Existentialism as philosophy of action

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The following is a detailed critique of Jean Paul Sartre’s lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, delivered on 25 October 1945 at Club Maintenant in Paris.

Rather than being a merely abstract, contemplative philosophy, Sartre’s adaptation of existentialism strikes me as being directed toward every-day choices and decisions.

It is worth noting at the outset that Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was not only a philosopher, but also a literary critic, biographer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, communist, and Catholic.  Awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, he was a man of contradictions and complexities that should earn him the title ‘Renaissance Man’ even if he was, at times, just wrong; like many intellectuals of his era he turned a blind eye to the excesses of Soviet tyranny in supporting its ideological positions.

The translation I’m working from is by Philip Mairet’s, for the 1948 Methuen edition entitled Existentialism and Humanism.  You can access the full text of the lecture here.

Sartre, with long-time companion, French feminist and writer, Simone de Beauvoir.
Sartre, with long-time companion, French feminist and writer, Simone de Beauvoir.

Cogito and the ‘other’

Sartre identified existentialism as a humanist, rational philosophy that has at its very foundation the most famous contribution to enlightenment philosophy by René Descartes: the statement ‘cogito ergo sum’, or ‘I think therefore I am’.

Our point of departure is, indeed, the subjectivity of the individual, and that for strictly philosophic reasons. It is not because we are bourgeois, but because we seek to base our teaching upon the truth, and not upon a collection of fine theories, full of hope but lacking real foundations. And at the point of departure there cannot be any other truth than this, I think, therefore I am, which is the absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to itself. Every theory which begins with man, outside of this moment of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than probable, and any doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to a truth will crumble into nothing. In order to define the probable one must possess the true. Before there can be any truth whatever, then, there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists of one’s immediate sense of one’s self.

p 44.

An almost inevitable corollary of the cogito is the recognition in it that everything else is ‘the other’, and in doing so, the recognition that other people also recognize themselves in their own cogito (p 45).

Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of ‘inter-subjectivity.’ It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are.

p 45.

Sartre does not explain the difficulty that I can never be sure what the others see of themselves, or of me. No matter how influential the judgement or objectification of me by others can be in my life, I am not defined exclusively, or even in part, by this objectification unless I allow that to be the case. I therefore reject the proposition that I must and can only define myself in terms of the other, but not the unavoidable reality that the judgement by others of my actions and words will be how the many will see me.

René Descartes(1596-1650), French Enlightenment philosopher who coined the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am’.
René Descartes(1596-1650), French Enlightenment philosopher who coined the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am’.

Of more interest here is Sartre’s extrapolation that the recognition of the other in one’s own cogito implies that all humans can understand the purposes of all other humans, regardless of race or culture (pp 45-46). This proposition is a rational rejection of the fear and loathing often attached to unknown factors about strangers, and makes it possible to consider other human beings as unknown friends and partners in common causes rather than just as potential enemies.

In our era of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and political hyper-partisanship, we seem to have lost sight of our common humanity, or traded it in for a renewed tribalism.

Existence before essence

Another defining feature of Sartre’s conception is that existence comes before essence (p 26). Put another way, there is no universal essence (the psychological makeup and character) of mankind, only the individual essences of countless people, created after birth in infinitely varied circumstances with infinitely varying outcomes.

Sartre illustrates this idea with the example of a paper knife. He says that the essence of a paper knife is the sum of the ideas, science, and purposes which made its definition and production possible (p 26). These factors all precede the knife’s existence, meaning that for it to exist, there must be something else that pre-exists to conceive of it.  Essence before existence.

Translated into human terms this could be true only if there were a higher power which could conceive of mankind, create men and women, and determine what sort of people each and every one of them will be. We have rational, scientific proof of the creative processes behind the paper knife, but none for an ‘essence’ of human beings that pre-dates their birth.

This reasoning makes Sartre’s existentialism an atheist philosophy, explicitly rejecting creationism on the strength of the cogito principle alone.

