Jean Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980)
Chaque homme doit inventer son chemin.
and Human Emotions
Wait a minute, there's a snag somewhere; something disagreeable.
Why, now, should it be disagreeable?...Ah,I see; it's
life without a break. (Jean Paul Sartre - huis clos)
SHOULD LIKE on this occasion to defend existentialism against
some charges which have been brought against it.
First, it has been charged with inviting people to remain
in a kind of desperate quietism because, since no solutions
are possible, we should have to consider action in this world
as quite impossible. We should then end up in a philosophy
of contemplation; and since contemplation is a luxury, we
come in the end to a bourgeois philosophy. The communists
in particular have made these charges.
On the other hand, we have been charged with dwelling on human
degradation, with pointing up everywhere the sordid, shady,
and slimy, and neglecting the gracious and beautiful, the
bright side of human nature; for example, according to Mlle.
Mercier, a Catholic critic, with forgetting the smile of the
child. Both sides charge us with having ignored human solidarity,
with considering man as an isolated being. The communists
say that the main reason for this is that we take pure subjectivity,
the Cartesian I think, as our starting point; in
other words, the moment in which man becomes fully aware of
what it means to him to be an isolated being; as a result,
we are unable to return to a state of solidarity with the
men who are not ourselves, a state which we can never reach
in the cogito.
From the Christian standpoint, we are charged with denying
the reality and seriousness of human undertakings, since,
if we reject God's commandments and the eternal verities,
there no longer remains anything but pure caprice, with everyone
permitted to do as he pleases and incapable, from his own
point of view, of condemning the points of view and acts of
I shall today try to answer these different charges. Many
people are going to be surprised at what is said here about
humanism. We shall try to see in what sense it is to be understood.
In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that
by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life
possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every
action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity.
As is generally known, the basic charge against us is that
we put the emphasis on the dark side of human life. Someone
recently told me of a lady who, when she let slip a vulgar
word in a moment of irritation, excused herself by saying,
"I guess I'm becoming an existentialist." Consequently, existentialism
is regarded as something ugly; that is why we are said to
be naturalists; and if we are, it is rather surprising that
in this day and age we cause so much more alarm and scandal
than does naturalism, properly so called. The kind of person
who can take in his stride such a novel as Zola's The
Earth is disgusted as soon as he starts reading an existentialist
novel; the kind of person who is resigned to the wisdom of
the ages-which is pretty sad-finds us even sadder. Yet, what
can be more disillusioning than saying "true charity begins
at home" or "a scoundrel will always return evil for good"?
We know the commonplace remarks made when this subject comes
up, remarks which always add up to the same thing: we shouldn't
struggle against the powers that-be; we shouldn't resist authority;
we shouldn't try to rise above our station; any action which
doesn't conform to authority is romantic; any effort not based
on past experience is doomed to failure; experience shows
that man's bent is always toward trouble, that there must
be a strong hand to hold him in check, if not, there will
be anarchy. There are still people who go on mumbling these
melancholy old saws, the people who say, "It's only human!"
whenever a more or less repugnant act is pointed out to them,
the people who glut themselves on chansons realistes;
these are the people who accuse existentialism of being
too gloomy, and to such an extent that I wonder whether they
are complaining about it, not for its pessimism, but much
rather its optimism. Can it be that what really scares them
in the doctrine I shall try to present here is that it leaves
to man a possibility of choice? To answer this question, we
must re-examine it on a strictly philosophical plane. What
is meant by the term existentialism?
Most people who use the word would be rather embarrassed if
they had to explain it, since, now that the word is all the
rage, even the work of a musician or painter is being called
existentialist. A gossip columnist in Clartes signs himself
The Existentialist, so that by this time the word
has been so stretched and has taken on so broad a meaning,
that it no longer means anything at all. It seems that for
want of an advanced-guard doctrine ,analogous to surrealism,
the kind of people who are eager for scandal and flurry turn
to this philosophy which in other respects does not at all
serve their purposes in this sphere.
Actually, it is the least scandalous, the most austere of
doctrines. It is intended strictly for specialists and philosophers.
