Existentialism as philosophy of action

A personal reinterpretation of Jean Paul Sartre’s 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.

Jean Paul Sartre with long-time companion, French feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir, 19 November 1964.

The very idea of engaging with philosophy invokes in many people notions of soporific inconsequences and pseudo-mathematical abstractions. That need not be the case if you pick your territory with discrimination.

Philosophical discourse that does not have a direct bearing on the concrete affairs of life is indeed academic distraction and useless to me as well as many others.

Worth noting in that context is that Jean Paul Sartre was not only a philosopher, but also a literary critic, biographer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist. He was a man who exemplified the kind of intellectual engagement with the world around him that once elevated Western culture above all others, and that has been carelessly pushed aside in recent decades by the unthinking pursuit of profit and the hubris of ostentation.

This examination is not wholly uncritical of Sartre’s thoughts on existentialism, but I see in them the nucleus of a set of ideas that is as yet untried as a counterweight to intellectual inertia, to literary stagnation, to politically obese apathy, and to a crushing alienation of most people from cultural, social and political institutions that cannot do other than decay without the keen interest and interventions of those they are supposed to serve.

It is in terms of this last thought that I offer a reinterpretation of Sartre’s lecture, a labour of love begun in 1986, and a work in progress ever since. I offer it to provoke, persuade, and, hopefully, to open a small window onto a way of thinking about the world, and our place in it, that has not yet been trampled and despoiled by peremptory, orthodox, but corrosive spiritual and secular religions.

Not everything Sartre said was his own synthesis, nor is everything I say here my own, but if all goes well with your reading of it, there should emerge a vision of a human subjectivity and a will to make independent decisions and choices, reached in the full and confident knowledge that these must be made and do entail consequences for which we are absolutely responsible. I see this as offering a refreshing adult maturity, and the honourable commitment to exceeding in all respects the value and achievements of the extant facile, adolescent ideologies that demand only obedience to irrational and arbitrary rules, to absent higher powers, and to the imbecilic cult of personality. At front an centre of this system of ideas is you, and me, and all of us, as individuals before we make common causes. Fittingly, then, we begin with the self.

Cogito and the ‘other’

It is indicative of existentialism as a humanist, rational philosophy that Sartre places as 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 recognise 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.

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.
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 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 conception, formulae, and the qualities 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.

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 the essence of human beings that pre-dates them.

This reasoning makes existentialism an atheist philosophy, explicitly rejecting creationism on the strength of the cogito principle and rationally apprehensible knowledge of the development of human essence.

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 an existentialist is possible only for what he knows immediately, and what he can influence directly or see being influenced by known quantities. He cannot be committed to abstract promises, nor to the actions of others he does not know (pp 39-41). It is an explicit and absolute refutation of rhetorical promises often made to effect ‘ends justify the means’ abrogations of promised ethical or political action. Promises of the kind we hear everyday from the nominally faithful, from politicians, from business people, and even from our friends and neighbours.

This 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 justice, determine outcomes in our nominal ‘justice systems’, and that even churches preaching virtue are guilty of harbouring and defending heinous crimes like the rape of children. How can there be any faith or confidence in these institutions and their functionaries?

Worse, even our family, friends and colleagues seem to think that self-serving lies are OK because ‘everybody’s doing it’. This appears to be a no-responsibility approach predicated on ‘no harm, no foul’ or ‘it’s only wrong if you get caught’, with little thought of unseen or disenfranchised consequences.

Personally I have been drawn increasingly to relying on my own judgements about matters presented to me as best left to ‘expert’ interpretations and administration. The phrase that ‘a man would be a fool not to learn from his own experiences’ haunts me daily. It means, though, a significant commitment of time to investigate the dynamics of issues with which I engage. That is, for me, the cost of any human engagement with the surrounding world. There are limits to such a capacity.

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 venality and deception endemic in our Western states passes unchecked.

In a sense, then, Sartre’s statements about being able to commit in only what one can see and know might be a prescription for revitalising political commitment in an apathetic Western citizenry. Perhaps a demand to be allowed to withhold consent to be governed without much greater accountability is a potential future political upshot of Sartre’s existentialism.

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 unreformable commandments: we have, with some justification, pejoratively labelled this concept fascism and communism; I call it also religion.

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 tyranny. 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 consider the man himself, who 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 dogmatic and faith-based.

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 had first to be a part of it.

In other words, he had made 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 dissidence or contrarian opinions. Leaving aside artless objections about dishonesty, which are plainly obtuse since Sartre never hid his affiliations, the rationality of such a position suggests in more contemporary settings the possibility of not needing to be seen to oppose an ideology or institution while working for its reform or even demise. Ironically, such a strategy is legitimately Catholic and communist, since leaders of both movements have used long-term infiltration as a method for neutralising real or imagined opponents.

