Existentialist Thought

I’ve decided to start posting some of the essays I’ve written for school here. Perhaps someone else will find some use for them. I’m starting with a short essay I wrote for extra credit last fall for my philosophy class.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is Humanism” is essentially a defense of the existentialist philosophy against popular society’s outcries. Sartre primarily attacks the Christian view of existentialism with multiple examples, breaking up the terminology into more digestible ways for the better understanding of his audience.

There are four primary charges that Sartre claims he will challenge. But, before expounding on these arguments, Sartre tries to explain what existentialism is. The first principle, he says, is that “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (315). He basically describes that existentialist thought believes “existence precedes essence,” meaning that man cannot be defined before his action because the action (existence) is what creates him (essence).

After this explanation, one would expect that Sartre would return to the arguments and use those as a basis for the rest of the lecture. Instead, he goes on to explain why arguments labeling existentialism with “subjectivity” as a negative thing are fallacious. The assumed charge is that existentialist thought, while focusing on the fact that every man has to make his own choices and whatever he decides is inherently right for him, does not leave room for consideration of other human beings, resulting in a completely subjective existence. Sartre argues that precisely because of this subjectivity, man is made better, because “we always choose the good, and nothing can be good for us without being good for all” (316). Or as he says more simply further down: “In choosing myself, I choose man.”

Following this, Sartre launches into explanation of the terms “anguish,” “forlornness,” and “despair.” Presumably this is to combat the charges that speak of existentialism as a negative philosophy, but he doesn’t really make that clear. Sartre goes on about these for many pages, but I will keep my interpretation short. Anguish, he describes much like Kierkgaard’s angst/dread. It arises from a feeling of “total and deep responsibility” (316) from man realizing that he has the ability to choose. Sartre takes it a step further than Kierkgaard, saying that anguish comes from that but also from the knowledge that in choosing for himself, a man is also choosing for the rest of mankind. Sartre references Heidegger in describing the term forlornness. He says it means that “God does not exist and we have to face all the consequences of this” (318). The primary consequence being that man realizes he must take responsibility for his own actions and circumstances because there is no higher power to blame it on. Despair is described similarly as the feeling arising from the realization that “reality alone is what counts” (322). This means that it does not matter what a man intends to do; all that matters is what he actually does.

Only after these lengthy explanations does Sartre return to the original charges, at which point he declares they have been dealt with already. The charge of quietism is rebutted because he says the lecture has clearly shown that existentialism “defines man in terms of action.” He says that when people are attacking the philosophy as pessimistic, it is really because existentialism actually has an “optimistic toughness” (323) because it describes man’s destiny as belonging entirely to himself.

I think that in looking at existentialist writing, I am actually a bit biased. I came across the philosophy a few years ago in high school, when I was even more young and impressionable than I am now, and my understanding of the theory at that time largely formed my outlook on life and human potential. I haven’t provided much response to the issues raised because other than Sartre’s method of delivery, I am already largely on board with what he has to say. The idea that man’s actions create him is fairly well ingrained in American society, but most do not realize that they are actually following an existentialist thought. I find it interesting that Sartre was more of a socialist when much of existentialist philosophy lends itself better to capitalism, though really I think a better economic model than either of those could be derived from existentialist thought.

Works Cited

Abel, Donald C., Theories of Human Nature: Classical and Contemporary Readings. USA: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1992. Print.

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