Topic outline

  • 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.

  • Since the term existentialism was not used to describe a philosophical movement until the twentieth century, it is anachronistic to call Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) an existentialist. However, his concern with the limitations of human existence (or finitude, in philosophical terms); the presence of constant change, uncertainty, and suffering in the progress of human life; and the irrationality of human beings' actions has persuaded many philosophers that he is, at the very least, a precursor to the existentialist movement. Pascal was a mathematical genius whose father counted among his friends the French rationalist philosopher and "father" of modern philosophy, René Descartes. In 1654, after a severe bout with depression, Pascal had a religious experience. He entered a monastery and dedicated the rest of his life to defending the Christian faith against its critics. Pascal's most famous work, written as a defense, or apology, of Christianity that included meditations on suffering, sin, and faith, was published posthumously as the Pensées (translated as "thoughts"). This unit will introduce you to Pascal and the Pensées and give you an overview of Pascal's "proto-existentialism," which provided a foundation for philosophical themes - including contingency (or the uncertainty of future events), anti-rationalism, and individual existence - with which many existentialists would grapple a few hundred years later.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 8 hours.

  • Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish Christian philosopher, theologian, and social critic, widely considered a founding figure in existentialism. Convinced that the Christian faith, as it was generally practiced, had lost its way, Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of religious dogma. Kierkegaard believed that a human being's relationship with God must be hard-won, a matter of devotion and suffering. According to Kierkegaard, a person becomes a committed, responsible human being by making difficult decisions and sacrifices. The force of Kierkegaard's philosophy rests in the notion that human life is paradoxical and absurd and that to confront this absurdity is to become truly human (a theme that is taken up again by Albert Camus, as discussed in Unit 8 of this course). This unit will introduce you to Kierkegaard's life and religious philosophy, as well as provide you with an overview of themes in Kierkegaard's writings that serve as cornerstones for what would be called existentialism by later philosophers discussed in this course - particularly Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. These key existentialist themes include the notions of commitment and responsibility, absurdity, anxiety, and authenticity.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 11 hours.

  • Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian novelist, journalist, and essayist whose literary works are foundational texts in the history of existentialism. Dostoevsky (sometimes spelled Dostoyevsky) explored the loneliness and desperation of the human condition. He viewed the human condition as constrained by social, political, and economic institutions and limited by God, whose existence, Dostoevsky argued, imposes limits on human existence. This unit will guide you in an exploration of the main existentialist themes in Dostoevsky's literary works, paying special attention to the concepts of human freedom and moral responsibility in Notes from the Underground (1864) and "The Grand Inquisitor" (1880).

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 14 hours.

  • An unapologetic critic of culture, society, religion, and philosophical dogma (philosophical beliefs that his predecessors and contemporaries accepted without question), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is arguably one of the most important thinkers of the past two centuries. Like all existentialists, Nietzsche denounced the universalistic tendencies displayed throughout the history of Western philosophy; that is, the tendencies of philosophers to assert that what they knew or believed or discovered should be considered true for everyone and for all time. According to Nietzsche, there is no such thing as a universal truth that is true for everyone and for all time. Instead, Nietzsche argued that what was true from one person's perspective might not be true from another person's perspective (a philosophical idea known as perspectivism). For Nietzsche, all human perspectives are valid in the quest for truth. This emphasis on the significance of individual points of view underscores Nietzsche's belief in the priority of individuality, the value of suspicion and skepticism, and a rejection of rationalism in the quest for truth. These values are existentialist themes shared by Nietzsche's predecessors and successors alike. In this unit, you will explore Nietzsche's version of existentialism and analyze his theory of values and morality.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 19 hours.

  • Martin Heidegger's (1889-1976) extensive and illuminating meditations on what he described as the ontological "question of being” established his reputation as one of the most original and important philosophers of the twentieth century. Like other philosophers commonly referred to as existentialists today, Heidegger refused to associate his own thinking with the term existentialism. However, his focus on human existence, anxiety, death, and authenticity - themes shared by both his predecessors (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche) and his contemporaries (Sartre and Camus) - place him at the center of this movement. In this unit, you will explore Heidegger's thought, especially the philosophy of existence that he introduced in his most famous work, Being and Time (1927).

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 19 hours.

  • Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is the public face of existentialism. His works, both fictional and philosophical, resoundingly affirm the existentialist priority of concrete, situated, and historical human existence. He stresses the value of choice, responsibility, and authenticity in human self-fashioning. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 - an honor he refused because he maintained that it conflicted with his professional, personal, and political commitments. This unit will introduce you to Sartre's contributions to existentialist philosophy while simultaneously highlighting Sartre's place in the movement's history. In particular, you will explore how Sartre expanded on existentialist themes dealt with by his predecessors - for example, the notions of authenticity, anxiety, and freedom.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 17 hours.

  • A novelist, social critic, and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) extended Sartre's existentialism to the realm of the social and the political, developing an existentialist ethics and a feminist philosophy that would have a lasting influence on the feminist political movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Like existentialists before her, de Beauvoir emphasized the centrality of individual freedom to human existence. But unlike existentialists before her, she argued that individual freedom was possible only on the condition that others were free. In other words, equitable social relations are necessary for a meaningful freedom, according to de Beauvoir. In this unit, you will learn about de Beauvoir's existentialist ethics and her existential feminism.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 14 hours.

  • Albert Camus (1913-1960) was an Algerian writer and intellectual who refused to be called a philosopher because he did not believe that human reason was capable of systematizing human experience in all of its nuances. He was a friend and, later, a critic of Sartre, and his works manifest concerns similar to those of Sartre. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. In this unit, you will explore Camus' existentialism through an examination of his book The Stranger and his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (both published in 1942), which highlight the absurdities of human existence and, interestingly enough, the absurdity of existentialism itself if the philosophy is taken to an extreme. You also will develop an appreciation of the manner in which Camus represents the synthesis of existentialist thinking since Pascal.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 11 hours.