Existential Thought in Philosophy, Literature, and Arts

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Winter 2019 quarter

Taught by

literature, philosophy, and languages


one year of college-level study in the humanities.

Existential thinkers focus on the existence of individual human beings. Modern Existential thought arises with discussion of Nietzsche’s death of God and Nihilism and horror of the world wars. No absolutes were left standing. This is the moment of great existential thinkers: Camus, Beauvoir, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Heidegger. But the human condition is not new to the 20th and the 21st centuries. In the 1500s, Montaigne, citing Seneca, wrote: "Philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourn," meaning, "to philosophize is to learn how to die."

We have asked since the Greeks what does it mean to exist, to be a thinking, valuing being in the midst of a world which precedes and follows us, and in the absence of any easy religious or ideological explanation? No two thinkers with whom we will engage offer the same philosophical stance; existentialists are nothing if not individuals, each unique. Each offers, however, a possible response to the human hunger for meaning: in the silence of gods and absolutes, each falls back on herself or himself. I am a valuing being; I must make my own meaning, over and over again, with each of a million choices I make, each step in my dance, as I become the person I will finally be at the moment of my death.

We will read philosophical literary and poetic texts, and consider visual and musical artists' responses to this same demand for meaning. Assignments include weekly analytical and creative writings. Each student will work in a group responsible for the presentation and analysis of one writer’s work. Students will submit a substantive portfolio of writings, including your personal statement as an existential thinker.

Program Details

Fields of Study

literature philosophy

Preparatory For

advanced or graduate work in the humanities, philosophy, literature, and arts.


Winter Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Online Learning

No Required Online Learning