Connections: Existentialism

Steve Smith
Office: Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
– Office hours posted –
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 601-354‑2290

FYCS 1020-02  Spring 2016
MWF 8:00

What difference does it make whether you exist? Obviously, it makes all the difference—but how?

Are you on your own? Are you free in a meaningful way? Is your existence grounded in anything more fundamental? Is death your absolute end, and if so, how does that affect the meaning of what you are doing now? Are there other existers besides you, and if so, how does their existence interact with, or qualify, yours? Does a community exist in anything like the way you do?

Beginning with Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, a number of the most influential Western thinkers adopted “existence” as a leading theme. They found it necessary to break through the system of rational thinking to get at the truth of existence. Thus, even while rational thinking marches on, widely accepted as the very definition of philosophy and of progress, existential thinking asks searching questions about it.

Not coincidentally, the rational fabric of late modern Western society was subjected to tremendous stress in the 20th century—a time of cataclysmic world wars, emerging danger of nuclear omnicide, and bitter new awareness of the social poisons of racism and sexism. The existential thinkers attracted attention because they came to grips with these troubles perhaps more powerfully than anyone else.

In this course we will study existentialism philosophically to see how we stand and how we can stand, individually and collectively and historically, in a time of trouble, with a shaken (but perhaps not shattered) faith in reason.



This course will be a fountain of fascinating ideas and information, I promise, but note that it’s also designed as an exercise machine to strengthen your thinking, speaking, and writing powers so that you can enter more fully into the life and fellowship of the mind. You will be stimulated and supported in developing these broadly relevant, forever useful abilities:

Thinking and Reasoning.
This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. The use of philosophical methods in the course will challenge and lead you to reason in a sustained way.

This course is philosophical; its primary concern is not with what certain famous writers have thought is true or best but with what is true or best. We are faced with live philosophical and religious questions, and our work consists of experiments in answering these. You will be asked to articulate your own understanding of these matters and to refine it critically in conversation with the historical sources and your fellow learners.

This course will ask you repeatedly to relate your thoughts to other people’s thoughts by speaking and writing. On at least one occasion you will make a formal oral presentation with multimedia support. We will pay attention to what it takes in various contexts to communicate successfully, considering clarity and aptness of language and responsibilities to subject matter and audience. We will practice the relevant skills, particularly

  1. Discussion-starter oral thesis statements in class discussion
  2. Clearly stated theses and appropriate primary source support in written papers, including essay exams
  3. Avoiding plagiarism
  4. Oral presentation of a project with multimedia support


Research. The Research Project in this course will develop your general awareness of what makes for (1) a significant primary source in humanities-based inquiry that is worth anyone’s while to try to interpret, and (2) an appropriate secondary source (the work of a fellow scholar) to help and/or challenge your interpretation of a primary source. You will receive suggestions from the instructor and fellow class members on your first description of your Project in your Prospectus and on the first full draft of your Project.


Historical consciousness. Besides learning how ideas came into existence and what some of their consequences were, we will strive to understand more substantially how our own lives belong to a historical-cultural continuum and how our own perceptions, desires, and choices relate to the weaving and unraveling of this larger fabric.



Grading will be based on oral class participation, sometimes with specific prompts (10%), shorter writing assignments (20%), a Research Project (40%—25% for written document, 15% for oral presentation), a midterm exam (15%), and a final exam (15%). Homework paragraphs will be graded “check” (possibly “check plus” or “check minus,” if they excel or fall short in significant ways). We’ll be talking all along about how to approach class discussion, assignments, and exams.



EasyWriter (which you already own) is your required reference for grammar and style.

Course readings will be drawn from these required books (plus handouts, sometimes distributed by e-mail):

Walter Kaufmann, ed., Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre

Martin Buber, I and Thou

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity


subject to revision by announcement in class or email

The READ assignments are placed on the day on which they are due. Frequently during the semester I will ask you to turn in a PARAGRAPH responding to a question I will pose about a reading or viewing assignment. On occasion you will be called upon to present your ideas in these paragraphs in class. There are also six WRITE assignments announced in the schedule below.


Week 1: Introduction to course issues.

M 1-11  Introduction to course.

W 1-13  Modern Western civilization as reflected in “Notes from Underground”

READ: Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground,” in Kaufmann

F 1-15  Underground, cont. Ways of making a philosophical point in writing.

WRITE: Your own notes from underground (500 words)


Week 2: The first proposal for existential thinking: Kierkegaard.


W 1-20  Kierkegaard’s individuality.

READ: Kierkegaard, in Kaufmann, pp. 85-101

F 1-22  “Subjectivity is the truth.”

READ: Kierkegaard, in Kaufmann, pp. 101-120


Week 3: An atheist alternative: Nietzsche.

M 1-25  Nietzsche on “the death of God.”

