Stranger Fruit

Philosopher Robert Solomon in Waking Life:

The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately, sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life.

Existentialism is often discussed as if it’s a philosophy of despair. But I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. But one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance of feeling on top of it. It’s like your life is yours to create.

I’ve read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration. But when I read them, I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he’s not talking about something abstract. He’s not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It’s something very concrete. It’s you and me talking. Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences.

It might be true that there are six billion people in the world and counting. Nevertheless, what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference, first of all, in material terms. Makes a difference to other people and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It’s always our decision who we are.

[YouTube version]

Solomon’s book, Existentialism, is probably the best entry point into the breadth of Existential thought.


  1. #1 Currently in therapy
    May 17, 2008

    What we do is what were. The less we do the less we are. Many of us super intelligent nerdy geeks grew up overly in awe of the risks that life entails. Get over that and live life.

    Actually this is just elementary developmental psychology. Children must learn to take positive risks – going out for the team (even if its only the chess team), going after the girl/boy, etc. & ect. – in order to properly grow.

    Yes, we creat our own lives and are responsible for them. We don’t need a philosospy book to tell us that.

  2. #2 Zarquon
    May 17, 2008

    Or as a great philosopher once wrote: “Yes we are all individuals” “I’m not!”

  3. #3 Onias
    May 18, 2008

    Existentialism as a lifestyle suits me down to the ground, as I have a bohemian disposition. That said, I always found the actually philosophy behind it a confusing and, to be honest, a bit ridiculous. Did Sartre actually claim that there are no necessary values that all humans must share? What about disliking eating coal? And, of course, I’m a philosophical naturalist and, hence, a determinist and determinism is not reconcilable with existentialism proper (Nietzsche was arguably a proto-existentialist)

  4. #4 jeff
    May 18, 2008

    A positive and interesting message. In essence, not really all that different from some of the inspirational or motivational writers of the last century (James Allen comes to mind), without the flowery metaphysical trappings. But none of us asked to be born. And even though determinism is not consistent with current science, randomness and probabilities aren’t consistent with free will either (nothing can be “free” that emerges from the physical). And at an even more fundamental level, what would Solomon or Sartre, or any pure physicalist, say about this existential question? (trash me, if you like – I take full responsibility for it).

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