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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

Was Existentialism a Humanism?

Gerald Jones examines one of the most famous lectures in the history of philosophy.

“If I choose to kill Brisseau, I am defining myself as a murderer... By choosing my action, I choose it for all mankind. But what happens if everyone in the world behaved like me and came here and shot Brisseau? What a mess! Not to mention the commotion from the doorbell ringing all night. And of course we’d need valet parking. Ah…how the mind boggles when it turns to ethical considerations!”
Woody Allen, ‘The Condemned’

In the autumn of 1945 Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture at a club in Paris entitled ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. It was a lecture that propelled Sartre into the philosophical stratosphere: he became a celebrity overnight, and an intellectual icon whose funeral in 1980 was attended by 50,000 mourners. Sartre ignited hearts and minds in a way dreamt of only by princesses and pop stars.

Sartre’s lecture was eventually published as a short book, whose English edition was poorly titled Existentialism and Humanism. Although Sartre later renounced the lecture its publication became the bible of existentialism, selling in its hundreds of thousands. The lecture vividly reveals the conceptual struggle that Sartre was to have throughout his life and it was an explicit attempt to show how this conflict could be resolved. Namely, to show how existentialism, a philosophy of individual freedom, could be seen as a form of humanism, a philosophy that locates value in humanity.

For Sartre the success of this project depended on the success of a certain number of steps. He needed to explain what he meant by ‘humanism’ and how it differed from other less savoury forms of humanism. He wished to give a technical account of existentialism which distinguished it from just another trendy, but vacuous, lifestyle choice – black polo-necks, smooth jazz, random acts of personal expression (such as Audrey Hepburn’s crazzzzy freeform dance in the film Funny Face). Most importantly he wanted to show why his theory wasn’t a licence for a nihilistic free-for-all, but instead gave rise to a much more optimistic ‘existential humanism’.

This project seems to be fairly clear and straightforward, but unfortunately (for students accustomed to the lean prose of philosophers like A.J. Ayer) the lecture is neither of these things. Perhaps this is due to the awkward English translation; perhaps it was Sartre’s style – he once confessed to Simone de Beauvoir that his work was “not a masterpiece of planning, composition and clarity” (surely an understatement, as anyone will know who has tried to grasp the meaning of Sartre’s claim that “Slime is the revenge of the In-Itself”). Perhaps it was the lecture format – Sartre spoke from memory without any notes, and simplifies or abbreviates many of his ideas. In any case, the lecture is in turns aphoristic, meandering and pretentious. But it’s also gripping and inspiring and you can hear in Sartre’s voice a passion, a call for action, which is rare in Western philosophy.

“People. You must love people. People are admirable... I feel like vomiting.”
Sartre, Nausea.

So what does Sartre mean by ‘humanism’? Humanism is a term that alludes to a shift in our intellectual and moral focus – from God to human beings. Sartre deplores a certain type of humanism, one that sees all human beings as ‘magnificent’, as people who must be loved no matter what they may have done, simply because they are human. Sartre’s humanism recognises that there is nothing other than ‘the universe of human subjectivity’, that we all have the potential to invent ourselves and change our lives, and that although moral values are created by individuals we still have a responsibility to every other human being.

The accusation laid at Sartre’s feet by those familiar with his novels, short stories and earlier philosophy, is that existentialism is not a humanism: it is a pessimistic and rabidly individualistic philosophy which leads either to a concern only for oneself, or to an abandonment of social action – the ‘quietism of despair’.

Sartre lays out his philosophical stall by defining existentialism as the only theory which correctly positions our existence as prior to our essence. Such a philosophy begins with the individual: our subjectivity, our consciousness, and our existence in the world. By starting here it is clear to Sartre that we experience a radical freedom in a way that other objects (knives, cauliflowers and of course slime) do not. Sartre’s account of freedom is filtered through an emotional prism. He speaks in detail of our anguish – fear of the responsibility that freedom brings; our abandonment – the loss of any firm rules and principles to guide us through life; and our despair – the frustrating realisation that our actions can make only a small difference, yet the only difference we can make is through action (no prayer or wish can change the world). Our goal is to live an authentic existence, a life that can contain these emotions without fleeing from the truth about our freedom. Those who do hide from the truth, who pretend to themselves that they have a predetermined essence or unchanging personality, are living in self-denial: the sad and contemptible state of being in ‘bad faith’.

Most significantly our radical freedom means that we are not bound by any a priori moral principles – we do not have to conform to the ethical principles that have been laid down in advance by society, religion or philosophy. In fact to live an authentic existence we must recognise that we invent moral values through our own actions. It seems only a short step from Sartre’s claim that ‘I create moral values’ to Dostoyevsky’s fear that “everything would be permitted, even cannibalism”. (When humanists say that we should ‘like and appreciate human beings’ they usually don’t mean this in a culinary sense.)

So our individual freedom is the main threat to existentialism’s credentials as a humanism. But Sartre believes that this freedom is the source of a new form of existential humanism, a ‘morality of freedom’ as he puts it.

