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PHL 358
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic

 

JEAN PAUL SARTRE

The Humanism of Existentialism I

(1946)

An Outline
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was one of the most renown intellectuals of the 20th century (a philosopher, novelist, essayist, playwright, editor, activist). He is widely perceived as the emblematic figure of existentialism although he eventually drifted away from this strain of thought and even started to criticize it as "parasitic". But his previous contributions were so numerous and decisive that this association with existentialism still stands as the defining aspect of his whole career. At the time when he wrote this piece he certainly considered himself an existentialist.

An unabridged online edition of the essay (in the translation of Philip Mairet) can be found at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

I THE HUMANISM OF EXISTENTIALISM

Origin:

Sartre published this essay in 1946 as a transcribed version of a public lecture he delivered a year before (October 29, 1945). By publishing the text of an oral presentation Sartre originally intended to provide a more readable exposition of his phenomenological ontology (the name he previously accepted for his own philosophy), but the condensed and sometimes ambiguous formulations have caused some new misinterpretations so that at the end he almost regretted the publication of the lecture.

Some commentators tend to downplay the import of this essay by calling by just the most popular but at the same time the least elaborated piece of Sartre's philosophy. After careful reading one should be rather inclined to look at it as an extremely interesting and provocative statement of existentialist philosophy. Despite all its shortcomings 'The Humanism of Existentialism' still remains the best short exposition of the main existentialist topics.

Title

Note: A more literal rendering of the title would be "Existentialism is a Humanism" (in French: Existentialisme est un Humanisme). By claiming that "existentialism is a humanism" Sartre does not want to say that existentialism is a kind of "Red Cross" (humanitarian) philosophy. He rather wishes to place his version of existentialism into the mainstream of the libertarian humanist tradition that could be traced back to the Renaissance and its stress on human creativity and freedom. The immediate precursor of this terminology was Kojeve, who interpreted Hegel's theology of Spirit as disguised (atheistic) humanism in which all supposed attributes of God should be transferred to Man. Man forges his destiny, not natural or transcendent powers. Therefore he is responsible for his actions and their consequences.  Sartre, who occasionally attended Kojeve's lectures, obviously accepted this reversal of theology. In that sense the rendering "the humanism of existentialism" (Bernard Frechtman), though not absolutely faithful, hits the mark even better than any literal translation of the title.

Name The name 'existentialism' came into wide circulation in intellectual and artistic circles years before Jean Wahl, the first historian of this new current of thought, undertook to delineate the contours of the nascent movement. But prior to Sartre it has never been used by those thinkers that are now putatively regarded as existentialists. Soeren Kierkegaard, who gave first philosophical prominence to the term "existence", would not probably have been able to understand it as a common name. Martin Heidegger explicitly rejected it on account of its ties with the metaphysical tradition - counterpart to essentialism. When Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir learned that the label "existentialism" was being applied to them their first reaction was also repulsive, probably for similar reasons. However, all persisting reservations notwithstanding, after some hesitation they decided to embrace it as a popular self-designation. Thus Sartre has become one of very few philosophers of existence (along with Gabriel Marcel) who began to characterize himself as an existentialist. This terminological appropriation required from him an explanation of what did he mean by 'existentialism' which is precisely the topic of this work.

Objective:

The unstated objective of the essay is to expound Sartre's own philosophy as existentialism and to explain existentialism in terms of Sartre's own philosophy. With this combination in mind Sartre is taking over an already existing and widely (ab)used term he is now intent to redefine so that it can serve a serious philosophical purpose. The justification for this conceptual rehabilitation is that the term "existentialism" was at the time so stretched in different applications ("so broad a meaning") that its signification has become very elusive and sometimes even frivolous (covering sheer vulgarities). In opposition to this indiscriminate linguistic expansion Sartre is committed to take it in a very technical sense, which would restrict its usage to a particular (his) philosophical doctrine. To distance himself from the popular vulgarizations of existentialism Sartre even calls its core "the most austere of doctrines", which is an obvious exaggeration.

Apology: As the appellation "existentialism" has already acquired a bad public reputation Sartre is very anxious to clear it from at least some of the most undesirable associations. More specifically, he is eager to defend the newly christened philosophy of human condition from accusations of preaching pessimism and spreading anti-humanist messages.

Charges:

The critics, either of Marxist or Catholic provenance or both, leveled the following common charges against existentialism:

(1) Hopeless Passivism. By asserting that human action is futile, if not impossible, existentialism invites people to remain in a state of "desperate quietism", resigned and passive. Existentialism itself ends up in a kind of "contemplative bourgeois philosophy" (just observing the world) lagging behind the demand of Marx' 11th Thesis on Feuerbach which stipulates that philosophy should change the world - not only look at it. The word bourgeois in the charge was linked to luxury in the sense of being redundant and unnecessary.

Action   Consequence
Impossible => Resignation
Futile => Contemplation

(2) Disappointing Negativity. By over-emphasizing the sordid and the "dark side" of human nature existentialism propounds human degradation the way "naturalism" used to expose the worst human traits in the nineteenth century. Thus existentialism tendentiously neglects the greatness and magnificence of human race. Or at least that there is always something consoling.

Human Nature   Consequence
Ugly => Baseness
Weak => Degradation

(3) Individualistic Isolationism. By taking pure subjectivity as the starting point and by treating man as an isolated being existentialism disregards the social character of man and his innate inclination toward solidarity. No coincidence that existentialism commits this distortion, for it is a heir of Cartesianism which has conceived human existence as an isolated mind entirely enclosed into subjective consciousness.

Sociability   Consequence
Pure Subjectivity => No Communication
Isolated Being => No Solidarity


(4) Dangerous Permissiveness. By rejecting God's commandments and the "eternal verities" existentialism delivers human undertakings to "pure caprice" and arbitrary evaluations. It denies the validity of objective standards and norms of human conduct and preaches a pernicious relativism.

Divine Norms   Consequences
No Commandments => Pure Caprice
No Eternal Verities => Relativity of Values


  One can summarize all the charges along with the alleged effects in this way:
List:
Charges
 
Implication
Accusers
(1) Quietism => Passivism <= Marxists
(2) Pessimism => Negativity <= Catholics
(3) Subjectivism => Egoism <= both Marxists and Catholics
(4) Relativism => Arbitrariness <= Catholics

No philosophy battled by the alleged consequences can raise claim to be humanistic.
Plea: On behalf of existentialism Sartre rejects all four charges.
Charge 1 is absolutely false since existentialism teaches quite the opposite, a philosophy which is everything else but quietism. At least his brand of existentialism should be more appropriately called a philosophy of human action and involvement, not the "bourgeois" philosophy that is reconciled with the status quo.

