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Nolan Harris Jr

Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre begins his 1957 Existentialism and Human Emotions with a 43-page defense
and exposition of existentialism. He commences with a series of criticisms that have been
leveled against the philosophy—charges that he believes betray erroneous interpretations
or understandings of existentialism. The charges he enumerates are the following:
 Existentialism is a philosophy of “desperate quietism” because action is
impossible owing to the lack of any solutions to be arrived at in the world—
solutions to ethical, political, social, personal quandaries. This, then, renders
existentialism a philosophy of mere speculation, and, hence, a bourgeois
philosophy.
 The predilection for dwelling on human degradation, suffering, and evil—the
grotesque—comes at the expense of noticing or appreciating the beautiful,
gracious or sublime. The smile of a child—as Sartre says existentialism has been
accused of forgetting—is lost on the existential engagement with the nightside of
human experience.
 Because existentialism takes “pure subjectivity” or “the Cartesian I think” as its
point of departure, it has been impugned for its pretermission of human solidarity,
and for conceiving of mankind in isolated, atomistic terms.
 Finally, since atheistic existentialism denies God—this, a criticism from
Christians—caprice and sheer desire rule; and, in a sense, all is possible or
permissible since God does not exist.
These charges, argues Sartre, fail to meet existentialism on its own terms. Beginning with
these criticisms, he will move to defend the philosophy by explicating its central tenets.
This exegetical essay will follow Sartre’s disquisition on existentialism and include
critical questions, in the margin, to be explored in further discussion, reading and writing.

To begin then.

There are, writes Sartre, two strands of existentialism: theistic and atheistic. In the
theistic camp, Sartre includes thinkers such as Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers. In the
atheistic party, Sartre places Heidegger, himself (Sartre, that is) and the French
existentialists. While, at bottom, these two threads, theist and atheist, differ on the God
question, they both hold in common the foremost principle of existentialism: “that
existence precedes essence”, or “that subjectivity must be the starting point” (13).
Historically, in theology and philosophy, essence was taken to precede existence.
Like an object produced by an artisan, God—in theocentric accounts—was taken to be a
designer or creator who fashioned humans, as an artisan designed and produced, for
instance, a table. The artisan and God both employed some ‘universal essence’ or ‘ideal
concept’ (a cognitive blueprint, perhaps) to direct their creation. The table has an essence
as a result of its production and in its use or final cause, just as the human being with its
“human nature” as prescribed by God. This issued in, as Sartre says, “a [subsequent]
universality…[in which] the wild-man, the natural man, as well as the bourgeois, are
circumscribed by the same definition and have the same basic qualities” (some essential
nature) (14-15).
Sartre notes a more coherent break from the essence precedes existence claim in
atheistic existentialism, which he represents. Atheistic existentialism contends that if God
does not exist, there is still a being in which essence does not precede existence—man,

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

him- or herself. This existence before, or preceding, essence is explicated by Sartre,


thusly:
“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” (15).

The upshot of this argument is that there is not a universal, essential human nature—and
to speak of any sort of static, necessary “human nature” is to utter a vacuous term to the
atheistic existentialist, as no God exists to prescribe such a thing. Hence, “man is nothing
else but what he makes of himself” (15).
This “first principle of existentialism” is what Sartre later refers to as subjectivity
—another aspect of existentialism that had been oppugned by its critics, to which Sartre
retorts:

“But what do we mean by this, if not that man has a greater dignity than a stone
or a 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 a being in the future” (15-16).

Consequently, since essence does not precede existence, man/woman must be responsible
for what he/she is. The individual must bear the weight of their choices and actions in the
world. This is, in part, what Sartre means when he later describes subjectivity as a point
of view in life beyond which “it is impossible for man to transcend” (17). Human
subjectivity is the launching point for all people, and is, thereby, a common feature of our
experience in the world. We cannot reach the view from eternity, or the ‘God’s-eye view’,
as our very human condition necessitates this subjectivity.
This commonality among all humans, then, involves all of us in the greater
project of creating humanity. Sartre believes that choosing or affirming anything—
electing to join a political party, or opting to get married—is to confer value on that
choice; so much value, in fact, that we actually are not simply choosing what we believe
to be the best situation for ourselves. We are also—in a sort of Kantian sense—“at the
same time [creating] an image of man as we think he ought to be” (17).
For Sartre, we can never choose evil. Good will always be our choice, and
choosing for ourselves really implicates what we believe all of humanity should choose. 1
Thus, the choice, to choose—to exercise our freedom—is a momentous event, a moment
of exceeding import, for Sartre. As he furthers this line: “I am creating a certain image of
man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man” (18).
And perhaps here we reach the beginning of Sartre’s reply to the charge of
situating humans within existentialism as isolated, atomistic agents in the world: if my
choice really does involve my prescribing a certain image of humanity—if, put another
way, my choice really doesn’t just concern me, but all of humanity—then I am not alone
in the world as the voluntaristic subject seeking, exclusively, my ends (as this particular
criticism of existentialism suggests). To the contrary, I am, via my choice, affirming what

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Kant’s categorical imperative comes to mind as a similar sort of universal mutuality, wherein one ought to
act, or choose that action, which one believes one could will as a universal moral law to which all moral
agents should be subject.

