What follows are my proposal and outline for a presentation to the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, January 10, 2004.



Encountering Existentialism in a Personal Way: Making the Humanities More Human


Submission to:

Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

Honolulu HI 96836


a: Title:

Encountering Existentialism in a Personal Way: Making the Humanities More Human

b: Topic area: Philosophy, literature, innovations in teaching

c: Key words: experiential learning, innovative teaching

d. Author: J. Michael Russell, Ph.D.

e. Address: J. Michael Russell, Professor of Philosophy and Human Services, Research Psychoanalyst, California State University, Fullerton, Box 6868, Fullerton CA 92834.

f. Email: jmrussell@fullerton.edu

g: Phone: (714) 278-2752

i. Fax: (714) 524-1845

Short abstract of a presentation of about 25 minutes, before discussion:

Encountering Existentialism in a Personal Way:

Making the Humanities More Human

As a philosophy professor, I am interested in teaching humanities courses in ways that facilitate significant self-exploration on an emotional and personal level. I will provide a detailed description of a university course I teach which is designed to do this, and provide suggestions to others in the humanities on how to combine significant academic work with these more personally focused objectives. I will present an account of the sorts of materials I have used, drawn from Existentialist philosophy and literature, indicating specific techniques and objectives. Based on a sample syllabus from the university course, I will present suggestions for developing specific themes from selected existentialists' works either within or independent of a university setting. I shall also address selected professional and ethical issues raised by a practice rooted in materials and objectives of this kind.


Detailed account of presentation:

1. Introduction

I am a philosophical counselor, a practicing psychoanalyst, a professor of philosophy and of human services, and a core faculty member of a psychoanalytic institute. I have been doing personal counseling as a philosopher since 1973 and as a psychoanalyst since 1984. I have done this both with individuals and in interactive "self-exploration" groups. In 1973 I introduced into my University's curriculum a course called "Existential Group" which uses themes and readings from existentialist philosophy as a catalyst for a personal and emotionally oriented sort of self-exploration in a group setting. In addition to offering this as a course, I have occasionally offered private workshops based on the same sorts of materials. I will present an account of the sorts of materials I have used, specific techniques and objectives, and concerns of interest to philosophers and others in the humanities who may, with reason, be timid about this sort of self-exploration forum. Based on a sample syllabus from the university course, I will present suggestions for developing specific themes from selected existentialists' works either within or independent of a university setting. I shall also address selected professional and ethical issues raised by a practice rooted in materials of this kind.

2. Previously I have made this presentation to groups interested in the growing field of "philosophical counseling." This term embraces a spectrum of philosopher- practitioners, having in common a background in (and enthusiasm for) philosophy, differing in vision from those wanting to do something like "therapy" rooted in their philosophy backgrounds - - - - to those who believe there is very little in common to what is done by "therapists."

3. My own focus in group-format courses is on areas of conflict, with considerable emphasis on eliciting affect, to a focus on a more "detached" form of reflectivity.

Techniques for augmenting or minimizing affectively charged philosophical exploration.

How it’s presented

Emphasis on a reflective loop, focusing on group process

First-person ‘here-and-now’ language

Encouraging the expression of affect

See: Corey, Corey, Callanan & Russell, Group Techniques, Brooks Cole, 2003

See Irvin Yalom, Theory and Practice of Group Therapy

See Corey, Groups: Process and Practice, Brooks/Cole 2002


4. The central difference is not in the nature of the activities but in the identity of the provider.

5. Sample Course Syllabus


Philosophy 324


MTWTH June 4 -- July 5, 2001

J. Michael Russell, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy and Human Services

California State University, Fullerton

Fullerton CA 92834-6868

Catalogue Course Description: Prerequisite: Consent of instructor. An investigation of how themes in the writings of existentialist philosophers pertain to the lifestyles, actions, and feelings of the class participants.

