Seminar Plan

Although there is a detailed syllabus for the seminar on this website, let me describe its basic structure to you. Because Jean-Paul Sartre is the most well-known and influential of the Existentialists, we will begin the seminar by investigating his ideas. Sartre wrote dense philosophical texts as well as the literature more people are acquainted with. Our first reading, "The Humanism of Existentialism," is a popular essay in which Sartre defends the central ideas of Existentialism against criticisms that it is depressing and politically quietist. In so doing, he employs some aphorisms that remain popular as summaries of Existentialist thought, e.g. "Man's existence precedes his essence."

After exploring these ideas, we will look at two sections from Sartre's magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. These sections illustrate Sartre's use of phenomenology, a philosophical methodology that requires a careful examination of human experience. The first section on "The Look" explores how other people are encountered by human beings and the second, "Bad Faith," presents Sartre's critique of the everyday existence of many human beings.

These theoretical accounts will be useful as we analyze Sartre's most popular play, No Exit, which we will watch in a rare DVD copy. The play also contains a famous aphorism -- Hell is other people -- and we will see the extent to which this is a valid summary of its ideas.

Following this introduction to Existentialist thought, we will go back to the movement’s nineteenth-century precursors. The texts we will read are Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, selections from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and selections from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The theme these readings address is whether and how to reconcile faith in God with the facts of human existence, which include tremendous cruelty and suffering.

Writing after Kant had argued that all theoretical attempts to prove the existence of God were futile, Kierkegaard develops an account of religious faith that sees it as operating in a sphere completely separate from rational discourse. Using a fictional author who embodies a theoretical perspective different from his own, Kierkegaard creates a work that allows its readers to viscerally experience how distinctive the life of a person of faith really is despite the seeming ordinariness of his or her outward existence. We will explore what Kierkegaard means by such distinctive ideas as fear and trembling, the knight of faith, and the leap of faith, in an attempt to understand the nature of his reflection on human life and the possibility of religious faith.

Our look at Existentialism’s nineteenth century precursors will continue with a brief selection from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. Although Dostoevsky was himself a Christian, in Brothers Karamazov he paints an extraordinary portrait of a person in the midst of a crisis of faith. Ivan, the middle Karamazov brother, is unable to reconcile his need for a world that makes sense to him with the terrible cruelty he sees everywhere he looks. In two extraordinary chapters in the “Pro and Contra” section of the novel, Ivan presents his critique of religious faith in the form of both a rational argument against the traditional argument from design for God’s existence and a stunningly brilliant parable of Jesus’ second coming.
Ivan represents the beginnings of atheistic Existentialism and we will discuss the significance of his critique of religion, particularly in the context of Kierkegaard’s attempt to provide a non-rational grounding for faith.

The next text to be tackled in the seminar, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, exhibits many themes that are characteristic of Existentialism. Although presented as an analysis of the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy, The Birth of Tragedy develops a complex theory of human history as guided by two basic principles, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Nietzsche’s claim is that the horrors of human existence require some form of cultural mediation. He contrasts the ecstatic Dionysian principle with the formal and abstract Apollonian one, arguing for the need to reinfuse contemporary Western culture with Dionysian elements. Nietzsche’s insightful cultural analysis emphasizes the broader social perspective of Existentialism, a theme the seminar will pick up in its final week.

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ikiru, is the next film we will screen. Ikiru portrays how a confrontation with a fatal disease causes an alienated civil servant to reclaim his life in an authentic manner. It provides a clear illustration of many of Heidegger’s quite obscure claims about the significance that death can have for human beings and will assist the participants in grasping and evaluating those ideas. Kurosawa says in an interview that he made the film in order to embody the ideas Leo Tolstoy presents in The Death of Ivan Ilych, a text we will read and discuss together with Ikiru. Through his fatal illness, Ivan Ilych discovers that he has lived a life determined by others. This idea is one that connects Tolstoy's novella to the central ideas of the Existentialist.

With this intellectual background under our belts, we will return to the ideas of the twentieth-century Existentialists themselves, focusing in particular on how they advocate human beings live their lives. We will begin by considering some of the central ideas in Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time. Although there has recently been much disagreement about Heidegger because of his sympathy for and participation in Nazism, there can be no doubt about the importance of his ideas in shaping Existentialism and, indeed, contemporary Continental philosophy. We will focus on two central ideas. First, we will explore the contrast he draws between our conformist everyday selves and the authentic selves we can become through the call of conscience. Second, we will try to understand the importance that Heidegger attributes to the fact of our own mortality and how this can yield a “being-unto-death” of the authentic self. Heidegger’s prose is extremely dense, so I will eschew the small group discussions of his ideas and present the ideas in lecture. Once I have done that, we will engage in a general discussion of the validity of those ideas.

We are now ready to return to France to discuss excerpts from Albert Camus’ philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, and his novel, The Stranger. Camus is one of the most popular Existentialist writers, and The Stranger is taught in many high school classes. To understand the concept of the absurd – a concept central to Camus’ vision – we will look at his explicit discussion of its importance in The Myth of Sisyphus. In this work, Camus presents life’s absurdity as the essential fact about being human that most people have not faced squarely. He posits a need for people to “live in the face of the absurd.” We will try to understand this claim and see what its implications are for living a less alienated existence. In turning to The Stranger, we will consider the role of the absurd in its portrait of its protagonist, Meursault, and his apparently arbitrary killing of an Arab. We will also explore the difference in Camus’ essayistic and novelistic works, the question of whether they articulate the same worldview, and how they represent a development of themes we have found in other Existentialist thinkers.

During the final unit of the course, we will explore the social and political dimensions of Existentialism that have been touched on in previous weeks. We will consider the significance of Simone de Beauvoir's monumental work, The Second Sex. Although de Beauvoir was often regarded as more of a novelist than a philosopher, recent feminist scholars have been making a case for her philosophical originality. Nowhere is her contribution clearer than in her great unmasking of the sexism of Western culture. The Second Sex develops its feminism through a rigorous confrontation with some of the key ideas of Heidegger and Sartre. We will consider the validity of de Beauvoir’s critique of Heidegger’s notion of conformity as well as of Sartre’s claim about the impossibility of adequate relationships between human beings, as we explore her claims about the misogyny of Western culture.

We will watch Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. Bresson's film follows the spiritual development of a petty criminal. It poses the question of whether an individual can be above the law, or whether committing a crime will inevitably result in repentance. Using a unique cinematic style, Bresson portrays an Existential hero before then criticizing his stance from a more traditional, Christian point of view.

Our final reading is Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. In this book, Fanon uses ideas drawn from Sartre to understand the situation of the black man living in a former French colony. In particular, he adapts Sartre’s famous analysis of “the look” from Being and Nothingness to understand the situation facing blacks in relation to the countries that colonized them. Despite his reliance on Sartre, Fanon is also critical of his mentor, whom he sees as failing to understand the importance of race as a fundamental social category. Our discussion will consider the adequacy of using Existentialism, as Fanon does, to conceptualize the situation of oppressed people in the third world.

Our final session will provide the opportunity for a comprehensive examination of Existentialism in which the participants will discuss the impact of their investigation of Existentialism on their thinking and teaching. Using concept maps, they will share with one another their take on the central concepts of Existentialism.