READ: Nietzsche in Kaufmann, pp. 122-133

W 1-27  Nietzsche’s critique of Western morality.

READ: Nietzsche, from The Genealogy of Morals (handout)

F 1-29  Comparison of existentialist theses; what is your comparative thesis?

WRITE: Comparison of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (500 words)


Week 4: Religious existentialism after Nietzsche: Buber.

M 2-1  Buber’s I and Thou

READ: I and Thou, Part I.

W 2-3  Buber, cont.

READ: I and Thou, Part II.

FILM VIEWING: All Quiet on the Western Front (TBA)

F 2-5  All Quiet on the Western Front.

WRITE: Movie Review (500 words), following guidelines


Week 5: Karl Jaspers and the philosophical elucidation of Existenz.

M 2-8 Introduction to Jaspers.

READ: Jaspers in Kaufmann, pp. 158-182

W 2-10 Jaspers on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

READ: Jaspers in Kaufmann, pp. 185-211

F 2-12 On “the Encompassing.”

READ: Jaspers in Kaufmann, pp. 211-232


Week 6: Heidegger on existence in the context of fundamental ontology.

M 2-15 Introduction to Heidegger.

READ: Heidegger in Kaufmann, pp. 234-241

W 2-17 Nothing in “What is Metaphysics?”

READ: Heidegger in Kaufmann, pp. 242-264

F 2-19 Overcoming metaphysics.

READ: Heidegger in Kaufmann, pp. 265-279

WRITE: Comparison of Jaspers and Heidegger (500 words)


Week 7: Starting research. Existentialist themes in 20th century literature.

M 2-22 Starting research: finding and sifting sources

W 2-24 Literature.

READ: Rilke and Kafka, in Kaufmann, pp. 134-151

F 2-26 Literature, cont.

READ: Sartre, What Is Literature? (handout)


Week 8: Sartre.


Humanities research strategies and expectations, including standards of documentation.

W 3-2 Literature, cont.

READ: Sartre, Nausea, pp. 1-70

F 3-4    Literature, cont.

READ: Nausea, pp. 70-126

Week 9: Sartre, cont.

M 3-14 Literature, cont.

READ: Nausea, pp. 126-178


How to give a useful peer review.

W 3-16 Discussion of Prospecti: sources and arguments.

PEER REVIEW OF PROSPECTUS DUE, following peer review guidelines.

F 3-18 Sartre’s philosophy: Being and Nothingness.

READ: Sartre in Kaufmann, pp. 299-328


Week 10: Sartre, cont.

M 3-21 Sartre on antisemitism.

READ: Sartre in Kaufmann, pp. 329-345

W 3-23 Existentialism and Marxism.

READ: Sartre in Kaufmann, 369-374

Week 11:  Sartre, cont. Beauvoir.

M 3-28 Some existentialist criticisms of Sartre.

READ: Marcel and Levinas (handout)

WRITE: Assessment of criticisms of Sartre (500 words)

W 3-30  Is there an existentialist ethics?

READ: Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity, Part I

F 4-1 Beauvoir, cont.

READ: Ethics of Ambiguity, Part II


Week 12: Beauvoir, cont.

M 4-4  Beauvoir, cont.

READ: Ethics of Ambiguity, Part III.1-3


W 4-6 Ikiru.

WRITE: Review of Ikiru

F 4-8 Beauvoir, cont.

READ: Ethics of Ambiguity, Part III.4-5 and Conclusion


Week 13: Beauvoir, cont. Research projects.

M 4-11 Beauvoir on sex.

READ: Beauvoir, The Second Sex (handout)

W 4-13 RESEARCH PROJECT DUE (2 copies)

How to give an effective oral/multimedia presentation.

F 4-15 Discussion of Research Projects.



Week 14: SYMPOSIUM: Class presentations of research.

(Presentation rehearsals will be scheduled individually.)


Week 15: SYMPOSIUM, cont. Conclusion.






2,000-2,500 words

In this project you will examine one or more significant contributions to existential thinking and work out your own philosophical evaluation of them in conversation with at least one other significant evaluator (among your secondary sources). You will submit a PROSPECTUS for this project by Mar. 8 and get advice on it from the instructor and another class member.

The first full written version of your project is due on Apr. 13. This too will be reviewed by a fellow student and by the instructor.

You will make a 10-minute oral presentation of your project with multimedia support in late April. This presentation will be rehearsed and evaluated according to guidelines for effective communication that will be discussed beforehand.

The final written version of the project is due Apr. 26. The grade on the final version will partly reflect how effectively the project has been revised.



  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fifth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 9 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

            A general college policy for first-year courses is: If a student misses three or more classes, the Dean of Academic Advising and Student Support will be notified.

  1. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.
  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.

From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services.  You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228.  Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.