From Sartre to Dostoevsky

Anthony Hatzimoysis identitifes the leading lights of existentialist philosophy

We have seen some of the main features of the existentialist approach to human life. Our discussion has not been limited to any one particular philosopher, and has tried instead to identify some guiding thoughts of existentialist authors. But who exactly are those authors?

Which, among the several philosophers who reflected on the nature and meaning of human existence, count as existentialists? There are several, and sometimes conflicting, answers to that question. Historians may disagree over the attribution of the existentialist title to various figures. However, there is a core group of important philosophers who should be included on anyone’s books. So, here is my short list of existentialist writers.

To begin with, there are thinkers who made a strong claim on the paternity of the idea of grounding philosophical inquiry on the analysis of human existence (Karl Jaspers in Germany, and Gabriel Marcel in France). Then there are philosophers who came to endorse ‘existentialism’ as a title for their own theory, often using the term in order to describe, clarify, or qualify the nature of their approach to important philosophical topics (Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre).

Furthermore, there are a number of thinkers who engaged with existentialism in developing their distinctive approach to the experience of artworks, the meaning of life, the limits of political legitimacy, and the philosophical understanding of history (Rom Ingarten, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and Ortega y Gasset).

Then we have philosophers whose work betrays an ambivalent stance towards existentialism – an ambivalence that has been intellectually most fertile, since it offers both some of the most eloquent expressions of the existentialist thinking, as well as a critical statement against certain forms of existentialism for obscuring our view of the Other (as alleged by Emanuel Levinas against Cartesian Existentialists), or for silencing the voice of Being by reducing serious ontological inquiry about what there really is into some sort of philosophical curiosity about human beings (as it was argued by Martin Heidegger against Humanist Existentialists).

There are, though, three authors of the 19th century whose writing - its focus, vocabulary, and narrative structure, perhaps more than what their texts actually argued for - made their work the main point of reference for a number of issues that would become the staple of existentialist discourse: Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

A quick glance through the above list should warn us that it would be unwise to characterise a view as ‘existentialist’ without clarifying which existentialist philosopher one has in mind. The list includes from devoted Christians (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Marcel) to ardent atheists (Nietzsche, and Sartre), from committed liberals (such as Jaspers), and radical political thinkers (such as Arendt), to notorious opponents of political progress (such as Heidegger), and from literary curators of immanence (Camus), to supporters of the transcendent dimension of human life (Levinas).

If there is one view that they all share, it is that the concrete reality of each individual being is richer in content and prior in importance to any theoretical construction about what a human being in the abstract supposedly is – in the terms of a famous motto: ‘existence precedes essence’.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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