Course Description:

This is an intensive experiential course that explores, on a personal level, how themes in the writings of Existentialist philosophers pertain to the lifestyles, actions and feelings of the class participants. The course entails interacting in a group format, about issues in one's personal life; these group interactions are interpersonal encounters that take place on a feeling level rather than one of abstract discussion. Not everyone would like, nor be well suited for, an experiential course of this sort. Therefore, a pre-group interview and the instructor's permission to enroll are prerequisites that must be met.


This experiential group is sufficiently unlike typical university classes that it seems fitting to take extra measures to fully inform and prepare potential class members for what the course entails. You are asked to read these remarks carefully and will be asked to sign something which acknowledges being informed and which also releases the State, University, and instructor from responsibility for your participation.

The purpose of this group-format course is to provide a context for seeking to better understand and to express the personal experiences and choices and feelings of the participants, in connection with various themes of existentialist philosophy. The group will focus on and encourage paying attention to topics that are liable to be emotionally important to its members. Not everyone would like nor be well suited for this sort of introspective and emotional forum. Therefore, enrollment is limited to persons who have the consent of the instructor, and who indicate an understanding of the nature of the course and a readiness to be active participants.

As a group member you may feel under situational or peer pressure to disclose feelings or experiences that you would prefer to not express. You are under no obligation to act on or talk about any specific matter which the instructor or anyone else suggests to you. You are expected, in general, to be a willing participant in the class, willing to focus your contributions on your own feelings about topics that may be awkward or sensitive. Persons who have a general unwillingness to participate in this way would be inhibiting to others, and are, therefore, not suitable for this course. This group-format course promotes self-exploration and expression for educational purposes. The same sort of thing is often done as a form of psychotherapy where the explicit objective is the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disturbances. This course is not offered with the aim of providing psychotherapy. Since the focus on discussion and expression of personal feelings and areas of personal conflict is identical with the sort of subject matter and expression that might also take place in psychotherapy, it is essential that you understand the difference, which consists in the explicitly stated objective. You will be asked to acknowledge in writing that you understand that this course is neither offered as therapy, nor is it offered for purposes of diagnosis or treatment of psychological disorders. No systematic attempt is made to identify who in the group is or isn't "mentally healthy," and, in the absence of such a diagnostic context, no recommendation is made as to whether such exploration and expression is or isn't "good for" the persons involved. If you are currently in therapy, you should discuss with your therapist whether a course of this sort is compatible with the diagnostic and treatment considerations being addressed there. If you suspect that the exploration and expression of emotional and personal issues might be harmful for you, you should seek the advice of someone acting toward you in the capacity of a professional psychotherapist.

Group members are expected to treat as confidential all personal disclosures made by persons in this class. Respect for confidentiality is of paramount importance and is a condition for admission into the course. However, you should be cautioned that it is impossible to guarantee that members of the class will respect the confidentiality of what you say. There are further qualifications to confidentiality. I may have an obligation to inform appropriate persons or agencies in the event that I believe someone is at significant risk (e.g., if I learn of plans for suicide, homicide, or the likelihood of some situation in which there might be current child abuse). I may consult with other professionals about matters that pertain to things you have said in confidence. For purposes of teaching and scholarship I may draw from materials arising from this and other groups, guided by discretion and concern to protect privacy and anonymity.

A possible risk of a class of this sort is that there may be persons who express themselves in ways that are hurtful to others. A presumption of the group is that each participant is fully responsible for their decision to be a member and for decisions about what to do or to refrain from doing.

Regular attendance is extremely important: you are expected to attend all meetings. If an illness or emergency is going to prevent you from attending a meeting, it is important to call the instructor in advance of the class. Failure to make a reasonable effort to notify the instructor that you are going to be absent may be grounds for your being dropped from the course.