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

I believe all of humanity ought to do or be. There is a sort of dynamism, then, that pits the
singular or particular in dialectical engagement with the whole or the universal. This
move highlights a kind of mutuality or solidarity, and adumbrates the ethical dimensions
of existentialism.
Next, however, Sartre moves on to elucidate how the existentialist understands the
terms anguish, forlornness, and despair. I shall examine these in turn.

Anguish

Anguish arises, for Sartre, from the individual’s realization that in choosing, the
individual is not simply choosing for him- or herself: they are, concurrently, cast as a sort
of legislator for all humanity. One cannot elude the utter responsibility of this fact, and,
hence, one finds oneself in anguish. Sartre believes those among us who seem at ease,
those who display no signs of anxiousness, are dissembling, hiding their anguish. In a
kind of evasion of responsibility, the person hides from anguish, or casts it off as a minor
event when asked ‘What if everybody looked at things, or did things, they way you do?’
(19). The individual “who lies and makes excuses for [him- or herself] by saying, “Not
everybody does that,” is someone with an uneasy conscience, because the act of lying
implies that a universal value is conferred upon the lie,” writes Sartre (19).
Anguish is inextricably bound with human action in the world. In choosing some
course of action among several options one may or may not have, one is conferring value
on the course of action one eventually chooses. For Sartre, one must ask (a la Kant): “Am
I really the kind of [person] who has the right to act in such a way that humanity might
guide itself by my actions? (25)” Failure to reach this introspective moment constitutes
the evasion or “the masking” of one’s anguish.

Forlornness

Forlornness, a term Sartre mentions Heidegger was keen on, is the recognition
that God does not exist, and that the consequences of our actions, then, for ill or good,
redound solely to ourselves. Consequent to this recognition, is the deep sense of dread
that once God no longer exists, the ground for “all possibility of finding values in a
heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good,
since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. (22)”
Following Dostoyevsky who said, “If God does not exist, everything would be
permissible,” the atheistic existentialist concurs. There remains nothing without, or
within, the existentialist to cling to or to ground their values on—at least nothing
essential, eternal and immutable. And, concomitantly, “[the existentialist] can’t start
making excuses for himself,” as Sartre explains. Humans must construct, create and
propound their values in the absence of the Divine Command, or the static, universal
human nature they are so wont to appeal to. This freedom and responsibility weighs
heavily on humanity with onerous intensity, but man must still act in the world—alone,
with no deity above him. This is forlornness.
This culminates in the Sartrean formulation “that man is condemned to be free”
(23). Sartre explains that man is “condemned” because man is not sui generis—humans
did not create themselves. However, for Sartre, man can still be said to be free “because

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (23)” Humanity is
free, ironically, because humanity has no choice but freedom. And humanity must be
totally free; there are no apotropaic omens, amulets, talismans, to which we might appeal;
there are no ethical treatises, there is no system of internal feelings that can guide one in
the heat of action. Humanity is thrown onto “the pale blue dot”—in the words of Carl
Sagan—and must navigate the funk and mess of the world—the conflicting moral duties
and impinging psychological pangs—utterly alone. “Forlornness implies that we
ourselves choose our being. Forlornness and anguish go together, (29)” Sartre explains.

Despair

Despair, for Sartre, “has a very simple meaning”: It gets at the choice of
“[confining] ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the
ensemble of probabilities, which make our action possible. (29)” Employing a kind of
stoic outlook, Sartre believes that one must involve oneself in action in the world until
“the moment the possibilities I am considering are not rigorously involved by my action”
(29). After this moment, the agent must, or ought to, “disengage” because, since there is
no God, there are no means by which the world and all of its possibilities can be
comported with my will.
In sum, there is no inevitability about the course of human action as it concerns
our projects, singular or common. There are no guarantees that our choices, and the
actions which issue from them, will realize the desiderata we aim for. Because we are all
freedoms, we can choose, as we will, according to Sartre, and all other freedoms are
beyond our singular control or influence (unless they so choose to make themselves
amenable to our control or influence.) Hence, despair has to take account of the
disappointment, nearly ineluctable, that will be occasioned by the frustration of our plans,
aims and projects in life, owing to the impossibility of our wills’ capacity to make
possibilities in the world yield to our control.

