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Existential approach gets a second life

UBC student Etienne Lombard says the study of existentialism can help establish one’s identity

By Naomi Holzapfel , in City Culture Education Life UBC , on March 11, 2018

Existentialism may have faded from the public eye since its heyday, but its influential fingerprints can still be spotted in contemporary culture today.

Vancouverites are taking steps, from hitting the books to broadening counselling practices, to reintroduce this philosophical tradition back into the discourse and practices of day-to-day life.

According to University of British Columbia student Etienne Lombard – who has initiated a student-directed seminar on this topic – the study of existentialism can help establish one’s identity as well as meaning and purpose in the manner in which one conducts one’s everyday life.

Additionally, an assistant professor in UBC’s department of philosophy, Anders Kraal, emphasizes the significance of the questions raised by existentialism – questions about the meaning of life and existence that have and continue to impact us today.

“Metaphysics is in human nature; it’s in human nature to ask questions […] we will always ask questions about meaning and purpose,” Kraal said.

Despite this, existentialism’s presence in contemporary discourse often goes unnoticed.

“I think these kinds of philosophical ideas are having a massive impact today, and often I think lots of people are completely unaware about the philosophical sources of these ideas,” Kraal said.

This leaves existentialism relevant to contemporary culture as well as a worthwhile gap-filler in UBC’s philosophy curriculum.

With the philosophy department offering only one course on existentialism, Lombard decided to take matters into his own hands.

“There’s actually a larger traction to [existentialism] on campus. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the philosophy department and elsewhere that generally share this kind of sentiment – they want to study this kind of thing, but at the UBC campus there isn’t much of that,” Lombard said.

UBC student Paul Kim presenting in the student-directed seminar on existentialist literature.

Motivated by his own and fellow students’ disappointment at the gap in the curriculum, Lombard formed the student-directed seminar PHIL 489 – “Existential Literature” for the 2018 winter session.

Existentialism in a nutshell

Lombard acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define, as it isn’t a singular concept and consists of a loose group of thinkers.

“Existentialism was a cultural movement, an artistic movement, and I think more recently it has taken on the more independent form as a philosophy on its own. It really isn’t as specific as some other philosophical movements,” Lombard said.

Existentialism at UBC

As the current instructor of the philosophy department’s only other course on existentialism, Kraal confirmed that, in North America, analytic philosophy tends to be prioritized at most philosophy departments.

“I think it is true, indeed an empirical fact, that existentialism-related courses are few and far between at most Anglo-American philosophy departments, but I think the reason why needs to be probed a bit further,” Kraal said.

Walden Putterman, a UBC student currently enrolled in the seminar that Lombard initiated, also stresses the “dire need for diversity in the [philosophy] department.”

“The department should offer more courses in other philosophical traditions besides the Western analytic, such as continental and Eastern [philosophy],” Putterman said.

Benefits of and beyond the student-directed seminar

The new seminar provides its students with the opportunity to explore underserved philosophical terrain, says UBC student Emily Laurent-Monaghan.

“[It] affords a unique opportunity to study material that may not appear in a typical syllabus, [as] our seminar exists outside of the required or assumed courses a philosophy major at UBC ought to take,” Laurent-Monaghan said.

Laurent-Monaghan adds that the study of existentialism also has a unique personal benefit.

“While some philosophy seems to stay within the realm of the abstract, existentialism forces us to confront ourselves within a world where we are thrown into being. I think existentialism unites the desire for knowledge with a desire for self-reflexivity and authenticity,” she said.

Philosophy off-campus

But UBC students aren’t the only ones trying to resurrect existentialism – it is also finding new prominence in local counselling practices.

Xavier Williams, an existential-phenomenological analysis counsellor, says that Vancouver is unique in that it “is the only place in the English-speaking world that trains and practices in existential analysis.”

Counsellor Xavier Williams preparing for his sessions at Kafka’s Coffee and Tea.

Williams explains that combining philosophy with counselling allows clients to delve into the complexities of life, and seriously consider what they are saying and believing. This is especially true of existentialism-focused counselling.

“It focuses on a person’s abilities, desires, self, and their purpose in life, not necessarily their simple diagnosis,” Williams said.

Beyond that, “everything that existentialism really says is about what it is to be human, and that’s a very fundamental piece. So, if you take that, then everybody should be doing philosophy,” Williams added.

Existentialism’s cultural influence and continuous relevance

This regained prominence amongst students and counselling practices is a reflection of the cultural influence of philosophical traditions such as existentialism that still persists today.

“I see [Bertrand] Russell’s fingerprints all over the analytic philosophy departments, but I don’t see them over culture at large the same way I see the existentialists,” Kraal said.

Kraal expresses some sympathy for professional philosophers’ outlook on prioritizing other philosophies over existentialism rather than providing a diversified set of philosophies to students.

But Kraal also maintains that certain philosophers within the existentialist tradition “are absolutely fascinating, and deal with topics of such fundamental concern to human interests that we’d neglect them only to our own disadvantage.”

With that in mind, Lombard views his seminar as a sign that philosophy is changing.

“The rigid analytic framework might be slowly fading as younger professors come in with more diverse interests, such as [Anders] Kraal,” Lombard said. “I am grateful to the philosophy department that they accredited my course – I think it is a sign that things are changing.”