The allure of Existentialism lies in its ability to grapple, in a non-trivial way, with so many common although philosophically underrated aspects of human condition: anxiety, anguish, dread, despair, boredom, guilt, loneliness, forlornness, lack of meaning, self-deception, suicide, death, suffering, finitude. Whithin the framework of this course we shall try to highlight some of these topics (including those less "dark" and "negative" ones: free choice, commitment, obligation, responsibility, hope, transcendence) by analyzing how they have been formulated and discussed both in the classical tradition and in the mainstream of the Existentialist movement. (The movement is a pretty recent phenomenon, but the roots of the Existentialist way of thinking could be traced back to the Renaissance or even to the time of Hellenism.) Although Existentialism vigorously reaffirms the primacy of individual existence and lived experience over all kinds of theoretical generalizations and abstractions it does not deny the power of philosophical self-reflection. It only reacts against various forms of its pseudo-objectification. In contrast to the modern reduction of human being to a thinking subject Existentialism demands that philosophical reflection takes the subject in its existing entirety. In studying human existence in its involvement within the world Existentialism introduces both a more comprehensive and a more concrete approach toward better understanding of our human predicament.
Out of the broad spectrum of those who have thought in the manner of Existentialism we are taking two philosophers as our intellectual guides: Soeren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre. The former is widely recognized as the major precursor of Existentialism (in fact, its fountainhead) while the latter is arguably the pivotal figure of its rise to the most influential philosophical movement in the mid-twentieth century. Despite significant differences (Kierkegaard is interested in the immediate experience of the individual as singularly exposed to eternity, whereas Sartre always situates individual experience in the context of social world) there is a common ground that clearly links their philosophies: both raise their voice against false social and theoretical totalizations that are at odds with authentic individual decisions, both renounce the identification of human reality with reason and thinking, both affirm the unalienable freedom of human existence, both stress the inescapable character of making choices and bearing responsibility, and, last but not least, both demonstrate a very strong bent for literary expressiveness.
The historical merits and relevance of Existentialism recognized, why are we reverting to the philosophers of the two past centuries in an effort to explain our present existence? To be sure, Kierkegaard and Sartre are not any longer our contemporaries and Existentialism as a philosophical movement has vanished from the philosophical scene almost a half a century ago. Does this mean that Existentialism with its focus on modern anxieties cannot teach us much in the age of non-binding post-modern relaxation? By no means. The heydays of its strong and direct impact on general culture, literature and popular life-style are gone, but its insights regarding the nature of human subjectivity are in many respects still valid. Existentialism can still teach important things about human freedom and autonomy, authentic creativity and loneliness, responsibility and personal integrity, even about human solidarity. Despite undeniable progress in protecting the sphere of life-world from the encroaches of various economic and bureaucratic imperatives, current societies are still not sensitive enough to the needs of self-expression and communicative action. By raising doubts about overly optimistic view of history, by undermining our confidence in achieving full mastery over nature and human society, by questioning the uncritical belief into the constant progress and omnipotence of human rationality, Existentialism has unveiled many co-lateral damages of advanced social rationalization (and theoretical objectification). Moreover, by challenging the universal and formal character of rational norms and objective truths it has articulated some of the topics we nowadays regard as the cornerstones of the new sensitivity: experiential concreteness, the incommensurability of different norms, the value of "soft" thinking, feminism, multiculturalism and otherness as opposed to cultural domination, racism, sexism and homophobia.
Objectives:The principal objective in this course is to become acquainted with the challenge that Existentialism poses to Modern Philosophy by denying the substantial character of the Self and the Truth. The second goal is to help students understand the rationale and the motivation of the Existentialist contention that human reality surpasses the domain of purely theoretical attitude. Third, the participants should develop necessary skills for valid interpretation of relevant texts as well as become able to evaluate various arguments supporting the claim that existence precedes essence. Finally, by analyzing everyday structures of our facticity as to their reifying or authentic aspects (generalization, bad faith, singularity, sincerety,) the course offers an opportunity for each participant to determine for themselves the potentials for their personal self-realization.
All readings will be taken from this anthology which includes extensive selections from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heiedegger and Sartre.
The course will be conducted through a combination of seminar meetings and regular lectures. No matter what the form of a particular class may be, we shall be doing basically one and the same thing: close reading of the texts and careful analysis of their problems. By discussing these problems in class we shall get the opportunity to work together, to challenge our own understanding of pertinent places and to take advantage of our collaborative intellectual efforts.
Writing: Students are expected to write two papers simultaneously with doing their readings. These papers have to be based strictly on the course material. The first paper should comment or expand on Kierkegaard. The second paper should deal with Sartre. The suggested scope is from 2 to 5 pages. The papers are due for the Midterm and Final exam respectively.
In addition to these papers, students can test their ideas and viewpoints in writing by joining different electronic forums. Discussions tackling existential topics always take a very prominent place in this medium. Students are also encouraged to visit URI's Writing Center - located on the 4th floor of Roosevelt Hall - at anytime during semester. For more information go the the URI Writing Center's website at http://www.uri.edu/artsci/writing/Writing_Center_Pages/index.html
Attendance and Exams: Regular attendance and doing reading on time are indispensable for being successful in this course (they will be reflected in the participation grade accordingly). What counts most, however, is not mere physical presence, but active participation in answering questions, in doing presentations and taking part in class discussions.
There will be two exams including one final. They will have the form of both short answer quizzes and multiple choice questions.
Students with Disabilities: Any student with a documented disability is welcome to contact me early in the semester so that we may work out reasonable accommodations to support your success in this course. One should also contact Disability Services for Students, Office of Student Life, 330 Memorial Union, 874-2098.
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