Whatever your personal estimation of his ideas, it is nevertheless true that Jean-Paul Sartre ushered in one of those rare moments in human history when a school of contemporary philosophy was highly integrated into the zeitgeist. And while I personally find Sartre’s contributions to literature (i.e. his plays, short stories, and novels) to be so exceptional as to far outweigh his contributions to philosophy, I do find value in both.
The work by him which is most likely to have been encountered by any student of philosophy, however, is not one of his literary works; instead, it is his early speech-turned-essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” This is an essay I generally like. After all, I like existentialism; I would not reject the label of existentialist for aspects of my own philosophical convictions. But, that said, I feel that after starting strong Sartre ventures somewhat off-base in “Existentialism is a Humanism” when he nears what is ostensibly his thesis. His initial responses to myopic detractors are useful and well-composed, but his goal (and the intention stated by his title) of showing that existentialism provides a morality of maximising freedom seems misguided.
Detraction of Sartre’s ideas is nothing new in academic philosophy; this video, for instance, shows Hubert Dreyfuss and Bryan Magee taking Sartre to task as a poor reader of Heidegger. When it comes to this particular essay, even Sartre himself came to be at odds with it, further into his career. And although Sartre’s worries about the essay were more related to its precise definitions and its politicized implications, it seems apt that this would be one of the few works by the man which he later regretted seeing published.
Because it is so succinct in its definitions of what existentialism is, it is often offered in academic contexts as an introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre; for this reason, I feel that the accompanying flaws of “Existentialism is a Humanism” are a source of some (though by no means a significant amount) of the antagonism of academic philosophy toward Sartre.
Further, I would concede some of the weaknesses others have raised about Sartre. For instance, the following sentence from “Existentialism is a Humanism” shows (like the video linked above) how his utilization of the work of earlier philosophers often leaves something to be desired: “Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say ‘I think’ we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves.”
If this is true, it is only trivially true as a consequence of the act of saying, which would be implicitly absent from the formulation of this topic by Descartes or Kant. I would even agree to some extent with Sartre’s ideas here about grasping identity through intersubjectivity, but Sartre’s misapplication of key philosophical forebears, at best, makes his point less clear to his audience and, at worst, serves to discredit him.
Existentialism, to me, is a position which clarifies certain (initially uncomfortable) truths about absurdity, identity, and the nature of freedom (even if I think that freedom, however apparently radical, may be presently confined to phenomenological concerns). So, when someone tells me that existentialism does not give us the tools to build a functioning society, I am inclined to agree.
I think other areas of philosophy and science are needed to establish and uphold society. These areas may engage with or be informed by existentialism, but they are not identical to existentialism. I certainly do not see that as a problem for the value of existentialist thought, but it does make efforts to force such breadth on the field somewhat dubious.
Freedom as a Moral Goal:
The particular formulation of humanism presented by Sartre in this essay is what I want to talk about, because it is dubious in the aforementioned way. More precisely, the abstract idea of freedom on which Sartre attempts to base his moral system in “Existentialism is a Humanism” is insufficient for a number of reasons, listed hereafter.
First, Sartre fails to produce any actual moral conundrum which seeking to maximize freedom could solve. His examples are always choices between one’s own happiness and that of one or more others, generally at the original one’s expense. Yet there is nothing there upon which to establish a code of conduct for a society.
If, for instance, the question were to arise in the court of Sartrian existentialism, of whether a man is right to steal food or other goods in the quest of increasing his own freedom, is the judge to declare the accused to have been sincere in his invention of self, and therefore innocent? If a person should behave only in such a way as to represent humanity, then they can behave in any way whatsoever, provided there is no governing principle beyond the vague increase of freedom. It seems as though Sartre wants to have his Kantian cake, as it were, and also eat it.
Second, the notion of maximizing freedom is so vague and abstract in Sartre’s piece that there is no way of gauging whose freedom is paramount. Clearly, acting in a way that increases one’s freedom or the freedom of others is beneficial, but what about cases where one’s freedom comes at the cost of the freedom of others?
If, for instance, one is being taken to jail, and could increase one’s own freedom by rapidly limiting the physical freedom of their guards, is one right to do so? Is the freedom of one person as valuable as the freedom of another? Is the freedom of two people more valuable than the freedom of one person? These are questions which Sartre’s idea of the pursuit of freedom fails to adequately address, yet which would have an answer in a functioning moral system.
Last, freedom for freedom’s sake makes no logical sense as a goal. Freedom is how something is accomplished. One is able to act because one is free. If one uses that freedom to maximize one’s freedom, one will be left with a further question: now that I consider my freedom to be maximized, how am I to act? Am I to act? Sartre’s emphasis on obtaining and not repressing or oppressing freedom ignores these questions of what to do with the freedom one obtains, which feeds itself back into the first two concerns.
The final irony of the situation is that it is Sartre himself who lends, in the figure of Roquentin from his novel Nausea, the image of absolute freedom as ultimately unattainable. One may imagine a society which adopts Sartre’s existentialist morality, and then imagine that society in the distant future, as it grows arbitrarily close to having achieved some sort of absolute freedom: the inhabitants would be indolent creatures afraid to move a single muscle, like Roquentin in his room, for fear that the action would limit their freedom while acutely aware that not moving may do the same. Indeed, one can hardly imagine a society of more anxious individuals than one wherein the accumulation and maintenance of freedom is the singular and primary concern.
So, existentialism’s concern with freedom itself is not sufficient to constitute a humanism as desired by Sartre. Still, all I am trying to show is that Sartre takes the system farther than it ever needed to go. Existentialism raises serious concerns which thinking people have to navigate, but it does not in itself solve the issues of morality. I still find much value in the first half of “Existentialism is a Humanism,” and I still completely agree with the sentiments in Sartre’s concluding paragraph.
I would make the following analogy. Suppose I were to formulate or formalize a system of thought concerning how to write prose well, and call it the ‘Gemsbokian approach.’ If someone were to say to me, “Your Gemsbokian approach does not tell me how to make sure I spend my spare time writing prose,” I would certainly not feel obligated to offer a response under the title, “The Gemsbokian Approach is a Productivity Maximizer.” I would be content to say, “That’s true, but has nothing to do with my ideas.” If the system’s clarifications and utilities are myriad, it does not need to fulfill every relevant purpose to the task of writing in order to be valuable.
And yet, Sartre insists in this essay that existentialism contends the pursuit of freedom is a sufficient condition of moral action. This may simply be a result of the tenacity with which he intends to meet the declarations of his dissenters. At any rate, I agree far more with Sartre when, in much of his other writing—including much of “Existentialism is a Humanism”—his claims are more geared toward a phenomenological approach to coping with or understanding existence, contingency, guilt, death, and, yes, freedom. And I find him most agreeable when I’m reading his literary works.
Freedom is Not a Humanism: