Spring Semester Weekly Discussion Series: Existentialism and Nationalism

Event Date: 
Tuesday, February 3, 2015 to Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Event Time: 
6:00 p.m.
Location: 
012 Bendheim Hall

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University (LISD) will convene the second of two discussion series the Institute is sponsoring during the 2014-2015 academic year, beginning on February 3, 2015. The theme for the spring semester series is, "Existentialism and Nationalism: Reading Nietzsche in Jerusalem." Participants convene weekly, on Tuesdays from 6:00-7:30 pm in 012 Bendheim Hall, to engage in stimulating and open discussions. Professor Uriel Abulof, LISD Senior Research Fellow and AICE Visiting Research Scholar in Israel Studies, will lead the discussions. The series is co-sponsored by the Program in Near Eastern Studies and the Department of Sociology.

The workshop is open to Princeton University faculty and students. Space is limited. Early RSVP for the series is recommended but not required to Angella Matheney

What set us apart, and bring us together, as humans? Is there meaning to our life, and death? Are we free? Once leading our quest for wisdom, such questions are rarely asked in contemporary academia. This LISD workshop seeks to bring existentialism back to the fore, and examines how it shapes modern politics, taking Zionism as a comparable case.

Our challenge is threefold. First, we aim to grasp existentialism, an age-old movement that probes the mortal human’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe. Ascending in the wake of World War II, existentialism then descended in both media and academia, its key features deemed disturbing. A philosophy of concrete lived experience, existentialism flies in the face of dispassionate scholarship. Heralding personal, authentic choice, existentialism modeled itself a lighthouse, not an ivory tower. Stressing meaning-seeking agency—rather than material rationality, unconscious emotions, social identities, and innate biology— existentialism defies the presumptions of many economists, psychologists, sociologists and socio-biologists. Disagreements among leading existentialists precluded the construction of a clear-cut and coherent “ism.” Finally, many saw the existential call to fuse philosophy and art as too audacious. Against the backdrop of such concerns, our workshop seeks to hone the lens of existentialism into a microscope that can examine the details of individual life, a telescope to observe social dynamics and a kaleidoscope to enrich our innermost insights.

Second, we aim to probe the relevance of existentialism to politics. While existentialism figures very little in political science, the concerns of existentialism are also its key assets in the study of politics. Attentive to changes in our socio-political world, existentialism reveals human as mortal and moral agents, free to choose their political path. That existentialism writ-large became the common ground for such a diverse group of thinkers as Arendt, Buber, Camus, Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre, both attests to its vitality and to its potential relevance to many, perhaps most, people and their politics. Unlike many contemporary philosophies, it is not necessarily western or liberal. It can speak to both Greenpeace supporters and ISIS activists. Finally, existentialist art, especially literature, makes it more accessible to social actors beyond the confines of seminars in philosophy. It directly addresses—and challenges—this world.

Third, in charting the merits and limitations of “political existentialism,” our workshop seeks to examine its relevance to nationalism and to the case of Zionism in comparative perspective. If nationalism is but one existential project, how does it relate to others? Since existentialism underscores the individual’s sense of morality and quest for moral meaning, can the same be said of nations? Can the nation construct and construe a “public conscience” to guide its politics? The case of Zionism is especially illuminating, with numerous inroads, both personal and ideational. Ecclesiastes (Koheleth), the first known existentialist, is Jewish (supposedly King Solomon). Key existentialists such as Nietzsche and Camus have exerted a vast influence on Zionists, early and late; some, such as Kafka and Buber, were attracted to Zionism; others, Arendt for example, opposed it. Existentialist insights can likewise teach us much about Zionism: its emergence, immersion in existential fears, search for a moral ground, and ongoing debate with its existential alternatives (e.g. Diaspora).

Themes to be address through the semester include:

  • Meaning
  • Death
  • God
  • Individuality
  • Authenticity
  • Good and Evil
  • Reflection
  • Freedom
  • Autonomy
  • Truth and Efficacy
  • Responsibility
  • Solidarity
Event Documents: