• Course Introduction

        • Time: 32 hours
        • Free Certificate
        Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that emerged in France shortly after World War II, spearheaded by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. We can trace this movement back to the religious writings of Blaise Pascal in the 17th century and Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century. The common thread that unites existentialists is the focus on existence, particularly the concrete existence of individual human beings.

        Unlike rationalist thinkers such as René Descartes and G.W.F. Hegel, existentialists reject the idea that humans are fundamentally rational creatures living in an orderly, well-designed universe. They also do not believe that thoughtful consideration and reasoned deliberation can solve life's issues. Instead, existentialists view human beings as creatures whose reason is secondary to human passions and anxieties and who exist in an irrational, absurd, and insignificant universe. Existentialists claim that in such a cosmos, one strives to be the greatest person one can be given one's religious, historical, cultural, economic, and personal circumstances.

        Existentialists emphasize the human being's place in a complicated set of circumstances to highlight the uniqueness and individuality that each of us possesses. They emphasize the importance of the human body in all of our actions and judgments, saying that the mind cannot exist apart from the body (in contrast to the majority of rationalists, who assert that the mind is separate from the body).

        In addition, existentialists consider whether absolute individual freedom is attainable; and, if so, what this means for our sense of personal, social, and divine responsibility. They also consider the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God and what each option entails for our sense of freedom and responsibility. More than anything, existentialists ponder the implications of accepting death's inevitability in our lives.

        This course examines the major figures and works of the existentialist movement from a historical perspective. Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Albert Camus are among the authors you will examine. You will be able to identify, analyze, and differentiate among important themes and figures in existentialism history. Most importantly, you will comprehend the contributions existentialist thinkers have made to our present view of human existence and our role in the universe.

        • Course Syllabus

          First, read the course syllabus. Then, enroll in the course by clicking "Enroll me". Click Unit 1 to read its introduction and learning outcomes. You will then see the learning materials and instructions on how to use them.

        • Unit 1: What Is Existentialism?

          Existentialists are concerned with existence, the human condition, human existence, and their own existence in particular. Existence is the starting point for philosophical reflection. Rather than "What is the fundamental substance of the universe?", an existentialist asks, "What does it mean to be?". An existentialist is interested in authentic existence. They are concerned with how to answer this question in the context of a universe that is not orderly, such as rationalists like Plato (428–348 BC), René Descartes (1596–1650), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) would have it.

          Existentialism refers to the philosophical and literary movement that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Albert Camus (1913–1960) first popularized in post-war France. While the term emerged with these and other 20th-century philosophers such as Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), we can trace its roots to Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). While these "proto-existentialists" did not use the term, their philosophical concerns were direct precursors to the existentialist movement that took shape after World War II.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 1 hour.

        • Unit 2: Søren Kierkegaard

          Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a Danish Christian philosopher, theologian, and social critic, widely considered a founding existentialist figure. Convinced that the Christian faith had gone astray, Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of religious dogma. In Kierkegaard's view, you must earn your relationship with God through dedication and suffering.

          According to Kierkegaard, a person becomes a committed, responsible human being by making difficult decisions and sacrifices. The force of Kierkegaard's philosophy rests in the notion that human life is paradoxical and absurd and that confronting this absurdity makes us fully human (a theme revisited by Albert Camus, as we will discuss in Unit 8).

          This unit introduces you to Kierkegaard's life and religious philosophy, along with an overview of themes that later philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir will call "existentialism". These key existentialist themes include the notions of commitment and responsibility, absurdity, anxiety, and authenticity.

          This unit will also note the work of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) as a fellow theistic existentialist to Kierkegaard. Many philosophers believe Pascal was a precursor to the existentialist movement due to his concerns about the constraints of human existence or "finitude", perpetual change, uncertainty, suffering in human life, and the irrationality of human behavior.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.

        • Unit 3: Fyodor Dostoevsky

          Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was a Russian novelist, journalist, and essayist whose literary works are among the most important texts in the history of existentialism. Despite never self-identifying as an existentialist, Walter Kaufmann, a German-American philosopher and author, declares, "It is as if Kierkegaard had stepped right out of Dostoevsky's pen", adding that "part one of Notes from Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written".

          Dostoevsky's (also written Dostoyevsky) literature investigates the loneliness, alienation, and despair humans experience living in conditions populated with ominous protagonists and gloomy situations. The hardships he encountered early in life influenced his preoccupations with the oppressed, suffering, and tormented. He viewed the human condition as constrained by social, political, and economic institutions and limited by God, whose existence constrains human existence. One of his most meaningful themes is that life is about being true to oneself. This unit will guide you through Dostoevsky's key existential themes, focusing on human freedom and moral responsibility in Notes from the Underground (1864) and The Grand Inquisitor (1880).

