When one thinks of modern, twentieth-century existentialism, it is impossible to avoid a consideration of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—a man who has played a key role in defining the public perception of existentialism itself in these times. The present essay is part of a series on existentialism presented by the world class writers at Ultius, and it will discuss some of the main ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Existentialism: Part VI: Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was the one who clearly formulated the contemporary technical definition of existentialism as a philosophical position—namely, that existence precedes essence:
“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” (“Existentialism,” paragraph 9).
According to Sartre, unlike most other philosophers who posit some kind of primordial inherent nature within human beings, the existentialist (unlike the “essentialist”) suggests that the total freedom of existence itself comes first, with human beings only retroactively constructing their essences on the basis of their existential experiences. This essay on Sartre will consist of four main parts:
- The first part will describe Sartre’s basic (and by now classic) definition of existentialism itself.
- The second part will consider one of the main themes of his works, which is the problem of freedom.
- The third part will then proceed to analyze the strange tension between existentialism and Marxism that exists within Sartre’s broader thought.
- Finally, the essay will reflect on Sartre’s problematic support of Communism within his own contemporary political context.
Defining existentialism, redux
The definition of existentialism could be understood as a kind of language game. After all, the proposition that existence precedes essence could simply be reformulated to read:
“The essence of man is such that his essence is retroactively constructed through his existence.”
Ultimately, Sartre is making just as fundamental and universal an assertion regarding human nature as any other philosopher ever has; he is simply making one that most philosophers have not made before. This has come to be known as the technical definition of what existentialism means as a metaphysical stance. Sartre’s own definition, presented in his seminal work, Being and Nothingness, clearly arrived fairly late within the tradition as a whole. As such, for present purposes, this essay will bracket Sartre’s definition of existentialism and maintain that existentialism is more a philosophical attitude or ethos than it is any specific technical position or formulation.
The problem of freedom
From Sartre’s perspective, it would be fair to suggest that man is condemned to his own freedom. That is, the existential condition of the human being is such that he cannot help but be free; even if he did not desire this, he would have no choice either way. This logically follows from the basic proposition that existence precedes essence:
A key implication of this is that a human being creates his own nature through his own existential decisions—and he is always making decisions, one way or another, whether he is aware of this or not. To be truly human thus implies the radical responsibility to take responsibility for one’s own freedom and to shape one’s own nature in accordance with that freedom (Sartre).
On the other hand, to deny that one is free, or to act as though one were not responsible for oneself, would be a cardinal sin within the context of Sartre’s philosophy.
Sartre’s unique approach
Sartre gives that sin the name of bad faith. His own description of the phenomenon, found in his work Being and Nothingness, is rather inelegant and filled to the brim with jargon. A brief paraphrase of the idea is as follows:
- A person is fundamentally in a state of bad faith when he denies his own essential freedom as a human being and instead acts and sees himself as though he has no control over his own fate or destiny.
- A person who has a victim complex, for example, would be a classic exemplar of bad faith: such a person would believe that the entire world is responsible for what he has become, and he would thus totally neglect the radical element of freedom that can be found at the heart of his own human condition.
Of course, more or less dramatic examples can be found all the time. The main point, though, is that people exist in a state of bad faith whenever they seek to deny their own natural freedom and the existential responsibility implied by that freedom (see Fromm).
Sartre wrote several plays and the dialectic between freedom and responsibility such as No Exit and Dirty Hands. In Sartre’s thought can perhaps most clearly be seen in his play known as “The Flies.” This is a reinterpretation of the ancient myth of Orestes. In one scene, Orestes is reflecting on how he cannot seem to truly belong to his own city, and Sartre has him utter the following:
If there were something I could do, something to give me the freedom of the city; if even by a crime, I could acquire their memories, their hopes and fears, and fill with these the void within me, yes, even if I had to kill my own mother. (No Exit and Three Other Plays 61)
Orestes, then, finds his pure freedom to itself be oppressive, and he dreams of committing a crime that will give him the concrete freedom of actually having to accept responsibility for his own life. This is related to Sartre’s basic idea that man is condemned to be free, unless he were to take full existential responsibility for that freedom, in which case that freedom can become real liberation.
