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Reviewed by:
  • Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics
  • Chloë Taylor
Christine Daigle , editor. Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics. McGill-Queen's University Press. 188. $27.95

Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics is a collection of eight essays, each devoted to exploring the theme of ethics in the work of a different existentialist philosopher, with an introduction and conclusion by the editor, Christine Daigle. Daigle's introduction aims to define existentialism, first according to its genealogy in the works of nineteenth-century writers and philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche, and second according to themes that existentialist philosophers explore, such as being, absurdity, freedom, and death. In her introduction, Daigle also formulates the problem that ethics poses for existentialism: concerned with the concrete experiences of human existence, ethics is of obvious interest to existentialists. However, because existentialism claims that each individual is responsible for choosing her values and is also opposed to universalizing forms of philosophy, it would seem difficult for an existentialist to develop anything like normative rules. Opposed to totalizing philosophies and to absolute moralities, existentialists do not want to fall into radical ethical relativism either. As such, they must negotiate an ethics that lies somewhere between the philosophical extremes of universalism and relativism. How each existentialist philosopher considered in this volume does this is the subject of the eight chapters that follow.

Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics (which cannot be adequately described in the space allowed) proceeds chronologically, beginning with two main precursors to existentialism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, examined by Dominic Desroches and David W. Goldberg. The next two chapters, by Todd Lavin and Stephen Schulman, are devoted to Heidegger and Arendt respectively. Although Heidegger, like Camus, explicitly rejected the label 'existentialist' and critiqued Sartrean existentialism, it is standard to include both philosophers under this label. It is, however, highly unusual to consider Arendt as either an existentialist or as an ethical philosopher, as Schulman himself acknowledges. Part of this essay is therefore devoted to defending the inclusion of Arendt in a volume on existentialist ethics, since she does not fall [End Page 148] easily under either term. Schulman's argument that Arendt should be read as an ethical philosopher is a compelling one, and the chapters by Lavin and Schulman are among the most interesting in the volume.

The next three chapters, by Glenn Braddock, Philip Knee, and Daigle, discuss the works of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir respectively. Braddock's chapter considers Sartre's atheism, while Knee's chapter on Camus is an original and interesting study of L'homme révolté, in which Knee argues that Camus is closer to Rousseau than to Sartre. Daigle's chapter is a useful account of de Beauvoir's 'ambiguous' ethics, but one that begins, yet again, by comparing de Beauvoir's philosophy to that of Sartre. Both Daigle and Kym Maclaren, in her chapter on Merleau-Ponty that concludes the volume, argue that philosophies of embodiment can give rise to an existentialist ethics. Maclaren's chapter is once more a controversial choice, as Merleau-Ponty is generally considered a phenomenologist rather than an existentialist.

Even if one is not particularly invested in maintaining rigid criteria for inclusion under labels such as 'existentialist' and 'ethics,' or patrolling the borders of any particular philosophical school, the inclusion of Arendt and Merleau-Ponty in this volume is particularly surprising, given the philosophers who did not make it into the book, Jewish existentialists Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas in particular. Buber and Levinas are more standardly labelled existentialists than are Arendt and Merleau-Ponty and are unquestionably ethical thinkers, and so would seem more likely candidates for inclusion. Gabriel Marcel is also curiously absent, although, unlike Buber and Levinas, he is at least mentioned in Daigle's introduction.

Unfortunately, none of the chapters considers the limitations that an exclusive focus on human existence places on existentialist ethics, for instance the impossibility of developing an environmental or animal ethics. Heidegger famously critiqued the anthropocentrism of existentialism – which was one of his reasons for rejecting the existentialist label – and his philosophy, unlike that of the other philosophers discussed in this volume, has been taken up by animal and environmental ethicists.

Existential Thinkers and Ethics, a useful contribution to...


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