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Existentialism Is a Humanism
By JEAN-PAUL SARTRE
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneExistentialism Is a Humanism
My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some charges that have been brought against it.
First, it has been blamed for encouraging people to remain in a state of quietism and despair. For if all solutions are barred, we have to regard any action in this world as futile, and so at last we arrive at a contemplative philosophy. And inasmuch as contemplation is a luxury, we are only espousing yet another kind of bourgeois philosophy. These are the main reproaches made by the Communists.
Others have condemned us for emphasizing what is despicable about humanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious, or base, while ignoring beauty and the brighter side of human nature. For example, according to Miss Mercier, a Catholic critic, we have forgotten the innocence of a child's smile.
One group after another censures us for overlooking humanity's solidarity, and for considering man as an isolated being. This, contend the Communists, is primarily because we base our doctrine on pure subjectivity-that is, on the Cartesian I think-on the very moment in which man fully comprehends his isolation, rendering us incapable ofre-establishing solidarity with those who exist outside of the self, and who are inaccessible to us through the cogito.
Christians, on the other hand, reproach us for denying the reality and validity of human enterprise, for inasmuch as we choose to ignore God's commandments and all values thought to be eternal, all that remains is the strictly gratuitous; everyone can do whatever he pleases and is incapable, from his own small vantage point, of finding fault with the points of view or actions of others.
It is these various charges that I want to address today, which is why I have entitled this brief discourse "Existentialism Is a Humanism." Many will be surprised by what I have to say here about humanism. We shall attempt to discover in what sense we understand it. In any case, let us begin by saying that what we mean by "existentialism" is a doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment and a human subjectivity. It is public knowledge that the fundamental reproach brought against us is that we stress the dark side of human life. Recently someone told me about a lady who, whenever she inadvertently utters some vulgar expression in a moment of anger, excuses herself by saying: "I think I'm becoming an existentialist." So it would appear that existentialism is associated with something ugly, which is why some people call us naturalists. If we are, it is strange that we should frighten or shock people far more than naturalism per se frightens or offends them. Those who easily stomach a Zola novel like The Earth are sickened when they open an existentialist novel. Those who find solace in the wisdom of the people-which is a sad, depressing thing-find us even sadder. Yet, what could be more disillusioning than such sayings as "Charity begins at home," or even "Appoint a rogue and he'll do you damage, knock him down and he'll do you homage." We all know countless such popular sayings, all of which always point to the same thing: one should not try to fight against the establishment; one should not be more royalist than the king, or meddle in matters that exceed one's station in life; any action not in keeping with tradition is mere romanticism; any effort not based on proven experience is doomed; since experience shows that men are invariably inclined to do evil, there must be strict rules to restrain them, otherwise anarchy ensues. However, since it is the very same people who are forever spouting these dreary old proverbs-the ones who say "It is so human!" whenever some repugnant act is pointed out to them, the ones who are always harping on realistic litanies-who also accuse existentialism of being too gloomy, it makes me wonder if what they are really annoyed about is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. For when all is said and done, could it be that what frightens them about the doctrine that I shall try to present to you here is that it offers man the possibility of individual choice? To verify this, we need to reconsider the whole issue on a strictly philosophical plane. What, then, is "existentialism"?
Most people who use this word would be at a loss to explain what it means. For now that it has become fashionable, people like to call this musician or that painter an "existentialist." A columnist in Clartés goes by the pen name "The Existentialist." Indeed, the word is being so loosely applied to so many things that it has come to mean nothing at all. It would appear that, for lack of an avant-garde doctrine analogous to surrealism, those who thrive on the latest scandal or fad have seized upon a philosophy that hardly suits their purpose. The truth is that of all doctrines, this is the least scandalous and the most austere: it is strictly intended for specialists and philosophers. Yet it can be easily defined. What complicates the matter is that there are two kinds of existentialists: on one hand, the Christians, among whom I would include Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and, on the other, the atheistic existentialists, among whom we should place Heidegger, as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply their belief that existence precedes essence; or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure. What exactly do we mean by that? If we consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper knife, we note that this object was produced by a craftsman who drew his inspiration from a concept: he referred both to the concept of what a paper knife is, and to a known production technique that is a part of that concept and is, by and large, a formula. The paper knife is thus both an object produced in a certain way and one that, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose. We cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper knife without knowing what purpose it would serve. Let us say, therefore, that the essence of the paper knife-that is, the sum of formulae and properties that enable it to be produced and defined-precedes its existence. Thus the presence before my eyes of that paper knife or book is determined. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, whereby we can say "production precedes essence."