Existentialism and Marxism
The above discussion has made it clear that the problem of freedom is absolutely central to the philosophy of Sartre. Given that this is the case, it may now be strange to consider the fact that Sartre also spent much of his life as a committed Marxist (see Aron). This is strange due to the simple fact that:
existentialism—and especially Sartre’s version of it—is based on the doctrine of individual freedom, whereas Marxism has always been based on the doctrine of social determinism. According to Marx and Engels, a man’s true interests are primarily determined by his social class and one’s position within the broader social and economic order of things; and if he were to imagine interests or beliefs that were not congruent with these material conditions, then he would be guilty of the phenomenon known as false consciousness (Aron).
False consciousness is when, as a result of ideological delusions, a person fails to lucidly recognize his own true self-interest and instead begins to adopt the interests and attitudes of his natural antagonists.
False consciousness vs. bad faith
Now, it would be illuminating to juxtapose the Marxist concept of false consciousness with Sartre’s concept of bad faith.
- According to Marx and Engels, a person is in a state of false consciousness when he fails to recognize the dictates of material necessity
- According to Sartre, a person is in a state of bad faith when he fails to recognize the dictates of his existential freedom
- A Sartrean existentialist may imagine his own freedom to have constructed his life: a belief against which the Marxist would enjoy leveling the accusation of false consciousness
In principle, then, it would seem to be almost logically impossible for one to be both a Marxist and an existentialist (in Sartre’s sense) at one and the same time. A Marxist would be given to imagine that almost all of his life has been determined by the material conditions of the world—a position that, from a Sartrean perspective, could only smell strongly of bad faith.
Sartre’s concept of facticity
The only possible reconciliation between these two perspectives could perhaps be found in Sartre’s concept of facticity, which refers to the vast array of conditions by which free will and human freedom is concretely limited within the context of the empirical world. For example, a person who has made a past decision is somewhat limited by that decision when it comes to his real future possibilities. Through the concept of facticity, it would perhaps be possible to find a kind of dynamic reconciliation between existentialism and Marxism, according to which existential freedom interjects itself into the necessary conditions of history in order to over time create a new and better world. However, not only does this formulation ignore the fact that Marxism is essentially a deterministic philosophy, it also remains very vague about the nature of the relationship between freedom and necessity.
Sartre and Communism
Now, it is fact that even the discovery of the prison camps known as gulags within the Soviet Union failed to provoke Sartre’s full condemnation of the entire Communist project within that nation. As James has put the matter: even after Sartre formally broke with the Communists,
[he] was ready to say something exculpatory even if what is was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish. (670)
It is thus a historical fact that Sartre’s Marxist sympathies actually led him to support the Communism that was present within the Soviet Union, even after clear evidence had emerged that a tyrannical regime that cared nothing for real human freedom was in charge as evidenced in the Cold War. This is concerning for two main reasons:
- It is difficult to imagine how someone who was as concerned about the problem of existential freedom as Sartre was could so glibly dismiss such a gross concrete offense against such freedom as the one perpetrated by the Soviet Union.
- The virtual impenetrability of the prose style in Sartre’s philosophical works, and especially in Being and Nothingness. This becomes problematic in light of the disjunction between Sartre’s abstract philosophical positions and concrete political commitments, insofar as it would seem to suggest that Sartre might have been hiding something in his delineations of the former.
In any event, one gets the uncanny impression that although Sartre was an existentialist in the technical sense that he himself created, perhaps he was not very much of one at all in the deeper and more general sense that has been utilized by the present series of essays: that is, in the sense of being actively concerned with the nature of living as a human being in the world, and with ensuring that the bridge is held between thought on the one hand and life on the other.
Even though he is widely considered to be the exemplary and defining figure of twentieth-century existentialism, Sartre himself may have been considerably less existential than many other writers. Sartre was an existentialist in terms of his own language of what an existentialist is and the key philosophical problems he considered. However, it is less clear he was one at the level of ethos and living praxis.
Aron, Raymond. Marxism and the Existentialists. New York: HarperCollins, 1969. Print.
Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt, 1994. Print.
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” 1946. Marxists.org. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. .
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.