Absolute freedom, absolute responsibility

With Sartre’s absolute freedom to choose comes an absolute responsibility. Sartre’s existential man is exactly what he makes of himself (p 28) thereby creating his ‘subjectivity’ for which he is absolutely responsible (p 29). There can be no recourse to, or justification with, a priori rules. There can be no deference to a higher power 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. In other words, spiritual and secular religious 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 and finger pointing at ‘leaders’ or ‘instigators’ of political and economic actions that the many nevertheless collaborated with 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

In the late 18th century the German ethicist 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.’

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, which is recognised to be a choice for all mankind.

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.)

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. In other words, how do I make a decision which may affect others in the absence of any imposed 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.

It is my contention that Sartre’s entire prescription for the categorical imperative is tendentious. 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; a wrong and right way of playing a specific note on a piano; a wrong and right way of tying a necktie into a Windsor knot.

Why then 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

By now it should be apparent that it is plainly facile, and more than a little bourgeois itself, to level the recurring critique at existentialism 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.

In the same vein, Catholic and communist critics of existentialism who argued that it effectively denied the solidarity of mankind, and with it any basis on which to make ethical decisions, are shallow and self-interestedly authoritarian about the constitution of community via individual consent and cooperation.

While Sartre did not specifically address these criticisms, his controversion of them was his insistence 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). 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 environments. Put another way, an existential analysis is historically materialist enough to recognise, for example, that the actions of a 10th century pope cannot be judged according to 20th century Chicago social mores.

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.

Further, its is tendentious to propose as fact the idea 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 on the basis of rationality. 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.)

It seems to me that the labels of good and evil are useless except in fiction, propaganda, and other infantile parables. Nothing human beings do, or are capable of doing, is other than human. Expressing displeasure with human actions, or delight, does not require collaboration with a simple-minded polarisation where it does not exist.

Assumptions: an absence of deviance

There is in almost all philosophy a set of assumptions never explicitly stated, and an absence of deviance, defined more as standard deviation than psychosis, even if there are elements of both in this context.

Everything I say here, everything Sartre said, and everything his critics said assumes a kind of neutral subjectivity (not quite the same as objectivity) uniformly spread across societies and the people within them. 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 socialisation to comprehend these issues and contexts in a certain way should be a given, and not recognised as the product of an already assumed proto-essence or indoctrination.

My point is that not all people who are intellectually capable of the assumed rational thought choose to exercise it, some because they have been indoctrinated to reject the premises of existentialism in favour of faith-based and other irrational belief systems. 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. It has nothing to do with existentialism per se, and far more with my own sense of liberal-conservative politics that such people deserve our most urgent attention whenever we talk about the benefits of Western civilisation. Ignoring the problem because we don’t want to spend the money needed for proper care of such people 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 it was made to serve in the Anglo American world long after the lecture was done.

My interests are mostly concerned with finding and adapting ideas that have application to concrete matters of statecraft and the amplification of individual influence in political activity. It is here I see a real potential for existentialism as another approach to rejecting the encroachment of anti-intellectual, mechanical, deterministic, nihilistic, reductionist vandalism that tears away at the brilliance and vibrancy of liberal democracy under the guise of religion and populism.

This vandalism has created a deepening crisis of confidence in the institutions and doctrines of state and society by alienating great masses of people from political processes, and therefore also the social, scientific and egalitarian direction of the most fabulously wealthy and advanced societies in history.

This alienation is most evident in a tidal wave of cynicism about every ethical principle we see our leaders pay lip service to even as they subvert them. The overwhelming sense of ennui and 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.

It seems inevitable that a vast mass of 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 heritages and birthrights to Western civilization, existentialism offers a tool for a critical analysis that is not politically aligned, and yet perfectly suited to pursue the great liberal ideals of egalitarianism; of individual liberty in states that nevertheless pledge themselves to aid the weak, the poor and the unfortunate; of societies built on the spontaneous cooperation between likeminded citizens; and of the confident assertion that despite all its flaws, liberal democracy is still the most successful articulation of political power we know.

Existentialist analysis assists this 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 chore or the preserve of ill-defined experts who seem to confuse it with the kleptomaniac arrogation of privilege.

Like Hayek’s conception of liberalism, existentialism is infinitely flexible, recognising 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 generations of under-educated American college students. It contains in 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?’

The full text of Sartre’s lecture (offsite, opens new window).

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