Existentialism is a Humanism

We discussed this on April 6.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness argued for a radical, absolute human freedom.  Unlike animals or rocks, humans have a distance from the world – our actions are not causally determined in any way.  There is nothing that governs our choices, no constraints on what we may or may not do.  Partly, this followed from his atheism.  In the absence of a creator which could provide or dictate what human nature is, what standards we must live up to or what goals we must work towards, all we have left is choice.  We choose everything we do, from our response to pain to our jobs.  This insistence on total freedom opened him up to charges of relativism from some, because he offered no standards of good and evil.  Others charged him with being a quietist, because it seemed he could offer nothing like political principles.  This essay was his attempt to defend himself against such criticisms.

Existence Precedes Essence

The basic tenet of existentialism is existence precedes essence.  Sartre thought the opposite was a basic axiom of previous philosophies.   Think of an artifact like a knife.  It was made by someone who had a conception of it; they made it according to a technique.  It was made in a certain way and for a certain purpose – so someone who does not know what a knife is for will not make one.  The essence of the knife, which is the sum of crafting techniques and qualities which make it possible, would precede its existence.

Or think of God the creator as a supernatural artisan.  When God creates, he knows precisely what he is creating.  So in God’s mind, there would be an idea of man in the same way there is an idea of the knife in the mind of the artisan.  Every individual person is the realization of an idea that already exists in the divine understanding.

Even in the basically atheistic philosophy of the 18th century, essence still preceded existence – man had a “human nature.”  Each man is a particular example of a universal conception.  Atheistic existentialism, on the other hand, says that if God does not exist, there is at least one being whose existence precedes its essence.  Sartre says,

“What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence?  We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.  If man as the existentialist sees himself is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing.  He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” (349)

There’s no human nature, because there’s no God to have a conception of it.  “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.”

Subjectivity and Responsibility

It’s very easy to say this is pure subjectivism, them: whatever someone chooses is good.  What Sartre is trying to get at, though, is the idea that man has greater dignity than a rock.  Choice is not about wishing.  The wish to write a book or get married or go to a party is always linked to some prior decision about the kind of person you want to be.  He says, “Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.” (350)

“Subjectivism” means two things, and critics only focus on one of them.  On one hand, it means the freedom of the individual subject.  The second, more important meaning is that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity – we have nothing other than our own consciousness to rely on.

Man is not only responsible for himself individually, but also responsible for all other men: “When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men.” (350)  To choose one thing over another is to affirm the value of that thing.  What we choose is better for us, and it can’t be better for us unless it is better for all.  So we have a great responsibility that involves all mankind.

Sartre’s example is a worker choosing between a Christian and a communist trade union.  If he chooses the Christian one, he will imply that “resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this Earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view.” (350)  It implies that this is his will for everyone.  Or, if I marry and have kids, I imply that I wish to commit everyone to this.  “I am thus responsible for him and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be.  In fashioning myself I fashion man.” (350)

Anguish, Abandonment, Despair

Existentialism says “man is in anguish.”  That means when you choose something, you’re choosing for everyone – and that can create an overwhelming sense of responsibility.  Many people don’t show this anxiety, but they are either disguising it or running from it.  If you do something, and then claim that not everyone will do it, you must have an uneasy conscience.

But we can never prove or know that our actions are the proper ones for everyone.  Even if I think an angel has spoken to me, “it is still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an angel.  If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad.” (351)  This sort of anguish doesn’t lead to quietism, it is the feeling of everyone who has every responsibility, for example, a military leader.  The feeling does not prevent action.

Abandonment just means that God does not exist, and we have to draw the consequences right down to the end.  Some secular moralisms say we lost nothing when God died, and others say that God is a useless and costly hypothesis and we can do without it – but an orderly society requires values, and so they try to show these values still exist without God.

The hope was that without God, we could re-discover the norms of honesty, progress and humanity.  The existentialist rejects that – there are no a priori, universal values.  “There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”  Existentialism’s starting point is Dostoevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

Man is without excuse.  We can’t explain our actions with reference to a human nature or a command of God.  No determinism.  Man is free – that is, man is freedom.  We are responsible for everything we do.  Grand passions do not sweep us along like fate – we are responsible for our passions.

Sartre gives an example from Nazi occupied France.  One of his students lived alone with his mother, but he wanted to leave to join the resistance.  He felt torn between two duties, one to his mother and one to his nation.   So how can he choose?  Help his community, or help his mother?  The student tried to decide which feeling was stronger, more authentic, but he couldn’t.  There’s no authentic impulse inside us which tells us what to do, and there’s no objective morality either.

The student wanted advice.  He could have gone to a priest – but some priests were collaborators, and some were in the resistance.  Assuming he knew which was which, the type of priest he went to would indicate which kind of advice he wanted.  Sartre just said he had to choose.

As for despair, “It merely means that we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible.” (357)  There are things we cannot do, just because they are impossible.  And we rely on certain probabilities, like our plane not crashing.  We can’t rely on anything that is not directly under our control – and we only control our actions.  Live without hope.  That’s despair.

The Sum of Our Actions

All of this leads to one rather obvious question: if there is nothing like objective morality and all we can do is choose, why not choose to do nothing?  To this, Sartre responds, “Quietism is the attitude of people who say, ‘let others do what I cannot do.’  The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action.”  Further: “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.” (358)

That can be scary – some people’s only comfort is the thought that they had no choices or opportunities:

“Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better than I have been.  I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is because I did not find the man I could have lived with.  So there remains within me a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.” (358)

But in reality, there is no love apart from the deeds of love.  There is no other genius than that expressed in works of art.  Man is only the set of his undertakings.  This is not pessimism, but stern optimism: no one is born a loser, nothing forces you to screw up.

Intersubjectivity and Judgements

He was also characterized as being a solipsist, with no interest in the existence of other people.  If the only thing that matters is one’s choices and one’s freedom, than other people can be taken or left at will.  He offers two responses for this.

First, he admits the point of departure is Descartes’ cogito: I think, therefore I am.  That one is thinking is the only sure way to begin; we have only our own consciousness to rely on, and anything else can be doubted.  He also thinks this starting point is the only way to ensure the dignity of man, because materialisms of all kind treat people as objects (idealism too?).

Second, to start from the cogito is to already be with others as intersubjectivity.  All my knowledge about myself is mediated through others.  My image of myself is filtered through how others see me, or more precisely, I don’t realize I am what I am until another sees me that way.  In Being and Nothingness, he uses the example of someone looking through a keyhole into a room; they here a sound down the hall, maybe a person, and suddenly they get a new perspective on themselves as a creeper.

He also gets attacked for having a purely aesthetic ethic, so of whatever feels good do it. But when an artist paints a picture, does he get in trouble for not following an a priori set of instructions on how to paint?  He says, “As everyone knows, there are no aesthetic values a priori, but there are values which will appear in due course in the coherence of the picture, in the relation between the will to create and the finished work.” (364)

We’re in the same creative position with respect to morality: “There is this in common between art and morality, that in both we have to do with creation and invention.  We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be done.  I think it was made sufficiently clear to you in the case of that student… he was obliged to invent the law for himself.” (364)

We can judge others.  One way – not of values, but of logic – that someone’s choice is founded upon an error.  We can say someone deceives themselves.  We can also many moral judgments, because freedom can have no other end or aim than itself.  It is the foundation of all values.  “We will freedom for freedom’s sake, in and through particular circumstances.” In willing freedom, we discover that our freedom depends on the freedom of others. “I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim.”  Those who hide from their freedom are cowards.


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