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Existentialism is a Humanism By Jean Paul SartreTranslated by translate.google.com and Adam Norman
I would like to defend existentialism against a number of criticisms.
Existentialism has been accused of inviting people to remain in quietism of despair. Because all solutions are impossible, one should consider that action in this world is totally impossible, and that eventually leads to contemplative philosophy. However since contemplation is a luxury, we are brought back to a bourgeois philosophy. This criticism is mainly from the Communists.
We have been criticized, on the other hand, for emphasizing the human ignominy, for showing all the sordid, the louche, the slimy, and for neglecting a number of smiling beauties and the bright side of human nature. For example, according to Ms. Mercier, a Catholic critic, we have forgotten the smile of the child. One and another accuse us of missing human solidarity, of believing that man is isolated, largely also because we start, say the Communists, with pure subjectivity; that is, we start with Cartesian thought, i.e, the moment when man attains his own solitude, the position that makes man unable thereafter to return to solidarity with men outside of himself, whom cannot be reached from the cogito.
And from the Christian side, we are criticized for denying the reality and seriousness of human undertakings, since if we remove the commandments of God and the values enshrined in eternity, there remains only strict freedom; each can do what she wants, and is incapable from his point of view of condemning the views and actions of others.
It is to these various reproaches that I seek to respond today, which is why I titled this brief account: Existentialism is a Humanism. Many will be surprised that we are talking about humanism. We will try to see which in which sense we understand it. In any case, what we can say at the outset is that by “existentialism” we mean a doctrine that makes human life possible and which, moreover, declares that every truth and every action involving a milieu and a human subjectivity. The main criticism says, as we know, that existentialists focus on the bad side of human life. A lady, I was told recently, says when she drops a vulgar word in a moment of nervousness, “I think I am becoming an existentialist.” Ugliness is equated to existentialism, which is why one declares that we are naturalists, and if we are, it is surprising that we would frighten anyone. We scandalize many more than the naturalists, who can properly say that they do not frighten or scandalize anyone today. Those who can swallow a novel by Zola, like The Earth, are disgusted when they read an existentialist novel. Those that appeal to the knowledge of the people—which is very sad—find us even sadder. Yet what could be more disillusioned than sayings like “charity begins at home” or “Love a villain and he’ll hate you. Hate a villain and he’ll love you”? We know the cliches on this subject, and they all say the same thing: Do not try to rise above your station. Do not fight the powers that be, do not struggle; any action that does not fit into tradition is a romance; an attempt which is not based on proven experience is doomed to failure; and experience shows that men are always descending into baseness and anarchy and must be restrained by force. But it is the people who insist on these sad proverbs: the people who say “How typical!” every time they are shown a more or less repugnant act, the people who revel in sickening songs. These are the people who accuse existentialism of being too dark, and to the point that I wonder if what grieves them is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. Is it the foundation that scares them, the doctrine that I am going to explain to you, that leaves a possibility of choice to man? To find out, we need to revisit the issue from a strictly philosophical framework. What is it we call existentialism?
Most people who use that word would be lost to justify it, because today it has become a fashion; we gladly say that a musician or a painter is existentialist. A gossip columnist from Clartés signs his articles, “the
Existentialist”, and basically took the word todayhas such breadth and such an extension that it means nothing at all. It seems that in the absence of an avant-garde doctrine analogous to surrealism, people hungry for scandal and movement are attracted to this philosophy, which can not give them anything; in reality it is the the least scandalous doctrine , the most austere, and it is strictly for technicians and philosophers. However, it can be defined easily. What makes things complicated is that there are two kinds of existentialists: the first, who are Christian existentialists, and among whom I put Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic; and, secondly, the atheist existentialists among whom we must place Heidegger, and also the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply that they believe that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that we must begin from subjectivity. What, exactly, does this mean? When considering a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper cutter, this object was made by a craftsman who was inspired by a concept; he referred to the concept of cut paper, and also a pre-production technique that is part of the concept, which is basically a recipe. Thus, the cutter is at once an object that occurs in a certain way and also, on the other hand, has a defined value, and we cannot assume a man would produce a paper cutter without knowing how it will be used. Let us say that, for the paper-cutter, the essence—that is to say all definitions and qualities that help produce it and define it—precedes existence, and thus the presence in front of me, like the paper cutter or the book, is determined. Here we have a technical vision of the world in which we can say that production precedes existence.
