Existentialism — Study questions — Essay prompts – Some themes for exploration ////// FALL 2020
The philosophic spirit is to approach a problem thoughtfully, looking at evidence before making a
decision; you try to bring some order to what you are looking at; you are trying to see what is really there.
You are trying to raise questions, propose and test ideas. As you approach writing about philosophy, a first step is to define a problem to look into — something that interests you and that you want to know
more about – something that you would like to spend time thinking about. Normally if a person cares about a subject, he or she will benefit from spending some time thinking about it and writing about it.
In writing an essay in philosophy, one approach – a good one, but only one approach – looks like this:
Introduction – subject you will discuss (e.g. whether Socrates was guilty)
Thesis – the main idea you think it is important to see (e.g. Socrates was guilty)
Defense of thesis – why you think this is the case (e.g. arguments for convicting Socrates)
Review of counterarguments – why people might disagree (e.g. arguments for acquitting Socrates)
Summary and conclusion – restating the discussion, the main argument and its conclusion.
The reason one attempts to create powerful counterarguments and to make a strong case against one’s own thesis, is to ensure that you are not just attacking a straw man (or knocking down a weak argument).
If you meet strong objections, then your thesis gets tested, so (if it succeeds) it begins to prove itself and becomes more plausible. If it fails, that is good information – we floated an idea and saw that it doesn’t really work.
If – instead of looking at arguments – you merely express your opinion about a subject, without any evidence, without explaining why you believe a claim and why you think other people should believe it, then your work fails as philosophy. Philosophy is about reasoning, evidence, backing up claims with information that helps to articulate the ideas you are looking at and the reason why you think that a claim is true or false. It is not just stating an opinion – whatever that opinion might be. Somewhere around five (5) pages, double-spaced
Students are free to write on any topic that emerges from the texts, but here are a few topics to consider.
1 – Heidegger talks about ‘Sein zum Tode’ (Being towards death). The idea that we should think about death and make death a focus of our thoughts is a common theme in existentialism. Is this right? Should people preoccupy themselves with their impending deaths – is this something we should think about?
This is a debate we also see in the ancient world – in Greece and Rome – and in ancient India and ancient China. The Hagakure, from eighteenth century Japan, recommends meditation upon inevitable death to be performed daily – ‘The Way of the samurai is found in death.’ Yet many traditions recommend just the opposite – a this-worldly focus and a more hopeful vision of life – not spending one’s life thinking about death. How do you see this problem? How do you interpret the debate that people have had over this question – whether we should worry about dying, or not?
2 – Nietzsche was a talented musician and composer and spent years in close communication with artists such as Wagner and Liszt. Mahler, Delius and Richard Strauss all wrote music responding to his ideas. Nietzsche is also famous for his saying “Without music life would be a mistake.” Music is a theme in much of philosophy including Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Boethius, Schopenhauer – in ancient China, Mozi is an opponent of music and Xunxi a great defender of music as a teacher to the emotions and to the art of governing. What is music? What does music have to do with philosophy or with morality or with the proper state of society? What role should music play in society and in the good life for human beings – if
any at all?
3 – Camus defines the ‘absurd’ as the futility of the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. There are similar ideas in many of the existentialist philosophers – Kierkegaard talks about tragedy and the sense of humor, Heidegger talks about the ‘abyss,’ why de Beauvoir tries to distinguish between ‘absurdity’ and ‘ambiguity.’ All these authors speak about the encounter with the absurd – a powerful experience of some kind. In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the hero, Roquentin, riding a streetcar, has a sudden encounter with meaninglessness. Jaspers calls these kind of events “limit situations.” This can bring on a crisis.
Have you ever had an experience like this? Describe it; reflect on what it means to you now, in retrospect. Perhaps it is also possible to engage critically with this idea: does this idea really hold up under scrutiny? Discuss the ‘encounter with the absurd’ – what does this concept mean to you? Or do
you reject it? Why?