Charge 2 is based on a very superficial understanding of existentialism that equates a discussion of the dark sides of human nature with a degradation of humanity. Dispelling illusions and rejecting the whitewash of human reality is not the same as its denigration. Sartre claims that his philosophy is rather optimistic as it encourages men to act despite the harshness of reality and the complexities of human actions.

Charges 3 and 4 are a crass distortion of the existentialist insight that man creates his own world. Uncovering the human roots of our world is not subjectivism as the critical approach of existentialism shows the social character of human actions against the backdrop of mystification and reification. (It is very likely that the critique of reified life forms was gradually pushing Sartre toward Marxism.)

Taking human subjectivity and individuality seriously (3) cannot be equated with subjectivism and arbitrariness. Sartre contends that existentialism conceives subjectivity as being in the world, that is to say as inter-subjectivity. He understands man as being a bodily consciousness in the social world, not as an isolated ego or mind standing over against the world and the others.

Sartre strongly believes in the power of human practice. It is free but not capricious. Consequently Sartre unambiguously rejects Gide's theory of "the arbitrary act" as it does not entail the agent's responsibility. If human decisions cannot be derived from already existing precepts this does not mean that rational and universalistic consideration of normative issues is pointless (4).
Defining Doctrines: Existentialism could be positively described as a doctrine which
(a) "makes human life possible", and
(b) "declares that every truth and every action implies human setting and human subjectivity".
  Note: Of course, (a) should not be understood literally (no philosophical doctrine makes life possible in the sense of providing air and nutrients). But to render human life possible means for Sartre certainly much more than just spreading optimism or providing some sense to living, as Jean Wahl suggests in his book Philosophies of Existence. As Sartre explains later on, existentialism "makes human life possible" by intellectually removing all transcendent yokes of human existence and by vigorously affirming the possibility of free choice ("leaves to man a possibility of choice"). In brief, this Sartrean formula points to the fundamental freedom of man and his ability to create himself (see below). As to (b) he means that every product and accomplishment points to men and their praxis.
Existentialism entails Existentialism is accused of being morose and naturalistic, even vulgar and ugly. These are misperceptions. Sartre's self-description would stress the following traits:
Activism
Optimism
Responsibility
Universalism
Contradictions: In his response to common accusations Sartre first makes a kind of tu quoque ("look who is talking") observation: Existentialism is accused of producing a very gloomy picture of humanity by the people who otherwise propagate passivity and resignation with all repugnant deeds (when faced with the acts that are blameworthy these people typically say "it's only human").
Second, he points out that the treasury of popular wisdom abounds with advices that require subjugation and conformism, none of which is espoused by existentialism.
Third, even those who can take Zola and chansons realistes (songs devoid of any romantic illusion about love - simple and brutally realistic like Bukowski or Eminem) in their stride are appalled with existentialist portrayal of man and the "degradation" of humanity they sense behind it. This is a performative contradiction. The question is: Is it more ridiculous than hypocritical?
   
Wisdom of the Ages: The reference to the sobering "wisdom of the ages", i.e., popular sayings is meant to demonstrate that existentialism is not alone in noting the less flattering sides of human existence. For example, the Christian saws "true charity begins at home" or "a scoundrel will always return evil for good" may be understood as suggesting selfish concern only for our own family accompanied with the utter mistrust toward those whose past is problematic.
Conformist Sayings: Here is a short list of those discouraging remarks that preach the same self-contained interest in own matters and the lack of hope in bettering the human condition beyond current oppressive situation:
(1) Obey the powers-that-be.
(2) Resistance is disruptive.
(3) Stay in your own station.
(4) Any effort to change things is romantic and futile.
(5) The past determines the way how things should go.
(6) Man is always bent toward trouble.
(7) There must be an authority to keep order (Hobbes).
Messages:
Docility
Obedience
Status quo
Order
Authority
Futility
Failure
Mistrust
Resignation
Naturalism: Many people associate or identify existentialism with naturalism owing to some superficial similarities, like a complete absence of any idealizations. Indeed, both artistic trains do not close eyes before human ugliness and vulgarity. In his book La Terre (The Earth) Zola mercilessly denounced the old myth of "the simple goodness of the peasant" by showing how callous and oblivious peasants (all too often idealized) could be in pursuing the insatiable lust for land. Sartre admits that Zola gives a very disquieting picture of human conduct and that his own novels are not much more rosy. But he notices that despite all moral indignation Zola's story inevitably arouses it still stirs less uneasiness in the public mind than existentialist novels. Why? Because Zola depicts his negative characters as products of their heredity and social environment that could not be changed, while Sartre portrays his weak individuals as creators of their own weaknesses and ultimately responsible for their failures. Surprisingly, the former grim picture is accepted readily, although it does not leave any room for different outcome of human efforts (only the latter allows some prospect that things could be different).
Exposing: Sartre points to these discrepancies to illustrate that some of the accusations that are thrown up against existentialism stem from certain biases. With this he aims at two things: (a) to show that existentialist revelations about human weaknesses should be measured by the same standards as other disillusioning insights, and (b) to show that the existentialist message is not pessimistic, but liberating in the sense of endorsing an "optimistic toughness" that does justice to reality. Exposing ugliness is not the same as espousing it.
Reply: Sartre has a much different (better) opinion both of man and humankind. Consequently he wants to show that existentialism, precisely because it deals with the true human reality, is more humanistic than any of the critics assume. Of course, such a restatement of existentialism will not square with the popular perception. "Many people are going to be surprised at what is said here about humanism."

Strategy:

Sartre believes that the best way to defend himself against charges 1 through 4 is to tackle briefly the main themes of existentialism and while doing this to correct the misconceptions in the common reception of existentialism. Most specifically he wants to peel away the superficial mantle surrounding the strictly philosophical core of existentialism.

