On Being and Becoming cover

On Being and Becoming - Book Summary

An Existentialist Approach to Life

Duration: 25:27
Release Date: December 31, 2023
Book Author: Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei
Category: Philosophy
Duration: 25:27
Release Date: December 31, 2023
Book Author: Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei
Category: Philosophy

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we dive into "On Being and Becoming" by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei. This thought-provoking book delves into the question of what it means to lead a fulfilling life through the lenses of existentialist philosophy. It provides readers with a detailed understanding of existentialist thought, exploring topics from personal freedom to the search for meaning in our day-to-day existence.

Gosetti-Ferencei, a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, brings her extensive knowledge to the fore in "On Being and Becoming," making complex ideas accessible and relatable. Drawing on her literary prowess, which has been recognized with awards including the Paris Review Prize for her poetry collection "After the Palace Burns," she guides us through the historical and philosophical landscapes shaped by the towering figures of existentialism.

For those who are philosophically inclined and seeking an insightful introduction to existentialist thinking, this book is a rich resource. For individuals grappling with life's inherent challenges and quests for happiness, "On Being and Becoming" presents a pathway to understanding how to live more authentically. So, whether you're contemplating the intricacies of human existence or simply pursuing a happier life, join us as we summarize the key concepts from this compelling exploration of being and becoming.

Discover how to truly live: Embrace freedom, happiness, and authenticity with existentialism

Picture yourself at a crossroads, each path leading to a different potential life — a life colored by the choices that you make today. It's a powerful image and one that carries a weight of anxiety with it. This is because with every choice comes the overwhelming notion that, perhaps, it might not lead us to where we hope to be. This very anxiety, my friends, is the heart of existentialism, a philosophy that eschews abstract thought for a more hands-on approach to wrestling with the art of living.

Existentialism focuses on the individual — on you — and the thrilling yet formidable task of navigating the seas of freedom and decision-making. It recognizes life as a one-time offer and urges us to grab it by the horns, but how? That's the question existentialism boldly addresses.

In this exploration, you'll find an existentialist guide to dissecting life's great puzzle. You'll understand why suffering isn't the antagonist we often make it out to be — instead, it can be a call to growth. Moreover, you'll unpack the challenges of staying true to yourself amidst the torrent of modern life's pressures. And for the forward-thinkers among you, there's an existential answer waiting to the looming question of environmental stewardship.

During this journey, prepare to be enlightened on:

— the pivotal role suffering plays in existential thought, and why embracing it could be transformative;

— the obstacles to authenticity in today's world, and why overcoming them is essential; and

— how existential philosophy might just offer a unique perspective in tackling today's environmental challenges.

The tapestry of existentialism: A philosophical quest for human freedom

Think of existentialism not as a monolithic tower, but as a tapestry woven from a myriad of philosophical threads, each adding depth and color to the central theme of human freedom. When people hear "existentialism," they often conjure up images of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — iconic poster children for the movement — sipping espresso in a chic Parisian café. Indeed, existentialism bloomed into the public consciousness under the Parisian sky, with Sartre and de Beauvoir becoming as famous for their philosophies as for their unconventional lifestyles.

Yet, to view existentialism only through the prism of its most glamorous proponents would do it a disservice. The reality is far richer, with seeds sown by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and watered by the likes of Husserl and Heidegger. Literature, too, played its part, with Dostoevsky and Kafka penning narratives that danced with existential themes.

What is striking about existentialism — beyond its diverse contributors — is its shared commitment to certain principles.

Here is the essence of it: Existentialism was a diverse philosophical movement centered on the theme of human freedom.

First and foremost, existentialists set out to re-envision philosophy. They yearned to shift the focus from abstract thought experiments to the tangible challenges of life — life as it unfolds in all of its subjective, often messy, glory. They reminded us that life is lived from a singular vantage point — yours. Your reality, your woes, and your jubilations cannot be simply exchanged with those of another.

This insistence on the solitary nature of our personal experience leads existentialists to warn against the allure of easy answers and cookie-cutter philosophies that claim to unravel the mysteries of existence. For the existentialist, inspiration is encouraged, but not at the expense of surrendering your personal quest for meaning.

Existentialism doesn't presume to hand you a manual for your life. Instead, it aims to position you squarely before life's profound queries, trusting you to weave your own answers.