When we design a creator God, this God is considered mostly a superior craftsman, and whatever we consider the doctrine, whether it be a doctrine like that of Descartes or Leibniz’s, we always assume that the will more or less follows the understanding or, at least, accom panies it, and that when God creates, He knows precisely what He creates. Thus, the concept of man, who has the spirit of God, is comparable to the concept of a paper cutter in the spirit of the artisan, and God produces man following techniques and design, just as the artisan manufactures a paper cutter following a definition and a technique. Thus the individual man carries a concept that is also in the divine. In the eighteenth century, in the atheism of philosophers, the notion of God is suppressed, but not for all the idea that essence precedes existence. We find this idea everywhere: we find in Diderot, Voltaire, and even in Kant. Man is possessed of a human nature. That human nature, the human concept, is found in all men, meaning that every man is a particular example of a universal concept, “man”. In Kant, it follows from this that the hermit, the wild man, and the bourgeois are constrained by the same definition and have the same basic qualities. So, again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we encounter in nature.
The atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more consistent. It states that if there is no God, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before it can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant by this, that existence precedes essence? This means that man first exists, occurs, arises in the world, and is only defined later. Man, as conceived by the existentialist, if he is not definable, is not definable because he is, at first, nothing. He will not be until later, and then he will be as he makes himself. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Man is not only as he is conceived, but as he wants to be, and as he conceives himself after existence, as he wants to be after this impulse towards existence. Man is nothing other than what he is. This is the first principle of existentialism. It is also called subjectivity, and it is this for which we are also criticized. But what do we mean by this, but that man has more dignity than a stone or a table? We mean that man first exists, that is to say, man is, first, what is thrust into a future, and he is conscious of himself existing into that future. Man is primarily a project that is lived subjectively, rather than a foam, a rot or a cauliflower. Nothing exists prior to this project, nothing is intelligible to heaven, and man, to exist, will first have to be a project. He is not what he wishes to be, however. For we usually mean by “a will” that there is a conscious decision, and that is, for most of us, after we have made ourselves. I may want to join a party, write a book, get married; all these are just one manifestation of a more original choice, more spontaneous than what is called “will”. But if indeed existence precedes essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first step of existentialism is to put every man in possession of what he is and to base him on total responsibility for his own existence. And
when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not want to say that man is responsible for his strict individuality, but he is responsible for all men. There are two meanings to the word “subjectivism”, and our opponents play on both senses. Subjectivism means on the one hand a choice of the individual subject himself, and, on the other hand, the impossibility of man transcending human subjectivity. The second meaning is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we believe that each of us chooses, but by this we mean that by choosing he also chooses all men. In effect, when a man chooses what we wants to be, he creates a man as he must be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose. We can never choose evil; what we choose is always good, and nothing can be good for us without being for all. If existence precedes essence and we want to exist at the same time as we shape our image, that image is valid for all and for our whole epoch. Thus, our responsibility is much greater than we might suppose, because it involves all mankind. If I’m laborer, and if I choose to join a Christian trade union rather than communist; if, by that membership, I want to indicate that resignation is basically the right solution for man, that the kingdom the man is not on earth; I do not do so only for my case: I want resignation for everyone, so my approach has committed all humanity. And if what I want is more individual, to get married, have children, even if this marriage depends solely on my situation, or my passion or my desire, by that I commit not only myself, but all humanity on the path of monogamy. So I am responsible for myself and for all, and I create a certain image of man that I choose; by choosing me, I choose man.
This allows us to understand what is meant by rather grandiloquent words such as anguish, abandonment, and despair. As you’ll see, it is extremely simple. First, what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist says that man is in happy agony. She means this: the man who is committed and who realizes he is not only choosing for himself but is also a legislator choosing at the same time for all humanity cannot escape the sense of his total and deep responsibility. While many people are not anxious, they pretend to conceal their anguish, they flee from it. Certainly, many people believe in not committing themselves, and when asked “But what if everyone did that?” shrug their shoulders and answer: “Everybody does not do that.” But in truth, we must always ask: what if everyone did the same? and we will escape this disturbing thought only by a sort of bad faith. He who lies and excuses himself by saying everyone does not similarly is someone who is uncomfortable with his conscience, because the act of lying implies a universal value attributed to the lie. Even at the same time, a mask if anxiety appears. It is this anguish that Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son (if all goes well it’s really an angel). It came and said, you, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son. But everyone should ask themselves, first, is that it is an angel, and is what I am Abraham? What proves it? There was a madwoman who had hallucinations: she spoke to a man by phone and he gave orders. The doctor asked, “But who is he talking to you?” She replied, “He says He is God.” And what he proved, indeed, that he was God? If an angel comes to me, what proves that he is an angel? And if I hear voices, what proves that they come from heaven, not hell, or my subconscious, or a medical condition? What proves that they come to me? What proves that I am annointed to impose my conception of man and my choice on humanity? I’ll never find evidence, any evidence, to convince me. If a voice speaks to me, it’s always me who will decide that this voice is the voice of an angel; if I consider that such an act is good, it is I who will choose to say that this act is good rather than bad. I have no way to be Abraham, and yet I am obliged to make the same exemplary acts.
