Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)


“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”

Existentialism set the tone for Postmodern thinking by being negative: it is defined in terms of what it is not and discards previous systems rooted in the 19th century. The ideal philosophy for a lost and troubled century, Existentialism is against scientific positivism (Auguste Comte), materialism (Karl Marx), and technological pragmatism (William James). Existentialism discredited philosophical idealism (Emmanuel Kant), Hegel’s transcendental pan-logism and all assumptions of the absolute primacy and supremacy of human reason and intellect. In rejecting the metaphysical, Existentialism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, setting the reality of life as lived or “bios” against “logos” or abstract reason. Georg Hegel had identified human reason with concepts of Logos (coherent discourse), Absolute Reason, and the Absolute Idea or Spirit, and this philosophical concept can be summed up as immanence or the functioning of pure reason.

As Alexandre Kojève explained it, “Hegel insists at length on the passive, contemplative, and descriptive character of the “scientific” method. He underlines that there is a dialectic of “scientific” thought only because there is a dialectic of the Being which that thought reveals.” Opposed to the notion of abstracted “human reason,” existentialist thinkers, such as Henri Bergson, considered the human intellect as a practical tool, an instrument that was adaptable according to the need to create objects through the dynamic force of élan vital. In contrast to the philosophy of contemplation, the existentialist, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Paul Sartre to Albert Camus, was interested in the individual who is concrete, singular and unique, original, free and responsible–in other words a person of action. Previous philosophical traditions were centered upon a system of epistemology or the foundation of knowledge, which had to be reason. Reason could be justified only within as abstract structure which had to transcend the real, reality, in order to be universal. But existentialism shifted its focus to existence itself–what it means to live, to be alive, to the human experience–and, while accepting the irrational disorder of life, attempted to come to terms with the reality of being.

Therefore, Existentialism compares practical action to the contemplative intellect, which imposes logical forms that are arbitrary and abstract, the products of thinking (not acting). A (human) being is in a constant process of becoming and evolving. The knower is penetrated by the known. To express this always-becoming state of being, the existentialist writer must use literary tactics, such as metaphor, analogy, symbolic, and symbolic imagery. Intellectual knowledge is subjective or inward compared to “true reality” which is external and in a constant state of flux and change or caught up in a “creative evolution.” What gives Existentialism its unique position in 20th century philosophy is the time of its re-birth, the Second World War, and the place, Paris, a city under the occupation of a long-hated enemy, Germany. What did it mean to act or not act when one is under the all too watchful eyes of the Nazi panopticon? Now that the known world had come to an end and the age of reason had crumbled, it was necessary to re-write the terms of existence, without God,without Logos.

It is certainly correct to think of modern Existentialism as the product of World War II, but the specificity of its re-working should not be thought of as a limitation, any more than idealism should be thought of as being limited by the Enlightenment. The times forced the philosophy and this most terrible war waged against humanity demolished all the cherished assumptions of the Enlightenment and suggested a new role for philosophy. If God had gone into retreat during the Holocaust, then reason had also gone into hiding and philosophy had been rendered irrelevant. The task of building a philosophy for the end of the 20th century fell to a scholar, schoolteacher, intellect and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was part of the literary-philosophical world of war time Paris.


Jean-Paul Sartre about 1950

Sartre was hardly a man of action. His role, such as it was, as a warrior consisted mostly of being a prisoner of war, an unfortunate soldier caught up in the disaster of the French defeat. When he returned to Paris to be reunited with his on-again, off-again lover and companion, the independent minded Simone de Beauvoir (“Beaver”), Sartre had to consider the position of an intellectual who must retain honor, resist the occupiers, but also stay alive. Whether or not Sartre flew too close to the German wind in order to continue his work is a matter for others to decide (Sartre wrote for collaborationist or Occupied Zone publications), but he acted in such a way so as to get his work out in public and performed for audiences. There is no doubt that his experiences during the War, his brief tenure as prisoner of war, his devotion to the French Resistance, his determination to speak out against the Nazis, caused a creative explosion and an outpouring of his most important works: the 1943 production of The Flies, with its hidden protest against Vichy, the staging of No Exit, a contemplation of Hell (others) in 1944 just before the invasion, and, of course Being and Nothingness, the master statement of Existentialism.

There is no question that Sartre, before finding himself in the midst of a rather too cozy Occupation where the German army seemed less like active enemies and more like passive “furniture,” a typical insular intellectual, was naïve about world affairs. He had actually visited Germany in 1933 to meet with the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, but the letters of Sartre written during the 1930s indicate he had little awareness of the implications of Nazism which and already co-opted Heidegger. But Sartre changed. The Age of Reason written during the long war was a dialogue between Sartre and his leading character, Mathieu, both of whom were concerned with how to survive in wartime while retaining one’s own dignity. Over time, Sartre created a new character that essentially split the difference: the engaged intellectual who lived a life of political activism,but who managed to embed the politics in art.

