New look at a philosophy of ‘freedom with responsibility’

Published 21 April 2009

michaelfoxA philosopher from the University of New England is making accessible to a general audience an approach to life that he believes can be of vital interest to everyone.

Professor Michael Fox (pictured here), whose newly-published book The Remarkable Existentialists reveals the human faces behind – and the human concerns of – one of the most influential philosophies of recent times, describes the subjects of his book as “educators of the spirit”.

“The existentialists,” he says, “uniquely in modern times, revived philosophy’s original mission, which was to help people develop in self-knowledge, inner freedom, and personal and social responsibility.”

The Remarkable Existentialists examines in detail the life and work of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). “These philosophers address – directly, honestly, and with passionate involvement – themes that are central to the experience of being human,” Professor Fox says. “And although the heyday of the existentialist movement has passed, its wide-ranging influence continues. This influence is particularly obvious in literature and the arts (beginning with the literary works of Sartre and de Beauvoir themselves), theology and psychology. For example, Heidegger’s writings on death have had a monumental impact on the development of the hospice movement.”

In an “Afterword: Existentialism as a Way of Life”, Professor Fox writes: “Existential philosophers present their thoughts with passion and in a spirit of confrontation and mutual involvement with the reader.” Ideas such as theirs, he says, “are there for appropriating and applying, for making into the vehicles of change and progression from one life state to the next”.

The Remarkable Existentialists, which presents the philosophers as real people wrestling with the central problems of existence, will enable readers to apply the ideas it discusses in developing their own lives. Its style of presentation reflects Professor Fox’s own philosophy of teaching and outreach, developed in the classroom over many years. “I believe you can be scholarly and still convey difficult ideas in a digestible and entertaining fashion,” he says. “In this book I try to get inside the heads of the thinkers a little more than other people have done – what they saw as problems, and who they wanted their readers to be.”

Michael Fox is an Adjunct Professor in UNE’s School of Humanities, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. His main fields of research are nineteenth-century European philosophy, existentialism, the philosophy of peace, and environmental philosophy. His previous books include The Accessible Hegel (2005), Deep Vegetarianism (1999), and The Case for Animal Experimentation: An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective (1986).

The Remarkable Existentialists is published in the United States by Humanity Books, and distributed in Australia by Footprint Books, Sydney.