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A student’s guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism

Nigel Warburton gives a brief introduction to this classic text.

Existentialism and Humanism is probably the most widely read of all Sartre’s philosophical writings, and it is certainly one of his more accessible pieces; yet surprisingly little has been written about it. One explanation for this may be that Sartre himself came to regret the publication of the book and later repudiated parts of it. Nevertheless Existentialism and Humanism provides a good introduction to a number of key themes in his major work of the same period, Being and Nothingness, and to some of the fundamental questions about human existence which are the starting point for most people’s interest in philosophy at all.

It is common practice for teachers in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition to be scathing about Sartre’s philosophy, dismissing it as woolly, jargon-laden, derivative, wrong-headed and so on – in Bryan Magee’s recent TV series ‘The Great Philosophers’, for instance, Sartre’s philosophy was declared to be only of passing interest. But even where Sartre’s philosophy is obviously flawed, as it certainly is in Existentialism and Humanism, it can fire the imagination and offer genuine insight into the human condition.

My aim in this article is to give a straightforward introduction to the main themes of Existentialism and Humanism, pointing to its most obvious strengths and shortcomings.

Paris, 1945

Existentialism and Humanism was first presented as a public lecture at the Club Maintenant in Paris in October 1945. This was a time of great intellectual ferment and guarded optimism: Paris had been liberated from the Nazi Occupation and reprisals against collaborators were being meted out. There was a sense of the need for a reexamination of the previously unquestionedvfoundations of society and morality. People who would otherwise have led relatively uneventful lives had been forced to think about issues of integrity and betrayal in relation to the Occupation, the Resistance and the Vichy Government. The truth about the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau was emerging; the atom bomb had been dropped for the first time – evidence of the human capacity for evil and destruction was everywhere. Philosophical, and in particular moral, questions were no longer of merely academic interest.

The Title

Inexplicably, the declarative original French title of Sartre’s published lecture, L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme (Existentialism is a Humanism), was changed in translation to the milder conjunction Existentialism and Humanism, a title which hides the polemic nature of the lecture and obliterates the deliberate suggestion of incongruity in the French title: reviewers had attacked Sartre’s bleak novel Nausea for its allegedly anti-humanistic qualities, so to declare existentialism to be a humanism would have been thought deliberately provocative. In fact, to complicate matters further, Simone de Beauvoir refers to Sartre’s lecture as originally being entitled Is Existentialism a Humanism? – but any apparent uncertainty in this title was dropped when the lecture was published as L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme.

Existentialism

This lecture firmly linked Sartre’s name with the philosophical movement known as existentialism. Only months before he had refused to accept the label: “My philosophy is a philosophy of existence; I don’t even known what Existentialism is”, he protested. As Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s lifelong companion records in her diary, Force of Circumstance, neither she nor Sartre relished the term (which was probably first coined by Gabriel Marcel in 1943 when he used it speaking of Sartre), but decided to go along with it: “In the end, we took the epithet that everyone used for us and used it for our own purposes”. But what precisely is existentialism?

Sartre explicitly addressed this question in his lecture, describing existentialism as “the least scandalous and the most austere” (p.26) of teachings, and one only really intended for technicians and philosophers. He stated that the common denominator of the so called existentialists was their belief that for human beings “existence comes before essence” (p.26). What he meant by this was that, in contrast to a designed object such as a penknife – the blueprint and purpose of which pre-exist the actual physical thing – human beings have no pre-established purpose or nature, nor anything that we have to or ought to be. Sartre was an ardent atheist and so believed that there could be no Divine Artisan in whose mind our essential properties had been conceived. Nor did he believe there to be any other external source of values: unlike for example, Aristotle, Sartre did not believe in a common human nature which could be the source of morality. The basic given of the human predicament is that we are forced to choose what we will become, to define ourselves by our choice of action: all that is given is that we are, not what we are. Whilst a penknife’s essence is pre-defined (it isn’t really a penknife if it hasn’t got a blade and won’t cut); human beings have no essence to begin with:

… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself (p.28).

So for the penknife essence comes before existence; whereas for human beings the reverse is true – Sartre has nothing to say about the status of non-human animals in this scheme of things.