It is as if, for every man, mankind had fixed its eyes on what he does and settled on what it will do. And every man must ask: Am I the one who has the right to act so that humanity will be ruled my actions? And if he does not say this, it only means he masks the anxiety. This is not an anxiety that leads to quietism, inaction. This is a simple anxiety, for all who are aware of the responsibilities. When, for example, a military leader takes responsibility for an attack and sends a number of men to death, he chooses to do, and basically he chooses alone. No doubt there are orders coming from above, but they are too wide and his interpretation is required, and on that interpretation depends the life of ten or fourteen or twenty men. He cannot but have, in the decision he makes, some anxiety. All leaders know that anguish. This does not prevent them from acting; on the contrary, it is the very condition of their action, because it means they are considering a plurality of
possibilities, and when they choose one, they realize that the choice is valuable only because it is chosen. And this kind of anguish, which is the one described existentialism, we will see is also due to a direct responsibility vis-à-vis other men. It is not a curtain that separates us from action, but it is part of the action itself.
And when speaking of abandonmnent, a word dear to Heidegger, we mean only that God does not exist, and we must draw out the consequences. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular morality that would remove God with the least possible expense. When, around 1880, French teachers tried a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, but it is necessary, however, for there to be a moral compass for society, for a civilized world, that some values are taken seriously and regarded as existing a priori. It must be mandatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to have children, etc. etc. So we will do a little work to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven even though there is no God. In other words, (and this is, I believe, the tendency of all that is called in France “radicalism”) nothing will be changed if God does not exist, we will meet the same standards of honesty, progress, of humanism, and we will have made God an outdated hypothesis which will die quietly and of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it is very embarrassing that God does not exist, because with him disappears the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any a priori good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it; it is nowhere written that property exists, or that man must be honest and not tell lies, precisely because we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permitted if God does not exist, and therefore man is helpless, because he finds neither within nor outside himself a fixed point. He first finds no excuses. If, indeed, existence precedes essence, one can never explain by reference to a fixed and given human nature, meaning that there is no determinism; man is free, man is freedom. If, on the other hand, there is no God, we do not find in front of us values or orders which legitimize our conduct. Thus, we have neither justifications nor excuses behind us nor before us in a field of numinous values. We are alone, without apologies. This is what I express by saying that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because did not create himself; free, however, because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never think that a beautiful passion is a devastating torrent which fatally leads man to certain acts, and that, therefore, it is an excuse. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion.
The existentialist does not think that man can find relief in a given sign, or on firm ground, which would somehow guide him, for he thinks that man interprets a sign as he pleases. He therefore thinks every man, without any support, is condemned at every instant to invent man. Ponge said, in a very nice article, “Man is the future of man.” It is perfectly true. But if by that we mean that this future is written in heaven, as God sees it, then it is false, because that would not even be a future. But if we understand that, however man appears, there is a future to be, a virgin future that awaits him, then this is correct. But then it was abandoned. To give you an example that allows better understanding of neglect, I cite the case of one of my students came to me in the following circumstances: his father had quarreled with his mother, and was also inclined to collaborate; his older brother was killed in the German offensive of 1940, and this young man, with somewhat primitive but generous feelings, wanted revenge. His mother lived alone with him and was very distressed by the semi-treason of his father and the death of his eldest son, and could find consolation in him. This young man had a choice, at that time, between going to England and enlisting in the French Underground forces—that is to say abandoning his mother—or remaining with his mother, helping them survive. He was well aware that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance—and perhaps his death—would plunge her into despair. He also knew deeply, concretely, that every act he was doing with respect to his mother was as her sponsor, in the sense that it helped her to live; if, instead, he went to go and fight, his actions could get lost in the sands and be of no avail: for example, leaving for England, he could have to stay indefinitely in a Spanish camp, it could happen in England or Algiers; he could be in an office doing paperwork. Therefore, he was faced with two very different types of action: one concrete, immediate, but addressed only one individual, or another action that targeted a whole infinitely greater, a nation, but which was thus ambiguous, and could be stopped on the way.
