In this week's podcast episode, we explored Jean-Paul Sartre's gem of an essay, "Existentialism Is A Humanism." In this essay, Sartre answers his critics on the political left and the religious right by explaining how existentialism does not lead to quietism, is optimistic rather than pessimistic, and does not reduce man to a solitary, solipsistic being. He explains the most basic tenet of existentialism: existence precedes essence. Along the way, he explicates the three moods that permeate existence - anguish (or existential angst), abandonment, and despair. In the end, we also took a closer look at his comments on intersubjectivity and man's self-surpassing. Below is a review of the content of this podcast, after which I want to make some further comments on the provocations of Existentialism.
Sartre’s “Existentialism Is A Humanism"
Sartre’s essay "Existentialism Is A Humanism" is based on a lecture that he delivered in Paris in October of 1945, right on the heals of the end of World War II. Much to his chagrin, it has become the most widely read of his works, as it provides readers with a great introduction to Existentialism. In it, we find Sartre answering his critics’ charges that:
Sartre begins his defense by making a distinction between theist and atheist existentialists, saying that some of the confusion about existentialism stems from confusing these. Atheist Existentialism, of which he is a representative, originates from the French reading of Heidegger’s Existential Phenomenology in Being and Time. (Other French readings of Heidegger will emerge, such as with Derrida’s poststructuralist account, or with Levinas’ account of the Other, but more on this in later podcasts and blogposts.) Sartre’s Existentialism takes it’s point of departure from the non-existence of any authority superior to mankind, i.e. God. But all existentialists agree on the basic tenet of existentialism that existence precedes essence. In order to understand the meaning of this, Sartre will need to school us on the artisanal model below.
“Existence Precedes Essence” Leading To Abandonment, Angst, and Despair
What it means for something to exist is normally taken from an artisanal model found in Aristotle’s Physics:
Following Heidegger’s most basic critique of Aristotle, according to which this understanding of being reduces being to things and embodies a technological view of the world in terms of production, Sartre will assert that unlike things produced in the world, there is no pre-given essence or end of man. That there is no God means that man is forlorn, abandoned to himself and his own freedom with no higher authority to justify his actions and choices. This sense of abandonment also leads to anguish (or existential angst) and despair. Below is a gloss of these three “moods” that permeate our human existence:
Despite the negative resonance of these moods, Existentialism is a rather optimistic philosophy. How is that? Because it gives man the power to create meaning for himself, and the permission to create, with others, man’s “nature” as a history of man’s best ideas and achievements. Sartre has also shown how his brand of existentialism does not lead to quietism, but is the greatest of encouragements to take ones’ choices and actions seriously, and to act on the basis of one’s convictions. It is action that defines man’s life, a direct contradiction of the quietist, apathetic person who lets others do what he sees himself as powerless to achieve. But it is the last charge that is most difficult to answer:
Intersubjectivity, and Sartre's Rejection of the Cartesian Cogito
The last charge against Existentialism is the most serious, and it proceeds from an unnamed kind of critic - that is, from other philosophers. That charge, you will recall, is that Existentialism takes man in isolation, that it is a “subjectivism.” Sartre answers this charge by pointing out that the subject taken up by existentialism is not the solipsistic, Cartesian subject, but the Hegelian subject that embodies within it’s own perspective a recognition of the Other, and the world that comes along with this recognition. Near the end of the essay, he writes:
Man’s subjectivity is one that includes within it the recognition of the Other, and through the other of an external world. Moreover, for the existentialist subject the problematic that frames his human existence is not Descartes’ question of “what can I know with certainty" (or, epistemology), but that of how action in the world defines my existence, and by extension, that of human kind.
Man' s Self-Surpassing
At this point, you may ask yourself: Has Sartre answered the question implied in the title of his essay: How is Exitentialism (or how could it be considered) a humanism. And this is where, I believe, things get a little scandalous. We find Sartre redefining the very meaning of humanism out from under the humanists themselves:
“But there is another sense of the word [humanism], of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation (sic), that man can realize himself as truly human.”
According to traditional humanism, underneath all of our differences there lies a shared human “nature” that allows us to uphold common values and ideals. You don’t need God to tell you not to kill other men, if you can put yourself in another’s shoes and realize that you yourself value your life and would not wish to be killed. Human rights are based on just such a secular understanding of humanism.
But the other sense of humanism to which Sartre points here is arguably a much more radical view, and that is the idea of a shared human condition or situation. This situation is what Heidegger describes as being thrown in the world, what he describes as the ex-tasis and temporality of Being. But in order to understand this, we must turn to Being and Time.
Tune in on March 10th, 2015 for the first part of thinkPhilosophy podcast episode on Hediegger's Being and Time. Next week, on March 3rd, we'll expand this discussion with as session on "The Provocations of Existentialism."
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