Defining Existentialism: Sartre asserts that the teaching of existentialism could be defined "easily" and unambiguously. He states two tenets as defining characteristics of existentialism:
(a) "Existence precedes essence", and
(b) "subjectivity must be the starting point".
At first glance it seems that Sartre has forgotten that he had already defined existentialism as a doctrine that makes human life possible and denounces human subjectivity behind all human actions (this is not the same as accepting charge 3). In fact, the two new defining characteristics are just a restatement of the same idea, not something different. Human life is grounded in existence and subjectivity is the fountain of all human deliberate actions.
(a) Making life possible Existence precedes Essence
(b) Action implies subjectivity Subjectivity is starting point
Division: If these tenets define existentialism they should be valid for any existentialist thinker. Sartre acknowledges, however, that this may not go so smoothly. The reason for possible problems is that there are indeed two main kinds of existentialism, a fact which "complicates matters" when it comes to the point of spelling out the defining characteristics of this train of thought as such. Both kinds recognize the importance of existence and subjectivity but they do not necessarily prioritize existence over essence. Hence the division into two groups: the religious and the atheistic. If one includes the 19th century predecessors (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) all existentialist thinkers could be divided into two camps:
   
 
(A) Christian Existentialism (B) Atheistic Existentialism

Soeren Kierkegaard

Karl Jaspers

Gabriel Marcel

Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger

Jean Paul Sartre

   
Puzzlement: Several questions are here in order. First, in which sense does this division "complicate" matters? Second, why does it matter at all? And third, why should we accept it with regard to existentialism when we typically do not differentiate other philosophical orientations with regard to the religious convictions of their proponents?
Common Ground:

The last question is the easiest to answer: since what we believe is relevant for who we are and our identity is of utmost concern for existentialism the question of God becomes a watershed in many respects. No other philosophical orientation (with the possible exception of Marxism) chastises disengagement of the knowing subject from its subject-matter. On the contrary, they all favor a clear detachment of the person's creeds from his theoretical statements thus making the content of their propositions "indifferent" for the thinker himself. For existentialism, this type of detachment is self-deceptive and untenable especially with regard to the belief or dis-belief in God (cf. Kierkegaard's critique of this attitude in Concluding Unscientific Postscript). Therefore, it makes a big philosophical difference whether a thinker himself relates his existence to God or not. This circumstance answers the second question as well.

The first problem is a bit more complex. Sartre contends that despite all disagreements as to the belief in God (all?) existentialist thinkers share the idea that (a) "existence precedes essence". But according to Sartre's own stipulations, this does not hold true equally for both groups of existentialist thinkers. And precisely (a) is brought up by Sartre as the defining characteristic of existentialism. This discrepancy suggests that the said "complication" is much more serious than Sartre is ready to admit: it either disqualifies the suggested common ground or it disqualifies all Christian existentialists as existentialists. In the latter case the "they" from "what they have in common" refers probably only to group B. In fact, Sartre adumbrates later on that theistic existentialists are less consequent than his strand of Existentialism.

Precedence: Sartre phrases the statement (a) "existence precedes essence" as synonymous with (b) "subjectivity must be the starting point". This is obvious from the fact that he accompanies the former with an "or": "existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, subjectivity must be the starting point."
There are several difficulties here though. First, even if we follow Sartre's expectation to accept his "or" between the two propositions as indicating a synonymous meaning it remains questionable whether that synonymy amounts to semantic identity. Subjectivity is obviously taken in the Hegelian sense, as the core of autonomy and self-reflection. Second, while the contention (b) is really faith blind, (a) is not. On the contrary, theists cannot accept it if it entails the non-existence of God.
Origin: Note: The thesis that "existence precedes essence" does not have exact historical parallels and represents a real novelty in philosophy. In Being and Nothigness Sartre points to the etymological insight of Hegel which reveals that essence is in fact derived from esse = to be (Wesen is was gewesen ist), but despite his putting Being at the beginning of his Logic, Hegel never tried to work this sequence out into the real priority of existence (in another pssible parallel, pure Being equals for Hegel Nothing).
q Sartre first explains the meaning of (a) and then moves to tackle (b). If one wants to determine the precise meaning of the thesis (a) it is advantageous to bear in mind the traditional connotations of both "essence" and "existence". These in their different variants could be stated as follows:
 
Essence
Existence
Status
Features
Status
Features
'What is'
Necessary
'That is'
Contingent
Concept
Immutable
Presence
Changeable
Idea
Identical
Becoming
Volatile
Actuality
Ideal
Possibility
Given
Reality
True
Appearance
Illusionary
Definition
Permanent
Description
Temporal

 

Position: Contrary to the traditional view that claims both the priority of essence and the higher value of its features of permanence and self-identity Sartre asserts the priority of existence along with a positive re-evaluation of its main characteristics of contingency and temporality. Only from this reversed optics, he believes, can we pay full tribute to man and his self-creative abilities. In order to be able to establish the priority of existence as the defining moment of humanness Sartre suggests to contrast human self-production with the technological production of artifacts and divine creation of the world. Let us follow his argumentation from its onset at the essentialistically designed production!
   