And at the same time, he hesitated between two types of morality. On the one hand, a morality of sympathy, of personal devotion, and secondly, a wider morality, but of more questionable effectiveness. We had to choose between the two. What could help him choose? Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: be charitable, love your neighbor, sacrifice yourself to others, choose the hardest way, etc. etc. But what way is the hardest? Who is he to love as his brother, the fellow patriot or his mother? How useful is the large action, the wave of fighting, in a whole compared to one that is specific and will help a specific living being? Who can decide a priori? No one. No moral code can help. Kantian ethics says: never treat others as means but only ever as an ends. Okay, if I live with my mother, I will treat her as an end and not as a means; but doing so, I treat as means those who fight around me; and vice versa if I join those who fight. I will treat them as ends, and therefore I will treat my mother as a means.
If values are vague, and if they are still too vast for precise and concrete cases, we think it only remains for us to trust our instincts. That’s what this young man has tried to do, and when I saw him, he said, basically, what matters is the feeling. I should choose the direction I am pushed in. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else—my revenge, my want of action, my desire for adventure—I stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for my mother is not enough, I’m leaving. But how to determine the value of a feeling? What was the value of his feeling for his mother? Precisely the fact that he stayed there with her. I can say: I like this friend enough to give him a sum of money, but I cannot say it unless I’ve done it. I can say I love my mother enough to stay with her, if I stayed with her. I determine the value of the feeling by acting to endorse it and define it. I also ask the feeling to justify my action. I find myself drawn into a vicious circle.
On the other hand, Gide has said very well that a feeling that is merely playing and a feeling that lives are almost indistinguishable: I decide that I love my mother by staying with her, or play a little theatre that will make it so that I do; it’s a bit the same. In other words, the feeling is built by the acts we do, I cannot consult feeling to guide me though actions. Which means that I can neither seek in myself an authentic state nor claim a moral concept that will allow me to act. At least, you say, did he go see a professor for advice? But if you should seek advice from a priest, for example, you chose this priest; you already knew basically, more or less, what he would advise you to do. In other words, to choose the counselor is to still commit yourself. The proof is that if you are Christian, you will say, see a priest. But there are collaborationist priests, fence sitters, and priests of the resistance. Which to choose? And if the young man chooses a priest of the resistance, or a priest of the collaborationists, he has already decided the kind of advice he receives. Thus, coming to find me, he knew the answer I was going to give, and I had a reply for him: you are free to choose, that is to say, you are free to invent. No general moral code can tell you what to do; there is no evidence in the world. Catholics will say: but there are signs. Let’s face it; I myself must read the direction from the signs. I knew, while I was captive, a remarkable man who was a Jesuit; he entered the Jesuit order as follows: he had suffered a number of quite bitter failures; as a child, his father had died, leaving him poor, and he was left in a religious institution where they constantly made him feel that he was accepting charity; later, he missed a number of honors that appeal to children, and then at eighteen, he missed out on an affair. And finally, at twenty-two, something quite childish happened, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, he failed his military training. This young man could therefore feel that he had failed at everything; it was a sign. But a sign of what? He could take refuge in bitterness or despair. But he held, very cleverly for him, that this was the sign that he was not made for secular triumphs, and that only the triumphs of religion, holiness, faith, were accessible. He then felt the calling, and entered into orders. Who cannot see that the decision about the meaning of the sign was made by him alone? We could have concluded something else in this series of failures: for example it would better that he should become a carpenter or a revolutionary. He therefore bears full responsibility for the interpretation. Abandonment implies that we choose our beings ourselves. Neglect goes with anxiety. As for abandonment, this is extremely simple. Abandonment means that we can only rely on what depends on our will, or the set of probabilities that make our work possible.
When you want something, there are always likely elements. I can count on the arrival of a friend. This friend comes by rail or tram; I can assume that the railway will arrive on time, or that the tram will not derail. I remain in the realm of possibility, but it is not wise to rely on the things that are outside my sphere of influence. From the moment I consider the possibilities that are not rigorously involved in my action, I have to ignore them, because no God, no plan can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will. Basically, when Descartes said: “To conquer oneself rather than the world” he meant the same thing: act without hope. Marxists, to whom I have spoken, responded: “You can, in your action that will, of course, be limited by your death, count on the support of others. This means, to count both what the others will do now, in China, Russia, to help you, and on what they will do later, after your death, to take action and bring towards its attainment in the Revolution. You should count on it, otherwise you are not moral.” I say first that I will rely on comrades still in the struggle, just to the degree that these comrades are engaged with me in the concrete and real struggle, in the unit of a party or group that I can more or less control, where I am a militant and I know every minute detail. In times like that, I count on the unity and the will of the party; exactly as I count on the fact that the tram will arrive on time or that the train did not derail. But I cannot count on men that I do not know based on human goodness, or the interest of man for the good of society, because man is free, and that there is no bottom I can find to human nature.