Commitment only to the known

It is logical for Sartre to concatenate the cogito with post-existence essence and then the conclusion that intellectual commitment for existentialists is possible only for what they know and can influence directly, or what they can see being influenced by other actors. They cannot be committed to abstract promises, nor to the actions of others they don’t know (pp 39-41). It is an explicit condemnation, as untrustworthy, of rhetorical promises often made by politicians, clerics, business people, and even from friends and neighbours.  Strange, then, that Sartre nevertheless supported the Soviet communist party, whose functionaries and motivations he did not know.

The Sartrean caution about intellectual commitments is almost prophetic when viewed in the context of contemporary Western societies. Our every-day consumption of news and gossip tells us over and over that political promises are usually lies, that corruption subverts almost all idealistic projects, that money and influence-not truth, fairness, or ‘the right’-determine outcomes in our justice systems and social institutions.

There are other consequences flowing from Sartre’s proposition: decisions should be based on informed analysis.  Analysis is the province of critical thinking and ‘reliable’ information.  Neither critical thinking nor reliable information are the characteristics of contemporary Western societies that they once were.

Jean Paul Sartre.
Jean Paul Sartre.

It used to be that undergraduate courses taught students how to assess the reliability of information, and then how to critically analyse that information.  Since the 1980s, however, Western governments have often surrendered to neoliberal economic ideology, cutting costs in education by eliminating parts of curricula not seen to be directly related to enhancing a student’s chances to attain a job.  Today we don’t even think of such political interference as a subversion of education itself.  We seem happy to regard it as budgetary rectitude.

Our societies are too large for all of us to know personally all the details that pertain to its public offices and administration, let alone all the people involved in these matters. We cannot but defer significant oversight of such affairs to others, even if that means we lose sight of exactly how the petty and grand corruptions endemic in our Western states passes unchecked.

Sartre’s statements about being able to commit to only what one can see and know is a prescient hint at what would become of Western political accommodations that rely on voters to cast their ballots on the basis of even quite outrageous and obvious lies.

Rejection of a priori rules

Discussing existentialism’s rejection of given, arbitrary rules, Sartre suggested that French intellectuals in the 1880s attempted to do away with the concept of god while at the same time maintaining a Christian morality as a set of a priori commandments.  A concept he dismissed with thinly veiled contempt:

The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky once wrote ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion. Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.

pp 33-34.

Unlike the French intellectuals Sartre referred to, I don’t find it embarrassing in the least to contemplate that god does not exist. On the contrary, it would be unremittingly obscene to contemplate existence as a perpetually humiliated slave to an uncaring, vengeful, infantile higher authority, with no freedom to act outside a rigidly established order of unquestionable commandments: we have, with some justification, pejoratively labelled this concept fascism and communism; I call it also religion.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English political philosopher credited with formulating the basis of modern social contract theory.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English political philosopher credited with formulating the basis of modern social contract theory.

Without the divine guidance of a god, we are indeed left to decide for ourselves what rules to establish and obey. This is the very foundation of the Hobbesian social contract, and the concept of a separation of church and state, with a consequent expectation of secular states as pre-requisites to freedom from religious tyranny (which now also includes the secular types of totalitarianism). We may cede the right to make certain rules to others in return for a promise that we shall be safe in life, limb, and property, but that compromise has fixed limits beyond which lie catastrophes like civil war or revolution. It is also true that the social contract continues to be re-defined every day, with old rules being overturned as too restrictive and new rules being imposed in reaction to new ways of thinking and acting. This, I believe, is the least oppressive and tyrannical means of governing social systems like our own; however, it is by no means the absolute ‘right’ or ‘only’ way of doing so.

In any event, it appears to me that existentialism, as a complement to a commitment to liberal democracy, is far more positive and optimistic than the dated, tired and too often abused wisdoms to be found in any religion or secular faiths.

Sartre’s contradictory allegiances

Having come this far along the path determined by Sartre, it seems appropriate to pause for a moment to remember that he was a self-professed existentialist, communist, and Catholic simultaneously. If the second two affiliations can be seen as religions, and the first as a rejection of everything religions stand for, how is it possible that Sartre could occupy these contradictory positions at the same time?

Sartre himself did not provide an answer, so I will have to attempt to propose one that makes sense.

First, I propose that Sartre was a Catholic and communist without buying wholesale into either doctrinal syllabus.

