The Meaning of Life
SUNY New Paltz
Instructor: Dan Werner
Office location: JFT 902
Office hours: Mondays 12:10-1:30pm; Thursdays 12:10-1:30pm & 3-4:20pm
Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there any point or purpose to human existence? If so, then what is it? If not, then are our lives utterly absurd and senseless—mere momentary flashes of light in an infinite darkness? Does my individual life have any meaning? If it doesn’t, then what should my response be? (Despair? Resignation? Indifference? Defiance?) Can human life be meaningful if there is no God? Just how would God provide meaning, anyway? And what does ‘meaning’ mean in the first place? Can questions about ‘the meaning of life’ be answered and debated—or are such questions themselves just silly and nonsensical?
It is very likely that you have thought about some of these questions at one time or another. Perhaps there was a nagging thought in the back of your mind one day, or a disquieting uncertainty which kept you up at night. There are, of course, a variety of ways of coming to terms with these issues—through religion, for instance, or through art. The aim of this course, however, is to provide you with an occasion for distinctly philosophical reflection on these questions. Using a variety of classic and contemporary philosophical texts (both expository and literary), we will try to gain some greater clarity as to the nature of the questions and the possible ways one might go about trying to answer them. Even if (as some claim) the questions are unanswerable, it is worth considering what the implications of that might be.
By its very nature, this course is meant to engage you on a very personal level. You should be prepared to challenge your own assumptions and beliefs, and to engage with material that may be dense, perplexing, or downright disturbing.
Required Texts (please use only these editions and translations)
About the Readings
Compared to some of your other courses, the amount of required reading for this class will be relatively low (usually no more than 30-40 pages per week). But do not let this fool you: reading philosophical texts requires a good deal of time and patience, much more so than any other kind of reading that you may have done so far. Sometimes you may find the texts in this course to be strange, difficult, counter-intuitive, or bewildering. (Indeed, so do I!) Our goal, then, will be to read slowly and carefully, aiming at quality rather than quantity. Remember that in philosophy it is never enough to read a text just once; you should do the readings multiple times, making marginal notations and taking your own notes as you do so.
Most of our readings will come from philosophical texts, but we will also consider some religious and literary texts. In addition, we may examine some films, music, or other art forms. If you have a suggestion about a particular text, song, composition, film, or art work that you would like to share with the class and that is relevant to course material, then please bring it to my attention; I will do my best to incorporate your suggestions.
About Class Meetings
By its very nature, a class such as this must be discussion-based; indeed, I don’t think that it would be possible to do a “lecture-based” course on the meaning of life. (OK, it might be possible, but it certainly would not be desirable.) The way that you prepare for class must therefore be revised accordingly.
For example, you should come to class not only having done the assigned reading, but also being prepared to discuss it in a thoughtful way. It’s not good enough just to read about philosophy; your greatest learning will take place only when you begin to talk and write about philosophy. Class meetings offer you a chance to talk about philosophy by raising questions, voicing concerns and criticisms, suggesting alternatives, and helping others out of confusion. (Remember, too, that college classes are a social experience: if it were good enough to read philosophy on our own in the privacy of our homes, then we wouldn’t need to meet.)
One aspect of this is worth reiterating: a central goal of any philosophy class is to learn to ask the right questions, and to gain the conceptual tools with which to seek answers. Don’t think for a minute that confusion should prevent you from participating in class discussion. In fact, confusion or puzzlement is usually the best impetus for inquiry and discussion. Moreover, in the process of trying to clarify why you are confused—which can often be a difficult task in itself—you can usually learn a great deal.
My goal as the instructor is to make maximum use of class meetings and to encourage you to be active, otherwise I would feel that I am wasting your time. My teaching style might broadly be described as ‘interactive’ or ‘dialogical’—which is to say that I ask a lot of questions, in the interest of eliciting discussion, reflection, and further questions from you. I do occasionally call on students by name to address a question or to offer a suggestion.
There is a Blackboard website associated with this course (http://blackboard.newpaltz.edu). The site contains the syllabus, important announcements, reading questions, due dates, assignments, supplemental readings, exam information, links and other items.