I do not know what will become of the Russian Revolution. I can admire it and take it as an example that proves that the proletariat plays a role in Russia today that he does not play in any other nation. But I cannot say that it will necessarily lead to a triumph of the proletariat; I must confine myself to what I see. I cannot be sure that my comrades in struggle will resume work after my death to bring it to a maximum of perfection, as these men are free and they decide freely what will become of man tomorrow. After my death, men could decide to establish fascism, and others may be fairly sloppy and helpless and let them do; fascism is human truth, and too bad for us. In reality, things will be like man has decided they are. Does that mean I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I must commit myself, then act according to the old formula. That does not mean I should not belong to a party, but I’ll shall be without illusion and I shall do what I can. For example, if I ask myself, collectivization, when will it happen? I do not know. I just know that everything is in my power to make it happen. Beyond that, I cannot count on anything.
Quietism is the attitude of people who say “others can do what I cannot do”. The doctrine I am presenting is precisely the opposite of quietism, since it says there is no reality except in action; it also goes further, since it adds that man is nothing but his project. He exists only insofar as he is realized, so there is nothing more than all of his actions, nothing more than his life. From this we can understand why our doctrine horrifies some people. They often have only one way of supporting their misery, which is to think: “The circumstances were against me; I was worth much more than I seemed, of course. I did not have a great love or great friendship, but that’s because I have not met a man or a woman who were worthy. I have not written very good books, but it’s because I had no leisure to do so. I have not had children to devote myself to, but that is because I have not found the man with whom I could have made my life. I have remained so, at home, unused and fully viable, with a variety of dispositions, inclinations, and possibilities that give me a value that the simple series of my actions do not display.” In reality, for an existentialist, there is no love other than that which is being built; there is no possibility of love other than that which manifests itself in a love. There is no genius other than one that is expressed in works of art: the genius of Proust is all of the works of Proust, and the genius of
Racine is his series of tragedies. Apart from that there is nothing; why attribute to Racine the opportunity to write another tragedy, precisely because he has not written it? A woman enters her life, her face drawn, and outside of this there is nothing. Obviously, this thought may seem harsh to someone who failed in her life. But then, the existentialist understands that reality alone counts, that dreams, expectations, and hopes only define man as a disappointed dream, as abortive. Hopes and unnecessary expectations define man in the negative and not the positive. However, this does not imply that the artist will be judged solely on his artwork. A thousand other things also contribute to defining him. What we mean is that a man is nothing but a series of enterprises. He is the sum, the organization, the set of relations that constitute these undertakings.
Under these conditions, when we are reproached, it is not for our deep pessimism, but for our optimistic toughness. If people criticize us for our novels in which we describe beings spineless, weak, cowardly and sometimes even downright bad, it’s not just because these people are spineless, weak, loose or bad: if, like Zola, we declare that they are so because of heredity, because of the influence of environment, society, due to organic or psychological determinism, people would be reassured, they would say, “Voilà, we are like that! Nobody can do anything about it!” But the existentialist, when he describes a coward, says the coward is responsible for his cowardice. He is not like that because he has a heart, lung or brain loose. He is not like that from a physiological disorganization. He is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions. There are no loose temperaments. There are temperaments that are nervous; there are those with weak blood, as the good people say. There are wealthy temperaments. But the man who has weak blood is not cowardly as a result, because what makes cowardice is the wavering or resigning. A temperament does not make the act; the coward is defined by the act he did. What people feel obscurely and what horrifies them is that the coward that we present is guilty of cowardice. What people want is one born a coward or a hero. One of the criticisms most often made is that the Roads to Freedom is formulated thus: but then, these people who are so spineless, how will you make yourselves heroes? This objection makes us laugh because it assumes that people are born heroes. And basically that’s what people want to think: if you are born a coward, you’ll be perfectly quiet, you cannot help it; you will be cowardly all your life, whatever you do; and if you are born a hero, you will also be perfectly still; you will be a hero all your life, you will drink like a hero, and you will eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward is a coward, that the hero is a hero, but there is always a possibility for the coward not to be a coward, and for the hero to stop being a hero. What matters is the total commitment, and this is not a special case, a particular action; you engage fully.