(i) Technological Production Sartre argues that the "inspiration" to produce a specific object (say, a paper-cutter) always comes from its concept (idea, definition). As such the concept of paper-cutter is the essence of "what paper-cutter is" and thus it precedes the factual emergence of the object called "paper-cutter". This pre-conceived essence includes the characteristics that make an object a paper-cutter (definition) as well as the rules that define its production ("production routine") and use (purpose). According to Sartre, it is not possible to produce something without knowing in advance what that thing will be used for. (Sartre obviously does not view accidental or unintended inventions as cases of technological production and they are by all means an exception rather than rule.) Depicted in this way, the realm of technological production encompasses both artisanal manufacturing (crafts and arts) and industrial production on a large scale.
(ii) Divine Creation Sartre conceives divine creation in a close analogy with technological production (this analogy is very old and could be traced back to the Middle Ages and further back to Plato). The assumption of this parallel is that God in His actions proceeds deliberately and with foresight. Otherwise He would not be an intelligent being, let alone the most intelligent being in the universe. Owing to this assumption Sartre specifically invokes the rationalistic tradition of Descartes and Leibniz who have both envisioned God as a wise craftsman of the existing world. Now we may ask why Sartre makes the rationalist thinkers believe that God's will "follows (his) understanding"? The answer is that they reasonably assume that God is an intelligent being who does not act randomly and irrationally. Will is a desire determined by reason (Kant). If God operates "as a superior sort of artisan" in whom the will unmistakably follows the insight then we have here a striking parallel between the concept of paper-cutter in the mind of a manufacturer and the concept of man in the mind of God (assuming we accept the biblical story about the creation of man in the likeness of God). Sartre confirms the primacy of artisanship model not only for man in general but, in obvious reference to the creationist myth, proclaims "the individual man" to be "the realization of a certain concept in the divine intelligence".
(iii) Natural Reproduction Sartre does not elaborate directly on natural generation and human biological reproduction but it is clear that he hints at it in the very next paragraph where he speaks about the philosophers who assert the primacy of human nature. He states that this idea "is found everywhere", which means everywhere where man is credited with a certain nature. This nature functions as "the concept of the human" no matter whether it is formulated as a substantial nature in the manner of Aristotle or as a universal normative idea in the manner of Rousseau and Kant ("a universal concept"). Insofar as this concept overrides the differences between individual men and men of different social position and cultural level it functions as a pseudo-divine essence preceding and overshadowing the historical existence of man. Sartre ascribes this view to the philosophes (French philosophers of the Enlightenment), who have rejected a divine creation of the world and of man but used to uphold a universal concept of man that was supposedly realized in every particular human individual. This was politically a very progressive idea at the time as it established the equality of humankind notwithstanding all racial and social differences. However, it imposed a fixed and universal model of man over human self-creativity, i.e. the dominance of the first biological nature over the "second (social) human nature". Another issue with this concept is that this universality of human nature typically proves, as Marx has shown in his historical analyses, to be either a generalization or a projection of a certain privileged cultural or ethnic type.
(iv) Human Self-Production Unlike objects deprived of consciousness or animals, man, according to Sartre, does not have an essence that would define and predetermine what he is going to be after his birth. In contrast to animals, man has a "second nature" that is not wholly genetically predetermined. Therefore, Sartre rejects the idea of a universal human nature that would be embodied in all members of human race. Man is not an ensemble of a priori features, but a sequence of historical stages and individual projects. If this is an accurate explanation of man's reality human self-reproduction does not follow the pattern of essentialism or technological production. Man is not a pre-fabricated being, his life should not be understood as unfolding of an essence that persists throughout time thus making all humans instances of a man in general. On the contrary, man is what he makes of himself both individually and generically. As Sartre admits by the end of the essay, there are certain "a priori limits which outline man's fundamental situation in the universe" (the necessity to exist in the world, to be at work there, to be in the midst of other people, to be mortal, etc.), but although these "existentials", as they are called by Heidegger, are universal and transcendental they do not prevent men to "freely determine their existence with reference to them". Man is rather the openness toward historical possibilities than the realization of a pre-given essential code. As Jose Ortega y Gasset has stated: "Man has no nature; what he has is history." His history is the history in the making which is nothing else but self-making.
(v) Artistic Creativity In this essay Sartre does not discuss the artistic production in the sense of fine arts, presumably in order not to be enmeshed at this early stage into many complications stemming from the ambiguous character of artistic creativity. As the philosophy of art amply indicates, artistic production could be understood, on one hand, as a case of technological production or an imitation of divine creation on a smaller scale (representational art), but, on the other hand, it could be viewed as an extension of human self-creativity (non-representational art), which presents itself in the mode of the aforementioned existential possibilities. The first view is very traditional (drawing inspiration from something that precedes the work as a sketch), the second blurs the distinction between life and art and ultimately merges into an "aesthetic ethics". As it transpires by the end of the essay, Sartre accepts the non-representational and non-essentialist view of art: art is not execution of a priori rules. When seeing an artist at work, Sartre notes, we do not ask "what painting ought to be made?" presumably because we realize that artistic creation is a free adventure which cannot be predicted, calculated and designed in advance. This strengthens an analogy with human self-creation: the artist makes himself at the moment of creating his work, while "his work is embodied in his life". Therefore artistic productivity is an extension of human self-production, and conversely, human self-production, as envisioned by Sartre, possesses many features of free artistic creativity (it is molded upon the model of artistic production).
   
Summary: The Sartrean exposition of different kinds of production and generation is relatively sketchy, but if we follow closely what he says it is possible to reconstruct the whole comparative analysis on the backdrop of which he argues for the primacy of existence in man. A complete survey of all the realms and various ways of coming to be gives the following picture:
 

 

 

Type
Priority
Mode
Result
Technological Production Concept, Design Manufacturing Artifacts, Objects
Divine Creation Idea, Fore- knowledge Modeling World, Creatures
Natural Reproduction Form/Species, Universality Generation
Subsumption
Offspring, Beings
Human Self-Production Existence, Human Reality Re-Creation Individuals, Historical Human Nature
Artistic Creativity Existence, Performance Invention Products of Arts, Artworks


Based on this table several hypothetical conclusions seem to be in order:

Consequences: (1) If there is an intelligent Divine Creator the ideas in His mind would obviously precede His actual acts of Creation. This is the reason why Sartre intimates that in the world created and governed by God essences necessarily precede existence. If God exists not only man in general (as represented in the first man) but every individual man will be "the realization" of an idea in the mind of God. In the same manner, if God exists essence would precede existence for everything in the world except for God himself. God would be the only exception to the rule since He is by definition an instantaneous identity of essence and existence.
  (2) Natural production is species specific - a fox begets only a fox, not a fish. Freed from any divine interference that would come from without, nature is left with the primacy of actuality as manifested in various species of living beings. This actuality unites essence and existence both at the level of individual members and the species themselves. If we understand nature as a totality of immanently (genetically) regulated species (albeit perpetually adjusting to the environment) it is easy to resolve the old puzzle about what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Obviously the chicken, because it embodies the mature form which in its turn can conceive a new chick. (From the viewpoint of evolution, of course, the egg precedes the chicken, because it contains all the traits of the chicken plus the potential for mutation.) The whole process of generation is consequently circumscribed and directed by the essential form that reproduces itself in every individual member of the species (unless something extraordinary happens). Therefore the priority of a mature animal is not the same as the priority of human existence because the mode of being of animals is predetermined by their form (species) while the course of human recreation remains open despite the pre-existence of the biological side of human species.
(3) If the production of a paper-cutter represents the appropriate model of all coming to be, it is difficult to see how the priority of existence could be found anywhere in the world of existing things/beings. That is to say, if technological productions accurately describes the world, the only question then would be whether a particular production is of divine or of human origin. However, both would follow the same pattern, the divine being the original. If God did not exist, "the technical view of the world" will retain its validity for human products albeit not necessarily for men themselves. But the priority of essence in the realm of technological production is based on the fact that humans are endowed with intelligence and that they can create new objects by first making designs of them and then carrying them out. In this very traditional conception of technology the definition (of the product), its properties and "production routines" logically and chronologically precede the result of the production.
Dilemma: It seems that a universal priority of essence inevitably follows from (1). Even if God does not exist there is at least one area which essence necessarily precedes existence: the realm of technological production. Now the question is whether the technological model of production adequately renders human action in its entirety? If it does, the issue will be the question who conceives the essence of man now that God is gone? If the answer is "no", there is a chance that human self-generation displays its own legislation along the way so that human essence rather follows (or at least coincides) than precedes human reality. This is precisely the outcome that Sartre has in mind.
God's Existence: Of course, whether this is the case or not depends on whether God exists or not? If God has created man (and his nature), man cannot claim the primacy of his existence. Therefore, if existentialism "makes human life possible" in the aforementioned sense it cannot treat the question of God as a purely theological or academic issue. On the contrary, the way how we resolve the question whether God exists or not will determine the character of human self-understanding and the general condition of man in the world.
Note: At the very end of the essay Sartre says that the problem of God's existence is not "the issue" for existentialism. What he means by this is not that existentialism is not interested in the question but that it has already resolved it given the need of man "to regain himself" as the creator of his own world. Or better to say, human reality proves that man is responsible for himself. In other words, "nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of God's existence".
Theism: On the other hand, if we believe that God has created man in his own image then, according to Sartre, we have to admit that human essence, as conceived by God, precedes existence. The reasoning will have the following pattern:
(A) "If God exists, the essence precedes existence.
God exists.
Therefore essence precedes existence."
This is a valid modus ponens although the truth of the conclusion still depends on the truth of the antecedent in the starting premise that has not been demonstrated - only stipulated.
Flaw Note: By the same token, albeit in a reversed order, one could be tempted to assert that since human essence precedes existence, then God, as its bearer, must exist (for who else can hold it?).
(A1) "If God exists, the essence precedes human existence. The essence precedes existence. Therefore God exists."
This would be a variant of the argument from design assuming again that the consequent of the hypothetical premise is true, but its "if - then" implication is not valid (the reasoning commits the fallacy of affirming the consequence and materially ignores the fact that the priority of natural substantial forms can exist spontaneously without any God). It is therefore safer not to convert A into A1. The existence of God could be correctly asserted from the priority of essence only if reasoned in the following way: "If essence precedes existence then God exists. Essence precedes existence. Therefore God exists.".
(I) Theistic Hypotheticals: Thus we have two hypothetical propositions which purport to establish either the priority of essence based on the priority of God's existence or the existence of God based on the priority of essence:

