|Existentialism is a Humanism… is an Atheism?
15 June 2009
“Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.”
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) earned his fame as the first person to popularise the term existentialist in the wider world of philosophy, in Existentialism is a Humanism (1945). Sartre published his magnum opus Being and Nothingness in 1943, the same year that Gabriel Marcel coined the term Existentialist (Cooper, 1999). As a member of Gabriel Marcel’s circle of philosophers, and a regular contributor with Albert Camus to the Combat magazine, Sartre was among those coming under increased critique for this new brand of philosophy. Sartre set out to appease the critics by delivering a lecture that has been described as one of the most pivotal philosophical works of the 20th Century, Existentialism is a Humanism (Shaw, 2009). The Stanford Encyclopedia notes that Existentialism is a Humanism has been described as a “quasi manifesto for the Existentialist movement,” by “arguably the best known philosopher of the twentieth century” (Zalta, 2002).
Yet Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, and the nature of its public reception, seems to have given away with one hand what it most certainly gained with the other. Sartre’s work was recognised as the first clearly and explicitly articulated expression of a priority for existence over essence in any conception of human nature. Furthermore, Existentialism is a Humanism defended with great success this concept of human nature in terms of its implications for human morality, and in doing so introduced a groundbreaking metaphysic: the paradox of responsibility in existential freedom. However, despite these great gains, Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism served also as a platform for defining Existentialism in purely atheistic terms, thereby sending post-war Existentialism down a narrow path resulting in its marginalization and ambiguity, from which it has never recovered. It is my belief that something of value was introduced to the discipline of philosophy in Existentialism is a Humanism, in terms of Sartre’s core metaphysic of responsibility in existential freedom. This essay is an attempt to recover this aspect of Sartre’s Existentialism, but to do so in a way that is more inclusive, and not constrained by an atheistic dogmatism.
One might ask, if Existentialism is a Humanism is such an incomplete and aberrant work, why not simply throw it in the scrap heap and start again? Sartre’s work is important because it is the first work to step back and take a broad view of Existentialist philosophy (Spade, 1996). Furthermore, Sartre supposes in his work to represent a broad range of existentialist thinkers – including, controversially, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, and also a group he describes as the “French Existentialists” among whom it can probably be safely assumed he located the noted Albert Camus, and of course Sartre’s lover Simone de Beauvoir (Sartre, 1968, p289). When Sartre delivered his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in Paris on 29 October 1945 he left an impression on an impressionable post-war world of an authoritative Existentialism that was rigorous in doctrine, and on the cutting edge of European thought.
Sartre’s Existentialism made a profound mark on popular thought at the time, yet within five years Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel and Camus had all repudiated any association with Sartre and his Existentialism.1 Jasper later described the movement as a “phantom” created by the public (Jaspers, 1957, p75). Even Sartre himself is recorded as saying this lecture was the only publication he ever regretted seeing in print (Zalta, 2002). Indeed, later interpreters have sought to broaden the definition of Existentialism much more widely than is set out on Existentialism is a Humanism, acknowledging a diversity which in some way refers to thinkers influenced by some mixture of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Husserl & Heidegger (Zalta, 2008). Yet Existentialism is a Humanism continues to be the major introduction to Existentialism for the general public (Zalta, 2004), and Sartre’s central argument – that Existentialism is a Humanism – remains justified by his thesis.
Is Existentialism an Atheism?
If one were to read Sartre’s conclusion alone, they would think the purpose of Sartre’s lecture was entirely to establish why Existentialism is consistent with atheism. Yet the body of the lecture is overwhelmingly devoted to countering the “reproaches” of Existentialism’s critics, none of which require an atheistic response in order to be repudiated. And so, while Sartre achieves philosophical coherence to resolve the paradox of responsibility in existential freedom, he at the same time isolates a wide range of potential Existentialist cohorts with his narrow atheism. And so one critique he seeks to dispel – that he gives away with one hand he pretends to gain with the other – is at least half correct. My lament is that he has given away not that which he pretended to gain, but which was certainly gained – a useful metaphysic for the paradox of responsibility in existential freedom – in exchange for an atheist club of Neitzschians seeking sympathy from a burgeoning Humanist movement.
