Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

I am not, by any means, a pure existentialist.  Not because I disagree with most of the philosophy, but because I’m not yet familiar enough to make a decision.  Recognizing this gap of knowledge, I decided to brush-up on the topic and I have found – as with everything I have ever come across – that I agree with some points and disagree with others.  This is all rather trite, as I’m generally unconcerned with labeling myself as “this” or “that” type of a philosopher.  I merely mention this as somewhat of a disclaimer; so if anyone feels like asking me questions with respect to Existentialism, please understand that I’m not in a position to answer most of them.  I would, however, enjoy any exchanges about the topic if anyone so wishes.  Insomuch as the philosophy is concerned, I agree that each of us are responsible for the choices we make, and so, we must be cognizant of the potential impacts of our choices.  When I came across the quote below, I wondered, would the world be better or worse if each of us asked such questions.  Call me optimistic, but I think the world would be much better off.

“When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself.”

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17 replies

  1. That’s an interesting behaviour. It could set up complex internal restrictions, I think. How would one choose which issues to judge this way and which to allow through?

    • I think that is kind of the point of Existentialism. We each define what is good and what is bad. There are no objective decisions, everything is subjective to the situation, person’s values, etc. Like I said, I have not considered this position long enough to make a decision on its legitimacy.

  2. More thinking would be a welcomed departure from the present haphazard human mess 😉

  3. I don’t think the world would be better off.
    Consider a suicide bomber committed to his course that he is fighting for god and saving mankind from evil, to him the world will be a better place because he lived. How the rest of us evaluate this matter is a different case altogether.

  4. The universe is an infinite assemblage of real phenomena. Understanding them requires objective observation. Despite the existentially subjective nature of human beings, we actually are capable of objective thought. In fact, the scientific method we use to study our world couldn’t exist without it.

    If humanity is to evolve beyond its current state, it must continue transitioning from subjective to objective thinking. And, each of us can practice it with a simple exercise:

    Do I BELIEVE something to be true, or do I KNOW something to be true? The former only requires blind FAITH. The latter does require factual PROOF. Discerning the difference between them is objectivity.

    • Well said, Robert. I’m reserving my opinion on Sartre’s philosophy until I’ve finished at least one more book. It’s very compelling at times, but there are many holes; as you have pointed out above. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. One must remember that Sartre’s conception of morality is a very odd combination of an extreme relativism and a sort of Kantian, universal morality. So, you end up with a combination of Nietzsche, where morality is just a choice “this is what I choose.” and an almost Kantian position, where general principles are still incorporated, but they are not determined or proved to be correct.

    In truth, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill are discarded. Morality isn’t ‘natural,’ or based on trusting general feelings, or a priori moralizing, or the greatest good for the greatest number. It is, as Sartre claims, just choices, values, and consequences. There is no right or wrong or a capability for justifying right or wrong. His idea is not static though, in the sense, that it changes as people’s ideas and convictions change, but it does suffer from an extreme subjectivism that seems to make it meaningless, which, in my mind, explains why Sartre thought that humanity is ‘condemned to freedom.’


    • From what I have read thus far, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate summary of his philosophy. Unfortunately, I have been focused on other areas, and I’m not keen on providing opinions in subjects I’m ignorant on. Perhaps after I finish Being and Nothingness you and I can trade thoughts?

  6. The world would be a better place if more people would think about what they are doing at all. Many people seem to have no thoughts of and by themselves. Of course, Sartre was not one of those. However, I am a bit reserved about this citation.
    I think the premise is unrealistic. In fact there are many instances when absolutely nothing is wrong with a choice, as long as only a few people are taking it. If everybody became an artist, a philosopher, an architect, a computer programmer or a punk begging on the street and everybody would commit himself completely to this one activity, everybody would starve. But that should not stop anybody from choosing such a way. The “Everyone does not do so” is not an excuse. It is perfectly reasonable.
    But maybe that was not what Sartre had in mind. Maybe he was thinking of moral choices here. However, I don’t think moral choices are that easy. There might be conflicting values, conditions might change or be different in different instances and we will normally not be able to know or understand all consequences of our choices. Looking at your choices from such a point of view and thinking them trough in this way is a good idea but I am not sure it helps in all instances. What is right in one situation for one person might not be right in another for another person. I don’t think our knowledge of reality is ever complete and so our ethics will always be incomplete either. One reason our law books are so thick and new laws are always added all the time is that a complete formalization of what is wrong or right is impossible, so it must be decided on a case by case basis. The possibility of making errors cannot be avoided. I see our responsibility in the case at hand, not in a hypothesized but totally unreal generalization.

    • He was indeed speaking of moral choices, and he admits that conditions and unknown consequences play into our decisions – even deciding not to do something, as he points out, is a decision. You may have felt this was a generalization because I picked the passage from the middle of a book and inserted it with little context. His philosophy is very much the opposite though; in fact, he attributes the need for such reflection on the realization that people – of all eras – have changed very little. It is the circumstances that have changed, which is why morality is so subjective.

  7. A very interesting thread and perhaps I’m being overly simplistic but, the lengthy quote, to me, seems a verbose version of the old “Do unto others…” adage.

    It’s the curse of being a generalist. I’m forever trying to strip things down to their fundamental core.

  8. insightful post. WE all should think whole heartedly before doing. As my dad said, actions speak louder than words–so you want those actions to be good ones!

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