Choose Your Meaning

Mon, Apr 11

Aristotle assumes you have a function -- an essence -- that is intricately linked to your goal in life.  For Aristotle, what's distinctive about human beings is that we are rational animals, capable of developing virtues, which can lead us to flourishing intellectual and social lives.  

Existentialist philosophers take a different approach.  They do not think there is a set function for human beings; rather, what makes human beings distinctive is that we create our own meaning through our actions and choices.  In this class period, we will look at three philosophers in this tradition -- Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and James Baldwin.  We'll consider how existentialists frame the central questions of God and the Good Life.

We have three main in-class learning goals.  By the end of lecture today, you will:

  1. Understand what existentialists mean by "authenticity," and what existentialists (like Jean Paul Sartre) mean when they claim that "existence precedes essence," and "we are condemned to be free"
  2. Be able to compare a eudaimonist's answer to the question "Is there meaning in life?" to an existentialist's
  3. Articulate one practical decision in life you might make differently if you were an existentialist.

Read This:


Interactive Essay: Create Yourself -- Jean Paul Sartre and James Baldwin

APPLICATION ARTICLE (Access on "Perusall" via Canvas):

I'm Not Black; I'm Kanye

Do This:

Complete these steps before you come to class

  • Consider the following prompts (you may want to write responses to these in your journal or talk about them with a friend):
    • Can you think of a time when you stood out as an individual? What's the background story? How did it feel? What decisions did you need to make?
    • Find a passage from Camus, Sartre or Baldwin that relates to your story. Explain how the passage connects to your experience and what philosophical insight that particular existentialist would draw from your experience.
    • Can an existentialist be a celebrity (see the Coates article)?

After you've finished today's reading, make sure you complete the reading quiz, which you can access through your section's Canvas page.

Watch This: