Existentialism Is a Humanism
Cover of the first edition
|Original title||L'existentialisme est un humanisme|
|Publisher||Les Editions Nagel, Methuen & Co|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Pages||70 (English edition)|
Existentialism Is a Humanism (French: L'existentialisme est un humanisme) is a 1946 work by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, based on a lecture by the same name he gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on 29 October 1945. In early translations, Existentialism and Humanism was the title used in the United Kingdom; the work was originally published in the United States as Existentialism, and a later translation employs the original title. The work, once influential and a popular starting-point in discussions of Existentialist thought, has been criticized by several philosophers. Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in it.
Sartre asserts that the key defining concept of existentialism is that the existence of a person is prior to his or her essence. The term "existence precedes essence" subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. Put simply, this means that there is nothing to dictate that person's character, goals in life, and so on; that only the individual can define his or her essence. According to Sartre, "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards".
Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls "deterministic excuses" and claims that people must take responsibility for their behavior. Sartre defines anguish as the emotion that people feel once they realize that they are responsible not just for themselves, but for all humanity. Anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide humanity and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Anguish is also associated with Sartre's notion of despair, which he defines as optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible. Sartre claims that "In fashioning myself, I fashion Man", saying that the individual's action will affect and shape mankind. The being-for-itself uses despair to embrace freedom and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result. He also describes abandonment as the loneliness that atheists feel when they realize that there is no God to prescribe a way of life, no guidance for people on how to live; that we're abandoned in the sense of being alone in the universe and the arbiters of our own essence. Sartre closes his work by emphasizing that existentialism, as it is a philosophy of action and one's defining oneself, is optimistic and liberating.
First published in French in 1946, Existentialism and Humanism was published in an English translation by Philip Mairet in 1948. In the United States, the work was originally published as Existentialism. Another English translation, by Carol Macomber, was published under the title Existentialism Is a Humanism in 2007. It has an introduction by Annie Cohen-Solal and notes and preface by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre.
Existentialism Is a Humanism has been translated into English several times, and was once, according to the philosopher Mary Warnock, "a popular starting-point in discussions of existentialist thought," while in Thomas Baldwin's words the lecture Existentialism and Humanism was based upon "seized the imagination of a generation."
Several philosophers have criticized Existentialism and Humanism. Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in the work, and regretted its publication. Martin Heidegger wrote in a letter to the philosopher and Germanist Jean Beaufret that while Sartre's statement that "existence precedes essence" reverses the metaphysical statement that essence precedes existence, "the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement." In Heidegger's view, Sartre "stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being." Marjorie Grene found Sartre's discussion of "the problem of the relation between individuals" in Existentialism and Humanism to be weaker than the one he offered in Being and Nothingness (1943). Walter Kaufmann commented that while "L'existentialisme est un humanisme" "has been widely mistaken for the definitive statement of existentialism" it is "a brilliant lecture which bears the stamp of the moment." According to Kaufmann, Sartre makes factual errors, including misidentifying philosopher Karl Jaspers as a Catholic, and presents a definition of existentialism that is open to question. Thomas C. Anderson criticized Sartre for asserting without explanation that if a person seeks freedom from false, external authorities, then he or she must invariably allow this freedom for others. Iris Murdoch found one of Sartre's discussions with a Marxist interesting, but otherwise considered Existentialism and Humanism to be "a rather bad little book." Warnock believes Sartre was right to dismiss the work.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, writing in Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism (2004), argued that there is a parallel between Sartre's views and claims made by the character Father Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880): whereas Sartre believes that with total freedom comes total responsibility, for Father Zosima "each of us must make us responsible for all men's sins".
The neurobiologist Steven Rose, writing in Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism (1997), commented that Sartre's views on human nature represented an extreme that he did not share, and described a statement in which Sartre maintained that man "will be what he makes of himself" as a "windily rhetorical paean to the dignity of universalistic man" and "more an exercise in political sloganeering than a sustainable philosophical position." He pointed to aging and disease as factors that limit human freedom.
- Anderson, Thomas C. (1979). Foundation and Structure of Sartrean Ethics. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0700601912.
- Baldwin, Thomas; Honderich, Ted, Editor (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926479-1.
- Grene, Marjorie (1959). Introduction to Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0700601912.
- Heidegger, Martin (2008). Basic Writings. London: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-162701-9.
- Kaufmann, Walter (1975). Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-00930-8.
- Kulka, John, Editor; Sartre, Jean-Paul (2007). Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11546-8.
- Murdoch, Iris (1997). Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-6629-0.
- Rose, Steven (1997). Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-713-99157-7.
- Warnock, Mary; Sartre, Jean-Paul (2003). Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-27848-1.
- Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso Books. ISBN 978-1784781996.