The motivation behind my resolution to read 100 books was to keep myself mentally fit during the interlude between my undergraduate studies and graduate school. For that reason, I try to select books that will challenge me and will broaden my intellectual horizons. That inspired such choices as Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, seven books by Nietzsche, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Having conquered such giants of erudition, I thought a slender volume by French philosopher Jean Wahl entitled A Short History of Existentialism would be child’s play. It seems my reach has exceeded my grasp.
Wahl’s book begins with an examination of Kierkegaard and his philosophy, which is generally seen as the beginning of existentialism. Wahl then discusses the philosophies of Heidegger and Jaspers in relation to the foundation laid by Kierkegaard. The author then examines Sartre’s philosophy and concludes with a brief critique of the movement. Brief statements about Wahl’s essay from other notable intellectuals are also included. All of this is delivered very matter-of-factly, as though it were exceedingly simple. I did not like it.
My critique of Wahl’s essay is based on two complaints. First, Wahl uses far too much existentialist jargon. I understand that philosophers often use particular words in a very specific fashion. The best philosophers explain the manner in which they use such terms. Wahl is not offering his own philosophy. Instead, he is summarizing the development of a philosophical movement (of which he is a part). In doing so, he assumes a certain understanding of existentialist language on the part of the reader. Having read only one work by Kierkegaard and none by Heidegger, Jaspers, or Sartre, I lacked that understanding. Without a background in existentialist readings, the reader will lack the necessary context to fully understand Wahl’s essay. My second complaint is that Wahl’s treatment of existentialism was extremely shallow. Granted, this is a short history of the movement, but brevity does not have to mean superficiality. Part of the reason the jargon was so confusing is that Wahl does not explore the concepts involved at a deep enough level to allow for real comprehension. I am sure that a person well-versed in existentialist literature would find Wahl’s treatment pleasantly concise, but I found it to be a bit too sparse.
Ultimately, I would not recommend this book unless you are already equipped with a solid understanding of existentialism (which would render Wahl’s book unnecessary). That is the paradox of Wahl’s essay. It is too shallow and too specialised to be understood by the general reader, and too brief to be of any real value to the seasoned existentialist. My advice would be to read the philosophers themselves. I intend to do so.
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