Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. (p.56)

Sartre gave this public lecture at the Club Maintenant on October 29, 1945. (Just a reminder that the Second World War in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, the war against Japan ended on 15 August, so the lecture was only months after the greatest most ruinous conflict in history – and the revelation of the new atom bomb.)

Sartre’s aim was to explain the true nature of his, and French, existentialism, and to rebut various criticisms of it which had been expressed. (It is fascinating to learn that even by 1945 existentialism had become a popular cliché, a widespread catch-phrase and/or term of abuse. Thus Sartre himself gives the example of a woman who lets slip a coarse expression in conversation, then apologises, saying: ‘I think I am becoming an existentialist’ – and of a columnist in Clartés magazine who signs himself ‘The Existentialist’. Maybe, he speculates, people need a new fashion, now that surrealism is blown out. — Fascinating to realise all this was so in 1945 – I thought it was only in the 1950s that wearing black polo necks and looking tragic became de rigueur.)

The text of the lecture is 33 pages long. Sartre then repeated the same lecture in a smaller, more academic setting after which opponents were able to ask him questions. This Q&A session appears as an appendix (14 pages). Then the short book was rounded off with an introduction by Philip Mairet setting Sartre’s existentialism in its historical context (15 pages). The book as a whole was published in French in 1946, and in English translation in 1947.

These 62 pages are absolutely packed with ideas and implications.

1. Philip Mairet’s introduction

Existentialism is a revolt against the triumph of over-cerebral philosophical systems. Immanuel Kant (1704-1804) in the 1700s produced an awesomely complete theory of human perception and morality; but this was trumped by the enormous philosophical theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1730-1831), which incorporated everything, even world history.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) rebelled against all this. Who cares about Kantian analysis of mind or Hegelian evolution of thought: these vast abstract systems can’t help you with the individual decisions, the personal dilemmas we all face in our lives. We confront these decisions on our own through ‘conflicts and tumults in the soul, anxieties, agonies’. The reality of existence proceeds from the ‘inwardness’ of man. Only the individual counts. ‘Truth is subjectivity’.

For Kierkegaard the Enlightenment turned God into a set of logical propositions, but neglected the personal sense of God and of our ‘aloneness with God’. They neglected the real subject – ‘man, in the total, unfathomable inwardness of his being’.

Kierkegaard’s writings are scattered and very varied in form, satires, comedies, dialogues, using fictional personas. They weren’t much translated or widely read in his lifetime. Only in the 1930s did they start to become known. Why? Because their time had come. They were part of the general revolt against the over-mechanisation and over-scientisation of society, the same cultural feel which gave rise to Brave New World. I have recently read George Orwell’s criticism of H.G. Wells’s facile scientific utopianism. belief in machines wasn’t enough. God is dead, religion is a dead letter; capitalism was visibly dying; it was only inside that man could feel his deepest feelings, know his truest self.

The revival of Kierkegaard in the 1930s is linked to the revival of Nietzsche, on the face of it as opposed as could be, since Kierkegaard was a devout albeit unorthodox Christian, who believed the agonised subjectivity he was describing ultimately led you to greater knowledge of your aloneness before God – it led, ultimately, to a purified and deepened religious faith; whereas Nietzsche despised and hated Christianity. What both share, however, is an irrational, romantic revolt against linear, logical thought, and an impassioned emphasis on man’s subjectivity, on his struggle with himself, for knowledge, for mastery.

The massively influential modern representative of this Revolt against the Rational was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), ‘the principal source of contemporary french existentialist philosophy.’ In defeated post-Great War Germany, all official systems had been discredited and a crazed world of the irrational and the reckless dominated Weimar Culture. ‘In such circumstances men try to get back to the roots of their knowledge in search of a more secure basis of life.’

Heidegger’s contemporary was Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) who wrote Man In The Modern Age, ‘a powerful indictment of the progress of contemporary technological civilisation, which he regards as a social disease.’ Why? Because the world becomes so dense with objective and mechanistic modes of thought, gadgets, machines, devices which all need operating according to fixed instructions – that human will, soul, spirit, innerness, whatever you want to call it, is stifled. Jaspers insists on man’s spiritual and moral freedom – but he was a Roman Catholic and so he thought that this freedom can only lead to unending anguish, unless quenched in submission to God.

