nl en

What is Thinking? Continental Conceptions


Admission requirements

Admission to this course is restricted to:

  • BA students in Philosophy, who have successfully completed their first year, and who have also completed at least 10 EC’s of the mandatory components of their second year, including: Philosophy of Mind or Concepts of Selfhood.

  • Pre-master’s students in Philosophy who are in possession of an admission statement, and for whom this course is part of their programme.


The topic for the 2021-2022 edition is: The Futility of Thinking
What do we do when we think? For many philosophers in the continental tradition, thinking is not essentially or primarily a procedure that yields useful results – whether theoretical results (arriving at a conclusion from premises) or practical results (arriving at a decision or judgement). As Plato already wrote: if society were a ship, the philosopher would look like a “useless stargazer”, and Hannah Arendt stressed that thinking rather disrupts life, bringing everyday business to a standstill.

It is also a central theme in continental philosophy that thinking has a method and conceptuality of its own – one that can neither be reduced to the methods of the sciences nor to everyday cognitive procedures. Thus, we find thinking distinguished from, among other things: the having of beliefs, opinions, representations, mental content or knowledge; the deployment of logic or argumentation; an instrument for problem-solving; a procedure to arrive at certainty.

In this course, drawing on philosophical as well as literary texts, we study different such conceptions of thinking in order to ask: in what sense is thinking incomparable to both everyday and scientific procedures? And if this is so, how (if at all) can we conceive of the importance of thinking given its apparent uselessness?

Heidegger rightly wrote that ‘we come to know what it means to think when we ourselves try to think’. This means that our investigation is necessarily performative: the texts we study do not just supply us with conceptions of thinking, but as texts they also exemplify (in their methods, style, composition) a mode of thinking. We will be studying the relations between these dimensions of form and content throughout.

We will devote a considerable amount of time to Heidegger, but will also be reading texts from Sextus Empiricus, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Adorno, Derrida, as well as from David Foster Wallace and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Topics we will discuss include: the relation of thinking to (un)certainty; Heidegger’s provocation that ‘science does not think’; thinking and conscience; whether one can have a responsibility to think; criteria for the method and quality of thinking; how thinking relates to reflection, knowledge or awareness; to what extent we can control our thinking; thinking’s relation to everyday life; the possibility to realize that ‘one has never really thought’; the futility of thinking.

Course objectives

This course aims to investigate the nature, different historical conceptions, and contemporary relevance of dialectics.
Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • different conceptions of the nature and (f)utility of thinking in the continental tradition;

  • the relation of thinking to knowledge, certainty, belief, reflection, awareness, conscience and life;

  • the relation of thinking to everyday and scientific cognitive procedures;

  • the relations between conceptions of thinking and their exemplification through method, style and form of the text.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • recognize the similarities, differences, values and limits of various accounts of the (f)utility of thinking in the continental tradition;

  • formulate an independent critical position with respect to the (f)utility of thinking;

  • present this knowledge in written form.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method


  • Mid-term take home exam

  • Final take home exam or paper


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of the two subtests:

  • Mid-term take home exam: 50%

  • Final take home exam or paper: 50%


Students qualify for a resit if they do not have a passing final grade but have fulfilled all (other) course requirements. The resit consists of one take-home exam covering all course content. No separate resits will be offered for subtests. The mark for the resit will replace all previously earned marks for subtests.
Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • Relevant course literature will be made available online.


Enrolment through uSis for this course is not possible. Students are requested to submit their preferences for the third-year electives by means of an online registration form. They will receive the instruction and online registration form by email (uMail account); in June for courses scheduled in semester 1, and in December for courses scheduled in semester 2. Registration in uSis will be taken care of by the Education Administration Office.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the information bar at the right hand side of the page.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc., contact the Education Administration Office Huizinga


Not applicable.