Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that first was popularized in France soon after World War II by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the religious writings of Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century and those of Søren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. The common thread that unites existentialists is a focus on existence, particularly the concrete existence of individual human beings. Unlike rationalist thinkers such as René Descartes and G.W. F. Hegel, existentialists reject the premise that human beings are primarily rational creatures who live in an ordered, well-designed universe. They also do not believe that the answers to life’s challenges can be solved through thoughtful consideration and reasoned deliberation. Instead, existentialists view human beings as creatures whose reason is subordinate to human passions and anxieties, and who exist in an irrational, absurd, and insignificant universe. In such a universe, existentialists argue, one struggles to become the best person one can be given one’s religious, historical, cultural, economic, and personal circumstances.
Existentialists emphasize the human being’s place in a complex set of circumstances in order to highlight the uniqueness and individuality within each of us. They stress the role of the human body in all of our acts and decisions, arguing that the mind cannot exist without the body (in contrast to the majority of rationalists, who assert that the mind is separate from the body). In addition, existentialists consider whether absolute individual freedom is possible; and if so, what the consequences of such freedom might be for our sense of responsibility to ourselves, to others, and to God. They also consider the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God, and what either possibility means for our sense of freedom and responsibility. More than anything, existentialists reflect on human beings’ anxiety over and dread of death, and consider the consequences to our individual lives of coming to terms with the inevitability of death.
In this course, you will explore the major figures and works of the existentialist movement from a historical perspective. You will study, in sequence, the works of Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Successful completion of the course means that you will be able to identify, analyze, and distinguish among the major themes and figures in the history of existentialism. Most importantly, you will be able to recognize the contributions existentialist thinkers have made to our contemporary understanding of human existence and humanity’s place in the cosmos.