Thus, we have responded to, I believe, a number of criticisms about existentialism. You see it cannot be considered a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man by action; nor as a pessimistic description of man: there is no doctrine more optimistic, since the destiny of man is in himself; nor as an attempt to discourage man from action, since it says that there is hope in action, and the only thing that allows man to live is the act. Therefore, in this regard, we are dealing with a moral action and commitment. However, we are sometimes reproached for confining man in his individual subjectivity. Again we are understood very poorly. Our starting point is indeed the subjectivity of the individual, and for strictly philosophical reasons. Not
because we are bourgeois, but because we want a doctrine based on truth, not a collection of fine theories, full of hope but with no real foundation. There can be no other truth, as this one, the starting point: I think therefore I am. This is the absolute truth of consciousness itself. Any theory which takes man out of this moment he attained himself is primarily a theory that suppresses the truth, because, apart from this Cartesian cogito, all objects are only probable, and a doctrine of probabilities that is not suspended from a truth collapses into nothingness; to define the probable one must possess the true. So for there to be any truth, there must be an absolute truth, and it is simple, easy to reach, it is accessible to everyone, and it can be seized without an intermediary.
Secondly, this theory is the only one to give dignity to man; this is the only one that does not make man an object. While materialism has the effect of treating all men, including himself, as objects, that is to say as a set of determined reactions with qualities and phenomena no different from a table or chair or a stone. We want to create the human kingdom as a set of distinct values of the material realm. But the subjectivity which we reach there as truth is not a strictly individual subjectivity, because we demonstrated that in the cogito, we did not discover ourselves only, but also others. By “I think”, contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to the philosophy of Kant, we reach ourselves in front of the other, and the other is as certain to us as ourselves. Thus, the man reached directly through the cogito also discovers all the others, and he finds the condition of existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything (in the sense that we say we are spiritual, or we are bad, or we’re jealous) unless others recognize it as such. For any truth about me, I must pass by the other. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. Under these conditions, the discovery of my privacy at the same time uncovers the other as a freedom posed in front of me, whom I think of, and who wants only to be for or against me. Thus we discover at once a world we call intersubjectivity, and it is in this world that man decides what he is and what is the other.
Furthermore, it is impossible to find in each man a universal essence that would be human nature, yet there is a universal human condition. It is not by chance that the thinkers of today speak more readily of the human condition and as to its nature. They mean by condition with varying degrees of clarity all the a priori limits that outline our fundamental situation in the universe. Historical situations vary: the man can be born a slave in a pagan society or a feudal lord or a proletarian. What does not vary is the need for him to be in the world, to be at work, to be surrounded by the other and be mortal. These limits are neither subjective nor objective; or, rather, they have an objective side and a subjective side. The are objective because they are ubiquitous and are recognizable everywhere; they are subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man did not live them, that is to say did not freely determine its existence in relation to them. And although the projects may be diverse, at least none have been left unknown, because we all attempt to overcome these limits or to reduce or deny them or to accommodate them. Accordingly, any project, however individual, has a universal value. Any project, even that of the Chinese, the Indian or the negro, can be understood by a European. It can be understood; this means that the European of 1945 may throw himself from a situation he conceives, to its limits in the same way, and he can remake himself into the project of Chinese of the Indian or African. There is universality of any project in the sense that any project is understandable for everyone. This does not mean that the project defines man forever, but it can be found. There is always a
way to understand the idiot, the child, the primitive or foreigner, provided we have sufficient information. In this sense we can say that there is a universality of man, but it is not given; it is perpetually constructed. I build the universal in choosing me, I build it in the project including any other man, whatever time it is. This absolute choice does not remove the relativity of each epoch. That existentialism has at heart to show is the connection of the absolute nature of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity, commitment always understandable at any time and anyone, and the relativity of the cultural landscape that may result from such a choice must mark both the relativity of Cartesianism and the absolute nature of the Cartesian commitment. In this sense we can say, if you will, that each of us makes the absolute by breathing, eating, sleeping or acting in any way. There is no difference between being free, being as a project, as existence choosing its essence, and be absolute and there is no difference between being an absolute temporally localized, that is to say that is is located in history, and be universally understood.