Sartre’s Response to his Critics

“Desperate Quietism” and Pessimism

On Sartre’s account, that whatever will be, will be because humans have chosen
it, is not an invitation to quietism, or passivity, in the world. He says that we ought to
involve ourselves in the world, acting on the old saying “Nothing ventured, nothing
gained.” Furthermore, Sartre advises us not to withdraw from parties, groups or collective
action necessarily. We ought to, conversely, “have no illusions” and offer to the collective
what we can. Working with other freedoms cannot—even if our stated ends are in
harmony—provide us with any certainty that our shared goals will be achieved, or that
we will persist, always together, in the pursuance of those goals. Dispensing with this
most seductive of illusions, on Sartre’s account, will orient us toward collective action in
a more honest, sober way.
Instead of shrinking from action in the world, or, as Sartre put it, saying “Let
others do what I can’t do (31),” his doctrine contrarily avows that “there is no reality
except in action,” and that “man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

that he fulfills himself (32).” Reality, not unfulfilled dreams, plans or projects, takes pride
of place in Sartre’s view of existentialism. To speak, then, of that which did not happen—
Michael Jackson could have recorded another great album, or I applied to Bucknell
University and would have made a wonderful undergraduate career there—is to, in
Sartre’s view, “define a man as a disappointed dream, as miscarried hopes, as vain
expectations. In other words, [it is] to define him negatively and not positively. (33)”
Action in the world, then, is a choice. We should act and not recoil in light of the
existential truths of there being no God, no essential human nature, or a priori ethical
givens. What, I think, Sartre wants us to face up to, is the utter responsibility that is ours
as freedoms acting in the world, instead of determined, fixed, mechanical objects through
which the forces and motions of determinism flow.
The redeeming features, on this account, then, net us certain, rather comforting,
insights as well. No longer can we, if we take existentialism seriously, posit the
“cowardly” or “courageous” constitution. Writes Sartre: “There’s no such thing as a
cowardly constitution; there are nervous constitutions; there is poor blood, as the
common people say, or strong constitutions… [but] what makes cowardice is the act of
renouncing or yielding (34).” This disconcerts people, thinks Sartre, because they would
rather cowards and heroes be born cowardly and heroic; they would sooner have them
‘essentialized’, so as to absolve them of responsibility for who they are. Sartre simply
rejects this account. And, even more rewarding, possibilities are always before us. The
possibility “for the coward not to be cowardly anymore” is ever existent so long as the
cowardly individual continues to live, and resolves, that is, chooses, no longer to act
cowardly, but, if you like, heroically instead.
In this way, Sartre, in his opinion, was able to respond to a couple of the
criticisms of existentialism. He denies that existentialism is a “philosophy of quietism”
because a central tenet of existentialism casts the individual—the authentic individual—
in terms of that individual’s action in the world. To the charge of existentialism’s
pessimism or cynicism, Sartre rejoins, as it were, “there can be no more optimistic system
of beliefs because man is posited as the master of his fate, the dynamic creator of her
destiny.”

Subject to Subjectivity

Existentialism begins with subjectivity because, according to Sartre, “there can be


no other truth to take off from than this: I think; therefore I exist,” for “there we have the
absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself (36).” To begin outside of “the
Cartesian cogito,” argues Sartre, is to inaugurate “a doctrine of probability which is not
bound to a truth, [but, rather] dissolves into thin air (36).” Furthermore, existentialism is a
theory, which regards humans as subjects and not objects. Sartre contends that “all”
materialism reduces humans to objects in the throes of determinism—humans are no
more significant, for example, than a table or chair. Hence, Sartre posits a material realm
and human realm of values: “an ensemble of values,” he claims, “distinct from the
material realm (37).” And simply beginning with subjectivity does not necessitate the
atomist, isolated agents incapable of human solidarity or intersubjectivity, as “one
discovers in the cogito not only [herself], but others as well (37).”

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

Our subjectivity, our forming of ourselves, is dependent on other subjectivities.