(A) If God exists Essence precedes existence
(B) If essence precedes existence God exists

Problem: Apparently these propositions mutually support each other but they do it in a circular manner. There is no way to break this circulus.
Note:
Both (A) and (B) lead to additional difficulties. Christian existentialism stumbles upon both components of the hypothetical proposition (how can we have a free individual Self if God envisions it? How can we seek our personal identity if it is predetermined?).
Naturalism, by accepting B is led toward the acceptance of its consequence, which is self-contradictory  (how can we escape some God if there is a predetermined essence of man?). This is the kind of difficulty that Sartre unravels not only in traditional metaphysics and theology but in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in any other essentialist concept of human nature including modern science.
Coherence: Sartre claims that "atheistic existentialism" does not encounter this type of difficulties owing to its higher coherence (it is "more coherent"). Its coherence springs from the resolute stance not to posit together two incongruent ideas: God and "human reality". Sartrean existentialism breaks the conjunction of God and man, sets aside the former and opts for the latter thus securing the primacy of existence.
Refutation Sartre rebuts both A and B by means of the following two modi tollendae:
(Ax) "If God exists then essence precedes existence. Essence does not precede existence. Therefore God does not exist."
(Bx) "If essence precedes existence then God exists. God does not exists. Therefore essence does not precede existence."
  Both hypothetical syllogisms are logically valid. But what about their philosophical import? Is this a risky strategy, to deny God's existence for the sake of human existence? Does not putting God into brackets open a door for nihilism that will undermine the ground of all existence? Sartre's answer is: No! "If God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence." That being is man or "human reality" (this is Sartre's rendering of Heidegger's term for human existence: Da-sein = "being there").
Note: In fact Sartre, along with kojeve, accepted the proposal of Henry Corbin (a renown translator of Heidegger) to switch from existence (the initial rendering of Da-sein) to human reality. This translation might have influenced both Kojeve's and Sartre's anthropological interpretation of existence.
(II) Existential Hypotheticals: This reasoning motivates a positive reversal of the previous double bind. And now we see Sartre using the reverses both ways:

(C) If God does not exist
Existence precedes essence
(D) If existence precedes essence
God does not exist

Atheism: Although Sartre speaks conditionally about God's non-existence in C, he is not really hesitant about that issue. In fact he does not allow a slightest possibility that God perhaps existed. What makes him so sure is the established inter-dependence of the priority of human existence and divine non-existence. Hence he says assertorically that there is no human essence since there is no God to conceive it. At this point some readers could ask how does he know that God does not exist, that is to say, how he can assert Bx? The answer is obvious though not explicitly stated. He knows that simply because man exists, that is to say because he knows that he himself exists as a man who creates himself. (This self-awareness is an irrefutable evidence for otherwise theoretically premature formulation "since there is no God…")
Reasoning These two beings, man and God, are disjunctively conditioned. So much so that in order for man to exist in the sense of being a self-creating entity, God must not exist. Hence, if God does not exist, then existence precedes essence (C). However, Sartre can not prove the non-existence of God by affirming the consequence of C right away - that would be a fallacy of affirming the consequence. He must first use the non-existence of God as proof for the priority of human existence. The proof has the form of the following hypothetical syllogism:
   
Premise (Major): (i) If God does not exist, then human existence precedes essence. (general implication)
Premise (Minor): (ii) God does not exist.
 
Conclusion: (iii) Therefore human existence precedes essence. (consequence)
   
Primacy To be sure, the non-existence of God in itself does not entail the existence of man, but Sartre takes the latter as self-evident. On the other hand, since man exists as the priority of existence there could be no doubt about the non-existence of God. Now this self-evident fact could be used to support what was taken in the above syllogism as the ground for the affirmation of the antecedent. This reasoning could be also formulated as a hypothetical syllogism (modus ponens):
(D1)
Premise (Major): (i) If human existence precedes existence, God does not exist. (general implication)
Premise (Minor): (ii) Man exists as existence which precedes essence. (purported fact)
Conclusion: (iii) Therefore God does not exist. (consequence)
 
  The alternation of C and D may look like a circle that exists between A and B. It is not. It denotes two valid forms of hypothetical deductive reasoning based on the self-evident character of D1. While the contrary of D1 does not necessarily imply the existence of God it necessarily entails the absence of a God that could transform man into an object.
  Note: Despite this strong assertion of God's non-existence, the general drift of Sartre's essay is that the absence of any preceding essence is more fundamental for human reality than the absence of God. But ultimately these two statements (C and D) are just two different sides of the same coin. Later in the essay Sartre says that existentialism "is not so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn't exist". But this seemingly weaker formulation only strengthens the claim that God is not relevant for man's existence: "it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing" in the fundamental fact that we make ourselves who we are. The existence of man is, for Sartre, proof that God does not exist. If man exists as a not-pre-defined being, then God cannot exist. The idea that God and man are mutually exclusive notions is a huge novelty of the atheistic existentialism, despite the fact that some similarly tuned formulations could be found already in Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche.
Meaning: Now that the priority of human existence over essence has been established, we need to explicate its meaning and draw the consequences from it.
Sartre explains the priority of human existence in this way: "Man (first) exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only then defines himself." This sounds like the ancient saying primum vivere, deinde philosophari ("first live, then philosophize"), but its import is much more radical. Sartre does not want to say that eating and sleeping is more important than anything else which is a kind of luxury in life. He admits the biological priority of basic functions but claims that what is built upon it is by far more decisive. As Sartre says later on, every man performs "an absolute act in breathing, eating, sleeping or behaving in any way whatever", but this act does not constitute human essence (who we are), only "a configuration" within which an already present existence shapes its own essence. To be sure, man exists "like a configuration" before he can be defined by any concept and hence his existence should be the basis for any posterior definition of his nature, not the other way round. But his nature is that he does not have a nature, at least initially when he appears in the midst of other beings. Therefore biological life does not equal human existence nor essence. The point here is that "what man is" (the traditional nature of man) is not determined by any pre-existing essence, not even the biological nature. Man himself decides whether he is going to be a grumpy and nasty person or a kind and caring infividual, a miserable creature or an energetic and optimistic human, a murderer or an artist, an obedient subject or a free spirit...
 

