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Introduction to Existentialism

Lecturer: Jack Reynolds

Originally Taught: Summer School 2005

This course introduces students to some of the key ideas of twentieth century existentialist thought through consideration of the work of Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. Rather than dealing with each thinker separately, however, the course will focus upon the inter-relations and points of disagreement between these thinkers in regard to five key themes:

1. freedom
2. the significance of phenomenological experiences and ‘moods’
3. mortality, finitude, and death
4. authenticity, inauthenticity, and Bad Faith
5. Relations with others – das Man, the master-slave dialectic, etc.

Monday – Introduction/freedom

After introducing the course, this first lecture will examine existentialism’s most famous philosophy of freedom, as found in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness where he claims that there are no accidents, before contrasting this with the more nuanced accounts of freedom of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir.

Tuesday – Moods and phenomenological experiences

Drawing on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and others, the above existential thinkers also point to the significance of certain experiences and moods in disclosing meaning in a way that rational reflection cannot. Themes to be considered in this lecture include anguish, anxiety, dread, despair, fear, nausea, and boredom, and the focus will be on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Wednesday – Mortality, finitude, death

All existential thinkers emphasis the importance of recognising one’s finitude (that certain choices preclude other choices, that time is irreversible), but this lecture will examine an interesting disagreement between Sartre and Heidegger on the issue of whether or not we are “beings-toward-death”. De Beauvoir tries to steer a middle way between Heidegger and Sartre. I will also discuss Camus’ famous comment that the question of whether or not to commit suicide is the only truly serious philosophical question.

Thursday – Authenticity, Inauthenticity, Bad Faith

Although never explicitly ethical (and certainly not normatively prescriptive), existential theorists nevertheless implicitly reinstate a certain morality through concepts like authenticity, inauthenticity, and Bad Faith. This lecture will focus upon these themes in the work of Sartre and Heidegger.

Friday – Relations with Others, das Man, and the master-slave dialectic

This lecture will focus on Sartre’s version of the master-slave dialectic, as well as his contentions that human relations are necessarily conflictual, and that love is a ruse. His position will be compared to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

Suggested introductory reading:

  • David Cooper, Existentialism