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2021/22 Undergraduate Module Catalogue

PRHS3100 Existentialism and Phenomenology

20 creditsClass Size: 70

Module manager: Prof. Rachel Muers

Taught: Semester 2 (Jan to Jun) View Timetable

Year running 2021/22

Module replaces


This module is approved as a discovery module

Module summary

Edmund Husserl founded Phenomenology: a philosophical model that was made to be free of presupposition. Phenomenology is basically the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view, so pre-conceptual. It's a bit like going back to being a baby and studying the appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience: perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. We study conscious experience by reflecting on various types of experiences just as we experience them. We proceed from the first-person point of view. And then the Existentialism is an area into which Phenomenology morphed: still entirely concerned with what it’s like to be a human who experiences things, Existentialism claims that to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science—including the science of psychology—could tell us. Nor can such an understanding be gained by supplementing our scientific picture with a moral one. Neither moral thinking (governed by the norms of the good and the right) nor scientific thinking (governed by the norm of truth) suffices. A further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence. But by 'authenticity' is not meant the modern meaning employed by identity politics - it's not this at all. It's actually a sort of anti-reason enquiry into what it really means to be human: to experience dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on. The idea is to study and describe objects and events from the position of observers, rather than to make claims about some objective reality. Anything that is not immediately conscious is to be excluded. Rather than deductive or empirical methods, Husserl’s method was to rely on the information gathered by the senses and to throw away all scientific or metaphysical knowledge or beliefs in order to study phenomenon more accurately. This importance on human cognition rather than belief or assumption is mirrored in Existentialism. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers alike have searched for so-called “truths” of human nature. Existentialism holds that there are no (or at least few) universal truths about human nature — the individual is what is important, and the individual is free to make his or her life in any way imaginable. Together, Existentialism and Phenomenology move the focus away from facts about the world towards facts about the individual self. For Phenomenology, that means changing the way we view metaphysics and epistemological claims. For Existentialism, it generates a normative ethic on how to live a worthwhile life.


- To gain critical awareness of the importance of 19thC and 20thC Existentialism and Phenomenology for the wider history of philosophy.
- To advance skills in reading, digesting, and critically discussing a range of important and challenging philosophical texts.
- To appreciate and comprehend aspects of style, method and content that are particular to the continental European tradition, including the role of literature, theatre film and art in philosophical exposition.
- To debate the relevance of key themes in Existentialism and Phenomenology for other branches of study in philosophy, such as ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, political philosophy.
- To assess the major criticisms of Existentialist and Phenomenological thought in twentieth century French philosophy and beyond.
- To assess the continued relevance of Existentialist themes for political, cultural, religious and ethical critique in modern society.

Learning outcomes
By the end of the module students will have:
- Understood and critically engaged with the method and arguments of a number of key philosophical thinkers in the Existentialist and Phenomenological traditions.
- Demonstrated knowledge of key philosophical texts studied in the course.
- Critically assessed the validity and continued relevance of Existentialist and Phenomenology for current debates in ethics, religion, politics, and culture.
Skills outcomes
Appreciation of a continental philosophical tradition

Skills outcomes
Appreciation of a continental philosophical tradition


This module will provide students with a solid grasp of the basis of Phenomenology and Existentialism, beginning with an understanding of Husserl and Heidegger. Moving onto Sartre, we move into Existentialism. Possible topics may include: the science of experience, the objects of experience, experiencing things, properties, and events (the experience of time), experiencing oneself and others, subjectivity, Nihilism, Freedom, Death, Bad Faith, and Authenticity. We will be asking questions such as ‘What is the difference between a succession of experiences and an experience of succession?’; ‘What role does empathy play in our experiencing others?’; ‘Is it correct to say that feelings (such as emotions and moods) have objects?’; ‘Can a account of perception as intentional can account for hallucinations?’, ‘To what extent should death matter to me?’; What would it mean for me to live an authentic existence?’

Teaching methods

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours179.00
Total Contact hours21.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)200.00

Private study

Students should spend 179 hours in private study and research, Students are required to read and comment upon weekly readings, and to read widely within the phenomenological and existentialist literature, according to the students’ individual philosophical interests.
Students are encouraged to start working on their essay after the first couple of weeks of the course, when the essay titles will be released. There are some important things to note that are specific to this course. You may be tempted to bring in lots of material from other lecture courses. This can be successfully done, but usually it is a complete disaster. I want to see that you have done some work on this material, that you are considering the issues from this tradition. In addition, reading introductory material is not sufficient. You must read the primary literature, and this can be a difficult task. The literature needs to be read very carefully and, in particular, the vocabulary used by Phenomenologists and Existentialists needs to be handled with care: words such as ‘authenticity’ as used by Sartre do not mean what they have come to mean in general conversation in 2019. You will get out of this course what you put in. This is not a course you can do reasonably well on just by being bright and winging it. But if you give your all, well, imagine the rewards of seriously engaging with the question what it means to be human…

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Seminars will be an opportunity for students to discuss with each other their ideas and to question each other, working together to understand the week’s set text and themes. The lecturer will take a back seat, correcting any misunderstandings and facilitating relevant discussion, guiding discussion when needed.
Students are encouraged to attend office hours to discuss their individual ideas, and their plans for, and result of, their fortnightly posts, as well as to discuss their ideas and contributions to seminars.
Students are strongly encouraged to begin work on their essays as soon as possible. Comments on draft essay plans will be offered to students up to the final week of the module.

Students will receive formative feedback on online seminar preparation tasks throughout module.

Methods of assessment

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay3000 Word Essay100.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

Online assessment of fortnightly posts testing the main skills needed for a successful essay in this subject.

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 30/06/2021 14:25:34


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