Existensialist Humanism

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A form of philosophical humanism. Immediately after the Second World War, the French cultural panorama was dominated by the figure of Sartre and existentialism, the current of thought he helped spread through his work as a philosopher and novelist and through his engagement or politico-cultural commitment. Sartre’s philosophical formation took place in Germany in the 1930s, and was especially influenced by the phenomenological school of Husserl and Heidegger. In the postwar political climate and in his confrontation with Marxism and Christian Humanism, Sartre set out to extend the ethical-political aspects of his existentialism, redefining it as a humanist doctrine based on commitment and the acceptance of historical responsibilities, active in the denunciation of all forms of oppression and alienation. It was with this intent that in 1946 Sartre wrote Existentialism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme), an essay consisting of a slightly modified version of the lecture he had given on the same topic at the Club Maintenant in Paris. Sartre presented and defended the thesis that existentialism is a humanism as follows: “Many people are going to be surprised to hear us speaking of humanism on this occasion. We shall try to see in what sense it [existentialism] is to be understood as such. In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine that makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity... Subjectivity of the individual is indeed our point of departure, and this for strictly philosophic reason... There can be no other truth to take off from than this: I think; therefore, I exist. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself. Every theory that takes man out of the moment in which he becomes aware of himself is, at its very beginning, a theory that confounds truth, for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability that is not bound to a truth dissolves into thin air. In order to describe the probable, you must have a firm hold on the true. Therefore, before there can be any truth whatsoever, there must be an absolute truth; and this one is simple and easily arrived at; it’s on everyone’s doorstep; it’s a matter of grasping it directly. Moreover, this theory is the only one that gives dignity to man, the only one that does not make of him “an object.” But unlike what occurs in Cartesian philosophy, for Sartre the cogito ― “I think” ― retransmits directly back to the world, to others; the consciousness in its intentionality is always consciousness of something. Sartre continues: “... thus, the man who becomes aware of himself through the cogito also perceives all others, and he perceives them as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he can not be anything... unless others recognize him as such. In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. The other is indispensable to my own existence, as well as to my knowledge about myself. This being so, in discovering my inner being I discover the other person at the same time, like a freedom placed in front of me which thinks and wills only for or against me. Hence, let us at once announce the discovery of a world which we shall call inter-subjectivity; this is the world in which man decides what he is and what others are. Sartre next goes on to give the definition of the human being from the point of view of existentialism. In Sartre’s view, all existentialists of whatever stripe, Christian or atheist, including Heidegger, concur in this: in the human being, existence precedes essence. To clarify this, Sartre gives the following example: “Let us consider some object that is manufactured, for example, a book or a paper-cutter: here is an object which has been made by an artisan whose inspiration came from a concept. He referred to the concept of what a paper-cutter is and likewise to a known method of production, which is part of the concept, something which is, by and large, a routine. Thus, the paper-cutter is at once an object produced in a certain way and, on the other hand, one having a specific use... Therefore, let us say that, for the paper-cutter, essence – that is, the ensemble of both the production routines and the properties which enable it to be both produced and defined – precedes existence. In the Christian religion, Sartre continues, within which European thought has been formed: “when we conceive God as the Creator, He is generally thought of as a superior sort of artisan... Thus, the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer, and, following certain techniques and a conception, God produces man, just as the artisan, following a definition and a technique, makes a paper-cutter.... In the eighteenth century, the atheism of the philosophes discarded the idea of God, but not the notion that essence precedes existence. Following this line of thought, Sartre says that man: “... has a human nature; this human nature, which is the concept of the human, is found in all men, which means that each man is a particular example of a universal concept, man.... [B]ut atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.” (Existentialism, 18) Sartre goes on to clarify this thought still further: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism. It is also what is called subjectivity, the name we are labeled with when charges are brought against us. But what do we mean by this, if not that man has a greater dignity than a stone or table? For we mean that man first exists, that is, that man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself;... nothing exists prior to this plan;... man will be what he will have planned to be.” (Existentialism, 18–19) Thus, for Sartre, the task is to deduce coherently all possible consequences of the non-existence of God. First, the human being does not have a fixed or unchanging essence; the human essence is constructed upon existence, first as plan or project and then as actions. Human beings are free to be whatever they want to be, but in this process of self-formation they have no moral rules to guide them. Recalling one of the thinkers who inspired existentialism, Sartre notes: Dostoyevsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism.... [I]f God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to that legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. That is the idea I try to convey when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does... Man, with no support and no aid, is condemned every moment to invent man... “….When we say that man chooses his own self, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean that in making this choice we make a choice for all men. In fact, in creating the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all. It is on this foundation that Sartre constructs a social ethics of freedom: “…When, in all honesty, I’ve recognized that man is a being in whom existence precedes essence, that he is a free being who, in various circumstances, can want only his freedom, I have at the same time recognized that I can want only the freedom of others. Sartre’s ethics is not based on the thing chosen but rather on the honesty or “authenticity” of the choice. He also says that action is not necessarily gratuitous, absurd, or without foundation. In fact, even though no sweeping and definitive morality exists, even though every individual is free to construct their own morality within the situation they live, by choosing among the various possibilities that present themselves, it is nonetheless possible for the individual to make moral judgments. Such moral judgments are based on the recognition of freedom (one’s own and that of others) and of dishonesty or bad faith. Let us see how Sartre explains this: “…One can judge...that certain choices are based on error and others on truth. If we have defined man’s situation as a free choice, with no excuses and no recourse, every man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, every man who sets up a determinism, is a dishonest man, is in “bad faith” But suppose someone says to me, “What if I want to act in bad faith?”; I’ll answer, “There’s no reason for you not to be, but I’m saying that that’s what you are, and that the strictly coherent attitude is that of honesty.” I can bring moral judgment to bear. Let us now consider in what sense for Sartre existentialism can be said to be a humanism: “…Man is constantly outside of himself; in projecting himself, in losing himself outside of himself, he makes for man’s existing; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent goals that he is able to exist; man, being this state of passing-beyond, is at the heart, at the center of this passing-beyond. There is no universe other than a human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This connection between transcendency, as a constituent element of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of passing beyond), and inter-subjectivity (in the sense that man is not closed in on himself but is always present in a human universe) is what we call existentialist humanism. Humanism, because we remind man that there is no law-maker other than himself, and that in his forlornness he will decide by himself; and because we point out that man will fulfill himself as man, not in turning toward himself, but in seeking outside of himself a goal which is just this liberation, just this particular fulfillment. Sartre admitted that the antithesis between absolute freedom and equally absolute bad faith had been suggested to him by the climate of the war, in no other alternative seemed possible except that between being “for” and being “against.” After the war the true experience arrived ― that of society ― that is, the experience of a complex reality, without clear antitheses or simple alternatives, where there existed an ambiguous relationship between the given situation and initiative, between choice and conditioning. In an interview by the New Left Review in 1969, Sartre goes as far as giving the following definition of freedom: “Freedom” is that small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being, a person who does not limit himself to re-exteriorizing in its totality, the conditioning he has undergone.” Notwithstanding this reductive definition of freedom, Sartre does not renounce certain fundamental themes of his prior philosophy. Freedom continues to be the center of his problematic. In 1974, six years before his death, in the discussions published under the title On a raisin de se révolter: discussions (To Rebel is Just) Sartre reaffirms that human beings can be alienated and objectified precisely because they are free, because they are not things, not even things that are particularly complex. Human beings never wholly coincide with their factors of conditioning; were this so, it would in fact be impossible to even speak of their conditioning. A robot could never be oppressed. Alienations lead back to freedom.