This emphasis on our freedom to choose what we are is characteristic of all existentialist thinkers. Although Sartre was himself an atheist, some existentialists, including Gabriel Marcel, have been Christians: following on from the work of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, they emphasise the need for doctrine to be derived from human experience and reject any appeal to eternal essence; they, like the atheist existentialists, believe that human beings are forced to create themselves.

Humanism

It is important to get clear what Sartre meant by humanism. Humanism is a very general term usually used to refer to any theory which puts human beings at the centre of things: so for instance, the humanism of the Renaissance was characterised by a movement away from metaphysical speculation about the nature of God to a concern with the works of humanity, especially in art and literature. Humanism has the positive connotation of being humane and is generally associated with an optimistic outlook. One version of humanism that Sartre rejects as absurd is the self-congratulatory revelling in the achievements of the human race (pp.54-5). The humanism that he endorses emphasises the dignity of human beings; it also stresses the centrality of human choice to the creation of all values. Sartre’s existentialism also captures the optimism usually associated with humanism: despite the absence of preestablished objective values we are entirely responsible for what we become, and this puts the future of humanity in our own hands: Sartre quotes Francis Ponge approvingly “Man is the future of man” (p.34).

Answering His Critics

Sartre’s expressed aim was to defend existentialism against a number of charges which had been made against it. Its critics saw existentialism as a philosophy which could only lead to a ‘quietism of despair’, in other words they thought it to be a philosophy of inaction, merely contemplative, one which would discourage people from committing themselves to any course of action. Others chided the existentialists for being overly pessimistic and for concentrating on all that is ignominious in the human condition – Sartre quotes a Catholic critic, Mlle Mercier, who accused him of forgetting how an infant smiles (p.23). This criticism gains some substance from the fact that in Being and Nothingness Sartre had declared that man was a useless passion and that all forms of sexual love were doomed to be either forms of masochism or sadism.

From another quarter came the criticism that because existentialism concentrates so much on the choices of the individual it ignores the solidarity of humankind, a criticism made by Marxists and Christians alike. Yet another line of criticism came from those who saw existentialism as licensing the most heinous crimes in the name of free existential choice. Since existentialists rejected the notion of God-given moral laws, it seemed to follow that “Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else” (p.24).

Sartre’s response to these criticisms centres on his analysis of the concepts of abandonment, anguish and despair. These words have specific meanings for him – he uses them as technical terms and their connotations are significantly different from those they have in ordinary usage. All three terms in everyday usage typically connote helplessness and suffering of various kinds; for Sartre, although they preserve some of these negative associations, they also have a positive and optimistic aspect, one which a superficial reading of the text might not reveal.

Abandonment

For Sartre ‘abandonment’ means specifically abandonment by God. This doesn’t imply that God as a metaphysical entity actually existed at some point, and went away: Sartre is echoing Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement: ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche did not mean that God had once been alive, but rather that the belief in God was no longer a tenable position in the late nineteenth century. By using the word ‘abandonment’ in a metaphorical way Sartre emphasises the sense of loss caused by the realisation that there is no God to warrant our moral choices, no divinity to give us guidelines as to how to achieve salvation. The choice of word stresses the solitary position of human beings alone in the universe with no external source of objective value.

The main consequence of abandonment is, as we have seen, the absence of any objective source of moral law: Sartre objected to the approach of some atheistic moralists who, recognising that God didn’t exist, simply clung to a secular version of Christian morality without its Guarantor. In order to meet the criticism that without God there can be no morality, Sartre develops his theory about the implications of freedom and the associated state of anguish.

Anguish

Sartre believes wholeheartedly in the freedom of the will: he is strongly anti-deterministic about human choice, seeing the claim that one is determined in one’s choices as a form of self-deception to which he gives the label ‘bad faith’, a notion that plays an important role in Being and Nothingness. Although he rejects the idea that human beings have any essence, he takes the essence of human beings to be that they are free when he declares: “man is free, man is freedom” (p. 34). The word ‘freedom’ would have had a particularly powerful appeal for people recently freed from the Nazi Occupation. ‘Freedom’ is a word with extremely positive associations – hence its frequent appropriation by politicians who redefine it to suit their own purposes. Yet Sartre states that we are “condemned to be free” (p. 34), a deliberate oxymoron bringing out what he believes to be the great weight of responsibility accompanying human freedom.

