Existentialism and Humanism- Jean-Paul Sartre

Before discussing the text, I want to give a little background about what existentialism is, and how it led to what Sartre believed. This will help us to understand the text far better. First of all, we will discuss Kierkegaard, who was possibly the most important name in the field of existentialist philosophy.

Kierkegaard took issue with the direction philosophy was traveling in. Anything analytical, for example, was at error. This wasn’t to say it was wrong, but it didn’t have any genuine consequence to us as humans living our lives. The problem was that philosophy had become theory about theory, rather than theory about life and events. He believed that philosophy should help you make decisions in life, and should therefore be relevant to everybody.

Your inner life is your true reality. Objectified knowledge is always at least one stage removed from your subjectivity, and therefore theory and objective facts of the world remove us from a philosophy of the ‘I’. The truth of the world, as in the world to me, is in my subjectivity. The difficulty of this is found in how we discover ourselves. The ‘I’ that is me cannot be conscious of its self in and of its self, it needs to be validated in a relational value to an ‘other’. That is to say, my subjectivity is a subjectivity when something gives it experience. But neither can my ‘I’ simply be validated as a relationship between myself and an ‘other’, for that doesn’t in itself necessitate self-consciousness. So, in order for the subjectivity of my ‘I’ to become, I have to relate, not to the object in which I am relating to, but to the relation between myself and the object. My ‘I’ is the relating to the relation between me and the object. In Kierkegaard’s own words-

Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.

In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul. If on the contrary the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self.

If this seems hard to grasp, I urge you to spend a little time working to understand it, it is fascinating.

Karl Jaspers took Kierkegaard’s notion of the subjective self, existing as a relational truth in relation to the objective world, and emphasised that to focus on the objective over the subjective is to remove one from the subjective further and further. In an age of industry, technological revolution and ideology, we move further and further into the objective, and lose the subjective. Jaspers was rather fatalistic about our hopes of returning to the subjective. This was the job of the existentialist philosopher, however. Martin Heidegger believed in an atheistic universe, and reduced us from extraneous theory and focused instead on the ‘subject’. Although we need to relativize ourselves as extant subjectivities to the extraneous world to validate our subjectivities, he emphasised that we should return to our subjective nature because there is nothing beyond man which can ‘solve’ man’s existence.

Another revolution was that of phenomenology. Phenomenology took to understand the world not through what we perceive, but through our perception its self. This means that the nature of our perception, (how, what and why) defines us, and therefore our experience of the world is as loaded with meaning as the thing we experience. The duck/rabbit picture


or the Maltese cross

maltese cross

are prime examples. They exist in the world as objective forms. However, my perception of one will not be the same as your perception of it. I may see a duck in the duck/rabbit picture, and you may see a rabbit first. There are certain reasons for this, which can be to do with what we have already experienced in the world, or what our personalities are actually like. The Maltese cross is interesting. Is it a black cross on a white background, or is it a white flower on a black background? Whichever one you see tells you a lot about your life and personality. A soldier would be more likely to see the cross, whilst a gardener would be more likely to see it as a flower. One further example was the dress which took the world by storm. Was it blue and black, or was it white and gold? Research found that people who wake up earlier in the day were more likely to perceive it as white and gold, whilst people who woke up later in the day perceived it as blue and black.

The point is that perception of the objective world isn’t completely a perception of the objective world because it is pre-determined by pre-existing modes of choice. Therefore, our objective experience of the world is partially subjective, and the line between subjective and objective are blurred. The corollary of this is that we do not have any direct experience of the world, but instead only have experience off our experience. This is problematic. All existentialists assert that humans have an unconscious anxiety because we have a need to affirm the existence of the self. However, we cannot know the world because the limit of our experience is in our phenomenology. Therefore, our self cannot be validated because we cannot get any further than our experience. The issue then manifests its self that one cannot know the truth of the ‘I’ because subjectivity is stuck in the experience of experience. Therefore, one fabricates a ‘true’ ‘I’ as a working model, but the truth is yet to be ascertained. Sartre was interested in answering the question of how one must live, in light of this heavy information.

The text

The first thing Sartre discusses is his belief that existence precedes essence. This is a famous aspect of Sartre’s philosophy. The resultant fact of this is that, if we agree with him, there is no such thing as human nature. Sartre says that if essence precedes existence, then design precedes essence. For example, a corkscrew was designed to open a wine bottle. The design and nature of the corkscrew were truths about the corkscrew before it was manufactured. However, if there is no God, as Sartre believed, then human nature was not designed. Therefore, essence doesn’t come before existence because we must design our essence. To say that existence precedes essence is to say that-

  1. We are born
  2. We encounter ourself
  3. We live our life
  4. We define ourselves through living our life
  5. Our essence is thus intrinsic to the ‘self’ we craft through life
  6. Man is a project which is subjective essence
  7. Each man or woman is thus their own personal project

The resultant conclusion Sartre draws from this is that man is free as far as one exists, however, one cannot get beyond the subjectivity of our own experience because we each are our own projects, each defining themselves as they live themselves.