This does not entirely solve the objection of subjectivism. Indeed, this objection takes on even more forms. The first is this: we are told, then you can do anything; this is expressed in various ways. First, they tax us with anarchy; then they say: you cannot judge others, because there is no reason to prefer one project to another; and the final objection: everything is free in what you choose; you are giving with one hand what you pretend to receive the other. These three objections are not very serious. The first objection, you can choose anything, is not accurate. The choice is possible in one sense, but it is not possible not to choose. I can always choose, but I do know that if I do not choose, I choose again. This, although seemingly purely formal, is of great importance to limit whim and caprice. Sometimes on faces a situation, for example the situation that I am a sexual being and can have sex with someone of another gender, and can have children; I have to choose a attitude, and anyway I bear the responsibility of a choice that, in committing myself, also commits the whole of humanity, even if no a priori value determines my choice. It has nothing to do with caprice, and if one sees in this Gide’s theory of gratuitous action, then it is because one has not seen the enormous differences between this theory and that of Gide. Gide does not know that this is but a situation, his act is mere whim. For us, on the contrary, man finds himself in an organized situation, where man is committed to himself, he undertakes in his choice one for all mankind, and he cannot avoid choosing: he either remains chaste, or he will marry without having children, or he will marry and have children; anyway whatever he does, it is impossible that he does not take full responsibility facing this problem. Doubtless he chooses without reference to preset values, but it is unfair to accuse him of caprice. Rather, it is necessary to compare the moral choice with the construction of a work of art. And here I must immediately stop to say that this is not a moral aesthetic, because our opponents are of bad faith if they criticize us for that. The example I chose is a comparison. That said, has anyone ever criticized an artist who makes a picture not abide by rules established a priori? Has anyone ever told an artist what he must do at the easel? It is understood that there is no picture to be painted. The artist engages in the construction of his painting, and the picture to be made is exactly the picture he did make; it is understood that there are no a priori aesthetic values, but there are values which are then in the actual picture, in the
relationship that exists between the desire to create and the result. Nobody can say what the painting of tomorrow will be; it can only be determined once the painting done. What does that have to do with morality? We are in the same creative situation. We never talk about the freedom of a work of art. When we speak of a Picasso painting, we never say that it is free; we understand that it is constructed at the same time as it is painted, as the work come to life. It is the same in moral terms. What is common between art and morality is that, in both cases, we have creation and invention. We cannot decide a priori what to do. I think I have sufficiently shown this by talking about the case of the student who came to me; and he could have applied any moralities, Kantian or otherwise, without finding any kind of guidance. He was obliged to invent his law himself. We will never say that this man, who chose to stay with his mother by taking as his basis moral sentiments, individual action and concrete charity, or who had chosen to go to England, preferring sacrifice, made a free choice. Man is; he is not all made in advance; he is choosing his ethics, and the pressure of circumstances is such that he cannot not choose one. We do not define man only in relation to a commitment. It is therefore absurd to reproach us for free choice. Secondly, we are told: you cannot judge others. This is true to an extent, and false in another. This is true in the sense that whenever a man chooses his commitment and project in all sincerity and with lucidity, whatever his project, it is impossible for him to prefer another; it’s true in the sense that we do not believe in progress; progress is an improvement; man is always the same in the face of a situation that varies, and choice is always a choice in a situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when one could choose between slavery and non-slavery, for example in the Civil War, and at moment where you can opt for the MRP or for the Communists.
But we can judge, however, because as I have said, we choose in front of others, and we choose ourselves in front of others. We can be judged, first (and this is perhaps not a value judgment, but it is a logical judgment), that some choices are based on error, and others on truth. We can judge a man by saying he is in bad faith. If we defined the situation of man as free choice, without excuse and without help, every man who hides behind the excuse of his passions, every man who invents a determinism, is a man of bad faith. One could object: but did not he choose to be in bad faith? I reply that I did not judge him morally, but I define bad faith as an error. Here, one cannot escape a judgment of truth. Bad faith is obviously a lie, because it hides the total freedom of commitment. On the same plane, I would say that there is also bad faith if I choose to declare that certain values exist before me; I contradict myself if, at a time, I want them and they are imposed on me. If it is said, but what if I want to be in bad faith? I answer: there is no reason why you cannot, but I declare that you are, and that the attitude of strict consistency is the attitude of good faith. And also I can make a moral judgment. I said that freedom, through each concrete circumstance, can have no other purpose than to want itself; if once man has recognized that, he values neglect, he can want only one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values. This does not mean that he wants freedom in the abstract. It simply means that the actions of men of good faith have ultimate
significance as the pursuit of freedom as such. A man who belongs to union, communist or revolutionary, wants concrete goals; these goals will involve abstract freedom but this freedom is meant in the concrete. We want freedom for freedom and through every circumstance. And wanting freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others depends on ours. Of course, freedom as the definition of man does not depend on others, but once there is commitment, I am obliged to want, along with my freedom, the freedom of others. I cannot take only my freedom. So I also take the other’s freedom as a goal. Accordingly, where, in the scheme of total authenticity, I recognized that man is a being in whom essence is preceded by existence, he is a free being who cannot, in diverse circumstances, but want freedom; I recognized the same time as I cannot wish but for the freedom of others. Thus, in the name of this desire for freedom, the freedom implied by itself, I can make judgments on those who seek to hide the total gratuitousness of their existence, and its total freedom. Those who will hide, in the spirit of seriousness or deterministic excuses, their total freedom: I call them cowards. Others who will try to show that their existence was necessary, that it is the very contingency of the appearance of man on earth, I will call them bastards. But cowards or bastards cannot be judged in terms of strict authenticity. Thus, although the content of morality is variable, some form of this morality is universal. Kant declared that freedom wants itself and wants the freedom of others. Okay, but he believes the formal and universal to be morality enough. We believe, however, that principles are too abstract to define the action. Again, take the case of this student, in the name of what, on behalf of what great moral maxim, do you think he could have with peace of mind chosen to abandon his mother or stay with her? There is no way to judge. The content is always concrete, and therefore unpredictable, and there always invention. The only thing that matters is whether the invention done is done in the name of freedom.