Course Requirements & Grades
Your final grade in the course will be determined on the basis of two essays, six textual summaries, a course journal, and participation in the online discussion board (as well as participation in class). The percentage assigned to each element is as follows:
Textual summaries (x3)
Course journal, daily questions, & other assignments
Essays: You will be required to write two essays. The first essay will be in the 4-5pp. range, and the second essay will be in the 7-10pp. range. Although I will provide a list of possible topics, you are also free to choose your own topic (though if you do so, I must approve the topic beforehand). The only real stipulation for these essays is that they must deal (in some way) with at least one of the texts studied in class. Otherwise, the format is completely up to you: you can do an in-depth analysis of one or more texts; a comparison between two or more texts; a positive or negative critique of selected texts; or some other possibility. I never penalize students for writing “too much” (unless what is written is unclear or redundant). The first essay will be due on or about October 15th (the mid-point of the semester), and the second essay will be due on December 14th at 5pm (the scheduled time-slot for our final exam).
Textual summaries: You will be required to submit three textual summaries over the course of the semester. In each case, you are to select any one article or text assigned for a particular day, and summarize it in no more than two double-spaced pages. (In the case of lengthy texts that we discuss over multiple class days, you need only select the portion of the text that is assigned for a particular day.) Your goal here is simply to represent—in your own words—the main claims, arguments, and issues of the text; you are not to engage in any criticism or commentary. Each of your summaries must deal with a different author. Your first summary is due no later than October 1st; the second summary is due no later than November 2nd; and the third summary is due no later than December 3rd. (You can, of course, turn in your summaries before these due dates.)
Course journal: Throughout the semester, you will maintain a course journal. The purpose of the journal is to give you a place to reflect on course material in a more personal way, outside of the constraints of a more formal writing assignment. Each week, you will be required to submit a 1-2pp. journal entry; those students whose last names begin with A-M will submit their entries on Mondays, while those students whose last names begin with N-Z will submit their entries on Thursdays. The content of your journal entries is entirely up to you: you may wish to discuss particular things about the readings that interested you, or puzzled you, or bothered you; you may wish to relate class readings/discussions to things in your own life; or other possibilities. Entries are due at the beginning of class, and must be typed and double-spaced. They will be graded on a check/check-plus/check-minus basis. You are permitted to miss this assignment once without penalty.
Daily questions: On each class day I will ask two of you to present a list of “daily questions” to the rest of the class. For this assignment, you will come up with at least two or three questions which you would like to explore, and which pertain to the reading assigned for that day. Your questions can deal with some aspect of the reading which you find confusing, or which you disagree with, or which you simply want to discuss further in class. Don’t worry if you have no clue about how to answer your questions, or if you don’t even know how to formulate them. They should be genuinely difficult questions—ones to which there are no easy or obvious answer. (If you can provide a simple, snappy answer, the question is not a good one.) After stating the questions, be prepared to explain why you think they are interesting, difficult, and important. You must email your questions in a numbered list to the rest of the class (using Blackboard) no later than 12pm on class day; I will also call on you during class to provide further elaboration. The purpose of the assignment is to get discussion going with questions that you really have, so that you get your questions answered and not all the questions are mine. Even if we can't answer the questions in discussion, asking them explicitly will frame the discussion and deepen our inquiry into the text for that day. You will do this assignment at least once, and possibly twice. Feel free to sign up in advance for particular days; otherwise I will simply select people at random.
Other assignments: There may be other types of regularly assigned written work throughout the semester. Sometimes these will be done as homework, and other times they will be done in class. Most of these assignments will consist of brief, one- or two-page response papers (either a response to a directed question, or a more “open-ended” reflection). Other assignments may involve group work. These various assignments will be graded on a check/check-plus/check-minus basis.
A Note on the Calculation of the Final Course Grade
Generally I just “go by the numbers” when calculating your final course grade; however, in certain cases I may make take other factors into account. So please note the following policy:
Upward adjustments in a student’s final course grade will be made in borderline cases for steady and unmistakable improvement in coursework and for informed, thoughtful, and fairly regular participation in class.
This policy is no guarantee, and it applies only to genuine “borderline” cases.
Schedule of Readings
Please note that this list is tentative and is subject to change. Specific reading assignments will be finalized & announced as we go along.
Note: our class does not meet on the following days…
Also: the last day for course withdrawal is November 6th.
Important Notes & Course Policies