, and Prof. Erickson hardly ignores this problem, but I don't feel we got much of a resolution from it. I did find some relief when Prof. Erickson introduced the ideas of Jurgen Habermas whose philosophical position seems to be much more salutary and integrated with the notion of a healthy, democratic society in which citizens can be full participants. But then maybe that is just because this is characteristic of the world that I myself live in and see as ideal. Having listened to this course, I am now interested to know if there is a companion course on the same topic but outlining Eastern approaches to the questions around the meaning of life. I listened to this course on my phone while walking to and from work. I looked forward to each new lecture, and it certainly made my commute more contemplative.
Date published: 2015-01-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Title didn't represent the content I tried to stay interested in these lectures, but was really put off by this professor's presentation. It seemed he was reciting a prepared speech from memory rather than teaching. I didn't think title of the course represented the content. It was really just the professor's summary of several philosophers, but he didn't apply any of their philosophies as a guide to living. I'm donating this course to the library, as I know I wouldn't watch it again.
Date published: 2014-07-19
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