Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism | Summary



Sartre begins his essay by stating its purpose: "to defend existentialism against some charges that have been brought against it." Specifically, existentialism has been blamed for encouraging people to remain in a state of "quietism and despair" because it views all action as futile. The philosophical system has also been charged with focusing on the negative, presenting nothing uplifting about the human experience. Finally, Catholics criticize existentialists for "denying the reality and validity of the human enterprise" by ignoring God's commandments and his influence over determining human morality.

Sartre objects to such popularized views of existentialism, claiming that they have transformed a doctrine "strictly intended for specialists and philosophers" into the latest buzzword, which has become so "loosely applied to so many things that it has come to mean nothing at all." Although he acknowledges that understanding existentialism can be complicated by the fact that there are both Christian and atheistic existentialists, he says that the philosophy can be easily defined.

Existence Precedes Essence

The main tenet of both Christian and atheistic existentialists is their belief that existence precedes essence. In order to explain this concept, Sartre uses the analogy of a paper knife. To create a knife the craftsperson must have a definite idea of its purpose and design; for instance, it has to have a blade that will cut and a handle that someone can hold. The maker has a concept of the knife's essence before the knife exists.

Sartre explains that most major philosophers up to this point have viewed God as the ultimate craftsman and feel that he created man from a specific essence called human nature. "Thus," he writes, "the concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer." Not even 18th-century atheistic philosophers, who "suppressed" the idea of God, were able to do away with this notion that a definite idea of man's essence precedes human existence.

But if God does not exist, human beings exist before they can be defined; "man first exists: he materializes ..., encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself." It follows that there is no human nature because there is no supreme being to decide how human beings should behave or act. The first principle of existentialism is the idea that "man is nothing other than what he makes of himself."

According to Sartre, people project themselves into the future with a conscious awareness of doing so, and only when they act according to their concept of themselves (their essence) have they accepted responsibility for their lives. Responsibility is another important tenet of existentialism. It is not enough to think about what to do. People must follow through and accept responsibility for their lives. Moreover, in doing so, Sartre believes that each person is responsible for society as a whole. In other words, because each individual's decision affects the whole of society, people cannot help but make a conscious decision—one that, it is hoped, will lead to the betterment of society as a whole.

Anguish and Abandonment

For Sartre these two terms have technical meanings that are different from the standard dictionary definitions. They describe the process by which a person comes to understand his unique position in a world without God.

Anguish is what people feel when they realize the weight of responsibility they have for determining not only their own fate but that of society as a whole. Sartre explains that, while some people may shrug their shoulders and act as though their actions affect no one but themselves, they are simply lying to themselves and struggling with a bad conscience.

Sartre then evokes an example about which Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote extensively: the Biblical story of Abraham. In the Bible an angel appears and commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham's anguish manifests as a profound doubt: If the angel is an angel, then he must sacrifice his son for God's sake. But what if the angel is not an angel? What if it is a hallucination or the manifestation of a pathological condition? Individuals feel the same anguish when they contemplate their responsibility to take action. "What proof is there that I am the proper person to impose my conception of man on humanity?" Existential anguish does not prevent people from acting but is "a condition of action itself."

Abandonment is the feeling people have when they realize that God does not exist, and they "must bear the full consequences of that assertion." Unlike some secular moralists, Sartre does not believe that the concept of God can be "eliminated ... as painlessly as possible." Rather, existentialists "find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists" and that there can no longer be any a priori (knowledge without individual experience) good. It means, as the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, "If God does not exist, everything is permissible." That is the starting point of existentialism, this state of radical freedom. The freedom is so absolute that Sartre says people are "condemned to be free." Abandonment stems from the sense of profound loneliness a person feels when faced with the choice of how to act in a world without guidance.

To further illustrate the concept of abandonment, Sartre uses the example of a former student who was forced to choose between avenging his brother's death by Germans in World War II and remaining home with his mother, who depends on him. He points out that no established moral order could help this student decide which was more important because neither choice was ostensibly wrong or without value. The student was forced to make his own choice, according to his own values; because he was free, he had to "invent" his course of action.

To live according to one's own values is to live an authentic life, but a person does so with a profound sense of abandonment, acting "without hope," because there are no outward signs pointing to the right action. Even if people feel they have received an external sign, they are the ones who attach significance to it; signs have no preconceived meaning and are significant only insofar as the individual interprets them to further his or her actions.

The Project

In the absence of God, people must determine their own paths and act in accordance with their values. The conscientious decision to follow a single course is what Sartre defines as a project.

"Man is nothing more than his own project," he writes. "He is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life." Although each person may have within them the capacity to write a novel, find the cure for cancer, or perform a heroic deed, individuals do not exist except for their concrete actions in the world: "Dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream."

For Sartre a person who fails to act in accordance with his or her project is both a moral coward and living in bad faith. He cites the deterministic novels of Émile Zola, which pit individuals against the harsh forces of society and nature; heredity and environmental influences become the reason they fail to act. Sartre points out that many people become relieved when they have an excuse for failing because they have found a way to avoid responsibility. But for the existentialist there is no excuse, not even a temperamental one: "the coward is responsible for his own cowardice."