Steven Luper, An Introduction to Existential Thought, Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000, ISBN 0-7674-0587-0)

Charles Neider, Short Novels of the Masters, (Carroll & Graf, N.Y., 1948, 1989)

ISBN 0-88184-487-X)


You are to submit a paper to each class meeting, from the second meeting to the next-to-last one, which covers specific requirements determined by the instructor. It is possible that we will decide in class to exchange or share these papers. The general format for papers will be this: (1) You should respond to key points I may have made of a "lecture" sort, for each day prior to the day the paper is due. (2) You are to respond to and elaborate on key events from the group interactions focusing on you as a participant, or on your own feelings occasioned by what others bring in. For reasons of confidentiality, be careful about how much you say about others: in any case the focus should be on you, your feelings, your beliefs, your conflicts. (3) You are to respond in a personal way to key themes from the assigned reading, including reading due the same day the paper is due. The point here is not to establish your having accurately grasped the author's views, but to take the occasion to develop your own thoughts and explore your own experiences, in light of your understanding of some of what the author says. Some of the writings are extremely obscure. Even the philosophy students will have a hard time with some of this, and the non-majors will feel utterly lost. Usually, I will offer some explanation before and after you have done the reading, but maybe I’ll lose you too! Just do what you can with the material.

These three parts should each be 150 words in length, typed. While there is considerable latitude to how you may go about these, I will not accept papers that are too insubstantial or do not evidence a serious effort to make personal application of the materials from lecture, group, and reading.

Assignment schedule: assignments will be announced, typically one per class from the list below. I will try to give a "mini-lecture" before each of these reading assignments. With or without that assist, your job is to try and get something out of the reading that you can apply personally. I will suggest here some ideas to consider for that objective.

Dostoevsky, "Notes From Underground" (P. 411)

This Underground Man vacillates between wanting to be known and wanting to be an enigma. How does this fit you as a participant in this group? Are you willing to identify aspects of yourself that you anticipate you will be reluctant to explore?

The Underground Man thinks it's ridiculous that people always do what is to their advantage. Sometimes we do things just to assert that we are free and unpredictable. On the other hand, it would be gratifying to have some sort of identity, even something unpleasant, like "being a sluggard." How does any of this fit you?

The Underground man claims to be motivated by "spite." For example, he won't see a doctor about his "diseased liver" out of spite. Apparently the idea is that he will do something contrary to what would be "good for him" or to his best interest. Can you apply anything like this to yourself? Can you think of aspects of how you conduct your life that do not seem very readily explained by motives of what is advantageous or pleasurable for you, but seem motivated by something like "spite?"

Sartre, "The Humanism of Existentialism" (P. 264)

Sartre thinks we run away from our freedom by claiming to have a fixed and settled "nature," or "essence." Supposing that each of us in this group has probably suggested a picture of ourselves to the others about who we "are", how do you think you have been portraying yourself so far (e.g., too old, too young, too healthy, too this or that for this group of people to relate to.)

Sartre says when we choose, we choose for others. Looking at yourself in the context of this group, how do you think you have been inviting others to see you?

Tolstoy, The Death Of Ivan Illych (in Neider)

Ivan led a most "ordinary" life, and yet seems in some way to have done it all wrong? What's wrong with his life? How do you compare?

Who in this story do you think a caring person?

What are your ideas about how you do or do not want to approach your own death?

Kafka, "An Imperial Message" (P 430)

Suppose this is a message to you. What's the message?

Kafka, "Before the Law" (Xerox distribution) from The Trial

Suppose you are, at once, the doorkeeper, the man seeking the Law, and that which is being sought. How do you stand in your own way, your own doorkeeper?

Kierkegaard, "Subjective Truth, Inwardness; Truth Is Subjectivity," from Concluding Unscientific Postscript (P. 81)

Kierkegaard's idea about a relationship with God also has application to interpersonal relationships: there is an inverse relationship between "objective evidence" and "subjective truth." How might this apply to you and significant relationships you have (or don't have)?

Kierkegaard, "Rotation of Crops," from Either/Or (P 30)

Kierkegaard presents a dialogue between an advocate of the "aesthetic" life of maximizing experience, and the "ethical" life of commitment. How does this apply to relationships you have had?

