Date of Award

Spring 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

William McBride

Committee Chair

William McBride

Committee Member 1

Daniel W. Smith

Committee Member 2

Sandor Goodhart

Committee Member 3

Victor Raskin


Current readings of existentialism are overly negative. It is not without reason that existentialism has a reputation of pessimism preceding it, to the point that the uninitiated cannot help but picture beatnik poets chain-smoking by the first syllable of the name "Sartre." Existentialism, while a movement over one hundred and fifty years old, is often characterized in the light of the media popularity it was given in the decade following the Second World War--although much of the spirit of what is supposedly existentialism came more as a response to the First. The Great War brought with it devastation across Europe that it instilled a sense of malaise in an entire generation of survivors. In the face of such violence, one of the common responses was to wonder if there could truly be any sense of meaning or purpose to life. This movement, philosophically, was existentialism. ^ Existentialism as a movement is not a denial of meaning. That is the role of nihilism. Existentialism simply says there is no sense of predetermined meaning, and that, in a particular formation, we are verbs before nouns: "to be" rather than a being thing in any real sense. Of course, there is an obvious pessimistic reading of any text that bases its thought on the foundation that humans are existent before their essence—if there is no predetermined meaning in the world, there certainly is a possibility that there does not have to be meaning in the world at all. ^ The future of the study of existential philosophy in part depends on its continuing attractiveness to a new generation of scholars. One of the things holding existentialism back is the alienating effect it can have on people—in large part because of its perceived concurrence with negativity. The aforementioned lack of a predetermined essence can cause anxiety, angst or anguish depending on whether you ask Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre. ^ Sartre explains anguish as the realization of the possibility of our own negation. If we imagine ourselves on the brink of a cliff or precipice, we can look down into the depth below and realize that, at that moment, there is nothing to prevent us from throwing ourselves over the precipice to our death. Freedom from meaning also implies there is a sense in which we do not have to live by any prescribed rules, or even at all. It can be intimidating. ^ A positive reading could bring stability to an otherwise dizzying discipline. Existential philosophy and literature both would benefit from a reimaging of certain thinkers' approaches. What is needed is not a new reading to replace the old, but to supplement the accepted framework of understanding with serious alternative possibilities. In this prospectus, I intend to expand the traditional reading of existentialism. ^ I will offer differing interpretations of familiar texts in an effort to breathe new life into the texts themselves along with the discipline more generally. Existentialism can be freed from its trappings of negativity and pessimism. It is with this goal of liberation in mind that I seek to offer a new interpretation of the existential movement. If existentialism is liberated from negativity, that does not mean that more traditional interpretations are not possible, but rather that these common readings of a complex system of thought cannot define it. ^ My reading will be an attempt at an existential reading of existentialism. At its heart, this is an existential idea. Labeling, along with the idea that a past interpretation dictates a present or future condition, is inherently essentialist. Existentialism has been, in effect, "playing at" existentialism for too long, to use a Sartrean formulation. There is a sense in which the prevailing interpretations of the prominent texts are so ingrained in the public consciousness that any new scholarship takes them for granted. ^ My existential reading will try to be consistent and liberating. Because much of existentialism is a philosophy of freedom, it only makes sense that providing alternative readings and interpretations is good. In fact, this may be the only way to prevent essentialism from overtaking existentialism and unfairly making it something it was never intended to be. ^ After explaining the roots of joy in Camus and Nietzsche, I will seek to find this same idea in other existentialist writers and show how this concept can be used to varying degrees in Sartre and Kierkegaard. Both of these authors, through their texts and styles, allow for the possibility of joy as Camus or Nietzsche do. ^ Despite these differences, there is an essential similarity amongst these authors that both qualifies them to be considered "existentialist" and preserves the possibility of joy. This similarity is the emphasis all of them place on freedom. The same freedom that characterized the post-war malaise as a freedom-from—freedom from meaning—can also be a freedom-to—freedom to act. That action, moreover, is entirely determined by the self, independent of the constraint of essence. While freedom can be terrifying, it can also be uplifting.