Jean Paul Sartre: Being and Nothingness
For Jean-Paul Sartre, the fundamental philosophical problem of the modern age was how to respond to Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum: god is dead, and so is, as a consequence, traditional western conceptions of morality, justice, and truth itself. In the cafes of occupied and post-war Paris, Sartre and his 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 and social roles constructed?
This class will examine French existentialism through a reading of Sartre’s masterpiece Being and Nothingness. Core to this text 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 Sartre, existentialism 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 ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 13 — August 03, 2023