The existential legacy of Hazel Barnes

Published: Oct. 17, 2012

A rock star of philosophy in an era that defined the term, CU Professor Hazel Barnes’ teaching resonated with sixties culture and her expertise shaped the public discussion. Enthralling large audiences, she spoke of existential philosophy, and how the individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living life passionately and sincerely.

Barnes (1915-2008) was a professor, translator, philosopher and America’s preeminent Sartre scholar who coined the term “humanistic existentialism” to designate the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir and Albert Camus. She taught at the University for 35 years, forging interdisciplinary connections between philosophy, Greek literature and other areas of humanities. In 1979 she was the first woman named as a CU Distinguished Professor. Within a few years of her 1986 retirement the most prestigious faculty award on campus, the Hazel Barnes Prize, was established in her honor.

Such was her expertise and standing, she was tapped by WNET for the ten-part series Self Encounter: A Study in Existentialism in 1962. Written and hosted by Barnes, three of the television episodes were filmed by famed CU film artist Stan Brakhage. Evoking the mood of the era, Brakhage used CU Theater and Dance students to perform as a background. (in the background or as a background)

In celebration of the recent gift of manuscripts, scholarly works, correspondence, photos, videos and artifacts from the Barnes estate to the University Libraries Archives and Special Collections, the exhibit Hazel Barnes and the Existential Challenge in the 21st Century will be on display in Norlin Library through June 2014. A series of posters and collection items that put her work in the context of existential philosophy, the exhibit also features a biographical timeline and excerpts from her publications, as well as display cases containing key texts in existentialism.