Our life as is subjective is effectively life as objectivity. What we experience life to be has to be what life is to us. Therefore, what we decide to do in life is what we decide all people should do with their lives. This is because what we decide is applicable for our life has to consequently be what we decide is applicable for all life. As Sartre says, “in fashioning myself, I fashion Man”. Sartre thus takes a secular deontological approach to our choice of how life should be lived. Kant believed that we should always act as if we are the highest moral authority, and this same fact can be drawn from Sartre’s text. What results from this is what many philosophers call ‘anguish’. Man is condemned to be free. We are thrown into a world of meaning and are forced to create our own meaning of life, making choices for ourselves which must also be those choices which are most ideal for everybody else.

If life is meaningless, we are unable to find any moral law in the universe. As Dostoevsky says, everything must thusly be permitted. But we must argue against Dostoevsky because we would only wish to permit that which we would wish to live. We can never look into the world for clues either. As Sartre learned from the phenomenologists, whatever we perceive in the world is never purely the world, not purely ‘I’. We have already interpreted the world by the time we have experienced it. Therefore, when we act, we have to look completely within, the only thing we can do when choosing how to act is to follow our moral instincts.

It is important to acknowledge that Sartre emphasises that it is necessary to choose purely by how we wish to act. If we choose to consult a figure of authority as arbiter to our feelings, we have already chosen. If we are religious and choose to ask a priest, we already know what the priest will advise us. Therefore, we knew what we wanted before we asked. They have their own system, which they act through, so to be authentic to ourselves we must decide by ourselves. “we are free, therefore choose- that is to say, invent”, he declares.

The next concept Sartre has is that of despair. This is when we truly realise the confines we live within. First, we accept that we can only rely on that which is within our will, within our subjectivity. Next, we must accept that we need to disinterest ourselves from anything which does not affect us, for these considerations will never be relevant to us; And finally, we must abandon all hope whenever we consider life or choose how to act. This is not as negative as it sounds. To abandon hope is not to lose a love for life, but merely to truly rely on what WE can do, it is a philosophy which helps us to realise our limits, then empowers us by living through those limits.

Sartre then tells us that “there is no reality except in action”. It is only what you do in life which truly matters, and therefore if you wish to create a life of value, you must make sure that you act out the things you believe to be important. “There is no genius other than that which is expressed”, and thus the genius of Proust is in the books Proust wrote, whilst the genius of Picasso was in the paintings he produced. You are nothing but what you live. This all relates back to the seven-point list above.

There is one sense in which Sartre could be defined as a dualist. This is in the fact that he creates a subject/object divide between the subjective ego (which he himself refers to as the Cartesian Cogito) and the objective world. One must assert the subjective ego so as not to reduce one’s self to an objective object, as Jaspers feared. Since it is true that man has to create and define the ‘I’ as the relational self in the way that Kierkegaard posited, the importance of us acting and creating is utmost, for we can then define our subjective ‘I’ as a relation to the things we create. We then have an order of creation where we put ourselves into the objective world and seek this objectivity to relate to, so as to create the most authentic self.

Sartre’s ethics is often thought of as an aesthetic ethics. One reason for this can be understood in the fact of the nature regarding the composition of a painting. A painter never asks of the world or an authority what painting the painter should paint, there is no pre-defined painting; there are no definite values to a painting a priori, they emerge once the painting has been finalised. In exactly the same way, human values do not exist a priori, nor does one consult on how to create a system of ethics, nor an identity, one merely acts and thusly creates. The ethics and the ‘I’ appear in due course. If we never create that which we wish to be, we never are that which we wish to be. The ultimate consequence of Sartre’s philosophy is that of ultimate freedom to realise the self. Because there is no ultimate human nature, we are inherently forced to create our human nature.

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Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this, why not try my article on Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus? (CLICK HERE).


6 thoughts on “Existentialism and Humanism- Jean-Paul Sartre

  1. “The problem was that philosophy had become theory about theory, rather than theory about life and events. He believed that philosophy should help you make decisions in life, and should therefore be relevant to everybody.”

    That is true, and was true for philosophy in the time of Kierkegaard, To be relevant for modern man, philosophy has to come out of the ivory tower, out of the normative, theoretical realm and intersect with real life.


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