Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the first global public intellectuals, famous for his popular existentialist philosophy, his works of fiction, and his rivalry with Albert Camus.
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.