The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a major figure in the history of ideas in the twentieth century. However, the field of philosophy does not pay him much mind these days. His inspirations Heidegger and Nietzsche receive plenty of attention, as do other French thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, and many others.
But poor Sartre has been, well, binned. In my undergraduate classes, we still read (out loud) Sartre’s famous lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. Naturally, Sartre’s major work Being and Nothingness would be a bit much for undergrad students (weighing in at 800 pages); the purpose of Existentialism is a Humanism after all is to provide a primer.
He gave the talk at the Club Maintenant in Paris just after World War II in autumn 1945. It makes for fun reading, and I feel it offers a worthwhile meditation on moral philosophy. I fear it has been consigned to undergraduate classes, where the occasional student will fall in love with existentialism and openly and proudly declare “I’m an existentialist!” It happens. And it’s a joy to watch. I always think to myself, “Is that what I sounded like in 1991?” Maybe.
So, in this brief essay, I am providing a primer on a primer. I hope students and general readers who are curious will find it useful.
Sartre’s discourse Existentialism is a Humanism can be broken down into five concepts:
- Existence precedes essence
- Bad Faith
Your ad-blocker ate the form? Just click here to subscribe!
Existence precedes essence
The first can be considered one of the key concepts in Sartre’s existentialism. He is saying that humans — individuals and the species — begin life as nothing. They begin as things. Unlike his example of a paperknife. When one designs and then manufactures something like a paperknife or a table or a house, that particular object begins as an idea. One does not just make a table. One has to know what the table will be made of, how big it’s going to be, what it will be used for, etc. In other words, there has to be a plan. For humans, there is no plan. There is no God; Sartre takes an atheistic position. This, he maintains, removes from consideration any possibility of humans referring to a preordained essence or nature. In other words, we cannot use God as an excuse. Also, no one is watching. Humans are on their own, and what we make of the world is completely due to our agency. Humanity (and you) are on their own. For you: existence precedes essence; for the table: essence precedes existence.
Because existence precedes essence and we start as nothing, we can establish our essence any way we see fit — we will whether we want to or not. We are absolutely free. Sartre famously says we are “condemned to freedom.” The slate is blank, and the sky is the limit. Humans can be whatever they decide to be. Does humanity want to be defined by lying and violence? Does humanity want to be defined by cooperation and virtue? We choose. And that’s just it: choice. We, for Sartre, generate value through choice. It’s what we do that matters, not our hopes and dreams. Existence precedes essence, and this brings to bear radical and absolute freedom. It’s important to bear in mind that we will choose. We will establish an essence. The issue is not we should, or can, do this or that. The issue is we are absolutely free, so we are destined to establish some kind of essence. No matter what we do or do not do, those decisions and choices will go into the essence — again, for humanity and ourselves. There is no getting out of it or going around it. You are here; you will do something — you cannot do nothing — and whatever you do will be a choice. So you are condemned to choose. You will choose. It’s a guarantee.
Freedom comes with some baggage. Due to being radically free, we are absolutely responsible for the essence we create. Sartre is not saying we have a duty to do this or that; he’s not saying we must establish a particular essence. This is not responsibility, like, “You have a duty to keep your room clean and keep an eye on your little sister.” Sartre is talking about the responsibility as in liability. You own your choices. You are the author of your choices; your name is on them. And this responsibility is as absolute as the freedom that created it. And Sartre is keen to point out that this terrifies people. And this is why he maintains that people fear freedom. They want nothing to do with it and are very quick to get rid of it (see point 5). Because this freedom — to which we are condemned — comes with responsibility. I write a blog and hit my readers with responsibility all the time; the country is in the state that it is in because of how we vote — or don’t vote.
Congress is our fault. And some of my readers do not like this. And when they let me know it, ol' Jean-Paul comes to mind. He is absolutely correct. The thought of being responsible makes folks immediately itchy and uncomfortable. It’s too close to home. Many people prefer to look at things from a distance; they don’t want their hands dirty; “I participate in racism?? I’m a good person!!” Well, you’re a member of this society and culture. Racism did not fall from the sky. Whose fault could it be then? This does not make you a member of the Klan or a neo-Nazi, but you are still connected. Sartre is right. People, in general, want nothing to do with this kind of thinking. “I’m a good person.” Yes, everyone thinks that about themselves. It’s a nice thought to have.
Hobbes’s conception of humankind in a state of nature begins with the idea that everyone is more or less equal and free.
This responsibility is a heavy load. We are creating our own essences while at the same time we are contributing to humanity’s essence. We alone get a say in what it means to be a human being. There’s a lot riding on our choices. And because of this, we will experience anguish. We just will. It is part of the human condition. All that responsibility is going to freak us out a bit. It’s not pleasant, but being absolutely free comes at a cost. The cost is anguish. You pay to play. And this is what I am getting at in point 3. This is the part of freedom and its attendant responsibility folks do not like: the anguish of being a fully human, responsible, three-dimensional person. This anguish is the cost of being connected to the world. If we acknowledge and accept the responsibility of being a person-in-full, we are going to experience anguish. Why would we not? There is a lot riding on everything you do; you are choosing for all humankind; you are living as an example. We are to live our lives as though everyone might live their lives that way. So, we do find a grain of Kant in Sartre. The question of “What if everyone did what I am doing?” arises. If you are a living example, then you are in a sense on stage for all the world the see. The choices and actions attributable to you will reverberate forever. This is a tremendous burden, which produces tremendous anguish. Welcome to the club.
Now, some will try to opt out. Some will run and attempt to bury their heads in the sand. They will do whatever they can to get rid of freedom and responsibility because they want nothing to do with this anguish business. These people, Sartre maintains, are in bad faith, or in the French: mauvaise foi. They are trying to get rid of freedom, which scares them to death. However, you can run but you can’t hide. You are free, period. So, you can choose to adopt a life of bad faith. But guess what? It’s a choice that contributes to humanity’s (and your) essence. These poor souls have reified themselves. They have turned themselves into things. (Because things are not free.) They have adopted personae; they have taken on roles or characters. For example, the blowhard know-it-all who is convinced he’s the smartest person in the room. He’s playing a character. This fellow is terrified of being a full, responsible human being. He is afraid of being connected to the world; it’s too painful for him. He talks tough, but he’s weak and a coward. He is in bad faith. He rejects his freedom — and the responsibility and anguish that come with it. Once one becomes alert to Sartre’s bad faith concept, one begins to see it everywhere. You start to see it in people’s behavior. The “I’m a good person” mantra is such an example. The person is hiding behind this assumed shield to protect themselves from responsibility. “I could not possibly be connected to the country’s problems. By definition. The country is screwed up and it has nothing to do with me.” This person has detached himself or herself from the world. They are now an island of virtue. They have become the “good person.” This is a static concept. The good person is not a person at all. They are now a thing. A good person. And the good person cannot be guilty or at fault for anything. They are like a rock or a piece of furniture. There it is; it cannot be anything else. One cannot have expectations of a rock or a chair — and likewise, a rock or a chair cannot disappoint. This person’s thinking — if that’s the word — is frozen. This person is in bad faith. And my personal observation, one I’m quite sure Sartre would be on board with, the longer one lives in bad faith, the harder it is to extricate oneself from it.
◊ ◊ ◊
Gregory Harms is the author of No Politics, No Religion? How America's Code of Conduct Conceals Our Unity.
Amazon affiliate link. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
Gregory Harms on Daily Philosophy:
Cover image: Canva stock image.