A little while ago I finished two books on Existentialism around the same time. Since both were of the introductory variety, I thought it redundant to review them separately. So both will be in this single review: the first, “Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction” by Thomas R. Flynn, and the second, “Existentialism: A Reconstruction” by David E. Cooper. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and while I cannot go into great detail concerning those facts, I can at least outline them so as to give you an idea of the water curious readers tread.
The first book authored by Flynn comes from Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series and so possesses the unenviable trait of having its strength also be its weakness. While the book does give a understanding of what Existentialism (very basically) entails, due to its brevity, the reader is left with what is ultimately a very lopsided understanding of the entire breadth of existentialist philosophy; focusing heavily on Sartre, this behavior is not unusual insofar as introductions go as Sartre is one of the philosophy’s cherished, and controversial, members. Even so, the attention paid primarily to Sartre and his immediate company, underscores the pantheon of existential thinkers. This being said though, it is important to note that Flynn does squeeze in vital figures like Heidegger and others. Problem is they are primarily in the background acting as references to how their own theories are contrasted against Sartre’s contributions; as a result, theories important to existentialism as elaborated by other authors, are barely referenced. Whether you see this as a positive or a negative would depend on your philosophic orientation; and in any case, this is not to say the book is not worth reading. Indeed, for its tiny size Flynn does manage to capture a sizable bit of the existential realm. If only through a superimposed relevance attributed to living vicariously through Sartre.
Cooper’s book on Existentialism, meanwhile, displays the exact opposite problem of Flynn’s: while the whole book clocks out at 200 pages, those sheets are filled with dense theory. From the first page to the last, Cooper incorporates theory from the start of the Western tradition right up to contemporary thinkers (though leaning heavily on the classical existentialist theorists). So understanding this, this book will not be of much help to someone new to philosophy; if you are more of an intermediate with a working understanding of Socrates, Descartes, Plato, Hume and so forth, yet do not know Existentialist thought itself, then you will get a kick out of this book. Other than this scenario, however, it is more likely you will scratch your head through most of the pages. While the author does manage to clarify what everything means, most of the time the explanation falls short as he often explains through utilizing another concept enmeshed in the same vein. It is the literary equivalent of explain the definition of “sarcasm” to someone by saying it is another word for “Sardonic.” Meaning, he expects much of you in order to understand his fast paced prose. Nevertheless, if you are comfortable with philosophy and do have an understanding of its past, excluding existentialism, then you should find the content within to your liking: divided into ten chapters with each one building on the concepts previously elaborated upon, and leading up to the primary tenants of existentialist philosophy, the construction of the books, which the author dubs a “reconstruction”, aims to focus on theory over authors by tracing the histories of the philosophy itself. It is a slightly unusual approach, especially for a ideology so stratified in its prime movers, but is works all the same.
Each book does have its biases, however. As said of Flynn, he enjoys Sartre. And so takes a liking to his view and theories. While this doesn’t taint his coverage of other thinkers, it does devalue their contributions slightly. People sick and tired of Sartre may desire to steer clear of Flynn. Likewise, Cooper may be said to be more partial to Heidegger than to others to the extent that it is clear that his literary-philosophic primacy revolves around the German’s positions. Though subtle it nonetheless is discernable. Additionally another worrying facet of Cooper’s writing is his reactionary social standing when giving examples in text. There are several moments in the book where he shows homophobic, sexist, and general bourgeois (ultra-individualist) tendencies. While thankfully not strewn throughout the book like an army of ants, these moments pop up frequently enough to have the reader consider the political standing of the author and how valid his interpretation is compared to the philosophy itself.
If I have to give a recommendation over which book to purchase in order to have a pleasant initial engagement with existentialism, I would have to say Flynn’s “A Very Short Introduction.” Though it does tend to focus too heavily on Sartre, seeing as how he is one of the fathers of modern existentialism, this is not necessary a bad thing. Additionally, Flynn’s book contains a “further reading” section which Copper’s lacks. Combined with the ease of reading which Flynn writes, I have to push in favor of his publication. As I have emphasized, however, each has its own styles and so depending on your level of engagement, this recommendation may be inverted. Yet as things stand, Flynn have the advantage.