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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: March 2012

1 - Existentialism and its legacy

from I - Introduction


In a conversation recorded shortly before his death, Maurice Natanson reports an encounter he had in 1951, when he was lecturing to a philosophical society on Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. A philosopher stood up and indignantly exclaimed, “I came here with my wife! And whether it's in the regulations [of the Society] or not, I think matters of this kind should not be discussed in front of ladies!” This air of scandal has accompanied existentialism wherever it has appeared: Kierkegaard was the target of a nasty press campaign in nineteenth-century Copenhagen; Nietzsche's first book was vilified by the academic establishment and he had to self-publish several others; Heidegger's early critics called him “death-obsessed”; and Sartre never held an academic position at all, cultivating an oppositional stance to bourgeois values as a matter of principle. This air of scandal – together with an extraordinary cultural reach by way of literature, art, and film – is no doubt largely responsible for the fact that existentialism, almost alone among philosophical “isms,” has never disappeared from the public imagination as a stance toward the world. It is hard to imagine “rationalism,” say, or “utilitarianism” being revived by each new generation, and by name, as a way of life. But this has been existentialism's fate. David Cooper cites Simone de Beauvoir’s recollection that “a set of young people really did … label themselves ‘existentialists,’ wear an all-black uniform, frequent the same cafés, and assume an air of ennui ” – and there have been such ever since.

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