Back to Heidegger: the Phenomenologists, led by Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), claimed to be a scientific movement exploring the nature of perception. Put simply we don’t perceive ‘objects as they are’ but as they are filtered through our complex nervous system and pre-existing dispositions. On the other hand, our own selves – the fundamental laws by which we perceive and ‘know’ ourselves – are a mystery to us.

Unlike Kierkegaard or Jaspers, Heidegger is resolutely atheist. He sees man as driven by a need to know that he exists, that he is. If, as phenomenology suggests, we cannot know the real world, nor can we know our deepest selves – then our perceiving thinking self is caught in the no-man’s land between these two unknowns, we are condemned to move forever among the phenomena which are the transitory and contingent products of these two unknowns. We are abandoned in a ceaseless drift of phenomena. There is no bottom, no fundamental value, and no perceptual, psychological or spiritual way out of this condition. Hence the ineradicable ‘anguish’ of anyone who reaches this conclusion, who travels along this road to this bleak knowledge. The only way out is a route which sounds a lot like Nietzsche – which is to create a purpose: to accept fully and without self-deception the bleak abandonment of our situation but to overcome it, to master it, to create purposes, meanings, projects, through which he can affirm his existence and his will.

Mairet goes on to say that existentialism thus flows from a number of tributaries and antecedents, and has blossomed in inter-war Europe with lots of writers, artists, thinkers expressing different variations on existentialist themes (Kafka being the most famous and enduring). What singles out French existentialism, says Mairet, is its literary expression. If existentialism concerns embattled subjectivities, then at some point you need to leave behind generalised philosophy and get access to these subjectivities, to see the doctrines embodied.

And that’s where Sartre comes in with the extraordinary explosion of writings he began in the mid-1930s. the novels Nausea and the Roads To Freedom trilogy, his numerous idea-driven plays, and his philosophical-based interpretations of contemporary artists like Giacometti – all provide Sartre with opportunities to show the reading public a wide variety of ways in which an existentialist interpretation of life is embodied in lots of different characters and personalities.

It is through Sartre’s plays and novels that his brand of existentialism has been popularised to a fashionable, educated audience not very familiar with the heavy-duty European philosophical tradition behind it. But, as always happens, this means it has been watered down, simplified by newspapers and magazines, reduced to slogans, become a fashion item

indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all. (p.26)

And it is this watered-down, simplified version has then come under attack from political and philosophical opponents, by communists and Catholics, by humanists and other philosophers.

It is to state his beliefs clearly, and rebut all these various attacks, that Sartre gave the lecture.

2. Sartre’s lecture

I can divide the contents of this lecture into three elements: what I understand and agree with; what I understand and disagree with; what I don’t understand (or, more accurately, don’t don’t follow, don’t think follow logically from his first principles.)

Sartre starts by summarising the accusations made against his version of existentialism: that it dwells on the sordid side of life; that it leads to despair (a sin for Catholics), quietism and passivity i.e. is a bourgeois luxury (a sin for communists). Communists, especially, zero in on existentialism’s focus on subjectivity and claim this leads it to exclude the possibility of solidarity and revolution. By denying God, but emphasising human freedom, by emphasising the need for us to create our own values, Catholics accuse existentialism of being an ‘anything goes’ philosophy, which leads to selfishness and irresponsibility. Then he explains:

Existence precedes essence Fundamentally, existentialism is a rethinking of European philosophy to assert that existence precedes existence. For Christian philosophers there is a thing called ‘Human Nature’, created by God and we are all variations on this pre-existing template: in this view the template precedes the earthly reality: essence precedes existence. Existentialists invert this definition: there is no God and so no fixed human nature, no pre-defined template. We come into the world fundamentally free to act and define who we are. It is our free actions which create and determine us, not some pre-ordained God-given patter. It is we who define who and what we are. Therefore, Existence precedes essence.

The centrality of subjectivity Or, to phrase it differently – philosophy must begin from the subjective experience of life. If God does not exist there is one being we can know exists for sure; that is our self? But who am I? I don’t know. I find out by acting. By exercising choice, decision, my freedom. Man is what he makes of himself. This is the bedrock of the philosophy, its first position: man is conscious of himself and this is what separates Man from all other objects in the world.

