French Existentialism: Beauvoir and Sartre
96 Berry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
In the twilight of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that god was dead and that few were prepared to understand the consequence–namely, the demise of morality, justice, and truth itself. A little more than a half-century later, in the cafes of occupied and post-war Paris, a group of self-declared “atheist” existentialists, led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, attempted to meet Nietzsche’s challenge: to reimagine the basis of morality and value in a godless world. Very soon, existentialist ideas would permeate the larger intellectual milieu, both high and low, shaping works of fiction, theater, music, and fashion. In a world ravaged by war and collective suffering, what does it mean to live freely and authentically? What purpose do we have? Do humans have an essence—and if not, how are identities, gender, and social roles constructed?
This class will examine French existentialism through a reading of the respective masterpieces of its celebrity power couple, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Core to both of these thinkers is the claim that there is no such thing as human nature, and thus no necessary normative basis for individual and social life. Human beings are rather “radically free” to form their own identities and destinies. Beauvoir applied this framework to launch powerful feminist critiques of evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism; while Sartre explored the possibilities of human freedom and its relation to notions of anxiety, authenticity, guilt, and responsibility. We will ask: Is an existentialist theory of human subjectivity viable, and what are its consequences for ethics and politics? Can existentialism offer an answer to the question of how to live meaningfully, and even hopefully, in a world without god?
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 04 — June 25, 2018