Sartre's Existentialism

13 January 2016

Jean-Paul Sartre  was one of my favorites when I was an undergraduate. I enjoyed his novels and plays,  and his great essay “Existentialism as Humanism. “ And I once even read a good bit of Being and Nothingness, his 700 page magnum opus.

So what did Sartre mean by saying that we are radically free, and that we are condemned to be free?  And what is existentialism?

This morning I made the decision to come to work on Philosophy Talk, rather than turn over and go back to sleep.  Now I couldn't’ decide to change the past  --- say go back and change the Philosophy Talk schedule, so that I had another day before I had to prepare.  That’s was given, fixed.  And a lot of other things are given so I couldn’t do anything about. This is what Sartre calls the facticity of the in-itself, by the way.

Nothing given, however, dictated what I would decide.  I couldn’t count on the laws of nature or God to get me out of bed.  I had to make the decision.   I am a for-itself, a consciousness, not an in-itself, like a rock.   I am condemned to be radically free.

But,  I might say, I promised to work on philosophy talk this morning.  I live up to my promises, that’s part of my nature, part of who and what I am.  So I couldn’t, really, do anything but get out of bed and get to work.  That's how it seemed.

Wrong, Sartre would say.  I couldn’t both roll over and go back to sleep and fulfill my promise.  But I could roll over and go back to sleep, and thereby break my promise.  My promise in the past, so this morning  it was part of the facticity of the in-itself.  But my decision to get ready for Philosophy Talk was not.  I had to decide, and there was nothing in the world, as it had developed up to the moment of decision, that forced me to decide to get out of bed.  That decision hadn’t been made; I had to make it.

But still, that wouldn't it have been contrary to my nature, to what I am, to just roll over and ignore my obligations?

Sartre would say that I am trying to escape from freedom.  There is no essential nature that fixes who I are and what I do.  My decisions and actions define my nature, not the other way around.  As Sartre says, “existence precedes essence”.  

Existentialism is sort of a generalization of all of this.  Not only each individual, but humankind in general, creates its own nature.  God didn’t determine the essence of humanity --- Sartre was an atheist.  And biology doesn’t fix the nature of humanity in many important ways.    It fixes the way we digest things and gives us the ability to perceive and move our bodies in various ways.  But it doesn’t settle what is right and what is wrong; that’s done by human decisions.

But still,  even atheists believe can believe in an objective realm of values.  Our freedom extends only so far.  Human decisions don’t determine that 2 + 2 = 4, or the pi is an irrational number, and that remains the case even if there is no God.  And human decisions they don’t determine that genocide is wrong and keeping one’s promises is right.  Those things are given, aren’t they?

But according to Sartre, there is no objective realm of values that fixes the nature of right and wrong.  This is the way that his existentialism differs from other versions of secular humanism.  It’s all up to us.  For humankind as well as for each individual, existence precedes essence.  Objective values are just one more way of trying to escape from freedom.

It’s not so easy to put the various sides of Sartre together.  He is famous for being part of the French Resistance, fighting Nazi-ism in every way he could.  Could he really have really dared all risk all to fight this evil, if he didn’t really think it was objectively evil?  Could he really think that it was his decision to fight Naziism, that made it evil?  Was slavery OK, until humans decided it was not OK?

It’s all a bit hard to swallow.  Still, I think he may be right.  I guess I’m condemned to decide whether I am an existentialist or not.


Comments (7)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, January 14, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Well, I had not really began

Well, I had not really began to get an understanding of existentialism until reading your post on Sartre. The notion of existence preceding essence seems somehow clear though, whether we are talking about a rock (which presumably does not; cannot CARE about existence) or a human being who DOES care and really has no say-so in the matter of caring...inasmuch as a human essence is measurably more complex and profound than that of a rock. Therefore, Professor Perry, I submit to you that none of us are condemned to decide whether we are existentialists. The matter is, as stated in various subjects of litigation, well-settled. The fact of our humanity itself compels our essential existentialism. We need not worry ourselves over the question. You probably have not lost sleep over this and neither will I. Happy to have been of help. Jean-Paul was an iconic figure. And just so.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, January 15, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I think Sartre's role in the

I think Sartre's role in the Paris Underground was more in spirit than in substance, though it certainly colored his thinking. His is a sort of secular Calvinism. Instead of a solitary soul standing in judgment before a relentlessly ?just? and ?righteous? god, his is a solitary consciousness before the void. The moral void, that is, that sanity was left with after defeat of the Nazis. Unlike so many other thinkers, he did not reach out for some intellectual crutch to elude the terrible specter of complete responsibility. But, pace Perry, it is his philosophical writings that are most of interest, and too much should not be made of his fiction. His two earliest works are ingenious, on the creation of mental images (Imagination and The Psychology of the Imaginary) demonstrate that Husserl's phenomenology is an act of consciousness, not passive perception. Heidegger states in the preface to Being and Time that the essence of Dasein is to exist. He repudiates this later, denying he ever said it, but there it is for any to read. Sartre would have noted this when he received that work during his internment as a POW of the Germans. Hence, ?existence precedes essence?. It amounts to saying that existence is a priori to transcendence. The beginning of the count of time is the act of person naming it. His thinking did not evolve as it might have, so stubborn was he in preserving his ?pessimism?. And yet, he saw in the complete responsibility of being the only act in a universe of passive reaction, an affirmation of moral duty. What he never allows himself to see is the response that completes that act by finding its own worth in it. Each of us is an anomaly to the mindless pulse of time. Each alone is negligible in this. But where time responds in any sense recognized its worth as that act each of us is of it moral duty is what freedom is. Because it is merely the recognition of the worth of that response time is of the act each is. And what neglects that, what views time as unworthy of us (because we belong to some divine plan) or as a mindless obedience to a priori principles, really is despair. It was a kind of honesty that kept Sartre from seeing this, as hard as it surely was for him. Where he really falls flat is in his rather stupid adherence to Stalinism, long after Stalin's inhumanity became known. Just to give an idea of how much of an impact he had in his day, the collection of articles and papers written about him runs to eight finely printed volumes.

Guest's picture


Sunday, January 17, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Jean-Paul Sartre is a great

Jean-Paul Sartre is a great writer, his novels and plays are very popular. You have written a detail article about him, I am happy to read it because I am a great fan of his work.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I also believe Sartre's

I also believe Sartre's position in the Paris subversive was additional in strength than in matter, though it positively tinted his thoughts.

danny17000's picture


Saturday, January 23, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Professor Perry, it is

Professor Perry, it is interested that I came to this site and saw this post, as I am halfway through your 1978 book: A dialogue on personal identity and immortality. It seems your mind is just as sharp as when you wrote this fabulous book. As far as philosophical works goes, yours is one of my favorites so far. It is very impressive to me that you are able to keep your mind sharp as many philosophers as there years go by, attribute a decline in creativity to a certain "fogginess" that perhaps has engulfed them. Or is it their mind rather and not "them"? Haha.

Guest's picture


Monday, January 25, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

This very broad definition

This very broad definition will be clarified by discussing seven key themes that existentialist thinkers address. Those philosophers considered existentialists are mostly from the continent of Europe, and date from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Here's a useful resource:

Here's a useful resource: Sartre, by Neil Levy, from One World Books. It's short and workmanlike, right to the point, and clearer than the other material supplied here.