French Existentialism: Beauvoir and Sartre
68 Jay Street, #308
Brooklyn, NY 11201
For Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the fundamental philosophical problem of the modern age was answering Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum: god was dead, and so was, as a consequence, traditional western conceptions of morality, justice, and truth itself. In the cafes of occupied and post-war Paris, Sartre, Beauvoir, and their cohort of fellow existentialists 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. Rather, human beings are “radically free” to form their own identities and destinies. For Beauvoir, existentialism provided a basis for launching powerful feminist critiques of evolutionary psychology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism; while for Sartre, it raised challenging questions for 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 ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
September 11 — October 02, 2019