Recognition of the choices available to each of us entails recognition of our responsibility for what we do and are: “We are left alone without excuse” (p. 34). Sartre believes that we are responsible for everything that we really are. Obviously we cannot choose who our parents were, where we were born, whether we will die, and so on; but Sartre does go so far as to say that we are responsible for how we feel, that we choose our emotions, and that to deny this is bad faith.

In fact Sartre goes beyond even this. Not only am I responsible for everything that I am, but also when choosing any particular action I not only commit myself to it but am choosing as “a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind” (p. 30). So, to take an example Sartre uses, if I choose to marry and to have children I thereby commit not only myself but the whole of humankind to the practice of this form of monogamy. This is in many ways reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's concept of universalisability: the view that if something is morally right for one person to do, it must also be morally right for anyone in relevantly similar circumstances . Sartre labels the experience of this extended responsibility (which he takes to be an unavoidable aspect of the human condition) ‘anguish’, likening it to the feeling of responsibility experienced by a military leader whose decisions have possibly grave consequences for the soldiers under his command. Like Abraham whom God instructed to sacrifice his son, we are in a state of anguish performing actions, the outcome of which we cannot ascertain, with a great weight of responsibility: “Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly” (p. 32).

Despair

Despair, like abandonment and anguish, is an emotive term. Sartre means by it simply the existentialist’s attitude to the recalcitrance or obstinacy of the aspects of the world that are beyond our control (and in particular other people: in his play No Exit one of the characters declares “Hell is other people”). Whatever I desire to do, other people or external events may thwart. The attitude of despair is one of stoic indifference to the way things turn out: “When Descartes said ‘Conquer yourself rather than the world’, what he meant was, at bottom, the same – that we should act without hope” (p.39). We cannot rely on anything which is outside our control, but this does not mean we should abandon ourselves to inaction: on the contrary, Sartre argues that it should lead us to commit ourselves to a course of action since there is no reality except in action. As Sartre puts it: “The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust” (pp.41-2) – everyone is wholly defined by what they actually do rather than by what they might have done had circumstances been different. For Sartre there are no ‘mute inglorious Miltons’.

Sartre’s Pupil

Sartre gives a specific example to help explain the practical consequences of such theoretical concepts as abandonment. He tells the story of a pupil of his who was faced with a genuine moral dilemma: whether to stay in France to look after his mother who doted on him; or to set off to join the Free French in England to fight for the liberation of his country. He knew that his mother lived only for him and that every action he performed on her behalf would be sure of helping her to live; in contrast, his attempt to join the Free French would not necessarily be successful and his action might “vanish like water into sand” (p.35). He was forced to choose between filial loyalty and the preservation of his country.

Sartre first of all shows the poverty of traditional Christian and Kantian moral doctrines in dealing with such a dilemma. Christian doctrine would tell the youth to act with charity, love his neighbour and be prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. However this gives little help since he still would have to decide whether he owed more love to his mother or to his country. The Kantian ethic advises never to treat others as means to an end. But this gives no satisfactory solution:

“… if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means.” (p.36)

To recognise the lack of outside help is to appreciate the meaning of ‘abandonment’: like all of us, Sartre’s pupil is alone, forced to decide for himself. Sartre maintains that even if he were to ask for advice, the choice of advisor would itself be highly significant since he would know in advance the sort of advice different people would be likely to give. The pupil’s experience of responsibility for his own choice (and thus for his choice of an image of humankind) is existential ‘anguish’. To act without hope, relying only on what he had control over and accepting that his plans might not come to fruition, is to be in a state of existential ‘despair’.

Sartre’s advice to his pupil was in a way no more useful than the traditional moral doctrines:

“You are free, therefore choose - that is to say invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.” (p.38)

Yet, assuming the pupil accepted the advice, it would have made him realise that he was fully responsible for what he made of his life with no hard and fast guidelines to tell him what the right thing to do might be; abstract ethical theories are ultimately of little use when it comes to solving actual moral problems in one’s life.