We cannot become anything or be said to be anything—honest, beautiful, envious—
without others who “recognize [us] as such.” As Sartre concisely puts it: “In order to get
any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person (37-8).” Therefore, it is
in the “world which we shall call intersubjectivity,” avers Sartre, that all of us come to
know and choose who we are and what we will be, and who others are and shall be.
There is a universal human condition, but not a universal essence. The condition
comprises “the a priori limits which outline man’s fundamental situation in the universe
(38).” There are no variations with regard to humanity’s necessity to (1) exist, to (2) be
involved in the world, acting, to (3) be part of a community or society, and to (4) be
mortal. These four a priori limits circumscribe, for Sartre, the human condition. These a
priori limits have both subjective and objective dimensions. The subjective dimension is
the lived experience of these limits, how we “freely determine [our] existence with
reference to them.” The objective dimension refers to the ubiquity of these limits and the
ability of these limits to be recognized everywhere.
Sartre refers to “an existence which chooses its essence” as a “configuration.” The
configurations can be unique, particular, individual, but they all have a “universal value.”
The universal value arises from the fact that “every configuration can be understood by
every man (39).” Hence, for Sartre, anyone can “push [herself] to her limits and
reconstitute within herself the configuration of the Chinese, the Indian, or the African.”
The universality of recognition of the individual configurations, then, lends itself to
“perpetually being made.” Never is the universality a given, it is built, or constructed, by
human beings everywhere.

Other Discontents with Subjectivism

The existentialist can do whatever she desires; or, the charge of caprice.

The absence of a priori principles or objective morality does not lead to sheer
caprice, argues Sartre. The possibility of choice is always there and always involves all of
humanity. Since the individual is a project, and fully involved, just because there is no
recourse to eternal, universal verities does not mean that sheer caprice rules. Instead,
Sartre contends, we must “say that moral choice is to be compared to the making of a
work of art. (42)” Since there are no a priori values in ethical life, we must invent and
create, as does the artist without any a priori aesthetic values. There is a process of
becoming. As Sartre writes: “Man makes himself. He is not ready made at the start. (43)”
Thus, involvement is paramount—action and creation are prime. So, writes Sartre, “it is
therefore absurd to charge us with arbitrariness of choice. (44)”

Ethical judgments are impossible for the existentialist.

This charge, Sartre believes, is both true and false in some respects. Sartre holds
that the charge is true because “whenever a man sanely and sincerely involves himself
and chooses his configuration, it is impossible to prefer another configuration (44).” Even
so, Sartre does believe one can retain a critical stance—if not critical value judgments,

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Nolan Harris Jr
Independent Study
Exegetical Essay I: Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

then, at least, critical logical judgments concerning truth and falsity. Logically, the
existentialist can seek truth over error and is obliged, or able, to point out both.
Sartre then asserts that even he can make moral judgments. If humanity is left to
invent and create its own values, and in their forlornness must accept responsibility, then
“[humanity] can no longer want but one thing, and that is freedom as the basis of all
values. (45)” Every person wants freedom, asserts Sartre, “and in wanting freedom we
discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that freedom of others
depends on ours. (46)”
This issues in, Sartre will claim, his ability to “pass judgment on those who seek
to hide from themselves the complete arbitrariness and the complete freedom of their
existence. (46)”

“Values aren’t serious, since you choose them.”

Sartre, simply retorts, that if there is no God, someone must invent, construct the
values humans believe in. The ‘invention’ of values is no insurmountable charge, Sartre
thinks, because it is no more than saying “life has no meaning a priori (49).” If there is
any meaning to be found in, or gleaned from, life, it will be the meaning that humans give
it, confer upon it.

Conclusion

Sartre is seeking, in this chapter, to draw the conclusions of a coherent atheist


position on the issue of existence. The logical conclusions he comes to are, at times, stark
and unyielding, but to his credit, Sartre is willing to follow them where they lead as
against turning away in fear of “masking” the truth of a theory as serious as
existentialism. His existentialism is onerous in its insistence on humanity’s utter freedom
and ineluctable responsibility—there is no way out of this human condition. However, his
theory of cognition—especially beginning with the first principle of existentialism:
“existence precedes essence”—is a powerful move that, in its own way, liberates our
consciousness’ from the cold, static idea that before our existence, there was something
essential about us somewhere, and once we existed, we could not change it or otherwise
escape it.
Instead of the ready, fast, ossified definitions and universal ideals that we are so
wont to accept and assert, humanity is cast a project itself, always becoming and in
process. Humans are not ends in themselves because they never reach this terminus that
is so often asserted. Our freedom leaves us ever transcending toward some unknown and
uncharted future. We are always passing-beyond, hurling ourselves toward some future-
past. We are, on Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, all alone in this adventure, but we must
assume responsibility once we turn up in the world. No one else can do what we must do,
and no one else, then, can be responsible.