Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism | Context


World War II

In September 1939, German dictator Adolf Hitler's forces invaded Poland, sending shockwaves through western Europe. France and England responded immediately by declaring war against Germany, and until the defeat of Nazi forces in 1945, the continent of Europe was at the center of a war that left nearly 60 million soldiers and civilians dead worldwide. By June 1940 Paris had fallen to the Nazis. With French General Charles de Gaulle exiled to London, the country officially surrendered to the Germans on June 22, 1940, and hundreds of thousands of French citizens were forced into obligatory work service.

During the French Resistance, some French citizens felt betrayed by collaborators in the Vichy government, which was established by the Nazis in the wake of France's surrender. These resistance fighters worked to obtain intelligence documents and to disrupt communications and supplies. They were also instrumental in assisting the Allied Forces (the United Kingdom, France, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States) in the D-Day invasion in Normandy (June 6, 1944) where allied forces landed and began the liberation of Europe from Germany.

The impact of World War II on France was enormous. By the time the Allies invaded France in 1944, 400,000 buildings had been destroyed, and industrial and agricultural production were down to 40 percent of what they had been prior to the war. The disruption of the supply chain due to damage to the ports and railways meant that much of France experienced rationing until 1949. Much of the population was malnourished. Two thirds of the children suffered from rickets, a softening and weakening of the bones. The country was also demoralized by the experience of having watched collaborators with the Nazis carry out atrocities against French civilians.

Because Sartre delivered his lecture "Existentialism Is a Humanism" in October 1945, his words are not only an answer to critics of existentialism, but a rallying cry for principled action to rebuild a society devastated by war.

The Rise of Marxism, Communism, and the Bourgeoisie

With the publication of The Communist Manifesto (1848) Prussian philosopher Karl Marx and German philosopher Friedrich Engels launched what would be one of the largest economic and cultural movements of the modern era. The text opposed the treatment of workers during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, who were treated as mere cogs in a machine creating goods for the bourgeoisie, or upper middle class. Marx and Engels felt that once workers became aware of a communal class consciousness, they would unite and overthrow the oppressive forces of the landed class through a revolution. At that point a communist society—one in which the worker owned the means of production—would be established.

The Russian Revolution (1917) put Marx and Engels's theories to the test when the Bolsheviks, with their program of "peace, land, and bread" took power following the October Revolution (1917), unseating the provisional government put into place when Emperor of Russia Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne in February. The Bolshevik government, which enjoyed popular support from the people, handed over land to the former peasants, breaking up a centuries' old feudal system.

This rapid transformation of a society's power structure was intimidating to democratic societies such as that of the United States, where industry owners feared that their workers, who were organizing to demand better pay and working conditions, might next be caught up in the revolutionary fervor. Far from being an anarchic force, however, the communists were an inspiration to many throughout the industrialized world, particularly during the 1930s, when the decade-long economic slump known as the Great Depression (1929–39) caused widespread unrest and poverty throughout the United States and Europe.

First formed in 1920, the French Communist Party, disbanded at the onset of World War II, emerged as a powerful political force once the war was over. In 1945, the year Sartre delivered "Existentialism Is a Humanism," the Communist Party in France won roughly 25 percent of the vote and, for a brief time, played a role in mainstream French politics.

Addressing Marxist concerns in "Existentialism Is a Humanism," specifically the concern that existentialism would lead to quietism or the acceptance of things as they are, Sartre acknowledges the importance of Marxist ideology at a time when left-wing figures felt that a true economic and social transformation of society was possible. However, the Communist Party eventually lost popular support and became fractured by infighting. It was never to recapture the influence it had at the time of Sartre's lecture.

Phenomenology and Existentialism

Phenomenology and existentialism are two of the most important philosophical movements of the 20th century. Thanks to Sartre's having discovered the writings of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger on a research trip to Germany as a young man, he is associated with both movements.

Phenomenology studies the structures of human experience, examining human reactions to external sensory stimuli as well as the individual's relationship to the concept of self and other. Some phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl, concerned themselves primarily with understanding the development of human consciousness, hoping to find a way to bridge the gap between people's perceptions of what they see and the external object itself. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, rejected a focus on the human consciousness and focused instead on attempting to understand the structure of a person's everyday existence in the world, something he called the Dasein.

Although the term existentialist was first coined in the 20th century to describe the philosophical movement associated with Sartre and his companion, Simone de Beauvoir, existentialism began with French mathematician Blaise Pascal. Early existentialists, such as 19th-century theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, believed that life is absurd. Because people exist only later to die, it requires a "leap of faith" to find meaning, which, for Kierkegaard, involved an irrational commitment to God. Atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre, found meaning in other ways. All existentialists believe that existence precedes essence and that human beings must invent themselves—and in particular their values—rather than relying on a universal essence or human nature. For Sartre self-invention is not a kind of anarchy. Rather, he believed human beings have the responsibility to live consciously and engage with others in improving the world.

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