Responsibility The next step is that we are responsible for our decisions.

The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. (p.29)

Anguish Each moment of choice is accompanied by ‘anguish’ because we have no external rules or guidelines to guide us. If we choose to follow rules or morality that is our choice which was also a choice. And to follow them now is a choice which could be otherwise.

We only choose the good Then Sartre makes a big leap which I don’t understand or agree with. He says that when we make a decision we are unable ever to choose the worse; in our minds we always do the best thing. — This seems to fly in the face of all the evidence we have of human beings doing terrible things and things they don’t believe in or want to do.

We choose for all mankind But then he goes on to make a massively sweeping statement:

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. (p.29)

This seems to me a big leap. His idea is that, in making major decisions, we create an image of all mankind, it is a decision which is valid for all. I can see why he would claim this: it gets him out of the hole of pure subjectivity and solipsism: it suddenly greatly expands existentialism to become a philosophy of society and social solidarity, thus rebutting the charges made by Communists.

Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.(p.29)

If a worker joins a Christian trade union he is not only committing himself to a resigned, God-fearing point of view – he is making ‘a commitment on behalf of all mankind.’ If I want to marry, ‘I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy.’

Disagreement Up to now everything had followed logically, and I could go along with it, at least as a sort of imaginative vision, a kind of fiction of a moral theory. But I don’t think this step either follows logically or is very believable. He has made it, in my view, for solely tactical, political reasons – to refute the accusation of existentialism being anti-social and anti-revolutionary, to try and give it a broader ethical relevance. But I think it feels strained and implausible. Is it true that every major decision we make is always for what we consider the best and that by making it we make a commitment on behalf of all mankind, that we imagine all mankind making the same decision? The simple answer is No.

Anyway, Sartre ups the ante by explaining that this is what existentialists mean by ‘anguish’ – that when you make a big decision, you are not only doing it for yourself (which is nerve-racking enough) but you are ‘deciding for the whole of mankind. In such a moment a man cannot escape from a sense of complete and profound responsibility.’ (p.30)

Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly. (p.30)

Thus, in this dramatically expanded vision of human behaviour, existentialism is the opposite of a philosophy of despairing inaction: it is very much a philosophy bound up with man’s continual need to make decisions, to commit himself, and to act.

As to abandonment, this means more or less what it meant for Heidegger who coined it. There is no God, therefore no set of universal values outside ourselves, therefore we are abandoned, adrift in a welter of sense impressions and conflicting beliefs and values systems and have to construct our values for ourself.

If indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s actions by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom… We are left alone without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. (p.34)

The last idea required to complete the exposition of basic existentialism is ‘bad faith‘. Maivais fois in the original French this has more usefully been defined as ‘self-deception’. Whenever anyone says ‘I had to’, ‘they made me’, ‘it’s what everyone does’ they are showing bad faith and self deception, that’s to say they are hiding from the truth of their own ineradicable freedom. If we are totally free, it follows logically that anyone giving any reason at all for not being free is lying or deceiving themselves – generally in an effort to wriggle off the hook of having done something bad.

Since we have defined the situation of man as one of free choice, withoutexcuse and without help, any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. (p.51)

To sum up: man is everywhere born completely free and responsible for every action and decision he makes. Not only that, but each decision contains within itself the assumption that this is the best thing for all mankind. Thus the anguish experienced by people dithering over decisions is made even more intense, because our actions commit us to a vision of all humanity.

And thus – to refute the criticisms made at the start – existentialism is far from being a passive, quietist philosophy: the exact opposite, it declares

there is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only insofar as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions… (p.41)

Others, politics, commitment

In the final ten pages Sartre deploys a number of rhetorical strategies and arguments to try to expand these insights about the individual human condition into an assertion that, when I come to understand my freedom, I must also grasp the ineradicable freedom of others. That, somehow, my personal freedom is inextricably linked with the freedom of others and that, by willing my freedom – as I must – I must also will the freedom of other people. I must will universal freedom

I think this final ten pages amount to a long, convoluted attempt by Sartre to escape from the solipsism implicit in his position and from the trap of subjectivity. And I think it is equally an attempt to lay the foundations for a left-liberal political and ethical position. He is manoeuvring a philosophy of personal subjectivity to try and morph it into a philosophy of social solidarity and political action.