Secondly, I propose that Sartre’s Catholicism may have been cultural, and as an opposition to Protestantism, rather than doctrinal.

Thirdly, I propose that Sartre’s communism may have been aimed at opposing other strands of contemporary French politics, and based on a rational decision that to influence an imperfect political movement he first had to be a part of it.

In other words, he had made what might have seemed to him perfectly rational decisions that he could affect membership without committing to all doctrines and decisions made by people and groups at the wider levels of those organisations.

These suggestions help to illuminate how existentialism need not lead to social and political paralysis arising from disaffection with rigid ideology, or disagreements with specific political platforms.  An object lesson in how not paying attention to this Sartrean principle can turn out was the 2016 election in the USA, when supporters of Bernie Sanders refused to vote for Hillary Clinton because she did not embrace enough of Sanders’ platform.  For progressives not to vote for Clinton on the basis of such petulance delivered the worst nightmare in the USA’s political history

The rationality of Sartre’s apparent position suggests the possibility of not needing to be seen to oppose an ideology or institution while working for its reform or even demise. So, for example, it is possible for British politicians to advocate the abolition of the monarchy without being traitors.  Ironically, such a strategy is legitimately Catholic and communist, since leaders of both movements have used long-term infiltration as a method for neutralizing real or imagined opponents.

Absolute freedom, absolute responsibility

With Sartre’s absolute freedom to choose comes an absolute responsibility. Sartre’s existentialists are exactly what they make of themselves (p 28) thereby creating their ‘subjectivity’ for which they are absolutely responsible (p 29). There can be no recourse to, or justification with, a priori rules. There can be no deference to a higher authority or an immutable order of things. Only choices made in that recognition of absolute freedom are ‘authentic’. Adhering to pre-determined rules allows merely for inauthentic ‘choices’, which are choices nonetheless, and also attract absolute responsibility from which no escape is possible with the odious defence of ‘I was only following orders’. Think about this in terms of corporate as much as political machinations.

It is this concept of absolute responsibility that appears to be missing from most contemporary belief systems, and from Western social and political institutions. Spiritual and secular faiths absolve their believers of responsibility for the consequences of their individual and collective actions, either by direct absolution as during the Catholic confession, or by a cowardly shoulder-shrugging or finger pointing at ‘leaders’ or ‘instigators’ of actions with which many people nevertheless collaborated or condoned.

In the same way, whole populations have become either ‘clients’ of the state, or ‘sponsors’ of it, demanding services, favours, and indemnifications for the consequences of doing so rather than regarding themselves as owners of the state and therefore sharing responsibility for its actions.

From my perspective this makes existentialism a much more vital, creative, self-confident philosophy than any that preach only servitude, blame, atonement, and some vague salvation in the distant never.

The problem of the categorical imperative

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German Enlightenment philosopher and ethicist.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German Enlightenment philosopher and ethicist.

In the late 18th century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced a principle known as the categorical imperative. Kant remains a giant in the landscape of philosophy, and the archetype categorical imperative remains a cornerstone of moral philosophy today. Translated into English, this principle says: ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ A clear demand that we should be very careful to consider the consequences of our behaviours.

One hundred and sixty years later, Sartre appropriated the categorical imperative for existentialism:

And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. 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; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.

p 29.

Sartre elaborates with a reference to what he calls Kierkegaard’s anguish of Abraham (p 31). This is the anguish of being alone to make a choice with no reference to a higher arbiter, and being watched by all the world while making that choice as the right one for all people.

So every man ought to say, ‘am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do.’ If a man does not say that, he is dissembling his anguish. (p 32.)

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish intellectual considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish intellectual considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.

The anguish spoken of here appears to be the doubt and trepidation that attaches to many concrete situations in which choices might have serious consequences for an individual or a wider group. How do I make a decision which may affect others in the absence of any received or given rules to help me? I must make this decision by myself, drawing on only my own experiences and knowledge, and I will be responsible for that decision, held accountable for it by others, and haunted by my memory of it, should it incur wounding consequences.

I don’t agree with Sartre on this point. On what basis must one person be responsible not only for the self, but also for all others? On what basis is a purely personal choice immediately universally valid? Does this not imply a fabrication of a priori rules where none existed?