“Obviously I do not mean that whenever I choose between a millefeuille* and a chocolate éclair, I choose in anguish.”
Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

How is an existentialist ethic, a morality of freedom, possible? The answer that first strikes us when reading Sartre’s lecture is the adoption of a kind of Kantian position: that when we choose we cannot help but universalise this choice, and wish for everyone to act like us. Our actions create an image of humanity as we’d like it to be. This carries with it a heavy burden of responsibility each time we make a choice (barring, apparently, those we make in pâtisseries). But even though Sartre isn’t taking a fully Kantian line (he is only saying that we universalise an image or an ideal, not a rule or a principle) the argument just doesn’t wash: it simply isn’t true that if I choose to get married I am “committing mankind as a whole to the practice of monogamy”. In fact I positively wish to live in a world where people do not act like me, and do not adopt my peculiar desires and predilections – most of us want to inhabit a world of variety not conformity.

However, there is another tack that Sartre takes in his lecture which is much more fruitful. This is the claim that freedom itself is the ideal that we wish to foist upon humanity, and that there is an interconnection or reciprocity between our freedom and the freedom of others (our ‘inter-subjectivity’).

So the real possibility of an existential humanism hinges on the idea of reciprocal freedom – that our freedom depends upon the freedom of others. This must have sounded odd to Sartre’s audience, as they would have been aware that in Being and Nothingness, as well as in his novels and plays, Sartre had detailed the hellish relationships that we have with other people. In our encounters with one another we fix each other with an essence, like the Medusa turning her victims into stone. We package, pigeon-hole and objectify other people, attempting to deny them their freedom (admittedly an impossible project) whilst at the same time we experience their denial of our freedom. This power struggle between us, with each treating the other as an object, determines all our relationships with other people. But in a footnote we find the tantalising suggestion that

“these considerations do not exclude the possibility of an ethics of deliverance and salvation. But this can be achieved only after a radical conversion which we cannot discuss here.”
Sartre, Being and Nothingness

In the years after the war Sartre (in his Notebooks on Ethics) explored the radical conversion that might be needed to construct an existential morality. But the 1945 lecture already contains in embryonic form the foundations for such an ethic: “I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as mine. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim.” But on what grounds can Sartre claim that my freedom is bound up with yours, that freedom is reciprocal?

Sartre could mean that I cannot authentically grasp my own freedom without acknowledging the freedom of other people. This is because my understanding of my own self and my own freedom is filtered through my understanding of other people. As Sartre says in his lecture “the other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself.” If I treat other people as objects (which is a form of bad faith), then I also begin to see myself primarily as an object in their eyes (also a form of bad faith). It is only by recognising their freedom that I am able to fully recognise my own, and hence live an authentic life that avoids bad faith.

Sartre could also be saying that I cannot consistently value my own freedom above the freedom of other people: they exist on an equal footing. To place a higher worth on my own freedom implies that I am intrinsically more valuable than other people. But to believe in intrinsic values, in other words values that exist independently of human creation, is bad faith: it is believing in a priori or objective morality. There is no reason we can find, within an existentialist position, to value our freedom but not everyone else’s. “The actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such.” So, to be consistent, and to be authentic, I must value the freedom of others equally to my own.

There is a third possible explanation for Sartre’s assertion that we must value the freedom of others: “once a man has seen that values depend upon himself he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values.” Sartre is clear that freedom underpins every choice we make, and so (as our values are nothing more than our choices) freedom underpins every value we create. So when I choose I am not only choosing a particular action, I am also willing the freedom which enables me to make that choice in the first place. We can add in here Sartre’s view that whatever I choose myself I am also choosing as an image or ideal for the whole of humanity. Therefore, whenever I make any free choice of my own I am also willing freedom for the whole of humanity; I am universalising freedom.

Unfortunately Sartre provided us with only a whiff of these positions. It is philosophers sympathetic to his cause who have pieced together these explanations for the bridge between the individualism of existentialism and the community of humanism.

Sartre concludes his lecture with a typically upbeat rant. He has defended his theory against his critics; he believes he has shown existentialism to be a philosophy of action not despair, a philosophy of optimism not pessimism, a philosophy of values not nihilism. Existentialism is a humanism “because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself must decide for himself; also because we show that it is by seeking an aim of liberation that man can realise himself as truly human.” A humanism indeed.

If it’s true that the freedom of each of us is bound up with the freedom of everyone else, then his optimism is well founded. But it’s a pity that Sartre’s original lecture, unlike Sartre himself, will always remain a couple of premises short of a sound argument.

© Gerald Jones 2005

Gerald Jones is Head of Humanities at the Mary Ward Centre, a DfES beacon college in central London. He is the co-author of several philosophy books, including Exploring Ethics and the Philosophy in Focus series, aimed at coaxing philosophy down from its ivory towers.

* A millefeuille is a block of pure pleasure, built from multiple layers of deliciously thin pastry, buttery cream and raspberry or strawberry jam. You can appreciate Sartre's dilemma here, as Parisian chocolate éclairs are the best in the world.

Further Reading
• Thomas C. Anderson Sartre’s Two Ethics, Open Court 1993 (Chap. 5)
• David Cooper, Existentialism Blackwell 2000 (Chap. 10)
• Jones, Cardinal & Hayward, Existentialism & Humanism: Jean-Paul Sartre Hodder Murray 2003 (Chapter 8)
• Mary Warnock, Existentialist Ethics MacMillan 1967 (Chap. 4)

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