Lastly, existentialists place the heavy mantle of freedom on your shoulders. The skeins of your life may be entangled with circumstances beyond your control, but the pattern you weave — the person you evolve into and the life you craft — is ultimately your own making. Your freedom is a double-edged sword; with every cut you shape your existence, but with it comes the weight of responsibility for the tapestry you create.

Embrace the journey: You are a human becoming, not just a human being

Let's roll up our sleeves and dive headfirst into one of philosophy's most profound pools— the distinction between being and becoming. Now, this might sound like a tangle of abstract thought, but hang tight, because it's about to get personal.

This age-old philosophical debate has reverberated through time since the inception of Western philosophy. Being, as you may have guessed, relates to the elements of existence that remain constant, unchanging across the river of time. Think Plato and his eternal forms of justice and beauty, which he hailed as the absolute reality.

Now flip the coin, and you have becoming — the aspects of our world that are forever in flux, shaping and reshaping like the dunes in a desert. Plato, in his wisdom, waved this off as mere sensory deception, unworthy of the pedestal of true reality.

For eons, the philosophical narrative bowed to being, but then along came the existentialists, ripping the stage right from under it.

Here's the catch: Human beings should really be called human becomings.

Why? Simply put, nothing about us is set in stone. Our bodies are living tapestries of cellular drama — cells rising, falling, and renewing in a ballet of biological processes. Similarly, the landscape of our minds is a never-ending whirlwind of thoughts, emotions, and images, each weaving into the next. And even our identities? They're works in progress, perpetually updated with every breath and experience.

This is the heart of our existence, a perpetual ballet of transition, and as far as we're concerned, the only constant is change.

The existentialists seized this reality with both hands. They flipped the Platonic script, declaring that our nature is intrinsically about becoming, while the idea of a stable, unyielding being faded into the backdrop.

At its core, this existential pivot liberates us. If we aren't chained down by a fixed nature, then our identity is ours to shape and reshape. In essence, we're freewheeling through our own story, scriptwriters of our identity, with liberty as our pen and life as our canvas.

Wading through the depths: How existential angst paves the way for true freedom

With the revelation that we're bound only by the limits we set for ourselves, we must also confront a daunting truth — freedom carries a hefty price tag of responsibility. It's reminiscent of the tightrope walker — thrilling, yes, but one misstep and suddenly the expanse below becomes all too real.

Existential philosophy and literature are rife with stories that delve into the tumultuous sea of the human conscience grappling with freedom. Take Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," where Raskolnikov commits murder under the banner of unbridled liberty, only to find himself sucked into a whirlpool of guilt. His sense of freedom unwillingly morphs into a suffocating awareness of responsibility.

Certainly, one need not reach such dramatic depths to taste existential suffering. Have you ever sat, lulled by the rhythm of a train, only to be gripped by the chilling realization that the dreams of your youth remain distant stars?

Existentialism is often painted in shades of dusk, seen as a philosophy preoccupied with life's gloomier facets. But make no mistake — existentialists don't revel in suffering.

Here lies the essence: Existential suffering is a necessary part of authentic freedom.

While stoicism might advocate for a stiff upper lip, taming emotional tides through sheer will, existentialism strays from this path. It doesn't suggest quelling the sea of emotions that dredge up from within — the dread, the anxiety, the despair. Existentialists go so far as to urge us to lean into these tumultuous feelings. Much like salt in the ocean, they are an integral part of our existence.

Consider dread, that shadow lurking in the recesses of our mind whenever we dare to glance at our own mortality. Most recoil from such thoughts, but philosopher Martin Heidegger urged a different approach. He suggested that if you dare to stare down your inevitable end, you might just ignite a renewed fervor to embrace the present to its fullest, ushering in life-altering decisions and newfound boldness.

Indeed, clasping these raw emotional threads in our existential fabric, as much as they may sear, ultimately stitches a more authentic, freewheeling narrative of our lives.

Forge your path: Choosing authenticity in a world of conformity

Imagine the daily hustle of the subway commute — bodies packed together, a sea of faces, all blending into a single, monochromatic entity. In a crowd, individuality often melts away, as we unconsciously mirror the actions and emotions around us. Think about it — have you ever found yourself clapping in a crowd, caught up in a wave of applause, without quite knowing why? It's a curious reflection of how in sync we can become with those around us—sometimes, at the cost of our own individuality.