Like most modern philosophers, Sartre was a “literary” figure, writing plays and novels, all of which were different expressions of the existential mood of the Second World War. Being and Nothingness, his major existential work, was written in 1943 and was translated into English and published in 1947. Heidegger was discredited due to his shameful treatment of his Jewish colleagues but was still producing a discourse on Being that was eloquent enough to be reckoned with, but Sartre emerged from the rubble of the war as the leading modern philosopher of existentialism. In a reply to his critics, in a 1944 article in Action, Sartre both brushed aside the charge that his work should be dismissed due to the association of existentialism with Heidegger and condemned the philosopher: “Heidegger has no character; there’s the truth of the matter…Don’t you know that some times the man does not come up to the level of his works?”

For decades French intellectual though had been impacted by Marxism, but Sartre was uneasy with economic determinism precisely because Marx proposed that society was determined, suggesting that humans were mere pawns of a dialectic. Although he would not discard Marxism, for Sartre, it was clear that human beings had to act alone. It was important for human beings to act out of choice. One’s existence is one’s character and that character depends upon the active choice of projects or what one choses to do or to act within. Writing just after the Occupation in “A More Precise Characterization of Existentialism,” Sartre remarked, “Since existentialism defines man by action, it is evident that this philosophy is not a quietism.” Although many misread Being and Nothingness as a monument to despair, a shout against God, Sartre insisted that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” As he wrote in 1946,

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

Existentialism is about life’s concrete existence and how the human being constantly comes into being through inter/acting with the changing environment. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” “Truth” is “my truth” and “Being” is “my being.” The human reality is “being-in-itself (en-soi)” and “being-for-itself (pour-soi),” a combination that produces an ambiguity at the heart of humanity. Sartre would later add a third term: “being-for-others (pour-autrui).” Being-in-itself is actually nothing constituting an absolute polarity to Being-for-itself, which is free and unbridled but nothing else until it encounters the Other. Note that this is not a Hegelian triad, in which one term is deduced logically from the other, but a doubled and split Being that can only “encounter” the other. Sartre asserted, “We are completely alone with no excuses behind us or justification before us.” What Sartre is asserting is that because we are not a self but a presence to self–we are the Other to ourselves–we are free.

As free human beings, we are responsible for our own actions and our own lives. We must live with authenticity. Presumably, a Nazi could live with authenticity in the full belief that his or her actions constituted an ethical life, but Sartre would argue that the Nazi was acting in “bad faith” and was refusing to take responsibility for his or her own life. In thrall to Hitler, a Nazi cannot be free. Sartre asserted that “man” makes “himself” through “his” own activity. Obstacles to our freedom are “our past, our place, our surroundings, our fellow-brethern, our death.” We have the choice to be free and to be free we must freely accept the present. Freedom is being in control of the present and only when one is in control is one free to change. In many ways, Existentialism is an extension of certain aspects of the Enlightenment: the subject or the Self stands alone, all else—the reason for living, the purpose of life—is stripped away.

Many observers considered Being and Nothingness to be bitter and hopeless in its refusal to provide a purpose for life outside of existence. But what has really occurred for Sartre is the century in which he lived. The War changed the rules of the game of life, so to speak, and the idealism of older philosophy must be dismissed–logic, logos, and reason–all discarded in order for the human being to be set free to act as an individual. The acting human being may have no rules and no guidance from “higher powers,” whether philosophers or God, and the person who accepts this (unguided and unfettered) freedom is also taking on a burden of total responsibility. The moral and ethical goal of the post-war human was to be authentic. The final acceptance of the death of God, proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche and proved by the Holocaust, would be the final assertion of individuality in philosophy and the final celebration of the free human being.

Sartre’s philosophy expressed an ontological fatalism: “Existence precedes essence”–we exist before we have any specific perfection or nature. But this essence, this being is all we are. In other words, breaking from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Sartre asserted that there is no unconscious mind lurking behind our actions and ultimately limiting our authenticity. The Ego is not in consciousness but can be described as a consciousness of oneself. We are conscious minds, and, if this is the case, we are thrust into being and we make ourselves through action. Our individual humanity is nothing but what we make through our individual actions. Every being is alone and every human activity is characterized by anguish. As Sartre wrote, “Anguish, abandonment, responsibility, whether muted or full strength, constitute the quality of our consciousness in so far as this is pure and simple freedom.” We must choose but nothing can assure us that we have made the right choice.

The true struggle is to make sure that we act with full understanding and cognizance of our own being and are acting in good faith. With the background of the Holocaust and the French participation in the extermination of the Jews, this refusal of moral absolutism takes on sinister tones and could slide dangerously into action justifying action for action’s sake. On the other hand, the Nazis were nothing if not morally absolute and exposed the dangers of existentialism (Heidegger) untethered to ethics. Existentialism was an angry and pained expression of the disarray of the European belief systems after the Second World War. It would take generations for a continent to restore its honor and to absorb the lessons of the post.

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