A Self-Taught Course in Existentialism

I studied existentialism in college and I was really into it. But it was a matter of reading deeply and not broadly - I’ve read most of Nietszche, which I studied in depth, and then a smattering of existential literature… Nausea, Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, etc. I don’t know why decades later I suddenly want to jump in again, but here I am.

I’ve decided I want to design a little course for myself. So I’m looking not only for the source material but also the analysis. I don’t care if it takes me a year to get through the stuff. I want to take my time to really understand what I’m reading.

So those of you into philosophy - what are the must - reads for existentialism? Do you have any good resources for placing these works into context? Modern classics? YouTube videos? I’m open to anything.


I’m not sure how much time and effort you are able and willing to spend on your project. If you really want to get to grips with the philosophical side of existentialism, you should try to get the gist of Heidegger and Sartre. In philosophy I think Sartre is not as well regarded, but it would be a pity to ignore him. Besides those two there are a lot of others, but that might be for later study.

For understanding Heidegger I’d suggest first reading a bit yourself and failing miserably to make any sense of it, but it might give you a taste of what he’s doing.
Fairly accessible are

  • The origin of the work of art
  • The question concerning technology

If you are sufficiently well read in philosophy, you might try the beginning (first 40 pages or so) of Being and Time, where Heidegger does try to take the reader along his thought process.
Hard-core Heidegger:

  • Introduction to metaphysics
  • What is metaphysics
  • Identity and difference

You might try to leaf through them to get a but of the flavor. Personally I found a lot of his writing to be better appreciated like poetry, where he forces you to consider the implicit connotations of the words we use, and whether those have deeper meaning. I’m not sure how well that holds up in translation.

For an introduction to his actual thought I found R.C. Solomon, From Rationalism to Existentialism, very helpful. He does require you to follow the actual philosophical development, but presents this in as accessible a way as possible. Arguably he also simplifies a bit and may be incorrect in places, but at least it gives you a good basis for understanding the stakes in the debate. From a different perspective you could look at D.E. Cooper, Existentialism, which also is a fairly accessible text at the level of philosophy majors.
If you are willing to go in depth into Being and Time, you can read H.L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World, along a close reading of Being and Time. That is a close-reading commentary of the first part of the book.Highly rewarding but it takes time.

As regards Sartre, unfortunately there is not too much to him. After reading introductions such as the ones I mentioned above, you should at least read the introduction of Being and Nothingness, which should then be fairly easy to follow. From the main body of the text you could focus on selected parts that you are particularly interested in, either the more ‘metaphysical’ chapters or the more ‘moral’ chapters (but my current memory is a bit hazy). They were a bit long-winded so you might not dwell on every word, instead trying to follow the broad outline of the argument. If you are really enthusiastic of existentialist philosophy there are actually a number of minor works by Sartre which are interesting, but then we are far outside the scope of an introductory course. ‘Existentialism is a humanism’ is an easy read but doesn’t give you much understanding of what existentialism actually is, philosophically speaking.

Sorry for the slight rambling nature of this post.

I have tried (and failed repeatedly) to make sense of Heidegger in German, I can only call him a Schaumschläger and a Haarspalter. I don’t know about English, but he seems to make much more sense when translated into Spanish, particularly when translated via French, when suddenly das Dasein becomes la condición humana. Every time I think I can make heads or tails from his translated writing it turns out that he wrote something different in the original. As I have obviously not understood him I cannot say for sure, but I suspect he is not an Existentialist.
I don’t believe Nietzsche is an Existentialist either, but at least he is fun to read. But for the purposes of th OP I would recommend starting with Kierkegaard’s essay “On The Concept of Irony”. Then Dostoyevsky gave me at least in his novel The Brothers Karamasov (Crime and Punishment was great reading too) a feeling for the absurd that I associate with Existentialism.
And then Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and straight into Sartre.
I never got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir, but I am getting the impression that I should have.

Looks like he’s the one who did The Great Courses (Teaching Company)'s course on Existentialism.

I haven’t watched/listened to it, but, looking over the lecture titles, it looks like he focuses on Camus, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.

I’m a million miles away from being an expert, and I’ve read very little original philosophy, because I always have a hard time understanding the language, that’s why I’ve never tried Heidegger, though I’m a native German speaker, but I know Heidegger’s reputation, and what he wrote was NOT standard German (I also have reservations because of his all too close ties to Nazism, but that’s a different subject). Anyway, in my mind existentialism (and almost any other philosophy) is best expressed in great works of literature. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read that had a lot of influence on my thinking is “La Peste” (The Plague) by Camus, which in my understanding is a deeply existential text, and it just perfectly fits in our time.

I’d suggest Stephen Batchelor’s books, particularly Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Neither book is “existentialist” per se.

I’ve never EVER been able to understand Heidegger in any language.