Existentialism is a Humanism Summary

Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism is a Humanism

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Existentialism is a Humanism Summary

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Existentialism is a Humanism is the transcript in book form of a lecture given by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at the Club Maintenant in Paris on October 29, 1945, in which his goal was to explain that his philosophy was a form of existentialism—a term that was gaining momentum in the world at the time. He was evolving into one of the most pervasive voices in philosophy in the post World War II era and wanted to correct any misconceptions about his work that had arisen. Existentialism is a Humanism became an essential text in the field and cemented Sartre’s reputation as an intellectual force for his time. While believing his tenets to be geared towards philosophers, the result of the lecture/text was to make his work far more accessible to the masses. The central idea in Sartre is that man is born into a void where there is nothing, including God. Man creates the self, his essence, via the free choices he makes. In making choices, man is not only committing to himself but to all of mankind.

In Sartre’s existentialism, “existence precedes essence” is a guiding principle, meaning nothing predetermines a person’s goals and character. The individual defines his or her own essence. A man, according to Sartre, who first exists and finds himself engulfed in the world, can then define himself. Objects have a purpose. They are invented to serve a function. Man does not have the same type of essence. Man simply arrives on earth with no predetermined plan or meaning. He must find that for himself.

Sartre does not subscribe to what in his terms would be “deterministic excuses,” implying that individuals need to take responsibility for their own behaviors. He uses the term “anguish” to represent the feeling or emotion that people have when they reach the realization that in addition to having to accept responsibility for themselves, they are at the same time responsible for humanity at large. This anguish allows judgments to be made about others and is also related to Sartre’s concept of “despair.”

Despair he sees as a reliance on a set of possibilities that allow actions to be possible. Shaping oneself through action has an effect on, and a role in, the shaping of mankind. The being uses despair as a means to freedom and in fully accepting any consequences that may arise. An additional Sartre term is “abandonment.” This word he uses to represent the feeling of loneliness that descends upon atheists when realizing that there is no God to provide a set of rules by which to live and to guide people down a righteous path. Abandonment means a feeling of being alone in the world and in the universe with only the self to define one’s essence. Sartre sums up his philosophy when he stresses that existentialism is a mindset of action and deals with self-determination. It is, at its core, optimistic and freeing. Although Sartre’s philosophy argues the non-existence of God, he believes that even if a God exists, his system of beliefs would not change. The bottom line is optimistic; man is in control of his own actions, is the final arbiter of his own essence, and in the end, is responsible for mankind.

The lasting influence of Sartre’s work is in its concepts of individual choice and responsibility for those choices. He cites experience as the starting point for knowledge and believes his is an updated view of humanism. The heart of Sartre’s philosophy leaves little room for dispute. His readers and followers are, by virtue of his philosophy, open to bring to it whatever meaning they choose, because meaning is a subjective matter. Within existentialism, actions are of equal moral value; inaction is problematic. What counts the most with respect to actions is how they affect mankind. Some may be unnerved by the prospect that all responsibility rests upon the individual and not on outside factors, thus there are no excuses for one’s shortcomings. Sartre would disagree with that reaction. He would suggest that people should feel anxious when faced with difficult decisions and with the fear of accepting responsibility for all actions. If they do not feel this way they are not remembering that they are not only responsible for themselves, but for all of humanity as well. A person makes himself what he is; optimism should remain the overriding mood as reality, no matter what it may be, is what counts.