Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Franz Kafka: Literature and the Modern Human Condition


Born into a middle-class German-Jewish family in Prague of the early 20th century, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) experienced from an early age what the thinker Max Weber called “the disenchantment” brought about by modernity: the retreat of religion, all-encompassing materialism, the search for meaning in light of nationalism, and the unprecedented brutal warfare of World War I. Having studied law and dealt with the dangers of the modern workplace, Kafka furthermore developed a heightened sensitivity to the vulnerability of the human body and mind. 

What makes Kafka a giant of modern literature of thought is his ability to turn this background into stories one never forgets. Kafka’s art is sublime on its own, yet it is also crucial in any attempt to understand contemporary literature and the arts, and thus the modern human condition.

Reading Kafka’s masterpieces, we will discover him as a unique companion in our quest to make sense of who and what we are in our uniquely challenging era. Drawing on philosophy (Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt), we will ask questions such as: What is the meaning of life in a world in which, as Nietzsche claimed, ‘God is dead’? Do we, humans, have the ability to choose the course of our lives, or are we merely conditioned by nature, society, and technology? How should we best live our lives as individuals and as communities in light of modern science and its ever-increasing powers? What do we mean by the concept of ‘thinking’ as modernity tends to define human thought by tying it to logic, system, and utility? 

Meet the Instructor(s)

Amir Eshel

"I teach in Stanford's Department of German Studies and Department of Comparative Literature. My work touches on the human condition during the modern era, with special interest in the human ability to exercise freedom; and to meaningfully engage in politics and ethics."