Phenomenology and Existentialism

The details
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 6
Thursday 07 October 2021
Friday 17 December 2021
29 September 2021


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

This module explores two deeply related philosophical traditions that came to prevalence in the 19th and 20th centuries – existentialism and phenomenology. Existentialism is a philosophical movement associated with thinkers and writers as diverse as Sartre, Nietzsche, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard – though not all of the figures grouped under that heading accepted that designation.

Broadly speaking, however, Existentialism is unified by the belief that human existence cannot be adequately understood using the categories provided by the philosophical tradition or the natural sciences. In light of this belief, many existentialists were committed to profound disruptions in the style in which philosophy is to be practiced – turning to poetry and literature to capture the nature of the human instead.

Existentialism is also unified in its commitment to take seriously the first-person quality of experience – arguing that purely third-personal categories fail to capture the nature of human existence as it is lived. For this reason Existentialism has close ties to Phenomenology, which is a philosophical methodology defined by its insistence on examining meaning as it is experienced first-personally in order to uncover the structural necessities governing the possibility of those meaningful experiences.

Briefly put, Phenomenology questions how experience can show up as meaningful. This module is dedicated to one or both of these philosophical approaches and/or the relationship between the two.

This term will be devoted to an in-depth study of Emmanuel Levinas' magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, in which phenomenology and its major proponents – Husserl and Heidegger - are both critiqued and put to work to justify Levinas' central claim: that `ethics is first philosophy.` Namely, that the primal event of encountering another person is both foundational and transformative for human experience as we know it. This approach thereby brings metaethical themes to bear on issues in the philosophy of mind and challenges key presuppositions of philosophical methodology. Topics will include the manner in which Levinas` philosophy can be considered a development (or abandonment) of the phenomenological tradition; the role played by enjoyment and the body; the relationship between the `totality` and the individual, the notion of the `feminine`, and the origins and structure of justice.

Module aims

By the end of the module students should be able to:

Summarise in their own words central discussions in Existentialism and Phenomenology; in doing so, develop the ability to establish logical - and other- connections between various parts of these discussions and therefore become able to present well thought-out syntheses in their essays; acquire the critical skills necessary to such an approach; develop the ability to analyse complex philosophical discussions and become more critical towards the assumptions that underlie them.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should also have acquired a set of transferable skills, and in particular be able to:

1. define the task in which they are engaged and exclude what is irrelevant;
2. seek and organise the most relevant discussions and sources of information;
3. process a large volume of diverse and sometimes conflicting arguments;
4. compare and evaluate different arguments and assess the limitations of their own position or procedure;
5. write and present verbally a succinct and precise account of positions, arguments, and their presuppositions and implications;
6. be sensitive to the positions of others and communicate their own views in ways that are accessible to them;
7. think 'laterally' and creatively - see interesting connections and possibilities and present these clearly rather than as vague hunches;
8. maintain intellectual flexibility and revise their own position if shown wrong;
9. think critically and constructively.

Module information

Incoming Study Abroad students must have already taken two Philosophy modules at their home institution.

Learning and teaching methods

1 x one-hour lecture and 1 x two-hour seminar each week. There will also be a Reading Week when no teaching will take place, exact week TBC.


  • Wyschogrod, Edith. (c2000) Emmanuel Levinas: the problem of ethical metaphysics, New York: Fordham University Press. vol. no. 8
  • Large, William. (2015) Levinas' 'Totality and infinity': A Reader's Guide, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Stephen L. Darwall. (1977) 'Two Kinds of Respect', in Ethics. vol. 88, pp.36-49
  • Stephen Darwall. (2009) Second-Person Standpoint: Harvard University Press.
  • Crowell, Steven. (2015-09) 'Why is Ethics First Philosophy? Levinas in Phenomenological Context', in European Journal of Philosophy. vol. 23 (3) , pp.564-588
  • Mensch, James R. (2015) Levinas's existential analytic: a commentary on Totality and infinity, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Emmanuel Levinas. (1969) Totality and infinity, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
  • Morgan, Michael L. (c2011) The Cambridge introduction to Emmanuel Levinas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stephen Darwall. (2004) 'Respect and the Second-Person Standpoint', in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. vol. 78, pp.43-59
  • Perpich, Diane. (2008) The ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
  • Lévinas, Emmanuel. (c2001) Is it righteous to be?: interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
  • Jacques Derrida. (2001) Writing and difference, London: Routledge.
  • Lévinas, Emmanuel; Peperzak, Adriaan Theodoor; Critchley, Simon; Bernasconi, Robert. (c1996) Emmanuel Levinas: basic philosophical writings, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework   Reading question (1 of 3)  20/10/2021  5% 
Coursework   Reading Question 2 (2 of 3)  27/10/2021  5% 
Coursework   Reading Question 3 (3 of 3)  03/11/2021  5% 
Coursework   Essay plan (500 words)  08/11/2021  15% 
Coursework   Peer reviews of essay plans (300 words)  19/11/2021  60% 
Coursework   2500 word essay   06/12/2021  25% 

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Prof Irene McMullin, email:



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
Of 350 hours, 27 (7.7%) hours available to students:
323 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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