Note: The priority of existence excludes all traditional and modern concepts of what does it mean to be a human: to conform to the "Form of Humanness" (Plato), to realize the "Function of Man" (Aristotle), to embody the "idea of humanity" (Kant), to display a specific "generic code", to possess "human genome", etc. Whatever version it takes, human nature denotes something that is present in each and every man, something common to all men, something composed of innate, hereditary and spontaneous traits. If formulated in this way the concept of human nature suggests an invariable identity (a totality of shared features and abilities) which in advance determines what we are. This in turn implies a possibility to provide a universal definition that would be applicable to all men. But such an all-embracing definition is exactly what Sartre renounces because, (a) it denies our individuality, and (b) it refutes our freedom and involvement in making ourselves.

Denial: For Sartre, "human nature" as a pre-existing form is not possible simply because there is no super mind to shape it as an essence which predetermines and defines what man is and must be. In saying this Sartre hints at two things: (a) the absence of any preceding human essence, and (b) the non-existence of any transcendent instance to conceive it. He suggests that (b) is the primary reason for (a). "There is no human nature, since there is no God." If there is no God, who can determine human nature upfront and along the process? If you say Nature, than nature just replaces the old (dead) God. If someone said that the concept of human nature exists but has never been actualized, Sartre would ask how does it exist has conceived and formulated it. If nature is an anonymous albeit self-regulated process it still does not make sense to apply the concept of essence to man who has emancipated himself from absolute biological determination. Where would such an essence be located and grasped even if it existed if there are no creators and transcendent intellects?
Note: This difficulty closely resembles the old puzzle: Can we talk about the sound in a forest if there is nobody to hear it?
Discussion:

Sartre: As it will become clear in the last part of the essay, man is, for Sartre, the sum total of his acts, not the manifestation of an inner natural essence. Therefore a universal human nature does not exist, only a perpetual formative process which is culturally and historically determinable although not absolutely determined. Later on Sartre indicates that there is a duality between the "absoluteness" of existence and "the relativeness of each epoch", but he claims that it has the form of "connection" between "the absolute character of free involvement by virtue of which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of mankind" and the "relativeness of the cultural ensemble which may result from such a choice".

Note: This reasoning could be associated with the idea from Marx' The Capital that there are two "human natures", one that persists throughout different epochs and the other one that historically changes. But Sartre abolishes any difference between the universality of existential configuration and the historically localized existence. Later in the essay he mentions some "objective" conditions that "are to be found everywhere and (that) are recognizable everywhere". But he insists that the "configurations" of these conditions, although universal, are not given, but "perpetually being made". Thus freedom always overpowers determination.

Critics: If there is no human essence and if "human nature" does not exists how can we talk about "man" in the first place? Is not "man" something general, something that must be determinable one way or another in order to be a meaningful notion? Not only philosophical nativists but the majority of human scientists surmise in a way that existence precedes essence. But they believe that this existence has a nature that could be defined by making reference to some essential traits like bi-pedalism, agile hands, sophisticated vocal cords, big brains, or whatever else that appears to be a distinctive mark of being human. Nobody cannot exist, act, think etc., without being something in the first place and man also must be what he is if he exists. In the same vein contemporary neurologists claim that there is a kind of built-in soft-ware that accounts for our behavior and thoughts. This priority of "essence" does not reduce existence to an external unfolding nor does it make essence unchangeable and derivable from an a priori definition of man. But it makes a pure existence an impossible concept.

Note: The existentialist denial of human nature could be viewed as the most recent (atheistic) version of the old anti-essentialist objections to the idea that one can define man by virtue of a standard and universal definition. This tradition had started with the empiricist thesis that human mind is a "blank slate" and it has found its continuation in the anthropologist conviction that the overwhelming impact of culture makes "human nature" so maleable that it ultimately ceases to be a real nature. To be sure, Sartre does not negate the concept of human nature in the name of history and culture so that these become a kind of anonymous substitutes for the old nature. This was the position of Marxism aimed at demonstrating the need for a comprehensive social change. However, the rejection of human nature is not necessarily progressive. It could have opposite practical consequences. Yes, it could increase the awareness of differences and so raise the level of tolerance, but it could equally lead to exclusion and various forms of supremacy. On the other hand, precisely the idea of human nature in general can provide a powerful argument for the affirmation of equal human rights although its scientific foundation must remain normatively neutral.

Cryptic Nature:

When existentialists say that man is "existence" do they in fact sell existence as a new essence of man only this time by avoiding to name it? Sartre would agree in a sense with this but he would contend that human existence is not an abstract a priori definable essence. At most it is my own individual identity that I create by formulating my life-plan based on my actions and choices. For Sartre, "a man is nothing else than a series of undertakings" that spring from his fundamental choices. If there is a human nature, it is always behind or away from man, either something already surpassed and obsolete, or something to be accomplished but never fully actualized. The question is, of course, does this mean "that there are no characteristics whatsoever that we must have in order for us to exist as human beings" (Guignon and Pereboom)? And if so, what would make us distinguishable from other beings? Sartre's answer is paradoxical: our distinguishing mark is precisely this that we do not possess such characteristics.

Note: Sartre does not have to shun from paradoxical twists like the one which says that the only nature of man is that he does not have one or that existence is man's essence. He can always say that these weak concepts of essence should be understood as synonyms for freedom or the ever changing "ensemble" of relationships and undertakings. However, Sartre probably pushes the envelope by claiming that man is "only what he will himself to be after this thrust toward existence". Strictly speaking this formulation disregards both the moment of nature and nurture and over-blows the moment of autonomous self-creation. In stressing the moment of self-creation one should be cautious not to equate it with the absolute and whimsical creation out of nothing. Man must be something in order to be able to exist and if so his projects define the direction. As the wording from the second part of the essay indicate, Sartre seems to be aware of several snares lurking behind some of his most radical formulations in the first part.

