Study Guide for PHIL304: Existentialism


Unit 1: Blaise Pascal

1a. Define the term existentialism

  • Define existentialism
  • What does it mean to be concerned with existence?
  • Why does the existentialist think reason cannot solve life's problems?
  • What are the main problems existentialist is concerned about?

Existentialism refers to the philosophical and literary movement 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) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), we can trace its roots to the religious thinkers, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and 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. 

Existentialists are concerned with existence, the human condition, human existence, and their own existence in particular. This subject is the starting point for philosophical reflection. Rather than "What is the fundamental stuff 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.

Existentialists believe the universe is not a rational place, and that human reason is subordinate to emotion. We cannot understand existence through rational deliberation. For an atheistic existentialist, the universe is devoid of meaning, a state of affairs that can create great anxiety. Navigating this world, in all its complexity, requires confronting yourself, as a human being, and the world as it is. Consequently, existentialism is deeply concerned with the choices we make in the face of our own finitude, in a world devoid of meaning.

Existentialists are concerned with several problems, such as what it means to be an individual, choice, freedom, dread, anxiety, meaning, absurdity, and death. An existentialist thinks about these concerns in terms of our individual situation: the condition of the world and our relationship with others.

One way to consider these concerns is to think in terms of embodiment and what it means to exist. A rationalist, such as Plato or Descartes, draws a distinction between the mind (or soul) and the beyond. An existentialist, on the other hand, thinks about how the individual exists as a whole, situated in time and place.

Note that we will also discuss the difference between theistic (or religious) existentialism and atheistic existentialism. While both focus on the significance of the individual, a theistic existentialist is concerned with the individual's choices in relation to a divinity. An atheistic existentialist is concerned with an individual's choices in a Godless universe.

Review Existentialism: An Overview.


1b. Identify the key thinkers associated with the existentialist movement

  • Name the main philosophers we associate with existentialism.
  • What is the existentialist movement?
  • What are the key concepts of existentialism?

We associate existentialism with the philosophers Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger 1889–1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), and Albert Camus (1913–1960). These thinkers lived across Europe and Asia: Pascal, Sartre, and De Beauvoir were French; Kierkegaard was Danish; Dostoevsky was Russian; Nietzsche and Heidegger were German; and, Camus was French-Algerian.

Existentialism became a prominent movement after World War II when Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, coined the term. We include Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus in the taxonomy of existentialist philosophers, although Heidegger and Camus explicitly rejected Sartre's definition of the label, "existence precedes essence."

Blaise Pascal was a "proto-existentialist" because he anticipated the existentialist movement. His concern with human existence, or finitude, and an individual's choice to believe (or not believe) in God (Pascal's wager), put him squarely in the existentialist context.

Many consider Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish religious philosopher who emphasized subjectivity, the "founding father" of existentialism. He believed we can find truth subjectively, rather than objectively, as Plato would have it. Subjectivity is a "passionate inwardness" where one finds a relationship with God. Pascal and Kierkegaard asked us to confront, rather than turn away from, the uncertainties of life and what it means to be an individual.

While we can consider Pascal and Kierkegaard to be optimistic theistic existentialists, Fyodor Dostoevsky emphasized the dissonance between suffering and the concept of a loving and benevolent God. Through his literary works, Dostoevsky examined the nature of religious belief in the face of suffering, nihilism, and human freedom. With Pascal and Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky also criticized faith in reason, and championed the individual over other values associated with society.

The remaining philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, were all concerned in various ways with what it means to be authentic in a non-rational universe that is devoid of God. Each was fundamentally concerned with what it means to be human from the standpoint of the individual, rather than, for example, from science.

Review a summary of each philosopher in the unit descriptions for the course.


1c. Summarize Blaise Pascal's contributions to the history of existentialism

  • What role does Christianity play in Pascal's anticipations of existentialism?
  • What does Pascal think of human nature?

After a religious experience, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) the French mathematician, physicist, writer, and Catholic theologian, entered a monastery and devoted his life to Christian apologetics (arguments and justifications). Christianity played a central role in Pascal's philosophy, which predated contemporary existentialism. A human being's precariousness in the world includes uncertainty and suffering, which Christianity addresses.

According to Pascal, human nature is fundamentally corrupt. Our condition issues from Adam's initial fall from grace, from which we are only redeemed by God's grace, which is exhibited by our capacity for faith, which we may choose to embrace or reject. Our choice is not rational in nature, since reason is entirely "inadequate to the task of relating to a transcendent divinity." Consequently, rationalist arguments for God's existence are insufficient to produce faith.

Review Pascal's Life (pay special attention to "Nature and Grace") and The Pensées: A Portrait of Man. Look over Pascal's views on religion and human nature (rationalism) in Ben Rogers on Pascal's Pensées.


1d. Analyze Pascal's critique of rationalism in philosophy

  • What are Pascal's criticisms of rationalism?
  • What is the relation between Pascal's criticism of rationalism and his nascent existentialism?

Pascal's view of human contingency related to his criticism of rationalism in several ways.