4 – Nietzsche seems to be arguing that there is no ‘self’ behind a person’s actions. There is no ‘doer’ behind any given ‘deed.’ Why does he say this? – Are there any reasons to accept his arguments? Does his idea even make any sense to you? Why would he say that there is no ‘doer’ / ‘being’ / ‘self’ behind a person’s actions? How do you understand the picture of human life that Nietzsche is attempting to draw here? Is this how you see the problem he is looking at – the problem we face in the mirror? What are human beings, if not ‘subjects’ or ‘doers’ or ‘selves’ or … ? Most of the atoms in our bodies are quickly replaced; we are not made of the same ‘stuff’ throughout life. Are we made of the same self-stuff
Here I am asking students to explore some of the consequences for the concept of personal identity of Nietzsche’s claim that there is no ‘doer’ behind human ‘deeds.’ The idea is to give the student a chance to explore some ‘existentialist’ themes about the self, and how they differ from other ways of looking at human identity. In some traditions, the self is considered to be fixed and eternal. Buddhist and Zen teachings about sunyata, emptiness / void, and anatta, no mind / non-self – or the claim that “there is no self” or soul or essence or substance, or ready-made, unchanging human-thing – seem similar to existentialist claims about people as insubstantial-dynamic-always-in-process. Existentialism is one of the few schools of philosophy that made the nature of ‘personal identity’ an important problem for thinking.
5 – Jaspers argues that I cannot be human by myself. I only get to ‘be myself’ in the context of other people – who are ‘not me’ – so that humanness is something we do together and negotiate together. For similar reasons, he says, I cannot be free by myself. I can only be free if “the other” is free. My freedom is not really freedom if there is some person over there – anyone, whoever or wherever – who is not free.
These themes are also important in thinkers like Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Buber, and Dr. King – also in ancient ideals like jian ai (universal love) from Mozi, who criticized Confucian ethics because it was hierarchical – or the contemporary Australian thinker Peter Singer’s idea of the “expanding circle.”
How do you understand these ideas? Can I be myself and be free even if I am not in any kind of social world? What do my selfhood and freedom have to do with another person’s selfhood and freedom?
6 – Jaspers argues that the experience of shipwreck or of foundering — the humiliating experience of
failure — is a hugely important step in developing real authenticity as a person. Discuss.
7 – Heidegger portrays everyday life as a false front — a kind of forgetfulness, idle talk, a world of gossip and thoughtless ‘interest’ in this or that, which quickly becomes boring — he is trying to characterize the popular culture of his time (maybe of all times and places) – also to explore what impact it has on the development of the self that people to grow up and become ‘themselves’ in the current flash-culture seemingly empty moment-to-moment clickbait world. He argues that (at the beginning of our lives) we are all a kind of ‘they-self’ or inauthentic person (we become a they-self, or a kind of outline of a person, before we become a real person). So before we are ‘us,’ we take on many false versions of ourselves, drawn from social life. Do you agree with this idea? Does a false self (supposing that there is such a thing) always precede a true self? What is a false self? What is a true self? Can one have both? Can one
8 – As a young person, Heidegger conceives philosophy to be a key human activity that digs through the nonsense of life and tries to get to the essential. We have to get control of ourselves and decide for ourselves what is important and what we want to do. As an older person, he completely changes his mind. Late in his life, he basically discounts philosophy and says it is no help to us. Philosophy (he says) is powerless — in fact all human effort is powerless – nothing we do matters and we are not in control of anything. Instead, Fate or Being or God (or something much larger than mere human beings, which he always Capitalizes to make it look Important) – is calling the shots. So, human beings are pawns in the hands of powerful forces over which they have no control and about which they have no clue at all.
Reflect on this change of heart — try to define how you see themes like self-confrontation, selfexamination, and making choices – how do you assess the role of ‘philosophy’ against this backdrop? Is philosophy something important? Is it unimportant? Is it pointless, as Heidegger seems to conclude?
What place (if any) should philosophy play in a good life? Should we just drop the idea of a ‘a good life’ altogether?
9 – Existentialism became linked to liberation movements over the course of the twentieth century.