Transcendence: In entering the arena of actions and interactions with others man inevitably extends his past and current existence into the future, or better to say he makes projections into the future. Human existence is therefore both transcendence (not entirely determinable) and a complex facticity (something relatively determinate). If we view man only from the vintage point of facticity (the program) he certainly possesses an essence, the one which is definable at every historical stage of his development. But this essence is itself something historical, changeable, not an eternal, permanent essence. This is the reason why man can never apprehend his facticity as factual, for it is always entangled in a web of projective meanings and it could be defined only a posteriori when it is not any more what the definition has captured from it. We become fully essences only when all is over, at the end of our lives. As man perpetually changes and transcends what he has been or presently is, he is always more than something definite.
Indefinite: If man escapes any definition because he constantly surpasses what he already is, one can say that man is in fact an "indefinite being" - he is every next moment something else. He is not what he is and he is what he is not. Therefore an adequate definition of man necessarily fails if it is complete while an incomplete definition by definition remains inadequate. This is why defining man for an existentialist thinker is a futile endeavor. In other words, we do not know and cannot know what is man exactly. And we do not know that because we cannot know what he can make of himself. Which must be a part of every good definition. What man is could be known only retrospectively, by stating what he is not any longer. Thus every definition of man misses the essence of man precisely by capturing it. In brief, man cannot be defined because he is an "indefinable" being.
  Note: The only distant historical parallel to this view could be perhaps found in Fichte's philosophy of the self-positing "I" which surges into being and then proceeds by a series of free acts (choices) to construct itself.
Nothing: Man is indefinable because he is not "some-thing" in the manner of inanimate objects or animals. It is more appropriate to view man as "nothing" than to reduce him to a something definite and thus negate his power of self-overcoming:

Nothing => Undefined
Something => Definable

When Sartre says that man is "indefinable" because at first he is "nothing" he does not mean literally that man is "nothing" at all. If man is not just a creature and something definite he is not therefore a sheer nothing. Man is "nothing" in the sense that he is "nothing else but what he makes of himself". His biological nature, stripped of all individual characteristics and personal plans, is just an abstraction denoting man in general, i.e. nothing real and existent. Have you ever seen man in general? In addition, Sartre wants to say that man is "nothing" fixed and defined in time. At every point in time we have "something" as our being but man is a flow and development, self-overcoming.

  This is still a very radical formulation, but its meaning is now qualified: man is not something de-finite, something determined as some thing although he is something at the beginning and afterwards. Man will be something afterwards, that is to say, "after he makes what he will be". But even then he will not be entirely identical to himself. There will be always a gap between his factual being and his transcending being, a gap which is itself a kind of "nothing". Thus "nothing" settles within man as his inner essence. In view of this we can say that man is "nothing" in the sense of not coinciding either with himself or his situation. Thus "nothing" indicates a fundamental incongruence in human being that makes man unique and unfinished. I am separated from myself by that "nothing" which is also a hallmark of consciousness (cf. Being and Nothingness). And consciousness is always different and always strives for more.
Unfinished This partly logical, partly phenomenological discussion of the impossibility and inadequacy of every definition of man has a practical intent. Sartre's message is simply that if we define man as something we deprive him of at least of some of his human potentials, we nail him down to a particular stage within his development or a role he might play and thus we betray the very core of human existence.
  Example: The popular singer Shania Twaine has the line: "What do you think you are? A rocket scientist or something?" The proper existentialist answer to this objectifying question would be: "No, I am nothing." If you are something you are reduced to something no matter how respectable that "something" might be (a CEO, a politician, "a rocket scientist" or something comparable), or (which is even worse) you are finished (done) because you are nothing else but a well-positioned, rich and influential owner of external goods.
Self-Conception: Man is for Sartre only "what he conceives himself to be", but that remains open and virtually indefinable. Of course, "what he conceives himself to be" could be also envisioned as a kind of covert nature, but even then it would differ immensely from the essence of man as conceived by God. Man is not a God to prescribe his self-conception to all individuals as a law and pre-determined concept. My project is not designed for human beings as a collective, although I formulate it so that it takes other men into account, pertains to them and sends a certain message to all men. But each individual creates his own "essence" as his own identity just for themselves. Therefore "what man conceives himself to be" exists in a special mode, as a plan, intention or projection (first and foremost of an individual, and only secondarily of a generation, age, mankind - in this order).
Elucidation: The whole paragraph beginning with the phrase "man is nothing else but …" is very "dense" in meaning. In it Sartre first states the grounding principle of existentialism, then elucidates its meaning by establishing reference to the future, then upon finishing this he draws a distinction between two senses of self-projecting, and finally, he introduces the concept of universal responsibility. We shall follow his conspectus.
1st Principle: "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." Sartre calls this "the first principle of existentialism". The import of this principle is that nothing else, God or other external instances, determines what man is. What the principle says is a direct implication of the priority of human existence now described as a dynamic entity that evolves into a self-made creation. Man is what he does, what he is becoming, what he makes of himself. If man is only what he actively makes of himself, and not what he inherits or gets from without (or above), then it makes sense to say that this principle is tantamount to "what is also called subjectivity".

Connotation:

Thesis (b)

The term "subjectivity" could be understood in two ways:
(a) negatively, as a charge to the effect that existentialism overlooks the objective factors of human condition, namely that what man's heritage and circumstances make of him, or
(b) positively, as an affirmation of human subjectivity against some false objectifications: man is not a mere outcome of anonymous natural and social forces (object) but the creator of his self and the subject of human history.

True Meaning The charge of subjectivism rests on a very simplified understanding of subjectivity in the sense of making arbitrary subjective choices choices. Although some of his wordings come very close to the idea that man chooses at whim what he wants Sartre takes the term "subjectivity" mostly in the sense of (b). Subjectivity signifies for him the fundamentally human character of our world, the fact that our actions involve other and that others involve us, that, in brief, we are dealing with our own projections and other humans when we take actions. In doing this, he uses the word "subjectivity" in the sense of German Idealism, as denoting the active involvement of the subject in the process of self-realization, especially the active role of consciousness. This meaning is underscored by Sartre polemically against the dogmatic materialism that treats man as an "object", that is to say, as "an ensemble of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table or a chair or a stone".