When we think of God the Creator, we usually conceive of him as a superlative artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, say Descartes's or Leibniz's, we always agree that the will more or less follows understanding, or at the very least accompanies it, so that when God creates he knows exactly what he is creating. Thus the concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain concept within the divine intelligence. Eighteenth-century atheistic philosophers suppressed the idea of God, but not, for all that, the idea that essence precedes existence. We encounter this idea nearly everywhere: in the works of Diderot, Voltaire, and even Kant. Man possesses a human nature; this "human nature," which is the concept of that which is human, is found in all men, which means that each man is a particular example of a universal concept-man. In Kant's works, this universality extends so far as to encompass forest dwellers-man in a state of nature-and the bourgeois, meaning that they all possess the same basic qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes his historically primitive existence in nature.
Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more consistent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence-a being whose existence comes before its essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it. That being is man, or, as Heidegger put it, the human reality. What do we mean here by "existence precedes essence"? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, 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 since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.
It is also what is referred to as "subjectivity," the very word used as a reproach against us. But what do we mean by that, if not that man has more dignity than a stone or a table? What we mean to say is that man first exists; that is, that man primarily exists-that man is, before all else, something that projects itself into a future, and is conscious of doing so. Man is indeed a project that has a subjective existence, rather unlike that of a patch of moss, a spreading fungus, or a cauliflower. Prior to that projection of the self, nothing exists, not even in divine intelligence, and man shall attain existence only when he is what he projects himself to be-not what he would like to be. What we usually understand by "will" is a conscious decision that most of us take after we have made ourselves what we are. I may want to join a party, write a book, or get married-but all of that is only a manifestation of an earlier and more spontaneous choice than what is known as "will." If, however, existence truly does precede essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is to make every man conscious of what he is, and to make him solely responsible for his own existence. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.
The word "subjectivism" has two possible interpretations, and our opponents play with both of them, at our expense. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject to choose what he will be, and, on the other, man's inability to transcend human subjectivity. The fundamental meaning of existentialism resides in the latter. When we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men. In fact, in creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for our whole era. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all mankind. If I am a worker and I choose to join a Christian trade union rather than to become a Communist, and if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the most suitable solution for man, and that the kingdom of man is not on this earth, I am not committing myself alone-I am choosing to be resigned on behalf of all-consequently my action commits all mankind. Or, to use a more personal example, if I decide to marry and have children-granted such a marriage proceeds solely from my own circumstances, my passion, or my desire-I am nonetheless committing not only myself, but all of humanity, to the practice of monogamy. I am therefore responsible for myself and for everyone else, and I am fashioning a certain image of man as I choose him to be. In choosing myself, I choose man. This allows us to understand the meaning behind some rather lofty-sounding words such as "anguish," "abandonment," and "despair." As you are about to see, it is all quite simple. First, what do we mean by anguish? Existentialists like to say that man is in anguish. This is what they mean: a man who commits himself, and who realizes that he is not only the individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be, cannot help but be aware of his own full and profound responsibility. True, many people do not appear especially anguished, but we maintain that they are merely hiding their anguish or trying not to face it. Certainly, many believe that their actions involve no one but themselves, and were we to ask them, "But what if everyone acted that way?" they would shrug their shoulders and reply, "But everyone does not act that way." In truth, however, one should always ask oneself, "What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?" The only way to evade that disturbing thought is through some kind of bad faith. Someone who lies to himself and excuses himself by saying "Everyone does not act that way" is struggling with a bad conscience, for the act of lying implies attributing a universal value to lies.
Anguish can be seen even when concealed. This is the anguish Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. You know the story: an angel orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. This would be okay provided it is really an angel who appears to him and says, "Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son." But any sane person may wonder first whether it is truly an angel, and second, whether I am really Abraham. What proof do I have? There was once a mad woman suffering from hallucinations who claimed that people were phoning her and giving her orders. The doctor asked her, "But who exactly speaks to you?" She replied, "He says it is God." How did she actually know for certain that it was God? If an angel appears to me, what proof do I have that it is an angel? Or if I hear voices, what proof is there that they come from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconscious, or some pathological condition? What proof is there that they are intended for me? What proof is there that I am the proper person to impose my conception of man on humanity? I will never find any proof at all, nor any convincing sign of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is always I who must decide whether or not this is the voice of an angel; if I regard a certain course of action as good, it is I who will choose to say that it is good, rather than bad. There is nothing to show that I am Abraham, and yet I am constantly compelled to perform exemplary deeds. Everything happens to every man as if the entire human race were staring at him and measuring itself by what he does. So every man ought to be asking himself, "Am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions?" And if he does not ask himself that, he masks his anguish.
Excerpted from Existentialism Is a Humanism by JEAN-PAUL SARTRE Copyright © 2007 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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