The Seven Best Books on Existentialism

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This page contains a list of the seven best books on existentialism. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on existentialism” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on existentialism. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on existentialism. Here are the best books on existentialism in no particular order:

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction – Thomas Flynn

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 160 pages | Published: 2006

Publisher’s Description: One of the leading philosophical movements of the twentieth century, existentialism has had more impact on literature and the arts than any other school of thought. Focusing on the leading figures of existentialism, including Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, Thomas Flynn offers a concise account of existentialism, explaining the key themes of individuality, free will, and personal responsibility, which marked the movement as a way of life, not just a way of thinking.

Flynn sets the philosophy of existentialism in context, from the early phenomenologists, to its rise in the 40’s and 50’s, and the connections with National Socialism, Communism, and Feminism. He identifies the original definition of “existentialism,” which tends to be obscured by misappropriation, and highlights how the philosophy is still relevant in our world today.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot CocktailsSarah Bakewell

Category: Pop-Nonfiction | Length: 464 pages | Published: 2017

Publisher’s Description: Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. “You see,” he says, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”

It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate Phenomenology into his own French, humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as Existentialism.

Featuring not only philosophers, but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts, and revolutionaries, At the Existentialist Café follows the existentialists’ story, from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War, to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anti-colonialism, feminism, and gay rights. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters–fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships–and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.

Basic Writings of ExistentialismGordon Marino

Category: Anthology | Length: 528 pages | Published: 2004

Publisher’s Description: Basic Writings of Existentialism, unique to the Modern Library, presents the writings of key nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers broadly united by their belief that because life has no inherent meaning humans can discover, we must determine meaning for ourselves. This anthology brings together into one volume the most influential and commonly taught works of existentialism. Contributors include Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ralph Ellison, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo.

The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism – Steven Crowell

Category: Comprehensive Overview | Length: 428 pages | Published: 2012

Publisher’s Description: Existentialism exerts a continuing fascination on students of philosophy and general readers. As a philosophical phenomenon, though, it is often poorly understood, as a form of radical subjectivism that turns its back on reason and argumentation and possesses all the liabilities of philosophical idealism but without any idealistic conceptual clarity. In this volume of original essays, the first to be devoted exclusively to existentialism in over forty years, a team of distinguished commentators discuss the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir and show how their focus on existence provides a compelling perspective on contemporary issues in moral psychology and philosophy of mind, language and history. A further sequence of chapters examines the influence of existential ideas beyond philosophy, in literature, religion, politics and psychiatry. The volume offers a rich and comprehensive assessment of the continuing vitality of existentialism as a philosophical movement and a cultural phenomenon.

The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening – Søren Kierkegaard

Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1849

Publisher’s Description: One of the most remarkable philosophical works of the nineteenth century, famed for the depth and acuity of its modern psychological insights

Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of “despair,” alerting readers to the diversity of ways in which they may be described as living in this state of bleak abandonment—including some that may seem just the opposite—and offering a much-discussed formula for the eradication of despair. With its penetrating account of the self, this late work by Kierkegaard was hugely influential upon twentieth-century philosophers including Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The Sickness unto Death can be regarded as one of the key works of theistic existentialist thought—a brilliant and revelatory answer to one man’s struggle to fill the spiritual void.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings – Jean-Paul Sartre

Category: Classic | Length: 352 pages | Published: 2000

Publisher’s Description: Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century. The principle founder of existentialism, a political thinker and famous novelist and dramatist, his work has exerted enormous influence in philosophy, literature, politics and cultural studies.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings is the first collection of Sartre’s key philosophical writings and provides an indispensable resource for all students and readers of his work. Stephen Priest’s clear and helpful introductions set each reading in context, making the volume an ideal companion to those coming to Sartre’s writings for the first time.

The Ethics of Ambiguity – Simone de Beauvoir

Category: Classic | Length: 192 pages | Originally Published: 1947

Publisher’s Description: In this classic introduction to existentialist thought, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity simultaneously pays homage to and grapples with her French contemporaries, philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, by arguing that the freedoms in existentialism carry with them certain ethical responsibilities. De Beauvoir outlines a series of “ways of being” (the adventurer, the passionate person, the lover, the artist, and the intellectual), each of which overcomes the former’s deficiencies, and therefore can live up to the responsibilities of freedom. Ultimately, de Beauvoir argues that in order to achieve true freedom, one must battle against the choices and activities of those who suppress it.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is the book that launched Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist and existential philosophy. It remains a concise yet thorough examination of existence and what it means to be human.

This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

If you know of any books that should be on this list, please leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter or Facebook.

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