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On Being and Becoming summary

Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei

An Existentialist Approach to Life

4.6 (494 ratings)
23 mins

Brief summary

"On Being and Becoming" by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei is a philosophical exploration of the relationship between creativity and the human experience. It examines how the act of creating shapes our identities and fulfills our deepest needs for self-expression and meaning.

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    On Being and Becoming
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    Existentialism was a diverse philosophical movement centered on the theme of human freedom.

    Today, the word existentialism tends to evoke images of fashionable intellectuals smoking cigarettes in trendy Parisian cafés. This is likely because it was in the French context that existentialism first erupted into mainstream awareness. The movement's figureheads, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were the first existentialist philosophers to enjoy celebrity-like status. And the couple’s famously open relationship and bohemian lifestyle would become synonymous with an existentialist way of life.

    But this perception of existentialism is far narrower than the movement really was. For one thing, its main ideas had already begun to develop in the nineteenth century with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Both of these thinkers, in their own ways, sought to rescue authentic individuality from an increasingly homogenized mass culture. Other influences include the German phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger, and also great works of literature, like the masterpieces of Dostoevsky and Kafka, all of which explore existentialist themes.

    Existentialism, then, isn’t a single, unified philosophy – it’s more a collection of works that focus on similar problems. That being said, all existentialist writers agree on a few basic principles.

    This is the key message: Existentialism was a diverse philosophical movement centered on the theme of human freedom.

    To begin with, all existentialists sought to reorient philosophy away from abstract theorizing and back to the real problems of life as people actually experience them. All existentialist philosophy begins from the position that a human being experiences the world from a first-person, subjective point of view. In fact, they remind us, it’s only from this point of view that philosophy has any value at all.


    The unique nature of our first-person perspective means that each person’s experience of the world is profoundly personal, and can never be interchanged with anyone else’s point of view. So, in the end, you, and you alone, are capable of making sense of your experiences and deciding how to act.

    For this same reason, existentialists tend to eschew traditional interpretations of the meaning of life – like the ones found in religious and philosophical doctrines. While it’s fine to draw inspiration from anywhere, existentialists caution against blindly adopting prepackaged answers to the big questions in life. 

    To existentialism’s credit, it’s not a philosophy that tells you how to live your life. Rather, it seeks to orient you to these big questions so that you can answer them for yourself.

    Lastly, all existentialists emphasize human freedom. While you can’t control everything in life, much of it unfolds according to the choices and commitments you make. You may not like it, but you’re responsible for creating the life you want, as well as the person you want to become.

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    What is On Being and Becoming about?

    On Being and Becoming (2021) is simultaneously an introduction to the philosophy of existentialism and a guide to the good life. Drawing on a broad range of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century existentialist writers, the book unpacks the main themes and insights from the movement and explains what that means for how you should live your life.

    Who should read On Being and Becoming?

    • Philosophically minded people looking for an introduction to existentialism’s key ideas 
    • Unhappy souls who dwell on the difficulties of existence
    • Anyone who wants to know how to live a happier and more authentic life

    About the Author

    Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei is a philosophy professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her other works include The Life of Imagination, Exotic Spaces in German Modernism, and The Ecstatic Quotidian. She’s also the author of a book of poetry, After the Palace Burns, which won the Paris Review Prize.

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