I ‘ve often regreted not having majored in philosophy as an undergraduate.
The courses I took in that field of study represented some of the most enriching intellectual experiences in my life. So now, at age 52, I cherish any chance to immerse myself in a great philosophy book, over a well-brewed cup of coffee. To me, this embodies the spirit and essence of a well-lived life!
So imagine my excitement at crossing Twitter paths with William Irwin, Professor & Chair of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Recognizing that philosophical insights can’t be restricted to 140 characters, we agreed to connect by phone.
Like a kid who finds himself wide-eyed at a fresh discovery, I was excited to learn that his new book, The Free Market Existentialist, is scheduled for release on October 20 ($21.95 in paperback, published by Wiley). Lucky for me, he sent me a draft manuscript to review. In his provocatively entitled book, Irwin incisively and engagingly argues that capitalism and existentialism are connected at the hip. He goes on to assert that the synthesis of these two doctrines offers a practical model for fostering a truly free-market minimal State that allows people to live how they please.
What makes this book particularly unique is its existentialist defense of libertarianism, bringing together two approaches that traditionally have been viewed as incompatible. Existentialists emphasize the importance of subjectively choosing one’s values and determining the meaning of one’s life. Libertarians champion strong property rights and the individual’s prerogative to live in any way that does not cause harm to others. Ultimately, individualism is the link between existentialism and libertarianism, producing a philosophy that values freedom and a corresponding responsibility.
The opportunity to converse with a leading thinker like William Irvin is one of the joys of my work as a journalist who examines the intersection between free markets and economic freedom. So I thought I’d share a few of his thoughts on the underpinnings of his own personal philosophy, his new book and his contributions to a fresh political world view.
On His Philosophical Leanings
As with most thinking individuals, Michael, that’s a long story! I would say that I, like a lot of libertarians, didn’t consider myself interested in politics at all until I was well into my 30s. To my mind, politics and political theory were a necessary evil, which I could happily ignore. But as I got older, I realized that I could no longer ignore that reality. So existentialist philosophy – along with social and economic philosophy – became the place to which I gravitated.
On How the Philosopher Sartre Informed his Thinking
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre came from an atheistic perspective, which follows my own. And the importance he placed on individual freedom and individual responsibility all sounded great; that is until later on in his career when he embraced Marxism. While I have no issue with people changing their minds and viewpoints, the vexing thing about Sartre was the fact that he never acknowledged that he had changed his views. Oddly, he somehow thought that his previous philosophy of freedom and responsibility dove-tailed well with Marxism.
On Writing The Free Market Existentialist
In many ways, I’ve long admired Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. But frankly, his political turn towards Marxism has always rubbed me the wrong way because it just never seemed to fit in with the rest of his philosophy which emphasized freedom and responsibility. For quite some time, I had it in mind to try to reconcile existentialism with capitalism and free-market thinking. So during my sabbatical, three years ago, that was the project I set for myself, and this is the book that emerged.
On Connecting the Dots Between Existentialism, Amoralism and Libertarianism
Yes, those are the three controversial themes that I stake out in the book and that I then weave together….
The first is what you and I have been discussing today, making the case that Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is not actually a good fit with Marxism. In the book, I argue that his views are instead a good fit with capitalism; the idea being that if we are free and responsible, capitalism is the economic system best suited for that.
Amoralism – or what I call moral anti-realism – embodies the thinking we saw as a result of an atheistic turn in philosophy, starting with Nietzsche. With that shift came the belief that somehow the whole world would go to hell in a hand basket. But what we are discovering is that atheists are no better or worse than the average person in terms of how one might judge their actions or behavior.
And from a libertarian point of view, I argue that freedom and responsibility are actually a good thing; that they help the cause of capitalism by serving as a sort of a cure for the things that people tend to worry about in a capitalistic society. “