Yet it can be defined easily. What complicates matters is
that there are two kinds of existentialists; first, those
who are Christian. among whom I would include Jaspers and
Gabriel Marcel, both Catholic; and on the other hand the atheistic
existentialists among whom I class Heidegger, and then the
French existentialists and myself. What they have in common
is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if
you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.
Just what does that mean? Let us consider some object that
is manufactured, for example, a book or a papercutter: here
is an object which has been made by an artisan whose inspiration
came from a concept. He referred to the concept of what a
paper-cutter is and likewise to a known method of production,
which is part of the concept, something which is, by and large,
a routine. Thus, the paper-cutter is at once an object produced
in a certain way and, on the other hand, one leaving a specific
use; and one can not postulate a man who produces a paper-cutter
but does not know what it is used for. Therefore, let us say
that, for the paper-cutter, essence-that is, the ensemble
of both the production routines and the properties which enable
it to be both produced and defined-precedes existence. Thus,
the presence of the paper-cutter or book in front of me is
determined. Therefore, we have here a technical view of the
world whereby it can be said that production precedes existence.
When we conceive God as the Creator, He is generally thought
of as a superior sort of artisan. Whatever doctrine we may
be considering, whether one like that of Descartes or that
of Leibniz, we always grant that will more or less follows
understanding or, at the very least, accompanies it, and that
when God creates He knows exactly what he is creating. Thus,
the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the
concept of a paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer,
and, following certain techniques and a conception, God produces
man, just as the artisan, following a definition and a technique,
makes a paper-cutter. Thus, the individual man is the realization
of a certain concept in the divine intelligence.
In the eighteenth century, the atheism of the philosophers
discarded the idea of God, but not so much for the notion
that essence precedes existence. To a certain extent, this
idea is found everywhere; we find it in Diderot, in Voltaire,
and even in Kant. Man has a human nature; this human nature,
which is the concept of the human, is found in all men, which
means that each man is a particular example of a universal
concept, man. In Kant, the result of this universality is
that the wild-man, the natural man, as well as the bourgeois,
are circumscribed by the same definition and have the same
basic qualities. Thus, here too the essence of man precedes
the historical existence that we find in nature.
Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent.
It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one
being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists
before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being
is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant
here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that,
first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene,
and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist
conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is
nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself
will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature,
since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what
he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills
himself to be after this thrust toward existence.
Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is
the first principle of existentialism. It is also what is
called subjectivity, the name we are labeled with when charges
are brought against us. But what do we mean by this, if not
that man has a greater dignity than a stone or table? For
we mean that man first exists, that is, that man first of
all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who
is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future.
Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself, rather
than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, or a cauliflower
nothing exists prior to this plan; there is nothing in heaven;
man will be what he will have planned to be. Not what he will
want to be. Because by the word "will" we generally mean a
conscious decision, which is subsequent to what we have already
made of ourselves. I may want to belong to a political party,
write a book, get married; but all that is only a manifestation
of an earlier, more spontaneous choice that is called "will."
But if existence really does precede essence, man is responsible
for what he is. Thus, existentialism's first move is to make
every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility
of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is
responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible
for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for
The word subjectivism has two meanings, and our opponents
play on the two. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, that
an individual chooses and makes himself; and, on the other,
that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.
The second of these is the essential meaning of existentialism.
When we say that man chooses his own self, we mean that every
one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in
making this choice he also chooses all men. In fact, in creating
the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our
acts which does not at the same time create an image of man
as we think he ought to be. To choose to be this or that is
to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because
we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing
can be good for us without being good for all.
If, on the other hand, existence precedes essence, and if
we grant that we exist and fashion our image at one and the
same time, the image is valid for everybody and for our whole
age. Thus, our responsibility is much greater than we might
have supposed, because it involves all mankind. If I am a
workingman and choose to join a Christian trade-union rather
than be a communist, and if by being a member I want to show
that the best thing for man is resignation, that the kingdom
of man is not of this world, I am not only involving my own
case-I want to be resigned for everyone. As a result, my action
has involved all humanity. To take a more individual matter,
if I want to marry, to have children; even if this marriage
depends solely on my own circumstances or passion or wish,
I am involving all humanity in monogamy and not merely myself.
Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else.
I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In
choosing myself, I choose man.
qu'on fait n'est jamais compris mais seulement loué ou blâmé.
Nietzsche, Gay Science