Spring 2019 HC 223H: All too Human: Existentialist Literature

Spring Term, 2018-2019

Professor: Caroline Lundquist

4.00 credits

  • CRN 32512: Monday & Wednesday, 10:00 - 11:20 @ CHA 201
  • CRN 32513: Monday & Wednesday, 12:00 - 13:20 @ CHA 201

As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Man is but a reed…but he is a thinking reed.” Following Pascal, we might broadly define human beings as the natural beings who feel compelled to think about their own existence. One consequence of this innately human drive to think is the impulse to search for meaning in our existence. But, as Albert Camus pointed out, there is no “why” in nature; meaning does not grow on trees. Out of this tension between the meaninglessness of nature and the quintessentially human desire to find meaning, the fundamental questions of existentialism emerge:

Is there a universal human nature? How can we search for meaning without deluding ourselves? What kinds of freedom, if any, are possible? Does individual freedom matter more than collective freedom? Is authentic love possible? How can we come to terms with the inevitability of death? What does the existence or nonexistence of God imply about human freedom and moral responsibility? How shall we live? 

Although existentialism is a diverse philosophical movement, the common thread that unites it is a focus on the concrete existence of individual human beings who struggle to live authentic, meaningful lives. Unlike rationalist thinkers such as Descartes and Hegel, existentialists do not believe that the questions that matter most can be answered through disinterested deliberation alone. Instead, they stress the role of the human body, of human emotions and of complex, concrete circumstances in all of our actions and decisions. For the existentialist, human existence is ambiguous; the human struggle must be a struggle to become the most authentic beings we can, and this implies courageously and honestly embracing every aspect of the human situation, including and especially those aspects that we are inclined to deny or evade. 

In this course we will think, write and talk our way through an array of existentialist works, both fictional and non-fictional. In so doing we will individually and collectively identify and confront the questions that unsettle us, the questions that it is all-too-human to ask.