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.

        • Unit 4: Friedrich Nietzsche

          Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), an unapologetic critic of culture, society, religion, and philosophical dogma (views his predecessors and contemporaries accepted without question), is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the past two centuries. Nietzsche, like all existentialists, condemned the universalistic tendencies that have characterized Western philosophy throughout its history; that is, the tendency of philosophers to assert they could determine what is true for everyone and for all time.

          According to Nietzsche, there is no universal truth – in his pursuit of truth, he values suspicion and skepticism over rationalism. He focuses on subjective individuality and the dangers of being absorbed into the herd, losing "freedom", and rejecting all of the usual crutches people lean on to escape responsibility. Personal experience and acting on one's convictions lead to truth. Individuals must be strong enough to create meaning for themselves, unlike the common herd whose sense of purpose and meaning lies entirely in conformity to rules; the great people are those who "re-evaluate all values".

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 9 hours.

        • Unit 5: W.E.B. Du Bois

          William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963), the American author, professor, and activist known as W.E.B. Du Bois, was among the most influential Black leaders of the 20th century. While many do not think of him as an existential philosopher, he wrote during a time when people of color struggled throughout the world to achieve liberation. Authors such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and W.E.B. Du Bois explored themes related to freedom, existence, and hardship attributable to living in America as a person of color. In 1996, Lewis Gordon, an American philosopher who teaches at the University of Connecticut, wrote:

          At least four Africana theorists, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, and Frantz Fanon, have theorized dimensions of anti-Black racism in a way that is so clearly indicative of an existential phenomenological turn…[w]hat these figures have in common are a passion to understand human beings and passion to articulate a liberation project that does not lead to the estrangement of humanity from itself.

          Philosophers of the Black experience engaged in philosophical reflection about the lived experience of racism and its intersections with other oppressions, including sexism and classism.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.

        • Unit 6: Martin Heidegger

          Martin Heidegger's (1889–1976) extensive and illuminating meditations on what he described as the ontological "question of being" established his reputation as one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century.

          Like other philosophers we call existentialists, Heidegger refused to associate his own thinking with the term. However, his focus on human existence, anxiety, death, and authenticity – themes his predecessors (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche) and contemporaries (Sartre and Camus) shared – place him at the center of this movement. In this unit, we explore Heidegger's thought, especially the philosophy of existence he introduced in his most famous work, Being and Time (1927).

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 5 hours.

        • Unit 7: Jean-Paul Sartre

          Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) is the public face of existentialism. His fictional and philosophical works affirm the existentialist priority of concrete, situated, and historical human existence. He stresses the value of choice, responsibility, and authenticity in human self-fashioning. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 – an honor he refused because he maintained it conflicted with his professional, personal, and political commitments.

          In this unit, we examine Sartre's contributions to existentialist philosophy and highlight his place in the movement's history. In particular, we explore how Sartre expanded on the existentialist themes his predecessors dealt with, such as the notions of authenticity, anxiety, and freedom.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 3 hours.

        • Unit 8: Simone de Beauvoir

          A novelist, social critic, and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was trained in philosophy and wrote her graduate thesis on the German logician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). Her influential feminist work, The Second Sex (1949), is of particular note. She extended previous existential theory into the social and political realms. She developed a philosophy based on existentialist ethics and feminist theory that would have a lasting influence on the feminist political movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

          Like previous existentialists, de Beauvoir emphasized the importance of individual freedom to human existence. However, unlike the existentialists before her, she argued that individual freedom was only possible if others were also free. In other words, de Beauvoir believed that equitable social relations are required for meaningful freedom. In this unit, we discuss de Beauvoir's existentialist ethics and feminism.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 2 hours.

        • Unit 9: Albert Camus

          Albert Camus (1913–1960) was an Algerian writer and intellectual. He refused to be labeled a philosopher because he did not believe human reason could systematize human experience in all its complexities. A friend and subsequently a critic of Sartre, his writings reflect comparable themes to Sartre's. In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

          In this unit, we explore Camus' existentialism by examining his book The Stranger and his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" (both published in 1942), which highlight the absurdities of human existence and the absurdity of existentialism itself when the philosophy is taken to an extreme. He was internationally well-known and famous for his concepts of the Absurd.

          Completing this unit should take you approximately 1 hour.

        • Study Guide

          This study guide will help you get ready for the final exam. It discusses the key topics in each unit, walks through the learning outcomes, and lists important vocabulary terms. It is not meant to replace the course materials!

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        • Certificate Final Exam

          Take this exam if you want to earn a free Course Completion Certificate.

          To receive a free Course Completion Certificate, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on this final exam. Your grade for the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt.

          Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.