BLS 366: Life, Death, & Meaning

Description for instructor Lieb: Who am I? How should I live? What is my purpose in life, and how do I pursue it? What is the meaning of life if death is the unavoidable end? Such questions sit at the core of existentialism, understood as a philosophical school of thought that found some of its greatest expression in literature and other creative genres. This course is designed to highlight philosophers, literary writers, and other artists/creative thinkers associated with existential philosophy. Through them, we will explore the possibilities of human existence based on concepts of individual freedom, subjectivity, choice, action, and responsibility. We will also consider the challenges to individual freedom and possibility as represented by the uncertainties of human existence, as well as the issue of mortality itself.

Ultimately, students will discover how the existentialist perspective emphasizes the individual’s freedom and capacity to make meaning of both life and death—all the while confronting life’s anxieties and absurdities—by consciously navigating the journey in-between. By engaging with philosophical, literary, cultural, and artistic works, students will have various opportunities to self-reflect and critically examine their own lives and, potentially, create greater meaning of them.


Description for instructor Maki: What is the meaning of life? Is my life meaningful or meaningless? Should I fear death? Is immortality really worth seeking? Do humans have an obligation to perpetuate their species? This course examines these classic questions of existential philosophy through the broader view of the humanities. Students in this course will read how philosophers have tried to answer these questions and will touch on how plays, poems, films, art and literature have addressed them, in order to grasp the broad impact these questions have upon the human experience.

The central objective of this course is to facilitate students self-reflection on their own lives. In the process students should gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of what constitutes a meaningful life and death. Students will also become familiar with various cultural, artistic, literary, and philosophical expressions of a meaningful life.


Required textbooks for instructor Lieb:

  • Solomon, Robert C. Existentialism (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN: 13 978-0195174632
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0300115468
  • Camus, Albert. The Stranger. (any edition)

Required textbooks for instructor Maki:

  • Benatar, David, ed. Life, Death, and Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. ISBN 0742533689
  • Edson, Margaret. Wit: A Play. (any edition)
  • Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. (any edition)