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JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)
Existentialism is a Humanism (1945/6)


I) Charges Against Existentialism

1. Communists:
Existentialism is a bourgeois philosophy of desperate quietism and luxurious contemplation that considers effective action in this world to be impossible (p. 31).
2. Communists and Catholics:
Existentialism dwells on a one-sided, pessimistic, despairing, dark view of human nature that ignores human solidarity and advocates an atomistic, isolated form of individualism centered on pure subjectivity (pp. 31-2).
3. Christianity: Existentialism denies or trivializes human undertakings since it rejects transcendent standards without which man has no basis for willing, acting, and judging. As such, existentialism is a type of irrational voluntarism (pure caprice) and relativistic moral anarchy (p. 32).
4. Replies to Critics: (pp. 54-62)

II) Existentialism is a Humanism: Defining and Defending Existentialism

A. Types of Humanism

  • Christian, religious: a theory that interprets man as an end and a higher value (p. 60)
  • Modern, secular: a theory that interprets man as an end and a higher value (p. 60)
  • Existential (Sartre, Marcel, etc.): man as a responsible, free, self-transcending, temporal existence (ekstasis) not reducible to, or predetermined by, an essence [essentialism] (p. 61)

B. Sartre’s Atheistic Version of Existential Humanism

1. Definition of Existentialism

In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine that makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity. (p. 32)

Actually, it [existentialism] is the least scandalous, the most austere of doctrines. It is intended strictly for specialists and philosophers. Yet, it can be defined easily. What complicates matters is that there are two kinds of existentialism; first, those who are Christian, among whom I would include Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both Catholic; and on the other hand the atheistic existentialists among whom I class Heidegger, and then the French existentialists [presumably Camus, Merleau-Ponty, etc.] and myself. What they have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point. (p. 34)

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism…. [italics added] Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.” (p. 36)

The word subjectivism has two meanings, and our opponents play on the two. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, that an individual chooses and makes himself; and, on the other, that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity. The second of these is the essential meaning of existentialism [Italics added]. (p. 37)

Dostoyevsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to [transcendent, absolute grounds]. (p. 41)

Essence and existence as ontological categories referring to specific modes of being.

a) Essence
: “… essence—that is, the ensemble of both the production routines and the properties which enable it to be both produced and defined—precedes existence. Thus, the presence of the paper-cutter or book in front of me is determined. Therefore, we have here a technical view of the world whereby it be said that production precedes existence…. (p. 34)

Essence: fixed, pregiven, pre-established, predetermined, essential, necessary or involuntary nature

b) Essence Precedes Existence:

  • Manufactured object (paper-cutter): artisan, concept, production technique (pp. 34-5)
  • Technical view of the world: production precedes existence (p. 34)
  • Proportional analogy: an artisan is to a paper-cutter just as God is to man; the individual man as the realization of a certain concept in the divine mind (p. 35)
  • 18th-century atheistic philosophes (Diderot, Voltaire): essence still precedes existence
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): each man as an instantiation (existence) of the universal concept (essence)
  • Essence as being-in-itself (l’être-en-soi): coincidence with itself, existence predetermined by involuntary, fixed, pregiven, pre-established essence (essential nature),

3. Existence precedes essence: subjectivity as philosophical starting point (anti-essentialist subjectivism)

a) Atheistic Existentialism: If God does not exists, then there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence [hypothetical proposition] (p. 35).

b) Sartrean existence (being-for-itself = l’être-pour-soi) or Heideggerian Dasein (being-there, being-in-the-world) as preceding essence (pp. 35 ff.): non-coincidence with itself; self-surpassing or self-transcending (ekstasis) mode of being temporally oriented toward future projects (thrown project); one’s self as task and responsibility; freedom and consciousness, etc.

“Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” (p. 47)

What we mean is that a man is nothing else than a series of undertakings, that he is the sum, the organization, the ensemble of the relationships which make up these undertakings. (pp. 48-9)

  • Facticity: man exists, turns up, appears on the scene (being-there or being-in-situation before being defined by a concept, thrown into the world, the involuntary) (p. 35)
  • Freedom: man as initially nothing (not predefined, open to possibilities, only become “something” through a temporal process of free choices); self-definition as self-transcending, self-conscious, temporal project and process (p. 36)
  • Responsibility: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism…. Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.” (p. 36)
  • Subjectivism: 1) an individual chooses and makes himself; 2) the impossibility of man transcending human subjectivity—The second of these is the essential meaning of existentialism. [Italics added] (p. 37)
  • Existential traits of subjectivity: anguish before the deep responsibility of choosing oneself; denial, self-deception, hiding and fleeing from freedom, “bad faith” (pp. 38-40); forlornness in the face of the death of God and its consequences: loss of transcendent moral ground or a priori values; man is “condemned to be free,” student moral dilemma (pp. 40-5); and despair: self-confinement to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action possible (pp. 45 ff.)
  • Subjectivity as philosophical point of departure: 1) Absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself—I think; therefore, I exist. (Descartes’ famous formula) 2) Subjectivity as philosophical starting point (existentialism) is the only theory that a) does not a priori (i.e., essentialistically, in a predetermined manner) reduce man to an object (objectification into “an ensemble of determined reactions in no way distinguished from the ensemble of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table or a chair or a stone.”); and the only theory that b) accords man dignity as “an ensemble of values distinct from the material realm,” as a free, responsible, historical configuration or existence (pp. 50-1)
  • Intersubjectivity: “…the world in which man decides what he is and what others are.” (p. 52)