Kierkegaard, from The Sickness Unto Death"

How does Kierkegaard's account of despair over "having a self" fit you?

Nietzsche, "The 'Genius of the Species'" (P 134)

Nietzsche asks, "What then is the purpose of consciousness generally, when it is mainly superfluous?" By now, as a member of this group, you may have become distrustful of the idea that we are generally conscious of the nature of our engagements. Reflect on this.

Nietzsche, from A Geneology of Morals (P 177)

Nietzsche thinks that "slave morality" rationalizes powerlessness as being virtue. How might some of your values fit this description?

Heidegger, "The Existential Constitution of the There," from Being and Time (P 240)

Heidegger presents mood (affect) as a form of knowing or being attuned to our being. Many of us have been encouraged to disregard mood and feelings. How does this apply to you?

Heidegger, "Falling Prey and Throwness," from Being and Time (P 244)

Idle talk, curiosity, and ambiguity are trademarks of being inauthentic. How does this apply to your participation in this group?

Do you think it is possible for you to comprehend the idea of your own death? When you try to address the question of what your death means to you, how do you find yourself looking at the way you are conducting your life?

Kafka, Metamorphosis

Suppose you awake from a dream in which you found you had, overnight, transformed into a huge cockroach. What would that mean to you, in terms of how you are living your life?

Sartre, "Negations," from Being and Nothingness (P278)

Sartre holds that all consciousness is negation: we experience our situations in terms of what is missing or lacking. How does this fit you?

Sartre, "Patterns of Bad Faith" from Being and Nothingness (P 293)

Try applying to something about yourself the analysis Sartre gives of the woman in "bad faith" who tries to run from "facticity" by affirming "transcendence" and vice versa. Try to think of specific ways in which you are, at times, inclined to try to affirm what are "just the facts" about who you "are," and ways in which you, at other times, take refuge in the idea of being more than the facts of your history.

Sartre, "Love, Language, Masochism," and "Indifference, Desire, Hate, Sadism," from Being and Nothingness (P 309)

How does this fit you: that we vacillate between trying to get an identity from another by being loved, and give an identity to another through sexuality? I f you had to choose between mainly being someone looked at by others or mainly being someone who did the looking, which would be more your style?

Sartre, from No Exit (P 432)

Hell is other people because they can see better than we can the choices we make. How does this apply to being in a group like this? In what ways do you let others "see" you, and in what ways do you try to not be seen?

Camus, from The Myth of Sisyphus (P 389)

Reflect on the idea that you have been engaged in an absurd project, analogous to Sisyphus' being condemned to forever roll that rock up a hill. Think of specific applications of this metaphor, such as the sense that you continually repeat certain patterns in your relationships, or repeatedly find yourself overreacting to criticism, or find that your moods seem to follow certain unwanted patterns.

[End syllabus.]



To follow are points to be presented for discussion:

6. Why stress parallels with therapy? My preference is to overstate the resemblance to psychotherapy and make it very clear that I think there are parallels. There are many reasons why I believe that my "existential group" in fact is not psychotherapy, and some other philosophical practitioner might decide, accordingly, to not even raise the issue or else declare in a preemptory way that the things are entirely different. The differences may well be more clear-cut for other academics. I am interested in encouraging attention to affect, self-disclosure and the exploration of matters that are areas of conflict and sensitivity for the group's participants. Regardless of how philosophically (or legally) compelling my views on differences between therapy and existential exploration, the comparison is bound to be made in the minds of participants and the general public. I think I have an ethical obligation to err on the side of stressing similarities rather than differences.

9. Screening of participants. Usually I interview potential group members before the first meeting. Minimally, I explain in detail my view of the nature and purpose of the group at the first meeting, providing every reasonable opportunity for people to screen themselves out if a focus on self-disclosure of personal struggles would not be timely for them. On occasion I will tell someone that I think this group is not right for him/her. Generally, the sorts of people who might have an initial interest in something called an "existential group" would also be able to discern whether the particulars of such a group were not right for them, provided they were reasonably fully informed about the group.