In creating my own essence and making free choices I can choose to do things which I do not wish to be chosen by others, and I can choose to be something I do not want others to be. Further, the notion that we can only choose the better, never the worse, is nonsense. To make the distinction between better and worse requires an immutable ethical standard. If I have established for myself such an abacus of values, I can nonetheless choose a wrong or worse outcome than my own standard would suggest as true, right, or best.

Choices may be judged by individuals and groups as wrong or right in the contexts of their own frameworks of ethics and circumstances, but this imposition of subjectivities does not impose an objective reality. Wrong and right can apply only to pre-determined processes: a wrong and right way of spelling a word; or a wrong and right way of playing a specific note on a piano.

Why would Sartre make such an apparently contradictory statement?

The matter might be less controversial if we did not take a literal interpretation of his words, which are presented here as already a translation from the original French. A less literal interpretation might yield the meaning that if I choose something for myself, regardless of how that choice might be judged by me or others, I must accept that anyone or everyone might make the same choice. In moral terms this is equivalent of the Biblical caution ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ (Galatians 6:7.) In the vernacular: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Critiques: amoral anarchism

Major critiques of Sartre’s existentialism have proposed that it is an invitation for people to dwell in a quietism of despair (p23), and that this would lead to a bourgeois contemplative philosophy.  Or that it effectively denies the ‘solidarity of mankind’, and with it any basis on which to make ethical decisions

These strike me as shallow and concerned with defending fixed rules as necessary for social cohesion.

While Sartre did not specifically address these criticisms, he did insist that existentialism is a discipline of analysis that reveals every truth and every action as being explicable only in terms of both a specific context and the specific human subjectivities attempting to understand such truths or actions (p 24).

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), German philosopher who developed existentialism and originated the concept of existence as being ‘thrown’ into the world.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), German philosopher who developed existentialism and originated the concept of existence as being ‘thrown’ into the world.

The corollary here is that contrary to unrealistic, idealistic conceptions of eternal truths or values, human life is conducted exclusively in the context of the specific society in which it takes place, with all the specific features and dynamics of that environment. It is a concept I think Sartre borrowed from Heidegger’s ‘thrown-ness’, which places emphasis on human beings being ‘thrown’ into social and political circumstances without choice, but with consequences for our conceptions of self, and of others.  A Sartrean existential analysis, then, is historically materialist enough to recognise, for example, that the actions of a 10th century pope cannot be judged according to 20th century social mores in London.

Sartre’s own explicit rejection of his contemporary critics makes it clear that he regarded existentialism as very much a dissident, unorthodox method of analysis:

… you must not oppose the powers-that-be; that you must not fight against superior force; must not meddle in matters that are above your station. Or that any action not in accordance with some tradition is mere romanticism; or that any undertaking which has not the support of proven experience is foredoomed to frustration; and that since experience has shown men to be invariably inclined to evil, there must be firm rules to restrain them, otherwise we shall have anarchy.

p 25.

Sartre had reason to be scornful. It does not take much reasoning to assert that had we, as a species, never fought against superior force, we should still be living in caves, or crushed by a scourging theocracy, or denied all but feudal freedoms by hereditary monarchs. Had we not meddled in matters above our station we should never be able to hold the powerful to account for their destructive corruptions, or the ignorant for their nihilistic impositions on our own lives. Had we not departed from tradition, the history of human ideas would be written on a single page. Had we never acted outside the realm of proven experience we would never have changed anything, never have invented the future and its new technologies, never have learnt anything from our mistakes, and never added anything to the store of human knowledge.

It strikes me as infantile to propose that humankind is invariably inclined to ‘evil’. This view relies on acceptance of the good/evil dichotomy, which is in itself already a surrender to a set of a priori rules that existentialism rejects. Sartre put this another way:

Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be.

p 40.

Nothing anyone does, or is capable of doing, is other than human. Expressing displeasure with human actions, or delight, does not require collaboration with simple-minded polarizations, or dichotomies, where none are necessary.