Existentialism today receives little respect from established academic philosophy. Analytical schools see figures such as Heidegger as “a joke figure,” while regarding Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Sartre as “mere psychologists” (Shaw, 2009). If Sartre had been slower to speak, and the post-war media less quick to listen to him, a more developed acquaintance with his Existentialist peers might have seen a very different, more inclusive and less dogmatic Existentialism introduced to the 20th Century Western academy.
Thankfully philosophical is never entrenched in any particular epoch, and the existentialist endeavour continues today – admittedly without the impressionable climate that was to Sartre’s advantage in 1945. One may hope that a more tempered existentialism might find currency in a post-modern and post-secular age. Whether or not that hope has any foundation will depend to some degree on whether existence precedes essence in its entirety, or whether existence has merely some ontological priority in the mystery that is human nature. It is because Sartre’s metaphysic human freedom infers existential priority not in entirety, but rather to some degree, that I assert Existentialism is a Humanism provides an ontological breakthrough, not for atheist Existentialism, but for Existentialism in general. More than that, it provides at best a platform for the development of a Theistic Existentialism, and at worst plenteous room for Theism in Existentialism.
Existentialism is a Humanism
Existentialism is a Humanism is framed largely as a response to its critics, as discussed by Sartre in the first few paragraphs. He lists the various criticisms of Existentialism as
a) “An invitation to people to dwell in quietism of despair”; b) an underlining of “all that is ignominious; c) an ignorance of “the solidarity of mankind”; and d) a denial of “the reality and seriousness of human affairs.” This amounts to a critique of Existentialism as a) Quietistic; b) Pessimistic; c) Individualistic; and d) Relativistic. Sartre’s argues that, on the contrary, “Existentialism is a doctrine that renders human life possible.” He argues the excessive protests of his critics make him suspect “that what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but much more likely, our optimism” (1968, p287-289). In order to prove his point, Sartre spends the first part of his lecture outlining the central doctrines of Existentialism as it pertains to notions of responsibility, human nature, anguish, abandonment and despair. With this established, he then systematically shows that Existentialism is indeed a Humanism, as an active and optimistic doctrine that entails capacity both for solidarity and for judgment in human affairs.
One of Sartre’s chief concerns in all of his work is coming to an understanding of human freedom. This comes through clearly in Existentialism is a Humanism, but with comes an overwhelming concern for human responsibility. Sartre states “For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom” (p295). Further, while doing away with the idea of a universal human nature, Sartre nonetheless establishes a universality of what he calls “the human condition” – “all the limitations which á priori define man’s fundamental situation in the universe” (p303). And so, Sartre can argue, that “Since we have defined the situation of man as one of free choice, without excuse and without help, any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver” (p307). And so, while some accuse Existentialism of promoting a sort of relativistic permissiveness, Sartre can show that his concern is quite the opposite. For if man’s essence is truly an undetermined freedom, transcending not only biology but even some idea of a spiritual concupiscence, then he cannot excuse himself, body or soul, from responsibility for his deeds. Sartre’s Existentialism is thus successfully presented as morally superior to the determinism of much philosophy – both scientistic and theistic – of his time.
The essence of existentialism
Sartre attempts to compel the audience’s acceptance to accept the idea that man’s existence must precede his essence in a number of ways. Firstly, Sartre shows that the idea of the essence of a thing is tied to the idea of that thing having a definite purpose, and that when we talk of a thing’s essence we are typically talking of “the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible” (p289). If, then, we are to talk of man having an essence, we similarly assume that man has some purpose and has been produced with this purpose in mind. And this is where Sartre’s atheism becomes pivotal and begins to distort his thesis.
Sartre straightaway assumes, without justifying himself, an Enlightenment atheism, and from this standpoint critiques figures such as Diderot, Voltaire and Kant as having failed to suppress the idea of human nature – of human essence preceding existence – along with their suppression of God (p290). Sartre states, “Atheist existentialism declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence…That being is man” (p290). He remarks, famously, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” He asserts, explicitly, “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” He summarises, succinctly, “[Man] is what he wills…Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (291).