Consider modern society, with its tendency to nudge us into a uniform march. The existentialists were haunted by the specter of this collective uniformity — the demise of individuality in the face of mass culture. Nietzsche lamented the dwindling originality of his peers, likening them to products off an assembly line.

Here's the call to action: Authentic individuality requires taking responsibility for the life you want to lead.

Existentialists argue that being born into this world doesn't automatically gift us a unique identity — no, true individuality is earned. It's carved out through self-reflection, by nurturing our distinctive traits, and actively sculpting a life that feels genuinely ours.

But what is the authentic self? It's as simple, and as challenging, as waking up from the autopilot of habitual living. If your life is a tapestry of replicated patterns, you're living in a state of inauthenticity — not because it's wrong, but because it's unexamined. You haven't probed the depths of what could be because you've settled for what is.

Sure, life deals us all a different hand, and your array of choices might not look the same as the next person's. But make no mistake, within the confinements of your world, choices exist. To feign helplessness, to cast away the reins of decision, is but an illusion to shield oneself from the burden of freedom.

Embracing authenticity is to acknowledge your sovereignty at life's crossroads; to pause, reflect on the multitude of paths, even those less trodden, and to dare to venture beyond the routine.

While the pursuit of authenticity might seem an ethereal quest, its fruits are palpable. An authentic life is one steered by self-direction, rich with choices that resonate deeply with who you are. It's freedom from the shackles of past regrets and a lesser reliance on external validation. It's not just living, it's becoming — truly, distinctly, unapologetically.

Interdependence: Authenticity weaves through the threads of our social fabric

In a deep dive into the exploration of self, existentialism may strike some as a philosophy obsessed with the individual, bordering on self-centeredness. Moreover, can we really champion freedom as universal when oppression and injustice cast long shadows over many lives? Surely, existentialism has room for these considerations, right?

Indeed, existential philosophy does not turn a blind eye to such concerns. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, brought to light the necessity of mutual recognition for authentic living. It's not just about surviving physically with the aid of others; our very identity seeks nourishment through the acknowledgement of our value and freedom by those around us. However, this same interdependence implies a vulnerability — the danger of being seen, and consequently treated, not as autonomous human beings but as objects.

Herein lies a profound acknowledgment: Our freedom depends on the recognition of others.

Consider René Descartes' classic conundrum — gazing out a window, he pondered whether the passersby were indeed sentient beings or merely automatons clad in human attire. Centuries later, Sartre took this thread and wove it into his own narrative. If Descartes could doubt the consciousness of others, Sartre posited, then isn't it possible we could also objectify people in our interactions?

Take the stark horror of slavery, where an entire swath of humanity is degraded to mere objects, commodities devoid of personal agency. While this is an extreme, Sartre illustrated that even in the most democratic of societies, we often unwittingly objectify others in our day-to-day exchanges.

Let's say you're at the post office; the clerk before you might blend into the backdrop of your errand, reduced to the role of a function rather than a being fraught with personal dreams and dilemmas.

Such objectification is usually benign. But it can turn pernicious when it eats away at a person's self-worth and constricts their perceived freedom.

Take shaming, for example. It's an act that shackles an individual with a narrow and negative identity, as Sartre discussed, curtailing both their self-perception and their experiential canvas. This is the kind of objectification that ropes off areas of life that might otherwise have been explored with freedom.

At its heart, existentialism nudges us toward more authentic relationships — those where we don't reduce each other to mere character roles but see each other as fellow “becomings,” rich with freedom and potentiality. It's a call to honor the dynamic nature of others even as we chart our own authentic journey, forging connections that respect the liberty and value inherent in us all.

Entwining self and world: A dance of mutual existence

Albert Camus, in "The Myth of Sisyphus," invokes the concept of the absurd — a piercing recognition that the world around us often seems bizarre and indecipherable. We crave answers, we yearn for meaning, and yet the universe regards us with an unyielding silence.

This illustrates a broader existential theme: the way existentialists perceive our world stands in stark contrast to the objective lenses of science. This isn't to say that existentialism discounts science, but rather that existentialists are more captivated by our human encounter with the world.

Here’s a crucial realization: The self and the world are two sides of an integrated whole.