Criticisms of Existentialism and Humanism

In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does not always provide arguments for his contentions. Much of the lecture is delivered in rhetorical and exaggerated terms. He does not for example defend but merely states his belief in the extent of human freedom. But, perhaps more damagingly, it is questionable whether he actually achieves his most important stated aim, namely to rebut the criticism that if there is no God then anything is permitted - or to put it in other words, he never demonstrates that his philosophy genuinely is a humanism, that it does not encourage the moral anarchy that some of his contemporaries believed it did.

Sartre would argue that the fact that existentialists actually increase the scope of responsibility beyond its usual domain, making each of us responsible for a whole image of humankind, puts it beyond criticism in this respect. However, his move from individual morality to responsibility for the whole species is at least contentious. This is how he puts it:

“To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better.” (p.29)

What he means here is that the fact that we choose any one course is evidence that we think it the best course of action, that that is the way that we show what we sincerely value in life. He goes on:

“…and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all” (p.29)

This is unclear. Why, because something is better for us should it be better for all? This seems to go against most people’s experience and the diversity of human taste. It is also self-contradictory because it assumes the human nature that elsewhere he is at such pains to say does not exist. On the basis of this unelaborated stipulation he continues:

If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image if valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. (p.29)

This is surely a sleight of hand. In one swift movement Sartre has moved from the individual choosing for him or herself to the whole of humankind in an entire epoch.This at least needs some kind of argument to support it. Particularly in view of the pivotal role it plays in his lecture. But even if we are to give Sartre the benefit of the doubt on this, does his universalisability manoeuvre really protect him from the charge that his philosophy would justify any behaviour whatsoever no matter how heinous?

Take the example of Adolf Hitler. Here was a man who believed wholeheartedly that what he was doing was not just right for him, but for humanity: his eugenics programme and his entire philosophy of racial superiority, hideous as it was, was no doubt delivered in good faith. Had Hitler been an existentialist he could have declared that his choices had been made in a world without pre-existing values and that they were not just binding on him but on the whole of humanity for the entire epoch. What is to stop existentialism justifying Hitler’s actions as examples of wilful self-creation of the type advocated by Sartre?

In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does argue that someone who genuinely chooses to be free (i.e. an existentialist) “cannot not will the freedom of others” (p.52). Quite clearly Hitler did not respect the freedom of people who disagreed with him or happened to be of the wrong race, so perhaps Sartre could answer the objection that his existential ethics could be used to justify the most horrendous crimes. But Sartre’s argument for the principle of respecting others’ freedom is sketchy. If we accept the principle, then existentialist ethics escapes the criticism. However there is no obvious reason why someone who believes that there are no preestablished values or guidelines should be prepared to accept such a principle: it seems to contradict the existentialist’s basic assertion that for human beings existence precedes essence.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws and obscurities, Existentialism and Humanism has tremendous appeal as impassioned rhetoric. It addresses the kind of questions that most of us hoped philosophy would answer and which contemporary analytic philosophy largely ignores. Perhaps its greatest strength is its concentration on freedom: most of us deceive ourselves most of the time about the extent to which our actions are constrained by factors beyond our control. Even though Sartre’s extreme position on freedom and responsibility is ultimately untenable, it serves to remind us that we can exert far greater control over our lives than we generally admit, and that most of our excuses are simply rationalisations.

© Nigel Warburton 1996

Further Reading
Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism and Humanism (London: Methuen 1973).
Annie Cohen-Solal Sartre: A Life (London: Heinemann 1988) is a fascinating biography.
Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness (London: Routledge 1969) is the classic existentialist text. Unfortunately it is extremely obscure in places. The best way to make sense of it is to use Joseph S. Catalono’s excellent A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (University of Chicago Press, 1974) as a guide to the main themes.

Nigel Warburton lectures at the Open University and has written Philosophy: the Basics and the forthcoming Thinking from A to Z. He has played rugby for Great Britain’s student side.

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