Existentialism

In this course, we’ll study the works of existentialist philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries, through the lens of their views about theabsurd. The idea that life is absurd has become an existentialist cliché, but our goal is to understand why it is nevertheless true; how it plays a central role in the philosophy of Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger; and why its insight into the meaning and nature of human life continues to influence the thought of many prominent philosophers today.

In general, life is absurd when it stops making sense or mattering to us, when we cannot understand or care about ourselves and the world. This is a reasonable thing to worry about in certain cases: A 19th-century Christian might struggle to maintain his religious way of life in the scientific, social and political aftermath of the European Enlightenment and the advent of the modern age. Someone in the mid-20th century might find herself in despair and desolation over the atrocities of the Second World War. But is there any good reason to think that life is absurd, not just in certain cases, but in principle?

Existentialists think so. They claim that if we’re going to understand what it means to be human, it’s not our capacity to reason, our createdness by God, or our animal nature that we must turn to, but rather, our inherent vulnerability to the absurd. Each of our existentialists focuses on a distinct aspect of the absurd and gives his own argument about how we ought to respond to it. By studying these arguments, we will come to understand their underlying views about the nature of human action, life and identity. Then, by looking at how these views have influenced philosophers today, we will better appreciate their insights into why being human is not just a status you are born with, but a task—a very difficult, risky and fragile task that you are responsible for sustaining over the course of your whole life and through the history of your culture, as you strive to become a human being.