An Overview

We will take a roughly historical approach in this course, but our method for studying existentialism is not to focus upon history but rather to focus upon (1) briefly, the metaphysical theories of philosophers who influenced the existentialists, (2) the metaphysical theories of existentialist philosophers, (3) works of art that were influenced by and can be seen as embodying or reacting to various aspects of existentialism.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a movement in Continental (that is, European) Philosophy in the twentieth century. The major figure of this movement is Martin Heidegger, though Jean-Paul Sartre is for various reasons more popular.

I believe we can fruitfully understand existentialism as a philosophy of persons (typically, human beings) that is characterized by six necessary features (though number 5 is in part a consequence of 3 and 4 and so I was tempted to leave it off the list, it is a very special concern of all existentialists):
  1. Phenomenology of the Everyday: use of Phenomenology (or, at least, observations inspired by Phenomenology) to understand (typically in a radical way) the everyday nature of experience for persons and the everyday nature of existence for persons.
  2. Concern with Purpose: a dominant concern with the purposes and purposefulness of persons.
  3. Foundationalism about Purpose: the belief that the purposefulness of persons requires a kind of justification; and the belief that some purposes are justified (the fundamental purposes) and other purposes are justified if they have the right relationship to those fundamental purposes.
  4. Lost Foundations: conviction that the traditional foundations of purpose have been lost or have proved false.
  5. Purpose-Structured Ontology: the belief that the purposes of persons somehow shapes, or otherwise influences, the ontology of things (other than mental states). This can come in weaker or stronger versions.
  6. Responsibility and Authenticity: because we've lost the foundations of purpose, purpose becomes an individual responsibility; thus, the conviction that authenticity (a kind of personal honesty and courage to be an individual) is essential to a proper life. (For Sartre, this is coupled with an assertion that we are radically free, in the sense of "free will"; Heidegger avoids talk of "free will" but does sometimes describe Dasein as "free.")
Please note that other philosophers will have a different understanding of existentialism. My way of understanding and explaining existentialism will be useful to you, but you should be critical of it. Furthermore, I am leaving out here Heidegger's contention that his philosophy was concerned with "the question of Being" (roughly, what is the nature of Being?). Heidegger also reads Nietzsche as asking -- as developing a philosophy concerned with -- the question of Being. I read Nietzsche as a predecessor of existentialism, and Heidegger as creating existentialism even if that was not his goal. In part, I am not bothered by the fact that Heidegger rejected the title existentialist: I believe he created existentialism but these concerns were not his primary concern.

An Analogy with Epistemology

One of my hypotheses, to which I will return many times, is that there is a useful analogy to be made between foundationalism in epistemology and what I am calling foundationalism about purpose.

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge: what is it, how do we get it. Foundationalism is the view that beliefs are knowledge if they are true and they are justified by being either special statements could the foundation, or derived from those special statements. The foundation can be different things; for Descartes it was statements that cannot be doubted. For other foundationalists, it was things that are just given in sense experience reflection. Whatever it is, the foundation is in some sense firm and secure, and then we secure knowledge by deriving it ("building upon") this foundation. The question "Why should I believe that?" which you might ask in response to any claim should lead you, ultimately perhaps after a chain of "But why should I believe that?" questions, to the claims that make up the foundation.

My claim is that there is a parallel in thinking about purpose. A foundationalist about purpose believes that purposes require some kind of justification, and that they get this from being derived from some special purposes. (I will use the word "purpose" always. The word "meaning" is more common in English in this use, but it is ambiguous with respect to semantics and purpose.) I propose that there was an implicit foundationalism in thinking about purpose. The question "Why should I do that?" or even "So what?" was answered by appeal to other purposes, and ultimately you came to a stop when you got to purposes which made up a kind of foundation. For example, god wills it and you will be punished forever if you don't do it and rewarded forever if you do do it.

There is also an analogy with the skeptic. The skeptic is someone who has very high standards for what justifies belief and makes it knowledge, and also believes that none or few of our beliefs meet those standards. I think one kind of nihilist is analogous to the skeptic. This is someone who believes that very high standards required to justify a purpose, and that we cannot meet those standards, so as a result all our purposes are in some sense in doubt.

The foundationalist in epistemology creates the setting for the skeptic, by having high standards about what constitutes knowledge which (the skeptic believes) cannot be met. The parallel, I claim, is that the foundationalist about purpose creates the setting for the nihilist, by having very high standards about what constitutes an appropriate purposefulness, and which (the nihilist believes) cannot be met. Analogous to more sophisticated (albeit less secure and clear) positions in epistemology (such as various flavors of pragmatism or Duhemian scientific method and other non-foundationalist views about knowledge) are non-foundationalist views about purpose. I will argue that Camus has such a non-foundationalist view, and this is precisely why he was correct to announce that he was not an existentialist.

A Roadmap
We will roughly proceed as follows:
  1. Nietzsche: Nietzsche raises doubts, and poses some radical analyses, that profoundly influenced philosophy and prepared the way for existentialism.
  2. Husserl: the founder of Phenomenology as a named movement provides the idea of a method that inspired the existentialists.
  3. Heidegger: Being and Time is the quintessential existentialist text, even if it's foremost focus (the "question of Being") is not an essential feature of existentialism.
  4. Sartre: Being and Nothingness provides a strange Cartesian hybrid of existentialism.
  5. "Late" Heidegger: Heidegger's later work is enigmatic but still retains some elements of existentialism. This is also a chance to look at Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche.
  6. Sartre's drama: some of Sartre's plays well express the hope that early Heidegger and Sartre claim to offer in their existentialist theories.
  7. Beckett: works like Waiting for Godot and Happy Days express the nihilistic outcome of accepting foundationalism about purpose and denying that the foundations exist. (I use the term "nihilism" here in a way that may not always match Nietzsche or Heidegger's use of the term.)
  8. Camus: The Plague offers a view that grapples with the explicit concerns of existentialism, but implicitly denies the foundationalism about purpose.