The late, great Princeton philosophy professor Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980) enjoyed being a skeptic and a gadfly. He liked to ask: what’s the point in studying the works of philosophers with “dreadful views?” After all, Plato champions totalitarianism and Kierkegaard disdains reason and sings the virtues of blind obedience to God.
The answer, Kaufmann believed, was that reading the great philosophers can teach us how to think. A great philosopher is someone who disdains received wisdom, and tests assumptions with evidence and reason. Furthermore, while great philosophers might not be very good at providing solutions, they are very good at diagnosing problems.
You can get a taste of Kaufmann’s thought and his mordant wit in a series of three lectures on existentialism which he delivered in 1960. In the first lecture, Kierkegaard and the Crisis in Religion, Kaufmann talks about existentialism as a philosophic movement, and how science created a crisis in religious faith that Kierkegaard diagnosed. He also gives a short character sketch of Søren Kierkegaard, showing what a strange and thoroughly disagreeable person he was.
In the second lecture, Nietzsche and the Crisis in Philosophy, Kaufmann gives an introduction to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. He acknowledges that Nietzsche had some “pretty nasty ideas,” but he suggests that this was Nietzsche’s way of being provocative, and encouraging other people to think deeply.
In the third lecture, Sartre and the Crisis in Morality, Kaufmann talks about how modern urban culture undermines traditional morality because of the loosening of social bonds and greater anonymity of the individual. Jean-Paul Sartre analyzed this problem, and came up with the idea that there is no absolute morality, and that “man is condemned to be free.”
If listening to these lectures whets your appetite, and you want more from Walter Kaufmann, you can borrow an e-book version of his classic The Faith of a Heretic
from the Open Library, a free internet library that loans e-books for reading on Adobe Digital Editions software that runs on PCs and Macs.
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