Simone De Beauvoir links existentialism and feminism, Frantz Fanon links existentialism with the fight against racism, Foucault links existentialism and gay liberation, and many writers in the environmental movement link their ideas with Heidegger’s inquiry into technology, his essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking, his ideas about returning to simpler ways of living, and his distaste for the city and political disagreements.
How do you see the relationship between existentialism and these large social liberation movements?
10 – Kierkegaard is unhappy with the Christianity of his time – several of his books are on this theme – at the same time he is an advocate for faith, and discusses concepts like the knight of faith, and the leap of faith, and his well know motto that ‘faith sees best in the dark’. What is faith? Is Kierkegaard’s way of looking at this problem the right way – a good way – or is it misguided? Aristotle rejected the claim that piety is a virtue (he thought it merely signaled political affiliation – and he does not think just joining a group is a virtue of any kind – we do not do ourselves any good by just believing something without evidence, simply in order to belong). He scoffed at ‘mystery religions,’ magic and superstition and naive ideas about ‘just believing.’ Alternatively, there are Biblical ideas, e.g., in Hebrews 11 (‘The Lecture on Faith’) King James version: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
New International: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
How can we be assured about what we do not see? How can there be evidence if we cannot see it?
Kierkegaard says that faith is subjective and is about lived experience and constant striving – not about the truth of a doctrine or belief with no information, just ‘believing’ like that. How do you see faith?
11 – Camus says that there is one and only one real problem in philosophy – i.e., that of suicide. Discuss.
12 –What is feminism? What does the word feminism mean to you? Are you a feminist? Why or why not?
13 – The existentialists argue that solitude is a hugely important experience for people. This has a strange contemporary resonance for most of us, because recently we have been isolated, whether we wanted to be or not. In psychology there is the relevant idea of ‘the capacity to be alone’ which Winnicott began
writing about in the 1950s – a study of something crucial for human development. Discuss your way of looking at problems like solitude, isolation, aloneness, privacy, separateness, loneliness, seclusion, retreat, refuge, shelter … in the context of 2020 life. What is the import of ‘alone-time’ in a person’s
14 – Some of the big buzzwords in existentialism are responsibility, freedom, authenticity, anguish, dread and so on – pick one of these concepts and explore it – is it possible to engage critically with ideas like these? How can we dissect an idea like ‘authenticity’? Is there such a thing, or does this term merely amount to saying ‘this is good’ and saying that some other thing or conduct is ‘bad’? — Praise or condemnation? — Who says that someone is authentic? — Is this a valid way of talking about people?
15 – How do you assess this whole school of thinking – existentialism – from the standpoint of 2020?
16 – Sartre became a communist, Heidegger a Nazi. Camus was and atheist and Unamuno was a believer.
De Beauvoir advocated for feminism – Camus a womanizer who drove his wife into an insane asylum.
Since existentialism does not apparently commit one to any definite political commitment – for one cause or against another – what good is it? What is the use of a philosophy that does not rouse us to action?
17 – Existentialism – like rationalism or empiricism – is a school of thinking from the past – like Platonism or the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas. It belongs to the past. How do we assess a way of thinking that arose in a certain context in history when that context no longer exists? How do we understand the past?
18 – Colin Wilson (who died in 2013) is sometimes referred to as ‘the last existentialist.’ His 1954 book
The Outsider helped to popularize existentialism in the English-speaking world. The book explores a certain type of person – the Outsider – someone, usually a young person, who feels totally cut off from the rest of society – someone who feels alienated and isolated. Have you ever felt this way? Is there a connection between feeling this way and being preoccupied with pain, despair, anxiety, meaningless and death? Is there a connection between a certain type of person and the existentialist school of thinking?
19 – In trying to think about the existentialist perspective on human nature, one question to consider is to what extent human action is a result of innate qualities, to what extent it is attributable to environmental causes, to what extent is it about learned behavior, and to what extent can a person personally direct and create’ herself or himself? Am I what I was constituted as, or what happened to me, or my surroundings, or something else – my own decisions and actions? How should we think about all these elements linking together in a person’s life?
20 – If you had one of the great existentialist thinkers right before you, what would you like to ask them?