JEAN PAUL SARTRE
The Humanism of Existentialism I
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
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
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.
||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.
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.
||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
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.
(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.
(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
(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
|No Eternal Verities
||Relativity of Values
||One can summarize all the charges
along with the alleged effects in this way:
||<= both Marxists and Catholics
No philosophy battled by the alleged consequences can raise claim to be
|| 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).
||Existentialism could be positively described as a doctrine
(a) "makes human life possible", and
(b) "declares that every truth and every action implies human
setting and human subjectivity".
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 is accused of being morose and naturalistic, even vulgar and ugly. These are misperceptions. Sartre's self-description would stress the following traits:
||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.
||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).
|| 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).
||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
|| 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."
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.
||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.
||Making life possible
||Existence precedes Essence
||Action implies subjectivity
||Subjectivity is starting point
|| 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
Jean Paul Sartre
||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?
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.
||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.
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).
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:
|| 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!
|| 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.
||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".
|| 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.
||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.
|| 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).
||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:
||Idea, Fore- knowledge
||Existence, Human Reality
||Individuals, Historical Human Nature
||Products of Arts, Artworks
Based on this table several hypothetical conclusions seem to be in order:
||(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.
||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.
||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".
||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.
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.
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.".
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
||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
||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
||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
||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
|| 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…")
||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
||(i) If God
does not exist, then human existence precedes essence. (general
does not exist.
human existence precedes essence. (consequence)
||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
||(i) If human existence
precedes existence, God does not exist. (general implication)
||(ii) Man exists as existence
which precedes essence. (purported fact)
||(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.
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.
||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.
||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?
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
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.
||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.
||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"
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
||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
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.
||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.
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.
||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).
||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.
||"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".
|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.
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".
||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.
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
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".
||In view of both (p) and (q) we understand
why other objects/beings lack the "dignity" Sartre ascribes to man
(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).
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 (?).
||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.
||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
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.
||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):
"Man is nothing else but
what he makes of himself."
I am rushing to replenish my addiction supplies.