First, as finite, imperfect beings, we are incapable of the sort of certainty that would justify rationalist claims. Instead, our knowledge is contingent and dependent on empirical observation.

Secondly, human reason is incapable of grasping the infinite or the divine: "the infinite is inaccessible to the finite". Our experiences and reason allow us to understand the natural world, but faith alone "is directed to revealed truths and the supernatural world". Because we cannot know God, who is entirely beyond our understanding, the best we can do is "wager" that God exists. This places Pascal squarely in the group of theistic existentialists.

Review the sections "Theory of Knowledge" and "Pascal and Human Existence" in Blaise Pascal and the discussion of the impossibility of knowing God in Ben Rogers on Pascal's Pensées. (begin at 12:00)


1e. Explain Pascal's wager

  • What is Pascal's wager, or, why should I care?
  • How does Pascal's wager reflect existential considerations?

Pascal's wager is an argument for believing in God, not for proving His existence. Written from the perspective of a believer, Pascal enlisted the strategy of wagering, not arguing, to support his belief that God exists, designed the universe, and is a necessary being. In other words, rather than argue that the orderliness of nature depicts a divine designer, or that God reflects the concept of necessary existence, Pascal argued that we stand more to gain from wagering (or betting) that God exists, than from betting He does not.

Pascal wrote, "If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is." (Pensées §233)

Should we believe in God despite the fact that we cannot know whether He exists or what His nature must be? Pascal replied, "God is, or He is not … But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here." (Pensées §233)

Regardless, it makes better sense to wager in favor of, rather than against, God's existence. According to Pascal, those who wager for God's existence cannot lose, even if the odds are against it: if God exists, believers win the reward of eternal happiness. Believing in God yields infinite value for the investment. If God does not exist, the believer has still led an exemplary life. Either way, believers risk nothing from believing and the payoff is considerable. On the other hand, those who do not wager for God's existence risk losing the eternal reward if He does exist. However, the benefit or value is only finite if He does not.

Faith is not "a given" according to Pascal: we do not inherit faith from tradition or social norm. Rather, faith is entirely an individualized commitment. Individuals cannot shrink from faith: "you must choose." The wager is your life, and only the individual can make this gamble. Consequently, the existential choice is at the core of the wager. 

Review Pascal's wager in his Pensées.


1f. Identify core elements of Pascal's idea of human suffering

  • How does Pascal think about human suffering?
  • What is the connection between suffering and Pascal's wager?

Pascal associated human suffering with our outsized passions. While injustice, injury, and illness can all cause suffering, its existence is complicated because human beings are embodied. In other words, we have reason because we have minds, and intuition because we have heart. But human beings are also passionate and have irrational desires because we have bodies. Inevitably, these aspects align and collide at various points. Depicting human beings as rational provides an incomplete portrait.

Pascal's Pensées is, among other things, a defense of Christianity. Pascal aimed to convince readers that they can become acquainted with God through Jesus (the medium). To this end, he presented his version of the human condition ("the portrait of man") and how Christianity addresses it.

According to Pascal, we are bound to live in ignorance and wretchedness until we embrace Christianity.

When combined with the complicated picture of human beings that emerges in the Pensées, it becomes clear that Christianity, in all its traditions and rituals, provides the only true path to happiness.

Review Ben Rogers on Pascal's Pensées.


1g. Summarize Pascal's version of religious existentialism

  • How is Pascal's wager an example of religious existentialism?
  • How do Pascal's critique of rationality, and his diagnosis of human suffering, result in religious existentialism?

Pascal's wager demands individuals make a rational choice about whether to believe, rather than blindly accept, a traditional belief. By orienting the notion of religious belief around choice, the wager reflects an existential concern with the existing individual.

Nevertheless, Pascal was not a rationalist. His view of a rational basis for a belief in God did not reflect a commitment to purely rational principles and deductive chains of reasoning. Instead, he was interested in what he took to be the most plausible belief between two choices.

In addition, because Pascal recognized human finitude, he did not believe reason would yield answers to the most important questions we have. For example, it cannot explain why suffering exists. The problem of evil is one of the most pressing religious difficulties and a rational account of it yields little consolation. After all, if God is all good and all powerful, he would prevent evil. But, he does not, since evil exists. So, God is not all good or not all powerful. However, Pascal argued we do have a recourse: religious faith, which is our gift from God. Our faith is subjective in nature, and existential in a way that reason is not. 

Review Pascal's Wager in Pensées, and read Desmond Clark's entry on Blaise Pascal in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Unit 1 Vocabulary

  • Albert Camus
  • Atheistic existentialist
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Christianity
  • Empirical observation
  • Existence
  • Existentialism
  • Faith
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • God's grace
  • Hegel
  • Human contingency
  • Human freedom
  • Human nature
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Nihilism
  • Pascal's wager
  • Pensées
  • Plato
  • Rational
  • Rationalism
  • Reason
  • René Descartes
  • Simone de Beauvoir
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Suffering
  • Theistic existentialist