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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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 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 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introduction Although a little too much unless taken weekly. This is a excellent selection and worthwhile purchase (when it's on sale!) to the beginner (like myself) to philosophy. Prof., Erkison presents this series and I quite liked listening to him. However the scope is European and doesn't tap the rich veins of Eastern or even American philosophy. I don't see how it could unless he added another 24 lectures. Overall great listening value, take it slow - if you're anything like me and new to the subject - and also get some beginner philosophy books (one or two will do). This is a great companion course to living life with philosophy.
Date published: 2009-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoughtful Sidelong Perspective I was attracted to this course primarily because Erickson's list of philosophers looked particularly intriguing and stimulating, and included some that are otherwise not given much treatment in other courses that I had seen, notably Heidegger, Habermas and Foucault. Listeners to the lectures might be a little put off by Erickson's apparent timidity in the opening lecture but this is soon dispelled as he builds to quite a crescendo of passion in some lectures. For all the strengths of his analysis though I did feel the course ended a bit disappointingly. Nearing the end of the course I was confident that Erickson would sum up with some quite revelatory insights into what the future might hold but his reliance of Foucault's idea of 'thresholding' seemed comparatively content-free and so something of a let down. 4.5 stars.
Date published: 2009-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding and Relevant to Real Life Erickson has explored this subject matter for decades, and that shows in the mastery of his presentation, which reveals depth and maturity, but also humility. This course deals with fundamental questions related to the meaning and purpose of human life, so the material can be expected to be both very difficult (perhaps intractable) while also unavoidably important and practical. Erickson provides a fairly unique and probing tour of various perspectives on these questions, but he can't provide ultimate answers, nor can anyone else. Nevertheless, struggling with these questions is still worthwhile because one can at least make what appears to be progress, so this is a course worth going through more than once because Erickson makes the struggle considerably more productive (I certainly plan to return to the course). Highly recommended for anyone willing to do some deep thinking about some of the key big questions pertaining to our human condition.
Date published: 2008-12-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from NICE OVERVIEW OF SEVERAL IMPORTANT THINKERS I enjoyed this course tremendously, esp. the lectures on Hegel and Heidegger. He put their esoteric ideas into plain language and it was very rewarding. Also, I thought this course worked nicely as an introduction to some of the major western thinkers.
Date published: 2008-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The dissemination of knowledge through the activities of the Teaching company reminds us of the Best technology can do for human advancement.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I found this course difficult to follow and unable to get anything valuable from it. I would not recommend it to anyone.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Courses such as Erickson's and the Greco-Roman Moralists by johnsons give listeners access to wisdom, not only knowledge.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I have been using the Teaching Company courses for years and think they are excellent! I call them my "antidote to alzheimer's."
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The course subject is intimidating and difficult. but without the pressure of papers, tests, etc the material is approachable. what I wanted!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from This course is named too broodly. the name should start "western european".
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Professor Erickson delivers the course material with clarity and eloquence. his presenation was a delightful experience.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Erickson not only showed excellent command of his subject, was a charming, entertaining and humble person not seeming to take himself too seriously as do other accomplished academics.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Erickson brings a great deal of passion to the subject matter and his words ignite the same in us.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from this course fulfilled all my expectations. it provided an excellent foundation for further study. well balanced & interesting. worth every penny.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I am 87 and am delighted to be learning from the Great courses. Professor Erickson made this course understandable - was more than excellent.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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