Kant and Existentialism: Autonomy and Morality

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Kant and Existentialism: Autonomy and Morality

Instructor: Francey A. Russell

In this course we will analyze Kant’s conception of autonomy and then will see how this concept is taken up and transformed by two key philosophers in the existentialist tradition (Nietzsche and de Beauvoir). Kant thought that the only thing that is good without qualification is the good will, and that the good will is the free or autonomous will: the will that gives itself its own laws. Though many existentialist philosophers claimed to reject Kant’s moral philosophy, in many ways they can be read as developing and radicalizing some version of his idea of autonomy. In this course we will read Kant, Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir in order to grapple with the following questions (and more): how should we understand autonomy and what is its value? Just how free is the will, and how radical is this freedom? What, if anything, should constrain my freedom and/or my conception of right and wrong? What role do contingent material conditions (personal, bodily, social, political, etc.) and relations with others play in constraining and/or conditioning this freedom? The aim of the course is a) to foster an understanding of Kant’s practical philosophy, and in particular his concept of autonomy; b) to understand how the idea of autonomy is taken up and transformed in existentialist philosophy; and c) to examine what kind of ethics an “ethics of autonomy” can provide.

Required texts and readings:

You will need to have a copy of the following texts, and the others will be available on the Chalk website.

Kant. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil.

De Beauvoir. The Ethics of Ambiguity.
Course requirements: Paper One: 25%

Paper Two: 35%

Presentation: 25%

Participation: 15%

You will be asked to write one 5-6 page paper, and one 7-8 page paper. You will also choose a week to give a short oral presentation on the readings. Occasionally, I will ask you to do a short writing assignment in class or by email. Since this is a small, discussion-based seminar, your participation grade makes up a fairly substantial portion of your grade. Here are a handful activities that count as “participation” (and there are more): helpful contributions to discussion, active listening, asking questions, articulating confusion, respectful interaction, being intellectually curious about readings and conversation, coming to talk to me, talking to your colleagues outside of class, supporting one another, etc. Participation should aim to foster a lively and fruitful conversation. This requires mutual respect and cooperation. If you find it a bit challenging to speak up in class—as many of us do—let me know and we can talk about it.
Course structure
We will meet 2 times per week, and everyone should have done the readings, written down a few thoughts or questions, and come prepared for engaged and respectful discussion. Coming prepared does not mean coming with a complete understanding, of course! But it can mean coming with a sense of what’s confusing. I am committed to making this an inclusive and enabling learning environment for everyone.
Academic Honesty
Plagiarism isn’t tolerated. If you look at a website, or another author, etc., and you use these ideas in your own work, you have to credit the source. Temptations to plagiarize often arise from stress or anxiety about work. If you are stressed or anxious about work, write or talk to me.

Note on the readings:

You are required to do all of the primary reading. The secondary reading is optional, but we may discuss it in class.
Meeting/Reading Schedule

Part I: Kant

Week One

T Jan 5: Introduction (reading: Kant “What is Enlightenment?”)
Th Jan 7: Kant. Groundwork. Preface and Section One
*Secondary reading: Wood, Allen. “Common Rational Moral Cognition” and “Rational Will and Imperatives” in Kant’s Ethical Thought.
Week Two

T Jan 12: Kant. Groundwork. Section Two, and “The Doctrine of Virtue” §14-15 (on duty to self-knowledge)
Th Jan 14: Kant. Groundwork. Section Two cont.,
*Secondary reading: Wood cont.
Week Three

T Jan 19: Kant. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Book One, part one.
Th Jan 21: Kant. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Book One, part two.
*Secondary reading: Pasternack, Lawrence. “Part One of Religion: Good, evil and human nature”
Part II: Nietzsche
Week Four

T Jan 26: Nietzsche, Friedrich. Daybreak. 9, 38, 97, 99, 101-103, 109, 115, 116, 119, 124, 129
Th Jan 28: Daybreak continued; Gay Science 107, 179, 184, 250, 270-275, *290, *307, *335, 338
Week Five

T Feb 2: Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. Book I, 32, 33, 34, 36, 41
Th Feb 4: Beyond Good and Evil cont.
*Secondary reading: Leiter, Brian. “Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will.”

Week Six

T Feb 9: Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. Book V, + 214, 230, 231, 260, 284
Th Feb 11: Beyond Good and Evil cont.
*Secondary reading: Pippin, Robert. “How to Overcome Oneself: Nietzsche on Freedom”
*other relevant Nietzsche: BGE VII: 219, 225, 226, 230, 231; IX: 259-262, 265, 268, 270, 272, 276-278, 287, 289, 292, 296
Part III: de Beauvoir
Week Seven

T Feb 16: De Beauvoir, Simone. “Existentialism and Popular Wisdom”

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
*Secondary reading: Arp, Kristina. “Simone de Beauvoir’s Existentialism: Freedom and Ambiguity in the Human World.”
Th Feb 18: De Beauvoir. “Ambiguity and Freedom” from The Ethics of Ambiguity; “Women’s Situation and Character” from The Second Sex
Week Eight

T Feb 23: De Beauvoir. “Personal Freedom and Others” from The Ethics of Ambiguity
Th Feb 25: De Beauvoir. “Personal Freedom and Others,” cont. from The Ethics of Ambiguity

Schott, Robin May. “Beauvoir and the Ambiguity of Evil”

Week Nine

T Mar 1: “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity” from The Ethics of Ambiguity

Morgan, Anne. “Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Freedom and Absolute Evil”

Th Mar 3: De Beauvoir. “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity” from The Ethics of Ambiguity
Week Ten

T Mar 8: De Beauvoir. “The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity” from The Ethics of Ambiguity

Th Mar 10/Mar 15?: Final Discussion, no reading.

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