Course Syllabus

Welcome to PHIL304: Existentialism

Specific information about this course and its requirements can be found below. For more general information about taking Saylor Academy courses, including information about Community and Academic Codes of Conduct, please read the Student Handbook.


Course Description

Examine the main focus that unites existentialist philosophy: existence. Closely study the concrete existence of individual human beings. Major topics will be the works of Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.


Course Introduction

Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement that first was popularized in France soon after World War II by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the religious writings of Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century and those of Søren Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century. The common thread that unites existentialists is a 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 premise that human beings are primarily rational creatures who live in an ordered, well-designed universe. They also do not believe that the answers to life's challenges can be solved through thoughtful consideration and reasoned deliberation. Instead, existentialists view human beings as creatures whose reason is subordinate to human passions and anxieties, and who exist in an irrational, absurd, and insignificant universe. In such a universe, existentialists argue, one struggles to become the best person one can be given one's religious, historical, cultural, economic, and personal circumstances.

Existentialists emphasize the human being's place in a complex set of circumstances in order to highlight the uniqueness and individuality within each of us. They stress the role of the human body in all of our acts and decisions, arguing that the mind cannot exist without 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 possible; and if so, what the consequences of such freedom might be for our sense of responsibility to ourselves, to others, and to God. They also consider the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of God, and what either possibility means for our sense of freedom and responsibility. More than anything, existentialists reflect on human beings' anxiety over and dread of death, and consider the consequences to our individual lives of coming to terms with the inevitability of death.

In this course, you will explore the major figures and works of the existentialist movement from a historical perspective. You will study, in sequence, the works of Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Successful completion of the course means that you will be able to identify, analyze, and distinguish among the major themes and figures in the history of existentialism. Most importantly, you will be able to recognize the contributions existentialist thinkers have made to our contemporary understanding of human existence and humanity's place in the cosmos.

This course includes the following units:

  • Unit 1: Blaise Pascal
  • Unit 2: Søren Kierkegaard
  • Unit 3: Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Unit 4: Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Unit 5: Martin Heidegger
  • Unit 6: Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Unit 7: Simone de Beauvoir
  • Unit 8: Albert Camus


Course Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • define the term existentialism;
  • name the key philosophical figures who have played a role in the history of existentialism;
  • explain the basic themes of existentialist thought;
  • distinguish the various approaches taken toward basic themes in existentialist philosophy as they are argued by different key figures within the movement;
  • compare and contrast common existentialist themes as they have been treated by different key figures within the movement;
  • summarize the unique contributions made to existentialist philosophy by each of the key figures within the movement; and
  • identify the contributions of existentialism – particularly the works of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir – to the history of feminist thought.

Throughout this course, you will also see learning outcomes in each unit. You can use those learning outcomes to help organize your studies and gauge your progress.


Course Materials

The primary learning materials for this course are articles, lectures, and videos.

All course materials are free to access and can be found in each unit of the course. Pay close attention to the notes that accompany these course materials, as they will tell you what to focus on in each resource, and will help you to understand how the learning materials fit into the course as a whole. You can also see a list of all the learning materials in this course by clicking on Resources in the navigation bar.


Evaluation and Minimum Passing Score

Only the final exam is considered when awarding you a grade for this course. In order to pass this course, you will need to earn a 70% or higher on the final exam. Your score on the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you may take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt. Once you have successfully passed the final exam you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.

There are also end-of-unit assessments in this course. These are designed to help you study, and do not factor into your final course grade. You can take these as many times as you want until you understand the concepts and material covered. You can see all of these assessments by clicking on Quizzes in the course's navigation bar.


Tips for Success

PHIL304: Existentialism is a self-paced course, which means that you can decide when you will start and when you will complete the course. There is no instructor or an assigned schedule to follow. We estimate that the "average" student will take 58 hours to complete this course. We recommend that you work through the course at a pace that is comfortable for you and allows you to make regular progress. It's a good idea to also schedule your study time in advance and try as best as you can to stick to that schedule.

Learning new material can be challenging, so we've compiled a few study strategies to help you succeed:

  • Take notes on the various terms, practices, and theories that you come across. This can help you put each concept into context, and will create a refresher that you can use as you study later on.
  • As you work through the materials, take some time to test yourself on what you remember and how well you understand the concepts. Reflecting on what you've learned is important for your long-term memory, and will make you more likely to retain information over time.
  • Although you may work through this course completely independently, you may find it helpful to connect with other Saylor students through the discussion forums. You may access the discussion forums at


Technical Requirements

This course is delivered entirely online. You will be required to have access to a computer or web-capable mobile device and have consistent access to the internet to either view or download the necessary course resources and to attempt any auto-graded course assessments and the final exam.

  • To access the full course including assessments and the final exam, you will need to be logged into your Saylor Academy account and enrolled in the course. If you do not already have an account, you may create one for free here. Although you can access some of the course without logging in to your account, you should log in to maximize your course experience. For example, you cannot take assessments or track your progress unless you are logged in.

For additional guidance, check out Saylor Academy's FAQ.



This course is entirely free to enroll in and to access. Everything linked in the course, including textbooks, videos, webpages, and activities, is available for no charge. This course also contains a free final exam and course completion certificate.

Last modified: Tuesday, 29 September 2020, 11:24 AM