Although many may view existentialism as a negative philosophy, Jean Paul Sartre contends in his Existentialism and Human Emotions that it is in fact “optimistic, a doctrine of action” (Sartre 51). Sartre posits that man is empowered upon accepting three fundamental parts of human existence: despair, forlornness, and abandonment. If humans accept these three conditions as fundamentally a part of human existence, Sartre argues, he is empowered to take responsibility for his life and act accordingly. Furthermore, Sartre believes that this empowerment makes his philosophy entirely optimistic in the fact that each person has not only responsibility, but also control over their own life. The fact that humans are free to make what they wish of their life a very optimistic view in Sartre’s mind.
Sartre arrives at the conclusion that the human condition is one of despair, forlornness, and anguish as a result of the mere fact that humans exist. To Sartre, humans exist with severe limitations and bounds, yet human wants are boundless. Humans have a natural wish to transcend these limits. Therefore, humans are filled with despair as hope of transcending these limits is taken away. Recognizing that despair is a natural part of human existence is the first step to empowerment through existentialism.
In particular, Sartre focuses on how human limitations affect the capacity for judgment – that humans have limited time and limited knowledge with which to make a decision. These limits, according to Sartre, render humans absolutely incapable of making a decision with absolute certainty and therefore human choice is subjective. Sartre asserts that “[m]an is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre 15).
Furthermore, because of these limitations, humans have no capacity to make objective judgments, or as Sartre declares, “…it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity” (Sartre 17). In rejecting the human capacity for objective judgment, Sartre comes to the logical conclusion that humans must make their own decisions. No one person or group can make a decision for another. Additionally, because of human subjectivity and the fact that “God does not exist” to the existentialist, “all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears” (Sartre 22). According to Sartre, “we, ourselves choose our being” (Sartre 29) and “as a result man is forlorn, because neither within [H]im [God] nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself” (Sartre 22). Humans, then, are forlorn beings thrown into the world, with no one but themselves responsible for their lives.
However, Sartre continues that because only man is responsible for himself, he “can not help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility,” and therefore, Sartre declares that “man is anguish” (Sartre 18). In other words, “man is condemned to be free” (Sartre 23). Thus, man has no choice but to be responsible for himself, and this responsibility is a heavy weight because “once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 23).
Existentialist philosophers, among whom Sartre is a prominent, believe that humans can either choose to accept or avoid the responsibility that is an inevitable part of human life. Those who accept responsibility act in good faith, while those who seek futilely to avoid it act in bad faith.
Existentialism empowers those who act in good faith. Sartre speaks of existentialism as an “optimistic … doctrine of action” because he believes that despair, forlornness, and anguish are “not a curtain separating us from action, but … a part of action itself” (Sartre 21). However, existentialism as a philosophy is empowering if and only if one acts in good faith, accepting the inevitable responsibility that has been thrust upon him.
Sartre’s critics would contend, however, that his philosophy is fundamentally flawed. Sartre attempts to inexorably link the concept of human limitations and subjectivity – that the former necessitates the later. However, Sartre has provided only a very tenuous link between the two. The link is so tenuous that it becomes the “Achilles heel” of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre is correct in positing that man’s limits prevent him from choosing the best option from a series each time he is presented with a decision. However, Sartre makes a jump in assuming that simply because man does not always choose the best option, he is incapable of making a rational, informed decision. Sartre reasonably proposes two limits on man’s capacity for judgment: time and knowledge. Any individual can confirm that man’s time and knowledge are finite and precious commodities. However, while finite and precious, they are neither insignificant nor deserving of Sartre’s ready dismissal. Man is capable of allocating his time and his capacity for knowledge in order to make an informed decision. Human failure to perceive the advantage of one choice over another is simply either a case of poor judgment or a case of poor allocation of man’s precious resources in judgment, time and knowledge.
However, Sartre would even still contend that no matter how much effort was put into a particular judgment, no matter how great a share of a man’s time and knowledge was spent on a single decision, he would still not know conclusively what the correct choice was. In this case, Sartre is ignoring the power and potential of human reason. There exist answers man may arrive at without exhausting his capacity for judgment. This is because there are some judgments which truly are not as complex and incomprehensible as Sartre would suggest. As an example, consider the brutal rape of a young woman by a man twice her age. One can objectively judge that this is an immoral act, an example of evil. And one can arrive at such a conclusion without an exhaustive process of applying one’s time and knowledge to the problem. Mitigating circumstances are irrelevant, as we are judging the morality of a single act in isolation.
However, Sartre’s argument persists. The act is clearly wrong, yet Sartre would contend that one is unable to conclusively ascertain that fact. This is where Sartre’s argument becomes a sophistry. Firstly, Sartre assumes, as previously stated, that every issue is too complex to be judged with a finite amount of time and knowledge. In short, not every issue is impossible to solve. There exist issues which, though not “black and white,” have clear answers to intellectually honest and clearly reasoning men. Secondly, Sartre requires a ridiculously high standard for judgment – absolute certainty. In practice, this is rarely if ever possible. Therefore, mankind must pass judgment, limitations not withstanding. Although the solution to the remaining minority of man’s problems may not be discernable to the point of absolute certainty, man can reasonably discriminate the likely best choice beyond the point of reasonable doubt.
Furthermore, even if man were incapable of even the slightest bit of discernment between an excellent choice and a poor one, it would not mean that the first choice is no longer the advantageous choice. There exists an objective truth which is not subject to man’s perceptions. For example, Man may not be able to distinguish between a hot burner on a stovetop and a cool one. However, if he decided (in error) that the second was in fact hot, while the first was cool, and proceeded therefore to put his hand to the first burner, he would quickly discover that his judgment had little to do with which burner was in fact hot. Once safely out of the hospital’s burn unit and on the path to recovery, the man would be left to ponder the fact that his subjective judgment of which burner was active had little to do with objective reality.
In denying the existence of an absolute, objective truth, Sartre has created a philosophy of anarchy. The Christian philosophers that Sartre so quickly and superficially dismisses hit the mark – actions, objects, and people have inherent values.
Sartre would, of course, attempt to dismiss even this argument claiming that because his philosophy reminds people of choice and responsibility, he is not neglecting the need for the social order and justice upon which civilization and humanity are built. Sartre would further counter that acting in bad faith (avoiding responsibility) carries consequences as a result of the inescapable existence and reality of responsibility. As long as one is authentic to oneself and acting in good faith, Sartre would contend, society will not crumble.
The final problem with Sartre’s argument lies in his over reliance on “inescapable” responsibility to prove his philosophical points. While it is true that persons are held to account for their actions the vast majority of the time, it is possible for a person to avoid practical and meaningful responsibility for his/her actions.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1985.