Most people do not care why I compile the information and opinions found in these documents. What people wonder is why one site is more “trustworthy” than another. No matter how many letters might follow my name indicating academic something or other, I will never consider myself an “expert” on what other men and women think or thought. The only way to know what Kafka, Nietzche, Sartre, or anyone else thought is to assume what you read by a particular thinker is honest (and comprehensible).
Without any greater purpose or meaning, I decided to utilize a portion of my time trying to both explore the meaningless nature of the cosmos, as expressed by various thinkers called “Existentialists” within philosophy texts. I understand this pursuit has no value, other than that of a distraction. In the den that serves as our home office, sits a filing cabinet filled with articles and notes on literature and philosophy. There is an explanation for this obsession with the human condition.
Academically, I have credentials. Those credentials are formalities. I know many experts I value without formal credentials. Judge the content of a work, not the person or the labels.
I was fortunate to have a French-born gentleman with a Ph.D as a high school literature instructor. Before teaching literature, he had taught French, world history, and Western civilization classes. In 1985 or 86, I endured my first lecture on existentialism and the French Resistance. In 1987, he taught the Advanced Placement literature course, which again focused upon existentialism. No college professor I encountered at the University of Southern California could match his knowledge or life experiences.
During my undergraduate years, I enrolled in every existential literature course offered, certain that while I might not grasp the theories, I do appreciate the notion that life is what it is.
In late 1996, I reviewed my college papers. To my dismay, I realized how condescending the graders had been. One paper caught my eye because the grader wrote, “I doubt you have read Camus’ biographies.” Some professors and their assistants have a difficult time believing students read. Or, maybe some graduate students take themselves too seriously. As a graduate student, I observed more than one of my peers dismiss the thoughts of undergraduates. This illustrates why someone would agree with Camus that life is absurd. The few students truly passionate about understanding the condition of mankind are the ones least likely to be taken seriously… and to think I enjoy teaching.
Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…
Do not use this site as a study guide in insolation. The Existential Primer is a living academic project, unlike a static text. I revise these pages often because the scholarship never ends. Consult the citations within these pages. Read the works of many scholars! I implore you to read the original works of the thinkers profiled.
NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
— Work; Author, p. Page
The World Wide Web offers a great deal of information — some valuable, most not. I created this site to encourage further research into existential and phenomenological philosophies, hopefully providing a useful amount of information and references to external sources. I expect those interested in the writers and thinkers mentioned within these pages to locate the books and articles cited.
If you miss the dry wit of this introduction, remind yourself the author is a professor with a doctorate in rhetoric from a rather prestigious university.
Trying to use this site for any serious purpose might prove fatal to a student’s grade. My writing is not in textbook form, nor is it in a form acceptable (to most instructors) as a high school term paper. While I wish more academics understood their written language obscures insights, many associate the affected style of academese with expertise. (Really, the style only proves you can emulate the bad writing habits endemic to peer-review journals.) My paragraphs are short, in a journalistic style not often associated with the stilted (and pretentious) langauge of academic papers.
I dislike pretense, as a good rhetorician or philosopher should. I ask questions without offering answers, since I have no idea what the answers would be. My own students always seem astounded when I admit I have only an educated guess on these matters. It is much easier to know what is not likely, so we can establish limits on interpretations. It is not that I think the chronologies of biographical information is incorrect, but I have learned, as have most students, that some instructors are certain they and they alone know exactly what Nietzsche or Sartre meant in a particular work.
The biographies and commentaries are brief, limited by available space, my free time, reader patience, and a belief that my opinions are not important. Other matters are more important than philosophy, what I ponder is how this particular set of men and women shaped literature and educational theory, not world events or human understanding. I do include analyses, and I have opinions, but they are mine… not yours. Discover your own insights, even if you use mine as a starting point.
I cite the views of others as frequently as possible. Opinions exist to be debated I am told, though I hate any debate — calm discussion is better. In many cases, opinions should be dismissed anyway. At best, opinions are starting points for new perspectives, but I’m not sure where philosophy will take anyone. I encourage students of philosophy to develop their own understandings — I’m of no particular help.
Though incomplete and forever under construction, with glaring holes and obvious omissions during periods of revision, I seek suggestions and corrections from the most knowledgable scholars available. These scholars include professors of philosophy, rhetoric, history, literature, education, and other fields. I also look beyond the insular walls of universities, aware that scholars need not be working as professors to be experts.
Citations and research matter to me, as does earning the respect of my academic peers and general audiences. I attempt to maintain rigirous standards, offering something valuable and original to all reader of these pages, while writing in an approachable, enjoyable, style.
As you can probably tell by now, I claim no grand authority to write on philosophy. I think anyone staking such a claim is probably the least likely human to illuminate the subject. As with most people interested in philosophy, my primary qualification is that I read too much. One can never own too many books. Any academic credentials only demonstrate that I need to be outside more often!
I also make no claim of comprehending any complex theories about life or any philosophical schools of thought. For me, things are what they are; unfortunately, things are often absurd, especially in complex human systems like companies, governments, and universities.
“But do you have any qualifications?” I can hear you asking. Other than nearly 40 years of life? Oh, you want academic letters, awards, and other silly symbols of socially acknowledged expertise. No list of credentials would satisfy some people, though. Ironic — I think credentials are silly, but I also know they matter to my career in academia.
You could read my résumé and biography to decide if you want to give any value at all to what I write. Please take into consideration that what seems like self-promotion is also part of pursuing a career in the “publish or perish” competitive world of academia. And yes, I am employed by a university.
The following is a partial list of recognitions The Existential Primer has received from universities, libraries, and educational publishers.
As a professor, I teach at a top-ranked university. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people smarter than I am, and that includes many gifted and insightful students. I taught philosophy courses as an assistant professor at another small private university.
I want to make this as clear as possible: I am not trying to understand particular philosophers or the implications of their ideas as they might apply to me. My personal interest is the lasting influence these men and women have had on literature, theatre, and film. Educational theory is also of interest to me. I make no pretension of understanding theories about right and wrong, ethics, or human existence. I only know that the men and women grouped as existential shaped culture, including education and popular literature.
One of the great pleasures of this project is that I select the individuals profiled. I maintain a list of suggested additions to the site, but I alone select those people about whom I wish to research and write. Selecting particular thinkers, I admittedly consider their influence upon existentialism to be greater than that of others.
I am not (completely) ignorant of the topic: yes, some non-existentialists are profiled on this site. I could not write about existentialism and not mention Dostoevsky, Hegel, or even Marx. It is the influence of these thinkers upon The Existentialists that I weighed before dedicating space to commentaries upon their works. Don’t complain — I’m in charge here. (That’s more dry wit, if you cannot tell.)