PHIL 3009: Existentialism

3 CreditsCivic Life and EthicsHistorical Perspectives

What do we mean when we call something \"existential?\" What do we mean when we speak of an \"existential\" crisis? We seem to mean that our core beliefs and assumptions are affected and the relationship with our environment is ruptured; we have fallen out of normalcy. The term existentialism -- turning existential into a noun -- came into being in the 1940s in France, reflecting the collective experience of societal breakdown, of Nazism, and WW2. It has since been applied to all modes of philosophical inquiry that take an individual's experience of alienation from society as their point of departure. The advantage of making alienation the focus of this class, too, is that it allows us to recognize the precise historical and sociological index of the emergence of an existentialist mode of thought and practice. Existentialism looks very different when it responds to a 19th century crisis of faith (Søren Kierkegaard), to 1950s colonialism (Frantz Fanon), to Weimar Germany's new democracy and the specter of a mass society (Martin Heidegger), or to the neo-authoritarian French society of the 1960s (Simone de Beauvoir). Existentialism then is understood in this class not as a conversation between great thinkers or ideas across time and space, but as a response to a specific crisis of norms and values. It only exists in plural. If existentialist concepts -- like being-in-the world, being-towards-death, or the gaze of the other -- are carried forward, then not without being repurposed. Such situatedness is inherent to existentialism itself. Accordingly, existentialist writers have no creed or ethical stance in common; they are found both on the far (fascist) right and on the Marxist left. They do share though a keen interest in a new language and in literary forms of expression and subsequently, they insist on the individuals' capacity of \"world-making\" -- in rupture and rebellion -- against seemingly compromised societal norms.

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