Existentialism is a Humanism Summary and Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism is a Humanism

  • 38-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features an extended summary and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an English teacher with a PhD in Philosophy
Access Full Summary

Existentialism is a Humanism Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 38-page guide for “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The implications of Radical Freedom and The Absolute and the Contingent.

Plot Summary

In “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945), French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre attempts to convince an audience of philosophers and laypeople alike that his philosophy is neither pessimistic, nor relativist, nor quietist, nor subjectivist in the sense of presenting human beings as isolated individuals.

He begins by elaborating Christians’ and Marxists’ criticisms of his ideas, then attempts to respond to each. In doing so, he focuses on the key formulation of existentialism, “existence precedes essence.” Then he presents definitions of key existentialist terms, including “subjectivity”, “despair”, “abandonment”, and “anguish,” in the hope that understanding those terms of art will help his audience to see that their objections do not apply.

After the lecture proper, Sartre invites questions from the audience. He engages with two people, one an unknown interlocutor and one the artist and leftist Pierre Naville. Naville’s criticism is the more detailed one, and focuses primarily on the accusation that Sartre’s concept of the human condition is simply a disguised version of the discredited Enlightenment notion of a universal human nature. Sartre responds, and the discussion turns toward a brief exchange about Marxism that consists primarily of the two speakers talking past one another.

In “A Commentary on The Stranger” (1943), Sartre presents an interpretation of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger. To make sense of this text, which he describes as not exactly a novel, and, in any case, opaque, ambiguous, and unsettling, Sartre draws on Camus’s philosophical text, The Myth of Sisyphus. By conceptualizing the protagonist of The Stranger, Mersault, as an “absurd man”—that is, one who recognizes the utter absurdity of human life and views every action as permissible and equally desirable—Sartre finds a way in to the text, offering both an interpretation of its major themes and plot and an analysis of its style, in particular the short, choppy sentences that characterize The Stranger but are foreign to Camus’s other works.

This is just a preview. The entire section has 387 words. Click below to download the full study guide for Existentialism is a Humanism.