Because human beings have no essential nature—a person is not born a coward any more than he is born a hero—a cowardly person may at any time become heroic through his or her actions. The important thing is total commitment to one's project.

Understanding that circumstances are always changing, Sartre does not insist that the project remain fixed and static. "A certain project" does not define "man forever"; it can be "reinvented again and again." In this way society, which depends on the intersubjectivity of individuals engaged in similar projects, can evolve toward the greater good in a state of "perpetual construction."

Moral Choice and the Human Condition

Because there is no God, there is no set of guidelines for human beings to follow, no essential concept of man, and, therefore, no human nature. Instead, human beings share a human condition, by which Sartre means the circumstances of each person's birth. These are a priori conditions that limit and define each person's "situation in the universe."

However, Sartre makes clear that the divide between people in different cultures is not so great that their conscious actions would be incomprehensible: "There is universality in every project, inasmuch as any man is capable of understanding any human project." The "fundamental aim" of existentialism is to "reveal the link between the absolute character of the free commitment ... and the relativity of the cultural ensemble that may result from such a choice." A simpler way of putting this concept: Sartre acknowledges how each person is to some extent defined and limited by the circumstances of his or her life. At the same time individuals are absolutely free to act.

Sartre's way of reconciling the limitations on freedom that result from a particular culture or situation is to argue that people do not need to stick to a single project; no project "defines man forever." Instead, projects can be "reinvented again and again." Thus, Sartre concludes that "human universality exists, but it is not a given; it is in perpetual construction." He goes on to argue that, through their own conscious actions, humans "construct" universality by understanding the projects of other individuals, regardless of when or where they lived.

This part of the essay is admittedly difficult to understand. Sartre appears to be saying that existentialists have the capacity to change culture in slow increments by consistently committing to positive, humanistic activity, even if they have to alter the course of their activity due to circumstances beyond their control. At the same time the impulse toward living authentically and valuing human dignity can be recognized across all human experiences and situations in spite of cultural differences.

Sartre admits that commitment to a project is a "moral choice." Attempting to answer his critics, who accuse him of being arbitrary and anarchistic, he writes, "man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind." All action affects others; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Thus, while the existentialist "must choose without reference to any preestablished values," he is not choosing whimsically but for the good of society as a whole.

By way of analogy Sartre likens this exercise of moral choice, which would appear to be happening in a vacuum—since there are no guidelines for individuals to follow—to that of an artist making a painting. "Moral choice," he writes, "is like constructing a work of art." Sartre points out that no one has ever blamed the artist "for not following the rules of painting established a priori"; "there are no aesthetic values a priori, but there are values that will subsequently be reflected in the coherence of the painting." Just as no one can judge a painting until it is finished, so should people hold off on judging human morality, which is continuously under construction.

Bad Faith and the "Cult of Humanity"

Sartre concludes his essay with a more broadly impassioned ethical appeal, focusing on existentialism's capacity for individual and cultural transformation. First, however, he discusses the individual's obligation to act consciously or be judged as living in bad faith. Sartre writes that "any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory is operating in bad faith." If a man chooses bad faith, Sartre calls his decision "an error," adding that "we cannot avoid making a judgment of truth."

Bad faith is a lie, Sartre believes, because "it is a dissimulation of man's full freedom of commitment." Only "a strictly consistent attitude" constitutes good faith; everything else is either a fear of the responsibility associated with radical freedom or a grandiose illusion. The goal of existentialism is to lead an authentic life.

Finally, he addresses his conception of humanism, arguing that there are, in fact, two definitions. The first is the act of assigning "a value to man based on the admirable deeds of certain men." In other words, because of some human achievements, humanists conclude that humanity as a whole is "amazing." This way of thinking can lead to what Sartre calls a "cult of humanity," in which humanity itself becomes something that people are supposed to revere and worship, much in the same way that they had worshipped God. This type of humanism leads to insularity and provides people with another essentialism, or belief in innate validity.

The other type of humanism, which Sartre terms existential humanism, is a view of man as a transcendent being who is "always outside of himself." "In projecting and losing himself beyond himself," Sartre argues, "man is realized"; in "pursuing transcendent goals ... he is able to exist." In other words, because people are never finished with their human project, because they posit their conscious choice into a situation with unknown others who might affect the outcome of that choice and force it to develop in a new direction, they transcend themselves. This transcendence is existential humanism.

Existentialism is not concerned with discovering, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether God exists. Even if he does exist, according to the text, "it would make no difference." The "real problem" is not whether God exists, but that man must "rediscover himself" and "comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God." Existentialism is optimistic, Sartre concludes, because it is "a doctrine of action."


