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"Existence comes before Essence"

"Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." J.P. Sartre

This unit will examine Existentialism as a response to humans trying to explain the nature of Reality.

In particular, it explores the individual's place in the universe and what they are to make of that place.

In this unit we will:

  • Explore the broadest approaches throughout philosophy of explaining the nature of Reality - this includes the crucial differences between Rationalism and Empiricism;
  • Examine the world views of such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as direct influences on Existentialism;
  • Focus on the life and ideas of Jean Paul Sartre;
  • Complete a range of activities that will illustrate and reinforce the Existentialist metaphysics;
  • Make a choice about which film to watch and analyse it in terms of existentialist themes;
  • Conclude the unit with a Summative Task.


Some good links thanks to Matt Harland, Mr Eaton and Dr Rawnsley for you to explore.

Sartre Lecture Analysis 1

Sartre Lecture Analysis 2

Existentialism Beginning Video


Let's read through the following document which gives excellent background to some major philosophical movements throughout Western history.

Based on your reading and some extra research, use the document below and answer the questions for each philosopher's letter.

Let's now look at some possible responses to these letter questions.



A video to start with.....

Here is a dense but useful Powerpoint on Nietzsche's main ideas.

See how you go responding to the following questions on Nietzsche's ideas.
1. According to Nietzsche, why have "errors" been "useful" to human beings? What functions do "errors" serve"?
2. What does Nietzsche mean when he asserts that what we call "explanation" is in fact only "description"?
3. Why is science "the exactest humanizing of things that is possible"?
4. What is the origin of morality? What is the "herd"? Why is morality the "herd-instinct in the individual"? How does the example of "individual independence" illustrate his assertions about morality?
5. What does Nietzsche think of "altruism"?
6. What is Nietzsche seeking to convey when his character of the madman says that "God is dead" and "we have killed him"? when he says that "there never was a greater event - and on that account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any in history hitherto"?
7. Why does Nietzche condemn Christian morality as "hostile to life"?
8. What does Nietzsche mean when he recommends that the philosopher "take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself"?

Edmund Husserl

Martin Heidegger

'true knowledge comes from our immediate intuition of things as they are...'

'truth can best be grasped in boundary situations...... when one is forced to "choose and act" and when life is most real'

Here is an indepth look at Husserl's work and the idea of Phenomenology

A video about Martin Heidegger

A few links to help you understand this very difficult philosopher better......
Guardian Article Once you read this first article, then follow the links to the further ones. They are an excellent summary and explanation for Heidegger's thinking.


BE WARNED THOUGH - even this summary is difficult reading. Get what you can - reread a couple of times, and don't be too distressed if you struggle to understand it.

Jean-Paul Sartre
"Hell is other people"

A good video to start with....

Here is a fantastic link to a lecture that explains Sartre's ideas and Existentialism in general, in terrific detail.

Sartre's Ideas

The 1st link is his lecture where the analogy of the Paper Knife is introduced. The 2nd link is an analysis of this lecture.

The Lecture
Analysis of Sartre Lecture

To understand Sartre and Existentialism, we need to go back and see how humans have responded to one of the great philosophical questions:

"From what do humans gain a sense of meaning in the universe?"

For most of human history the answer to this question has been 'Mythology/Religion/God(s)'. Many have believed that without these metaphysical concepts and complex systems of thought, there can be no real meaning in people's lives.

BUT - the scientific approach to explaining reality began to supplant religions as the seat of all explanatory power.
Copernicus moves the Earth from the centre of God's universe, and Darwin removes humans as the ultimate expression of God's creation. Nietzsche states that "God is Dead" - so from where do we get our sense of meaning?

For some the answer was simple - Life is Absurd, there is no meaning to it. This was often the position of 'early' existentialists.WW1.jpg

Others believed that with a dead God came a living SOCIETY, and that human social structures and REASON would provide all the meaning necessary for humans.
This was most evident in the years directly preceding WWI, where 'Victorian' values and complex social hierarchies were meant to sustain human satisfaction for all time.
THEN WWI demolished this view, and the limits of human social structures were clearly shown, and the limits of human reason were shattered in the trenches of France. Freud also moved human reason from the centre of our behavioural motivations.

AGAIN - the response from many was clear - SOCIETY and REASON are Dead - Long live Absurdity. You just need to read Samuel Beckett or James Joyce to find this sense of the absurdity of life coming through very clearly.

So where can humans get their sense of meaning from? Are we doomed to live in a Nihilistic nightmare of absurdity? or could there be some other place, some other way to gain a sense of meaning in life?

Well, the answer for some was THE INDIVIDUAL. That God and Reason and Society have let us down, and that meaning comes from the individual acknowledging their existence in a HOLISTIC universe and each creates their own sense of meaning.
There is nothing proscribed for us, but what we make ourselves - and that this is the ultimate empowerment for any human.





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Films, novels, poetry and Art are a fabulous springboard into the world of Existentialism thought.

Here are a few films worth viewing
Some of these are available on the internet and others will need to be hired by you.
Into the WildBeing ThereMemento (this film is very interesting but quite violent and full of strong language)I (Heart) HukabeesGroundhog DayDark CitySolarisHitchikers Guide to the Galaxy
A good analysis of MementoPhilosophical Films website
Some books worth readingThe Outsider (Albert Camus)+ the film version of this .....The Stranger