Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism | Quotes

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1.

'Existentialism' is a doctrine that ... affirms that every truth and every action imply ... a human subjectivity.


Jean-Paul Sartre

A main purpose of the essay "Existentialism Is a Humanism" is to redeem existentialism from the Marxists' charge that it is self-indulgent—that is, that it cannot lead to positive action. Sartre's whole position is that each person, acting in good faith, must behave in order to benefit the future of all people. Thus, "subjectivity" is not selfish or isolating; it is instead merely the starting point for the social order.

2.

Each individual man is the realization of a certain concept within the divine intelligence.


Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre points out that most philosophy before the 20th century stems from the assumption that essence (the a priori idea or concept of something) precedes existence. In other words God has an idea of man before he creates him. Existentialists believe the opposite: man exists first and only then conceives of how to act. For the existentialist existence precedes essence.

3.

There is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it.


Jean-Paul Sartre

Here Sartre summarizes the position of the atheistic existentialist. Man cannot have a common way of thinking or behaving because there is no foundational being (i.e., God) to decide what man is like. Even if all people decide independently that killing is wrong, that belief would stem from subjective human experience, not a collective morality. For the existentialist there is no such thing as a collective morality.

4.

Man shall attain existence only when he is what he projects himself to be.


Jean-Paul Sartre

An important part of Sartre's theory of existentialism is the concept of action. A person who only thinks about taking action will not exist. Existence can only be measured by concrete action in the world.

5.

Man is responsible ... not ... only for his own individuality ... but [also] for all men.


Jean-Paul Sartre

This key point is another attempt to argue that, for the existentialist, the individual is not opposed to the collective. Sartre believes individuals who accept the terrible burden of freedom will inevitably take on responsibility for maintaining the social order and the betterment of human beings as a whole.

6.

In choosing myself, I choose man.


Jean-Paul Sartre

As an atheist Sartre believes that he has no need to act according to God's will or to fulfill God's plan for the human race. Instead, he is responsible for "fashioning a certain image of man" as he "chooses him to be." Choosing to value his own individuality, he has chosen to value the freedom of all people. Thus, choosing himself is, for Sartre, the same as choosing the entire community of human beings. He also believes that any person acting in good faith would choose actions that better humanity.

7.

What proof is there that I am the proper person to impose my conception of man on humanity?


Jean-Paul Sartre

In the absence of God human beings feel the anguish of not knowing whether their actions are correct. Despite this uncertainty, however, conscious action is all there is.

8.

God does not exist, and ... we must bear the full consequences of that assertion.


Jean-Paul Sartre

If God does not exist, there is no a priori conception of human nature. People simply exist and must invent themselves, bearing in mind their relation to others. This tremendous responsibility is what Sartre alludes to when he talks about "full consequences."

9.

Man is freedom.


Jean-Paul Sartre

People think of themselves as bound on many levels—to their family, to their society, to their possessions even. Instead, Sartre believes human beings are radically free: a state that produces anguish and feelings of abandonment but can lead to the invention of a self and, ultimately, to a society more just and humanistic.

10.

This is what 'abandonment' implies: it is we, ourselves, who decide who we are to be.


Jean-Paul Sartre

As an atheist Sartre did not believe that God ever existed; the term abandonment is metaphorical, describing an imagined loss. What Sartre means here is individuals must invent themselves because there is no essential nature to rely on.

11.

Quietism is the attitude of people who say: 'Others can do what I cannot do.'


Jean-Paul Sartre

The primary objective and motivation for writing "Existentialism Is a Humanism" is to "defend existentialism against some charges that have been brought against it." The charge that Sartre focuses on the most is the Marxist criticism that contemplative philosophy leads individuals away from action and diminishes their ability to join in solidarity.

Here, Sartre defines quietism, or the tendency to stand on the sidelines and avoid taking direct action, as a kind of bad faith. An existentialist must act, invent him- or herself, engage with others. He or she cannot act in good faith and be quietistic.

12.

Reality exists only in action.


Jean-Paul Sartre

According to Sartre, man does not exist until he invents himself through action. To simply think about acting is not enough. Interestingly, Sartre returned to this view more forcefully later in life, looking back on his early life spent immersed in literature and dismissing it as a substitution for real life.

13.

Although it is impossible to find ... a universal ... human nature, there is nonetheless a universal human condition.


Jean-Paul Sartre

To say that people have a human nature is to assume that they have an essential way of behaving, thinking, and acting. This is the primary concept that Sartre and other existentialists reject, positing instead that existence precedes essence. However, people do share a universal human condition; every person is born into a discrete situation.

14.

Human universality exists, but it is not a given; it is in perpetual construction.


Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre never explains why "human universality" is separate from "human nature." He does, however, take pains to demonstrate that people are continually acted upon by circumstances beyond their control, which limit their ability to do "whatever they like."

These circumstances of birth and situation create the need for flexibility in the construction of a project. For instance, if a renowned violinist loses an arm, he might alter his project from playing music to writing scores. Nevertheless, he is still actively engaged. A person might have to alter his or her project "again and again"; nevertheless the goals and commitment remain constant.

15.

Existentialism ... affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference.


Jean-Paul Sartre

For Sartre belief in a divine being means accepting that essence precedes existence. But God is only one way that people act in bad faith. Even humanism itself runs the risk of becoming a "cult of humanity," imposing guidelines for human action that encourage people to avoid taking conscious action. Even if God exists, man must still strive to live authentically, must still invent himself, must still commit to a project.

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