A Conscious Decision

In order to understand Sartre's definition of existentialism, it is necessary to realize the importance he places on several key terms. One of these is the word conscious. Sartre's use of this word is heavily influenced by his reading of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, whose work he encountered while doing postgraduate research in Germany. Phenomenology is the study of how human beings experience external reality from a first-person (presumably singular) perspective. How people react to sensory stimuli is one aspect of the discipline, but traditionally phenomenologists have also focused on human awareness of the self, objects, and others.

For Sartre self-awareness, or consciousness, has implications for both individuals and the world around them. To be aware is to accept responsibility, and to accept responsibility is to choose actions that benefit humankind. Awareness implies an understanding of how human beings are interconnected. An existentialist would not poison the ground water with toxic chemicals, even if it were permissible to do so, for instance, because environmental destruction is at odds with the survival of human beings and, therefore, the betterment of society.

The question becomes more difficult when an individual is faced with two choices that are ostensibly good, such as the example Sartre gives about a student who must choose whether to enter the army or remain at home with his mother. In a case such as this Sartre urges people to invent themselves—make a choice based on their values—rather than to seek counsel from others, who will give advice based on their experience or affiliations. "Whenever a man chooses his commitment ... in a sincere and lucid way," Sartre remarks, "it is impossible for him to prefer another."

Thus, Sartre places a lot of faith in people's ability to create not only meaningful lives but lives that benefit humanity—if only they accept responsibility for their actions. His optimism about human potential is what most clearly aligns him with other humanists, who, like Sartre, advocate for human dignity and social advancement.

Bad Faith or the Authentic Life

The part of Sartre's argument most accessible to the common reader is his notion that society is, in many ways, false. People hide behind rationalizations and excuses; they blame others when the truth is they are simply not brave enough to stand by their convictions.

Although he does not discuss authenticity at great length in "Existentialism Is a Humanism," the quest to live an authentic life is paramount to his notion of existentialism. Authenticity is the state of living according to one's values and accepting responsibility for one's life.

Bad faith, on the other hand, is hiding behind society and adopting its guidelines, morals, and precepts without question. "If we define a man's situation as one of free choice," Sartre writes, "then any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith."

People might also be said to be in bad faith if they understand the nature of their responsibility but choose not to act. Sartre condemns inaction several times in "Existentialism Is a Humanism." He goes so far as to assert that people only exist in their actions, that "dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations."

The Question of God

Near the conclusion of the essay Sartre writes "even if God were to exist, it would make no difference." This may seem like a puzzling assertion, given that Sartre is a committed atheist. But in fact it is the crux of the matter. For Sartre "God" has meaning beyond the spiritual. God represents the foundational belief systems that people adopt without question, repudiating their freedom and abdicating responsibility for their lives. Sartre goes on: "It is not that [existentialists] believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence." The real problem is that man needs to "rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God."

Inevitably, Sartre sees God as a construct that stands between human beings and their potential. It is important to keep this in mind when reading the essay rather than becoming stuck in reaction to Sartre's atheism itself. Sartre equally condemns what he calls "the cult of humanity," or a self-congratulatory worship of humanism. Belief in any system of authority that draws its strength from positing an essential human nature leads individuals away from authenticity. For Sartre the problem is not God; the problem is hiding behind a system of belief instead of "constantly seeking a goal ... in the form of liberation, or some special achievement." In the final analysis people can believe in God and be an existentialist. But they must seek their own answers and truths.

Limitations of Sartre's Argument

Sartre is effective when he defines existentialism as a discrete philosophy with its own terminology, and he does a fair job of refuting critics who argue that existentialism only encourages quietism by showing that the philosophy's central goal is to encourage conscious action. He is less effective when he attempts to address the Marxist critique that existentialism is merely contemplative and subjective. In order to refute this claim Sartre posits that a conscious choice can never be "evil" and that human beings, as a collective, will "always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all."

This is a dubious assertion at best. In fact, common sense dictates that some things, such as great wealth, are very good for the individuals who possess it, and not so good for everyone else. Moreover, it is not impossible that someone who believes he is acting toward the common good is actually doing something reprehensible. Sartre's assumption that conscious action must be moral action puts him on shaky ground and is even paradoxical: if all human beings will act for the common good once they accept responsibility for their freedom, then it would seem that there is a universal human nature, something Sartre argues strongly against.

He encounters the same problem when he claims that "human universality" exists, even if it is "not a given" and "in perpetual construction." If there is human universality, how is there not a human nature?

In the final analysis Sartre cannot banish an a priori nature, or essence, for human beings while at the same time insisting, as he does, that human beings from different circumstances and living in different parts of the world would consciously choose to improve society. His argument would be more consistent if he held that individuals are free to choose and may choose badly—i.e., against the welfare and dignity of others. As it is, his attempt to show how consciousness and responsibility bring people together in positive action reads more as an appeal to his Marxist critics than it does as a consistent analysis of existentialism. Indeed, Sartre was to move away from the existentialism of his early writings and become more firmly Marxist in works such as Critique of a Dialectical Reason (1960). In "Existentialism Is a Humanism" he may have been struggling to find a way to reconcile the solitary nature of philosophic contemplation with what he viewed as the need for public intellectuals to engage in political activism.

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