Lecture Notes on Existentialism



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Student’s name: __________________ Mr. Cleon M. McLean

Period: ______ Department of English

Date: ______________________ Ontario High School



Lecture Notes on Existentialism

Think also of the ancient Greek aphorism—or common saying—“know thyself”


Note well: Existentialism is not yet a “school of philosophy,” so there will be variances on its concepts and views.

The five major philosophers of Existentialism:

19th century: 1. Soren Kierkegaard: (1813—1855), Danish, apolitical

2. Friedrich Nietzsche: (1844—1900), German, more of a reactionary,

writes as if he is writing for the singular reader

20th century: 3. Albert Camus: (1913—1960), French (white) Algerian, individualistic


  1. Martin Heidegger: (1889—1976), German, Fascist

  2. Jean-Paul Sartre: (1905—1980), French, Marxist, atheist, coined the term “existentialism”...brought forth the idea of self-creation, “we make ourselves”


Three themes of Existentialism:

  1. Emphasis on the individual

  2. Importance of passion

  3. Concept of freedom

1. Emphasis on the Individual:



  • We make choices as individuals=this is an act resulting in singular responsibilities

2. Importance of Passion:

  • In the ancient world, passion was thought to be inner bouts of insanity

  • The history of philosophy holds that, to be free is to act rationally

  • Traditional philosophy shows the love of reason over passion…but the existentialist invests more in passion as the essence of existence

  • Kierkegaard says, “…to really exist is to have passion.” This passion is not the outward manifestation of emotion(s), but a passionate inwardness which one might feel but nonetheless not show.

3. Concept of Freedom:

  • Ancient philosophy held that acting according to reason= freedom; whereas acting according to passion= slavery.

  • Existentialist thesis=existing is not bound up in thinking; rather it is being engaged in the world as it is. We think of our lives in terms of a “passionate inward”(Kierkegaard) commitment, because this gives life meaning.

  • To the existentialist, this “freedom” is neither political nor metaphysical—which is the idea of free will. In fact, Nietzsche dismisses the idea of metaphysical freedom, because the very idea of a subject/person who is detached from the world is an absurd illusion.

  • Kierkegaard says, people hardly ever make use of the freedoms they have, especially freedom of thought…they settle for such freedoms as freedom of speech, as compensation.

  • Rather, the existentialist is more concerned with personal freedom, which is defined as:

    • Freedom to make choices as to how we will live our lives

    • Taking responsibilities for the choices we make as individuals

    • A certain ability to reason


Existentialist thesis:

  • Nietzsche: to truly exists means to be a person=>to take control of your life=>to manifest your virtues and talents=>to become the person you really are. How we live our lives—our real concerns—is up to us to discover.

  • The notion of contingency: that our lives are happenstance. E.g., What if I had been born five minutes earlier/later; would I still be the same person? Heidegger’s idea of “thrown-ness,” meaning we don’t choose our situations…sometimes we find ourselves in very absurd situations in which we have to figure out who we are and what we are to do for existence.

Contemporary America seems very much existential because of a sort of sensibility of victimization stemming from a sort of disenfranchisement (not nihilism1) in political life, the superficial nature of organized religion, et al.



On Albert Camus’ The Stranger (L’Étranger)
Question: To what extent do passions/emotions appeal to reason?

Lived Experience

(think of the heart and the “essence of existing”, even stream of consciousness)




Nature of Human Consciousness



Reflection

(think of the mind and the reasoning approach to existing)


French has two words for “reflection”: 1. réfexion (which is literally what happens with a mirror)

2. pensées (which is the mental looking back)



Reflection:- 1. use of the mind

2. can cause irritation, because it is like a distraction from lived experience

3. even meta-cognition is an interference
Reflection involves rationality. Rationality includes the following: 1. appreciating means and ends


  1. understanding consequences

  2. adherence to standards, such as morality—which requires a kind of consciousness

  3. interpretations—especially in a cultural context


Why is Meursault a “stranger”? Is he the quintessential (modern day) anti-hero?

In Part One of the novel, we see Meursault as a sort of vacuum, for all we get by way of description and connection to his character comes through his “lived experience,” which underscores the following:



  1. He does not reflect

  2. He has no morals (morals require a culturally-based perspective on the world). E.g., Meursault is indifferent to his abusive neighbors.

  3. he has no ambitions: Meursault is indifferent at the prospect of a job promotion in Paris

  4. He shows very few thoughts—most of which are either out of place or unoriginal

  5. He does not think about the consequences of his actions

  6. He shows no understanding of the concept of the future

  7. He shows no regret or guilt

  8. He seems deficient in basic human senses and sensibilities—especially our emotions

  9. He does not put up any sort of resistance; he takes the path of least resistance.

Love—involves a type of feeling, decisions, commitments, and learning to conceive/think of one’s self in terms of another person. Meursault does not respond in kind when Marie tells him that she loves him. In fact, his indifference in underscored when, later, Marie asks him, “Will you marry me?” to which Meursault responds, “If you want to.”


In Part Two of the novel, as Meursault is, in a sense, forced to “reflect” on his life, crime, and present situation, especially through the eyes of others—i.e., chaplain, prosecutor, judge, and jury, he then becomes conscious of himself—the SELF—this dynamic change affords the reader more access to Meursault.

1 Total rejection of established laws and institutions





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