Existentialism 101

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Existentialism 101

Existentialism is a term which was made familiar by Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher who wrote in the 1950s; two of his most noted works are Being and Nothingness and Existentialism and Human Emotions. Developing ideas initially put forward by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and German philosopher Frederich Nietszche, who wrote at the turn of this century, Sartre argues that human beings are alone in the universe, without a God of any kind, and thus the universe is absurd, random, chaotic: "There is nothing in heaven" (23). This outlook on life was partially inspired by Sartre's despair after witnessing two world wars in his lifetime.

Given that there is no God (according to Sartre), human beings are free of pre-established codes of behaviour. "Everything is permissible if God does not exist" (22), he states. However, this freedom can be burdensome: Since there is no God to define humanity, humans must determine who they are on their own. According to existentialism, we define ourselves through our actions and choices. Sartre argues that "[t]here is no reality except in action" (32), and "[humans are] nothing more than the ensemble of [their] acts…" (32). Therefore, if you choose to object to racist jokes at a party, you have defined yourself as someone who insists on tolerance and respect for all races.

Human beings define themselves by making authentic choices, that is, acting according to their own personal moral standards or ethical code (since, as Sartre points out, there is no universally accepted code in an existential universe). This approach to life is also called acting in good faith.

Human beings who make inauthentic choices go against their own personal standards or ethical codes by bowing to the demands or expectations of others, especially when such choices conflict with their own best judgement (also called acting in bad faith, which can be defined as lying to oneself, hiding the truth from oneself, or pretending that something is necessary when it is in fact voluntary). For example, you are opposed to racist jokes in principle, but when someone at a party tells these jokes, you do nothing or even join in the laughter.

There is a great deal of anxiety associated with an existential point of view, according to Sartre, since we cannot blame our failures on God, the devil, the government, our parents or our spouses. In Sartre's words, "man [woman] is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself [herself], yet, in other respects is free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does" (23).

One failure, according to Sartre, is quietism, which occurs when an individual refuses to take responsibility for him/herself (that is, s/he refuses to act or choose): "Quietism is the attitude of people who say, 'Let others do what I can't do'" (31). The reverse of quietism, which Sartre encourages, is "optimistic toughness" (33)--a perseverance in the face of adversity; in fact, Sartre insists on "an ethics of involvement and action" (36) which demands that every human being is responsible not only for his/her own actions but is aware of the needs of others.

Sartre believes that, when we choose to act in a certain way, we are in effect presenting to others a possible way to act, a model for behaviour: "When we say that man [woman] chooses his [her] own self, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he [she] chooses all men [humanity]. In fact, in creating the man [woman] that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man [woman] as we think he [she] ought to be" (17).

Sartre labels this awareness of our responsibility to others intersubjectivity.

Work Cited:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Carol Publishing, 1957.



  1. What does an existentialist believe about God and the universe?

  2. How does the existentialist define him/herself in an absurd universe?

  3. What is quietism?

  4. What is the opposite of quietism?

  5. Define an authentic choice.

  6. Give an example of acting in bad faith.

  7. Why are existentialists condemned to be free?

  8. What is intersubjectivity?

  9. Take a few moments to formulate a definition of an existentialist--what qualities does he/she have, and what is it that he/she abhors?

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