Following this, Sartre discusses the nature of this “subjectivism” – not only is man “responsible for what he is”, but “he is responsible for all men.” Although he doesn’t delve deeply into the subject, his work on subjectivity and the self in Being and Nothingness are echoed in the work – where, avoiding a simplistic Cartesianism, he observes that without a consciousness or understanding of the agency/intentionality of other men, it is impossible to recognise my own. Sartre illustrates the depth of this inter-subjectivity in his discussion of anguish, arguing it is even the source of that anguish. He observes, “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profund responsibility” (p292).
Sartre then moves from one classic existentialist theme to another, namely abandonment. Here Sartre again describes his position as a logical extension of atheism. He states, “When we speak of abandonment we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end.” By this he means; “The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven.” He quotes from Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,” and describes this as “the starting point” for existentialism (p294).
Sartre then enters a discussion of despair, defining the term in its existentialist context to mean “limit[ing] ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible.” Despair signifies an unwillingness to “rely upon any possibilities beyond those that are strictly concerned in one’s action.” Thus, “I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational” p298, 299).
It is this rejection of a foundation to human nature that would lead critics to suppose Sartre’s existentialism to be a pessimistic affair, a philosophy that must compel one towards a resigned attitude of quietism with regards to matters of justice and human progress. This was a time when the great ideological projects of Marxism, Communism, Christendom & Fascism dominated the world stage and the battle for the hearts, minds and bodies of men like never before. The label of quietism would most certainly be seen as a stinging insult of irrelevance and ignorance with regard to the human situation. Indeed Sartre, like many of the existentialist circle he was involved with, was highly political in his endeavours.
Sartre is quick to defend Existentialism against the labels of Quietism, Pessimism, Individualism and Relativism. Firstly, he observes that Existentialism compels the individual to act, precisely because I cannot tell by some absolute that the social ideal will ever become a reality – “I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing” (p300). Secondly, Sarte observes that Existentialism is optimistic precisely because it does not condemn a person as essentially cowardly, or essentially heroic – “there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero” (p301).
Sartre then discusses the accusations that Existentialism doesn’t account for “the solidarity of mankind.” He firstly defends the Cartesian cogito, I think, therefore I am, because for Sartre “we seek to base our teaching upon the truth, and not upon a collection of fine theories, full of hope lacking real foundations.” He asserts that “Every theory which begins with man, outside of this moment of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth, for outside of the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than probable, and any doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to a truth will crumble into nothing.” Furthermore, Sartre declares that “This theory alone is compatible with the dignity of man, it is the only one which does not make man into an object…[but rather] establish[es] the human kingdom as a pattern of values in distinction from the material world” (p302, 303)
Sartre then restates his case that Existentialist subjectivity postulates not only one’s own self-discovery in the cogito, but the discovery of others too; “Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves.” He notes, “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me.” It is here that Sartre discusses his notion of the human condition, and our consciousness of our condition as human beings, as the basis for the universalisability of values. “Diverse though man’s purposes may be, at least none of them is wholly foreign to me, since every human purpose presents itself as an attempt either to surpass these limitations, or to widen them, or else to deny or accommodate oneself to them. Consequently every purpose, however individual it may be, is of universal value.” Thus, “In this sense we may say that there is a human universality, but it is not something given; it is being perpetually made” (p303, 304).
Having countered the reproaches of Quietism, pessimism & individualism, Sartre then tackles head-on the critique of Existentialism as a denial of the reality and seriousness of human affairs. Here Sartre restates the principles of responsibility and inter-subjectivity that result from an existential view of the freedom of the self, to show that “In our view man finds himself in an organized situation in which he is himself involved: his choice involves mankind in its entirety, and he cannot avoid choosing” (p305).
Sartre then observes that, while judgments of ultimate value are denied by Existentialism, there remains scope for judgments of logic. He observes that “in certain cases choice is founded upon an error, and in others upon the truth. One can judge a man by saying that he deceives himself.” He further notes, “Freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values… The actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such.” Rather than eschewing judgment, Sartre himself launches a scathing attack on, to use existentialist jargon, men he considers as holding bad faith. He observes, “Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guide of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth – I shall call scum. But neither cowards nor scum can be identified except upon the plane of strict authenticity” (p307, 308). Here Sartre by implication has launched a stinging attack on theists as scum, for even trying to show that their existence is necessary. To sideline thinkers whose paradigms may support existential freedom as effectively as Sartre’s atheism, is certainly a confounding matter in reading this great work.
