Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism Is a Humanism is a philosophical treatise that attempts to define the field of Existentialism—the notion that the human subject, as opposed to the outside world, is the catalyst for philosophical contemplation. Published in 1946, Existentialism Is a Humanism was based on a lecture Sartre delivered in Paris the year before. The work is often viewed as the first clear-cut attempt to outline Existentialism as a philosophical worldview, whereas prior Existentialist thought had often appeared in the form of fictional narratives and philosophical novels.

The publication of Existentialism Is a Humanism was a monumental achievement for modern philosophy as it helped to bring Existentialist thought into the established philosophical tradition. It presented Existentialism in a way that could be taught in classes instead of merely alluded to through literature. Today Existentialism Is a Humanism is still used as a starting point for the study of the philosophical movement.

1. Sartre regretted publishing Existentialism Is a Humanism.

Despite his work's profound effect on modern philosophy, Sartre actually expressed regret about the publication of Existentialism Is a Humanism. Originally delivered as a lecture, Existentialism Is a Humanism appeared in print in 1946, and it was this publication that Sartre saw as a dark spot on his academic career. He believed that by publishing the work he was popularizing his ideas, and he feared that many of his theses would be misinterpreted by a general readership. He explained he'd had to "weaken" the philosophical language of the text for publication, and he also didn't enjoy being questioned about the text's philosophical principles by nonacademics, even if Existentialism Is a Humanism had the positive effect of making philosophy more accessible to readers. Sartre stated:

Sometimes, people who are not fully capable of understanding my theses come to ask questions. I therefore find myself with two solutions: refuse to answer or accept the discussion while knowing that there will be a degree of popularization.

2. Sartre was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature—but refused it.

Sartre made a bold statement when he was selected to receive the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature—he outright declined it. Sartre famously shunned any official distinctions or institutional acknowledgments of his work as he felt that awards and honors cheapened his writing. Sartre publicly declined the Nobel Prize for what he described as "personal reasons," and at that time he was the third recipient to have done so. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw declined the 1925 award, but he later changed his mind and accepted it, while Russian author Boris Pasternak first accepted the 1958 award before he changed his mind and refused it. Sartre, however, stuck to his initial refusal and adamantly rejected the honor.

3. Critics believe Existentialism Is a Humanism is falsely branded as the defining text of Existentialism.

Although Existentialism Is a Humanism is often credited as the defining text of the Existentialist tradition in philosophy, many critics believe this distinction is misattributed to Sartre's treatise. The critic Walter Kaufmann wrote that Existentialism Is a Humanism "has been widely mistaken for the definitive statement of existentialism." It was actually just a "brilliant lecture which bears the stamp of the moment." Many scholars look to Existentialist fiction, such as French writer and philosopher Albert Camus's 1942 novel The Stranger, as the defining and foundational works of Existentialism because they portray the subjectivity of the movement in narrative form.

4. Sartre once claimed he didn't know what Existentialism was.

Many philosophers considered to be Existentialists have shunned the term and rejected the description of their works as Existentialist. French writer and philosopher Albert Camus didn't like the Existentialist label applied to his novel The Stranger (1942), and Sartre—despite including the word Existentialism in his title—often shied away from the word as well. Due to the ambiguity of the field, Sartre once famously claimed, "Existentialism? I don't know what that is."

5. Sartre had an "open relationship" with another iconic 20th-century philosopher.

Sartre spent a great deal of time with French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the 1949 feminist treatise The Second Sex. The two began seeing each other in an "open relationship" in 1929, at a time when the very thought of a nonmonogamous union was taboo. The two never married or lived together and reportedly each saw other people. However, they remained extremely close for years, spending their days together and engaging in philosophical discourse. De Beauvoir once described their relationship, explaining:

The comradeship that welded our lives together made a superfluous mockery of any other bond we might have forged for ourselves.

6. Sartre misidentified another famous philosopher as a Catholic in Existentialism Is a Humanism.

One criticism often levied against Existentialism Is a Humanism is that Sartre got one key piece of information wrong—he misidentified the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers as Catholic. Sartre cited Jaspers's philosophy as an example of "Catholic existentialism," contrasting it with his own atheistic Existentialism. Jaspers, however, was not a professed Catholic, and he identified his philosophical thought with the German term Existenzphilosophie, meaning "philosophy of existence."

7. Sartre was captured by German troops during World War II.

Sartre was drafted into the French army in 1939 during World War II and forced to serve as a meteorologist during the conflict. Sartre was captured by German forces in 1940, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war before his release in 1941. Upon release he was given civilian status in German-occupied France, and he was able to teach at the Lycée Pasteur near Paris. Once Paris was liberated and the war ended, Sartre published a work titled Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), in which he attempted to philosophically grapple with the spread of Nazism and the atrocities he had witnessed across France.

8. Sartre's adopted daughter was also his former mistress.

In addition to his relationship with French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre had a mistress named Arlette Elkaim in his later years of life. When Sartre's health began failing, he took Elkaim as his adopted daughter (1965). Although many likely frowned on this odd relationship, Sartre's decision to adopt Elkaim enabled her to inherit his estate upon his death.

9. Sartre once met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro—and praised the controversial Communist Che Guevara.

Sartre had friendly relations with two controversial Latin American political figures: Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro and Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara. Sartre traveled to Cuba with French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in 1960 and met with both leaders. Sartre was reportedly somewhat intimidated by Castro, who spoke with him at length as he tried to get a broken ice machine to work. Sartre was, however, fascinated by Guevara, and he later said of the man:

You know how much I admire Che Guevara. In fact, I believe that the man was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age: as a fighter and as a man, as a theoretician who was able to further the cause of revolution by drawing his theories from his personal experience in battle.

10. Sartre was a notorious prankster in college.

During his youth Sartre was far from a serious, clear-headed intellectual. In fact he was one of the most infamous pranksters at his college. While studying at the École Normale in Paris, Sartre compensated for a lifetime of being bullied by pulling pranks. Following American aviator Charles Lindbergh's first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the pilot toured Europe as he was awarded various honors for his iconic journey. Sartre started a rumor on campus that Lindbergh was going to visit his school—a rumor even the headmasters believed. Sartre even went so far as to find a lookalike of Lindbergh and stage a mock ceremony, which drew media attention. Upon revelation of the hoax, Sartre's headmaster (whom he despised) was forced to resign for not having control over his own students.

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