Dignity The second meaning of subjectivity conforms to Sartre's intention to establish absolute uniqueness of human existence among other types of existing entities. Hence the principle of subjectivity purports to suggest that man has "a greater dignity" than a stone (inanimate nature), a patch of moss or cauliflower (natural plants), a table (an artifact), a piece of garbage (waste). None of these can be credited with subjectivity, consciousness, will, desires, projections. They are just objects, simply present, at best potential objects of human action and will.
  Note: In philosophy, the term subjectivity denotes a whole host of different concepts: the I, Ego, Self, consciousness, subject, mind, etc. Though very critical of modern rationalist strains which usually overlook the corporeal aspects of human condition existentialism is itself a typical modern philosophy in emphasizing the powers of human subjectivity. In addition it explicates subjectivity in a conspicuously Cartesian manner (the legacy of phenomenology?). For instance, the starting point must be the Cogito, or "the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself". This "absolute" and directly experienced truth is, for Sartre, the condition of all other (probable) truths. This sounds extremely Cartesian, with only one qualification: Existentialism takes human subjectivity as its starting point albeit not in its neutral, washed out form. Subjectivity is not a vacuous I of Descartes but the embodied consciousness as experienced in really defining existential situations (anxiety, despair, bad faith, etc.). This means, as Guignon and Pereboom appropriately state, that the starting point for a "bedrock account of life" must be "the concrete, existing individual and the individual's own sense of self and world".
  The two meanings of subjectivity compliment and explicate the two meanings of existentialism previously stated. We should realize that all these notions are variations on the same theme.
 
Doctrine of Existentialism
Principle of Existentialism
Connotation of Subjectivity
Making human life possible Existence precedes essence Individual makes himself
Action implies human subjectivity Subjectivity must be the starting point Impossibility to transcend subjectivity
Future:
In his further explication of the 1st principle Sartre seemingly only repeats what has been already said: man (first) exists and everything else comes afterwards. In fact he is now explaining this priority differently, in terms of envisaging man as being always turned away from himself, that is as being future-oriented. In the previous paragraph Sartre has qualified the statement that man is only what he conceives himself to be in the following manner:
"Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he will himself to be." This phrasing ascribes a volitional and temporal existence to man, or better to say, the ability to envision oneself in time and specifically as other (different) than presently given. Now this implication receives some additional elaboration.
To exist (obviously a normative notion) means at least two things: (p) that "man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future", and (q) that man "is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future".
Difference: In view of both (p) and (q) we understand why other objects/beings lack the "dignity" Sartre ascribes to man only:

(1) they do not possess self-consciousness (they are simply in - "beings in themselves" as Sartre calls them in Being and Nothingness);
(2) they do not "hurl themselves toward a future" (they are irrevocably caught in the present);
(3) they are not capable of imagining the self as being in the future (they are not temporal, self-projecting and self-overcoming beings).
Will:

After establishing this Sartre draws a very important although somewhat obscure distinction between what man "will have planned to be" (qu'il aura projete d'etre) and "what he will want to be" (qu'il vouloir voudra etre). He claims that man will be only the former but not the latter. In order to be able to get some grasp of this distinction it might be helpful to transpose it into another tense by comparing the following phrasings: "what man has planned to be" and "what man wanted to be". The second phrase corresponds to the common notion of "will" (vouloir) which designates a conscious wish or decision subsequent to what we have already made of ourselves. Sartre admits that "little" choices are always possible and that they in fact occur daily (day-to-day decisions): "I may want to belong to a political party, write a book, get married." But, for Sartre, these are only manifestations of an earlier, more spontaneous and more fundamental plan that is called "will" (volonte) in the strong sense. He claims that our small desires are only derivatives of these grounding choices that precede and guide our regular wishes and decisions - to be politically engaged, to become a man of letters, not to be a single, etc.

Note: The distinction between "what you planned" and "what you wanted" corresponds in some important aspects to the Socratic distinction between "what you want" and "what you see fit". The former is both fundamental and conducive to the best interest of the self, the latter is adaptable to circumstances and short-term calculations. Kant's distinction between willing something and wishing it may be applicable here: I can wish a lie, but I cannot will lying. One can think also of some parallels with Nietzsche's "will to power" or Freud's idea of "libidinal instincts and desires" which underlie our overt choices and actions. The major difference seems to be that the "fundamental plan" (or "will) in Sartre is not only (potentially) "self-aware" but also amenable to conscious self-inspection (?).

Plan: Based on the foregoing discussion we can now explain the otherwise barely intelligible distinction between the expressions "planned to be" and "wanted to be". The first phrase refers to the basic plan or primordial choice that determines who we are (our identity). With regard to this fundamental choice Sartre says that "man is at the start plan which is aware of itself" and accordingly specifies that man is "only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence". The second phrase refers only to derived, indecisive choices that do not affect the volitional power of the foundational choice or plan. Thus, there is no contradiction between the affirmation that man is "only what he will himself to be" (spontaneous plan) and the preceding denial that man is "what he will want to be" (the plan of small desires). As Sartre says later on: "Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life." Or to put it in this way: We are never exactly what we want us to be. We are always what we have done to us and with us.

Note: The "more spontaneous choice" obviously functions as a kind of very complex and variable "program" that generates conscious decisions through interaction of various modules within our consciousness. Is that something that resembles the old "essence" or "nature"? No, it is rather something beyond nature and nurture, something that Sartre calls "choosing his own self" (self-nourishment). It is not arbitrary but it is not predetermined either. Nor does it pre-exist. The original choosing to-be is not constituted by previous traumatic experiences and conditioning but driven by "initial projects" that could assume many different forms (in fact they are indistinguishable from our acts). These "original projects" influence our day-to-day decisions, but they are not set in stone. It is possible to change the character of his own self, although that would require a "radical conversion" of somebody's existence, and that does not happen so easily.
Priority: Sartre claims that nothing exists prior to those fundamental plans. This is certainly an overstatement. One can ask what about the previously mentioned "thrust toward existence" or what we can call "a priori limitations" of our existence? Apparently they are either equal to or incorporated into the original plan ("big bang" is not an absolute beginning). Thus Sartre cannot mean seriously that nothing else exists apart from man's primordial plan/thrust.
In saying that nothing exists prior to fundamental plan Sartre wants simply to exclude any transcendent instance prior to the human thrust toward existence and those fundamental plans. There is no heaven beyond our existence, but the world with other beings and the whole social and historical context certainly pre-exists.
Sartre's point could also be that what precedes is not real existence in the sense of being self-reflective and self-projecting consciousness which inevitably carries a moment of negation toward the past, the facticity, being-in-itself, "what-I-have-been". Since man is never identical with what he has been, since he is always beyond, since he always surpasses his facticity and always takes distance toward his past which, consequently he cannot determine what he is to become based on what he is and encounters.
Steps: If we accept existence as the starting point then the life of subjectivity comprises the following stages or better to say moments (they are not temporally ordered):
 
Status Implication
Nature Indefinable
Thrust Nothing
Plan Awareness
Will Defining
Subjectivity Auto-Creation
Future Dignity
Feeling Responsibility
Choice Value
   
 

 


"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself."
I am rushing to replenish my addiction supplies.

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