To conclude his response to the critique of relativism, Sartre answers a challenge which I alluded to in my introduction – that Existentialism “takes with one hand what you give with the other,” meaning “your values are not serious, since you choose them yourselves.” Sartre’s response, “If I have excluded God the Father, there must be somebody to invent values.” He goes on to say “To say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this; that there is no sense in life á priori. Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose. Therefore, you can see there is a possibility of creating a human community” (p309). Of all of his answers to his critics, these few lines are the most ambiguous, and the least satisfying. It is unclear exactly why the assertion one invents their own values was considered problematic, and it is unclear why a general concept of God the Father would form an impediment to an existential understanding of values. It is my contention that this ambiguity is due to Sartre’s rigid limitations to the concept of God the Father, perhaps due the dogmatic nature of Parisian Roman Catholicism.2
Finally, Sartre addresses those who reproach him for suggesting that existentialism is a form of humanism, given that he ridicules humanism in La Nausée (1938). But Sartre distinguishes between two different types of humanism; one which upholds man as the end-in-itself and as the supreme value. Another simply recognises that “Man is all the time outside of himself,” that “it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist,”; and that “it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist.” Such as humanism concludes that “[because man is ]self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence.” Thus, Sartre concludes, “There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity” (p309, 310).
And so, in closing his argument in this way, Sartre naturally returns to that which appears as much his project as any concern about human freedom – that an Existentialist view of human nature and freedom is “nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position” (p310). Peter Kreeft sums up Sartre’s position in his review of Sartre (1988), “His attitude is like that of a cowboy in a Western, saying to God as to an enemy cowboy: “This town ain't big enough for both you and me. One of us has to leave.”” Yet in Sartre’s conclusion is a hint that all this banging on about atheism and God is irrelevant. Not only does he declare that “even if God existed that would make no difference,” but he states, “The real problem is not that of God’s existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.” Thus Sartre concludes his lecture by stating that “it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours, that Christians describe us as without hope” (p311).
Existentialism & Hope
My contention is that, while Sartre’s atheistic Exstentialism claims to maximize human freedom, it is most certainly at the expense of hope. Sartre argues that an Existentialist can retain an optimism about future events only where we rely upon “that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible” (p298). However, Sartre admits that in any consideration of men whom I do not know, “I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational” (p299). The implications of this for the potential of trust and mutuality between human beings where familiarity is lacking are obvious. According to Sartre, the only assurance we can have that a stranger will act towards our good is if they have arrived at some existential consciousness of good faith. And if religious, cultural or political dogma and ritual qualify for Sartre as “bad faith,” then this leaves the existentialist with few friends in the world – hence the accusations of pessimism and hopelessness.
In Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Warriors and Adventurers Shaped Globalization (2007), Nayan Chanda, professor at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, discusses the way in which cultural barriers were overcome by relationships of trust and mutuality in the development of a world economic system. And, as any student of history might suggest, religion played a vital role in this process. It cannot be overstated how, for many individual missionaries, a conviction that within all human beings lay some potential for trust and benevolence was vital to their willingness to serve in their missionary endeavour. And, time and again, with persistence, those missionaries saw that their hope was indeed well-founded. If a missionary were to adopt Sartre’s attitude – that “I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society” on the basis of Sartre’s atheist existentialism, there would indeed be little hope for the poor, the sick and the marginalized among those people groups unknown to the existentialist.
Or, perhaps more poignantly, one may consider the effect of Sartre’s non-essentialism upon situational ethics, where the violent intentions of a stranger are thought to be anticipated in advance. For example, an member of a recognizable ethnic group with whom my people are at war appears in my village – given that this man’s actions are outside of the range of my will, or any sum of probabilities that could render passive intervention feasible, and given that I cannot base my confidence upon his goodness for want of any such thing as human essence, as an atheist existentialist I may take it upon myself to shoot to maim or kill the man in the interests of minimizing risk. A theist view of existentialism, however, makes room for something of essence, despite the logic of giving some priority to existence, and might instead ask that I love my enemy (Bible, Matt 5:43-48). It might suggest that if he’s hungry I give him something to eat, if he’s thirsty give him something to drink (Prov 25:21; Roms 12:20).