10. Informed consent. Potential group members should be informed about the nature and purposes of the group, the background and qualifications of the group leader, any potential risks, considerations of confidentiality and exceptions to confidentiality, policies about or restrictions on freedom of exit.

11. Preparation of group members. When I am conducting a group, such as a course that will meet over several weeks, I devote much of the first meeting to an in-depth explanation of the purposes of the group. I provide suggestions about how to get the most from the group and offer guidelines for how to participate in ways which will foster rather than undermine the affective dimension of group process. If the group will meet only once, I spend some initial time going over such matters. I may distribute literature on group process, such as a few pages on guidelines for getting the most from a group in Corey, Corey, Callanan and Russell, Group Techniques

(Brooks/Cole, 2003). Groups that seek to enhance expression of affect surrounding personal issues are best guided by practices somewhat different from everyday polite conversation. That is, I encourage group members to make a point of focusing on oneself rather than being overly concerned to advise or question others. In addition, I advise members to be reasonably "greedy" about taking time for their own issues rather than trying excessively to stay focused on the issues of others. Groups will find their own way to these norms, but sometimes the route is needlessly confrontational and, I think, best assisted by the group leader.

11. Risks. With an experienced group leader and appropriately prepared members, I think fears that an emotionally focused group exploring existential issues is going to somehow provoke psychosis or suicide is pretty much a false issue. However, I think there are risks to participating in such groups, and I believe I need to make a reasonable effort to explain these. For instance, when people are given an opportunity to think deeply and critically about how they conduct their lives, this may prove disruptive to their relationships with significant others. This is something I tell group members.

12. Group pressure. Another risk especially worth mentioning for something like an existential group comes from the observation that groups typically exert considerable pressure on members perceived as not being open contributors. Especially silent members are likely to be viewed as judgmental. Philosophically sophisticated members are liable to be perceived as overly intellectual and detached from their feelings. These people are at risk of feeling attacked when the group is struggling to achieve greater levels of intimacy, when some are thought to obstruct this movement.

13. Confidentiality. If an existential group were psychotherapy, there would still be limits on the extent to which confidentiality could be assumed. In California there are some situations of danger to oneself or others which therapists are legally mandated to report. Members should be informed about limits to confidentiality, such as that one cannot guarantee that others will respect it. As a group leader I believe I do have a duty to warn or report about some sorts of things, I do consult with other professionals about people who consult with me, and I do, with discretion, make reference to my experiences with clients in lectures and in writing. I do not share the view of some that these qualifications on confidentiality undermine the foundations of formats promoting self-inquiry, but I do think it undermining and unethical to fail to warn participants of such things.

14. Freedom of exit. I do not believe that members of an experiential group have the "right" to leave whenever they like. I think one reason why people are reluctant to talk honestly about their personal struggles comes from a sense that "if you really knew me, you would leave." When a group member leaves a group this tends to underscore that fear, as if one reasoned "people have left this group, and it's because of me." I ask group members to agree to a policy of no sudden departures, to be committed to regular attendance, and to try to give advanced notice if they will be unable to attend.

15. Existential group vs. existentialist clichés. For me, the trickiest aspect of conducting an existential group is achieving just the right balance or blend of thought and affect. With Heidegger, I believe that our moods and affect are a means of being attuned to how we are and what we care about. With Kierkegaard, I believe that reflecting is easy, and "existing" is easy, but interpenetrating existence with reflection is very difficult (and worthwhile). I want to create an environment where group members both think and feel, without falling into excesses of either. I believe that if people are given an environment of honest expression of feeling and personal conflict, they will find their way to an enhanced awareness of freedom, choice, and personal responsibility. I do not seek to shorten that journey with speeches urging others to proclaim their freedom or utilize language suggestive of owning responsibility. This only promotes superficiality.

16. Discussion of specific themes and readings from the syllabus.