Consider, for example, the following two cases, you will see how they agree and differ. Take The Mill on the Floss. Here we find a girl, Maggie Tulliver, who embodies the value of passion and who is conscious of that, and is in love with a young man, Stephen, who is engaged to an insubstantial girl. This Maggie Tulliver, instead of recklessly preferring her own happiness, in the name of human solidarity, chooses to sacrifice herself and chooses to abandon the man she loves. In contrast, the Sanseverina in La Chartreuse de Parme, believing that the passion is the true value of man, would declare that a great love merits sacrifices. She would prefer great love to the banality of that married love that would unite Stephen and the young goose that he was to marry. She would choose to sacrifice this goose to realize her own happiness, and, as Stendhal shows, she will sacrifice herself for a passionate life if required. We are here faced with two opposing moralities; yet I claim that they are equivalent: in both cases, there is one one goal: freedom. And you can imagine that the two attitudes exactly similar as to the effect: one girl, in resignation, prefers to renounce her love. The other, through sexual appetite, prefers to disregard the earlier commitments of the man she loves. These two actions outwardly resemble those we just described. They are, however, entirely different; the attitude of the Sanseverina is much closer to that of Maggie Tulliver than it is to reckless greed.
So you see that second reproach is both true and false. We can all choose, in terms of free commitment.
The third objection is this: “you receive with one hand what you give to the other”, that is to say, our values are not serious, since we choose them. To this I reply that I am very sorry it is so, but if I removed God the father, someone must invent values. We must take things as they are. And, moreover, that we invent values does not mean anything but this: life has no meaning a priori. Before you live life it is nothing, but it’s up to you to give it meaning, and that value is nothing but the direction you choose. Thus, you see, there is the possibility of creating a human community. I have been accused of asking if existentialism is a humanism. I was told: “but you wrote in Nausea that humanists were wrong; you’ve made fun of a certain type of humanism, why come back now?” In fact, the word ‘humanism’ has two very different meanings. ‘Humanism’ can mean a theory that takes man as the end and of the highest value. There’s humanism in the sense of Cocteau, for example, when in his story, Around the World in 80 Hours, a character says, “Man is amazing because he flies over mountains by plane!” This means that I, personally, who have not built airplanes, I benefit from these particular inventions, and I could personally, as a man, consider myself responsible and be honored by particular acts of other men. This would imply that we value a man according to the highest acts of some other men. This humanism is absurd, because only the dog or the horse could pass general judgment upon man and declare that man is amazing; which they have not done, to my knowledge at least. But one cannot admit that a man can pass judgment on man. Existentialism has waived any such judgment: the existentialist will never take man as as finished; he is always at work. And we must not believe that there is a humanity that we can worship in the manner of Auguste Comte. The cult of humanity leads to humanism closed in on itself, and, it must be said, to fascism. It is a humanism which we do not want.
But there is another sense of humanism, which basically means this: man is constantly outside himself; it is in projecting and losing himself that man is made, and, on the other hand, it is pursuing transcendent aims that he can exist; man is transcendent and does not know objects except as compared to that transcendence. This is the heart, the center of the transendence. There is no universe other than the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This binding to transcendence as constitutive of man—not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-transcendence—and subjectivity in the sense that man is not confined to himself but is always present in a human world, this is what we call existential humanism. Humanism, because we remind man that there is no other legislator but himself, and that it is in neglect that he will decide for himself, and because we show that it is not in turning to himself, but in always looking out of himself that a release (a goal that is liberation, as particular realization) that man will realize what is human.
We see from these few reflections that nothing is more unjust than the objections made of use. Existentialism is nothing other than an effort to draw all the consequences of a
coherent atheistic position. It does not try at all to plunge man into despair. But if you mean despair as Christians do, despair and every attitude of disbelief, depart from the original despair.
Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would run out to prove that God does not exist. It says instead: even if God existed, it would not change anything. That’s our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists; but we think the problem is not one of his existence. Man must find himself and persuade himself that nothing can save him, not even a proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic, a doctrine of action, and it is only by bad faith, confusing their own despair with ours, that Christians can call us desperate.
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