Of course, Sartre’s Existentialism does have the potential to provide room for such an ethic. For Sartre, all human beings are capable of understanding o freedom as constitutive of the human being. Sartre states that “when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values” (p307). Thus an atheistic Existentialist can hope that by his example of not conforming to the expected essence of his identity as enemy, the intruding foreigner might too be startled into confronting his own self-imposed existential limitations. However, a paradigm that explicitly embraces a notion of human essence that affirms inherent capacity for goodness, benevolence, pro-sociality, love – while at the same time explaining aberrations from this ideal – would be more conducive to trust and mutuality between the unfamiliar and the alien.
On one hand Sartre has rescued man’s existence, his being, from a dependence on essence. He has liberated the human subject from Protestant, Catholic and Islamic fatalism, and at the same time from Newtonian determinism. Yet Sartre has merely reversed the hegemony, and made essence subservient to existence. In Nonreductionist Existentialism (1966), Archie J Bahm argues that the Existentialism associated Sartre has merely committed the same reductionist fallacy for which they so despised Platonic essentialism. Bahm discusses existence and essence as poles on a continuum, rather than problematic contradictions. He argues instead that “polar opposites depend upon each other and require each other for their existence and their nature” (p152).
In Being and Nothingness Sartre defines the being of humanness as grounded in nothingness. As conscious, self-reflective entities we are both être-en-soi (being-in-itself) and être-pour-soi (being-for-itself). My being-in-itself is what I am before I begin to think about what I am, while my being-for-itself is my consciousness – that part of myself which thinks about what I am. Furthermore, as Earnshaw observes, “there is a gap between the entity thought about, the ‘in-itself,’ and the entity which is conscious of itself as existing, or conscious of itself as a consciousness – the ‘for itself’…Being has a fundamental desire to close the gap, to make its reflecting on its being the same thing as the reflected-on, to make the two one-and-the-same, to make them ‘coincident’” (2007, p81).
Interestingly, Earnshaw goes on “Yet the only creature that could possibly have such a self-coincidence is God (or a god), since a creature that self-created would have no gap between the in-itself and the for-itself; it would be its own origin, it would be, in Sartre’s terms, a ‘in-itself-for-itself’” (p82). But it is precisely this gap between the in-itself and the for-itself that gives rise to our awareness of our true freedom as human beings. “By describing how the for-itself becomes aware of its self as without any kind of grounding, Sartre is able to emphasise how ‘nothingness’ ‘haunts’ being, how the self is ‘free’, but that this ‘freedom’ s accompanied by ‘anguish’, since who I am is part-constituted by who I project I will be, which itself is indeterminate and indeterminable” (p83).
One thing is clear in all of this talk about nothingness – that the Sartrean ground of being in nothingness remains riddled with ambiguity and mystery in any attempt to comprehend it. That our ultimate being, as humans, is constituted by free choices made in a gap of nothingness is strangely reminiscent of quantum physicists explaining that the ultimate force in physics is an unseen muddiness that works according to uncertain laws of probabilities rather than he certainties of mechanical causation (Meyers, 2008). And just as journalists have succumbed to the temptation of labeling the undetectable Higgs boson as “the God particle,” so too is it tempting to consider human interaction with this psychic realm of nothingness as a transcendence into some other world, in a typically “God-of-the-gaps” fashion (Morgan, 2009).
Theism is an Existentialism is a Humanism
But the question must be asked – how could a mechanism of intentionality be constituted of nothingness? And if the ultimate being of humanness is located within such untouchable realm, despite our being bound to material bodies, then why would an Existentialist be so quick to jump on an atheist bandwagon? With Bahm, a theist might argue for a nonreductionist Existentialism, whereby the mystery of our ultimate being in nothingness and our freedom as non-determined agents, together with Sartre’s ethical ontology of intersubjectivity and of freedom as the foundation of all values, is understood as a type of essence constituent both of humanity and of the God in whose image he is made. An essence that is ontologically self-coincident, but which, as Sartre admits, cannot achieve that self-coincidence as long as its freedom is preserved in the realm of nothingness, or perhaps more accurately the realm of infinity – the realm of the divine.
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