Assumptions: an absence of deviance

Everything Sartre said, and everything his critics said, assumes a kind of neutral subjectivity (not quite the same as objectivity) uniformly spread across societies. That subjectivity assumes the universal existence and practice of rational thought capable of understanding the issues and contexts presented here. In doing so it is assumed that socialization to comprehend these issues and contexts in a certain way should be a given, and not recognized as the product of an already assumed proto-essence, or education/indoctrination.

My point is that not all people choose to think rationally or analytically; some because they have been indoctrinated with, or choose to advocate, the faith-based rules of ideology or theology, and some others because they are too lazy. Sartre had scant regard for such people:

… I can form judgments upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth, I shall call scum.

p 52.

Perhaps more intriguing than the above quote is a consideration of those people not capable of the intellectual effort required to grapple with these issues, particularly those deemed to be psychologically disturbed. Just where can we draw the line between authentic decisions and truly psychotic actions regarded as committed under diminished capacity? And what of the growing scientific evidence for genetic and biological factors that may influence compulsive behaviours?

I offer no glib answers, just the observation that I am personally appalled that the intellectually incompetent have become almost a taboo subject in Western societies, often condemned to the twilight life of homelessness, vagrancy, incarceration for petty crimes, and public odium because they are trapped in psychotic pathologies. This has nothing to do with existentialism per se, and far more with my own sense that such people deserve our most urgent attention whenever we talk about the benefits of Western civilization. Ignoring the problem because we don’t want to spend the money needed for proper care is what Sartre would have called an inauthentic choice, but a deliberate choice nonetheless.

Conclusions: our responsibilities

Having thus dismissed orthodox critiques of Sartre’s existentialism, presented some of my own, but embraced his tour de force through the cogito, the unconditional and absolute freedom to choose, the equal responsibility, and the conception of authenticity, it remains to tie these ideas back to something more concrete than a mid-1940s French lecture hall.

Existentialism would mean nothing to me if it were indeed just a bourgeois contemplative philosophy, or the avant-garde pose to which it was suborned in the Anglophone world long after the lecture was done.

My interest in Sartre is mostly concerned with finding and adapting ideas that have application to concrete matters of statecraft and the amplification of individual influence in political and social activity. It is here I see a real potential for existentialism as another approach to rejecting the encroachment of anti-intellectual, reductionist, determinist, nihilist vandalism that tears away at the potential brilliance and vibrancy of liberal democracy under the guises of religionism, nationalist populism, and closet-fascism.

This vandalism has created a deepening crisis of confidence in the institutions and doctrines of state and society, alienating great masses of people from political processes and institutions.  That alienation then extends to estrangement from artistic, literary, scientific, and other achievements.  The way we have seen the rise of conspiracy theories and disinformation, favoured by those who feel betrayed or excluded from their own societies, in some of the most fabulously wealthy and advanced societies in history.

But even those who feel included have become part of a tidal wave of cynicism about every ethical principle by the very people who advocate them. Many people can be forgiven for feeling an overwhelming sense of ennui and political apathy emanating from the plainly visible destruction by our leaders of every standard of decency, service, and respect they talk about in empty phrases even as they undermine them in a lewd orgy of self-serving profligacy.

My observation is that many people are just not intellectually equipped or materially interested enough to halt this decline, which is more than just bad economics and curtailed liberty. But for the people who do have the power of mind, and the will to claim ownership of their birthrights to Western civilization, existentialism offers a valuable tool for critical analysis.  Politically unaligned, but well-suited to engage with liberal ideals of egalitarianism, individual liberty, and reform at helping those who most need it.

Existentialist analysis assists a confident, optimistic approach by affirming not only that strength of will is a good thing, not a shameful sin of pride, and that this will embraces responsibility as a proud duty, not an onerous imposition enforced by dubious authorities.

Sartre’s existentialism is infinitely flexible, recognizing the uniqueness of each and every subjectivity, and the complexity of those subjectivities tied to myriad specific contexts, fixed in specific times and locations. Sartre’s conception is not the elitist pose it has been made to appear by some culture warriors. It contains within it the very real impetus towards the social, and an ethic of collective responsibility of all to all, and to the world around us too. What it would take for this school of thought to become a powerful tool is merely that people stop and reflect on the simple question: ‘Is this choice I am making authentic, or am I behaving the way someone else dictates to me?’

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