Conventional wisdom, rooted in Descartes’ philosophy, neatly separates immaterial consciousness from the material world. We're taught to see ourselves as solitary entities, distinct from the tapestry we exist within.

But existentialists argue that this dichotomy doesn't quite capture the full spectrum of our experience. We don't exist in isolation, sealed away from our surroundings. Instead, our sense of self is inexorably interwoven with our interactions in the world — from the mundane to the magnificent.

Take the transition from winter to spring. When you step outside to bathe in the first caresses of warm sunlight, the sensation isn't just relegated to your eyes or your skin. It’s an all-encompassing delight that permeates your entire being. It blurs the line — if only for a moment — between the external world and your internal reality.

To dissect these experiences, to label sunlight as "worldly" and joy as "self-contained," may be missing the point. Existentialists prompt us to acknowledge how our emotional lives escape our inner confines, casting new hues onto the canvas of the world around us.

Consider our relationship with something as simple as an apple. Its appeal metamorphoses with our inner state — from a tempting morsel when hunger strikes to a lackluster object once our appetite is sated.

Our emotions are not caged within us; they extend their fingers into the realm we dwell in, coloring our perception of it. And as we shall explore next, our emotional engagement with the natural world weaves its own narrative, morphing nature itself in the reflection of our human experience.

Reconnecting with nature: An existential imperative for a sustainable future

If we peer into the mirror of the past two centuries, the reflection reveals a precarious imbalance in our interaction with the Earth. Spurred on by the industrial revolution, we've careened down a path of mass production and consumption, leaving ravaged ecosystems and a planet straining under the weight of our excesses. Mountains are leveled, forests are gutted, oceans are filled with a deluge of plastic, and the atmosphere chokes on the fumes of fossil fuels. The planet lurches toward an uncertain future.

But where does existentialism — so frequently preoccupied with the human condition — fit into this narrative? It may not be immediately apparent, but existentialist thought is not incompatible with an ecologically friendly ethos.

The pressing insight: We urgently need to cultivate a more harmonious relationship with nature.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, closely linked to the deep ecology movement, invites us to reassess the intrinsic worth of the natural world, which stands in stark contrast to our consumptive approach.

He pinpointed the rise of a certain strand of scientific thinking as a culprit in our environmental crisis — one that places nature under the cold, dissecting gaze of objectification. According to this view, nature is nothing more than a stockpile of resources ripe for exploitation.

Heidegger warned that this scientific perspective, while undeniably advantageous for societal progress, has severed our primal bond with nature, reducing it to utility rather than a sacred sanctuary.

To rectify this, Heidegger proposed that we transcend the purely scientific, to embrace a stance toward nature akin to that of the poetic. When we lose ourselves in poetry, we don’t dissect the verses for utility; instead, we immerse in the enchantment of the words. By adopting a poetic reverence for the natural world, it becomes less a commodity to control and more a marvel to cherish.

So, from an existential, ecological vantage point, authentic living means fostering a union with nature — a relationship steeped in respect, wonder, and an acknowledgment of our mutual reliance. It is a call for an environmental consciousness that extends beyond exploitation, and into partnership, for our planet's enduring vitality and for the survival of future generations.

Embrace the authentic life: Navigating self, others, and the world

As we wade through the existentialist waters, the takeaway is a compelling call for authenticity—a mode of living that honors the rich potential in ourselves and those around us, and fosters a reverential relationship with the world around us.

The existentialist roadmap delineates three terrains of being: the self, the other, and the world at large. An authentic existence demands a delicate dance with each. To engage with oneself authentically, one must step back from rigid self-definitions, acknowledging and exercising the freedom of choice in crafting one's journey. In the realm of others, to live authentically we must resist the urge to objectify, instead cultivating interactions that affirm the liberty and dynamism we all possess. And when it comes to the natural world, authentic engagement means shedding exploitative views and fostering a relationship of marvel and respect.

In essence, authentic living nudges us away from seeing ourselves, others, and the world as static entities to be utilized, aiming instead for a stance that maintains an awareness of the web of possibilities, enchantments, and freedoms each domain holds. By remaining attuned to these principles, we can navigate a path that resonates with the core of existentialist thought—a journey sincere to the pulse of life, vibrant in its respect for freedom, and harmonious with the natural rhythms of our shared existence.

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