In both respects, I think it is forced and strained and that is why – in contrast to the first half of the lecture which deals with the personal aspect of existentialism – I think that is why this final section is harder to follow. In my view, it is hard to follow because it is making unjustified leaps of argument. Take this long excerpt:

I declare that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values. That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract: it simply means that the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such. A man who belongs to come communist or revolutionary society wills certain concrete ends, which imply the will to freedom, but that freedom is willed in community. We will freedom for freedom’s sake, and in and through particular circumstances.

And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends on our own. Obviously, freedom as the definition of a man does not depend upon others, but as soon as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as mine. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim. Consequently, when I recognise, as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any circumstances, but will his freedom at the same time, I cannot not will the freedom of others. (pp.51-52)

This is one long paragraph in the original. I have split it at the point where I think the argument breaks down. The second half is full of stirring rhetoric about freedom and liberty. But I don’t understand how it inevitably follows from the first half.

Sartre used this rhetoric to then go on an be a staunch advocate of colonial struggles for independence around the world for the 1950s and 60s, and as the basis of the social solidarity which seemed, at the time, to be epitomised by the Communist Party. But the stirring talk strikes me as being just that, wishful rhetoric. And, secondly, this position strikes me as being obviously and massively contradicted by the record of human beings in which many, perhaps the majority, have acted as if devoutly wishing the repression of other humans. Most human societies for most of history have been empires, based on slavery.

In my opinion Sartre’s existentialism provides a scaffold and a theme for his astonishing fictions, and amounts to a coherent philosophy of man and a moral theory. But it stops well short of providing a philosophical underpinning for the kind of political movements Sartre wanted to support. He can twist his rhetoric of personal freedom to chime and echo with the post-war calls for colonial freedom and the freedom of the proletariat etc. But the political position does not, in my humble opinion, follow necessarily from the philosophical one.

And, beyond the confines of this particular text, I can call for support on the simple evidence that a number of other leading existentialists didn’t at all agree with what developed into Sartre’s full-blown commitment to Marxism. Kierkegaard, the great originator, despite his unorthodoxy, was a Protestant pastor. Karl Jaspers believed the existentialist worldview led to submission to the Roman Catholic God. Heidegger, the big daddy of them all, notoriously joined the Nazi Party, that’s where his existentialist quest for authenticity took him.

In other words, although he tries to justify it with the full armoury of his argumentation and rhetorical skills, I think Sartre’s attempt to position existentialism as the basis for Sartrean politics displays plenty of brio and inventiveness, but ultimately fails to convince.

‘Human nature’

We know a lot more about human nature than Sartre did. The structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 and computers began sequencing genomes in the 1980s. We have a far better sense of how our lives are dictated by genetic factors. I have read numerous books on the subject and worked with geneticists (at Kew Gardens) and discussed the latest developments with my son who is studying Biology.

On the face of it, you could dismiss Sartre at this point, at his claim that there is no human nature. But I’m prepared to go along with that statement as a kind of axiom of moral philosophy completely divorced from contemporary biology and science. Scientific knowledge may change and advance but people’s moral dilemmas and life decisions still have to be faced. In this respect, I don’t mind, in fact I approve of, Sartre sweeping aside science’s infringement on moral philosophy, to focus on the most fundamental point — we are free; what we do creates our selves; we must take responsibility for our actions.

Surely a moral philosophy can only function on this basis.

Jean-Paul Sartre by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1946)

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946 by Henri Cartier-Bresson


L’existentialisme est un humanisme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Les Editions Nagel in Paris in 1946. This English translation by Philip Mairet was published by Methuen & Co in 1947. All page references are to the 1973 Methuen paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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1 Comment

  1. “Essence precedes existence.” is a good term to use all around, especially about a subject that is probably mostly about human subjectivity. Your blog post seems to be very inspirational and informative for anyone who would like to know more about why Sartre wrote that particular excerpt from the reading. Very Insightful!


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