Sartre, Simplified: A Review of Existentialism is a Humanism


Title: Existentialism is a Humanism

Author: Jean-Paul Sartre

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Existentialism

First Published by: Éditions Nagel in 1946

Translated by: Carol Macomber

Introduction by: Annie Cohen-Solal

Notes and Preface by: Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre

Edited by: John Kulka



Bold – important points in existentialism

“Italicized” – direct quotes from Sartre or another source


To fully grasp the magnitude of Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is imperative that we understand its whys and why nots, the driving force behind this monumental piece. Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t start out as a philosophy book, rather it was originally a transcript of a lecture given by Sartre in Paris for Club Maintenant.

The club, which was founded by Marc Beigbeder and Jacques Calmy, was founded to help encourage “literary and intellectual discussion.” The lecture, which was held on October 29, 1945, was the perfect platform for Sartre to help clear the air of the rumors and unfounded criticisms that targeted his take on existentialism.

Earlier that year, Sartre had released the initial volumes of The Roads to Freedom. The novels The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were met with disdain by the era’s conformists. The characteristics of the unlikely protagonist did not kowtow to their idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like. Add to that the confusion and misguided notions regarding existentialism, and what he had was a crowd of detractors determined to go for his life work’s jugular.

In a bid to enlighten his critics, Sartre accepted the invitation for the lecture. He appeared in front of a packed crowd, sans notes, and proceeded to defend his philosophy. The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Sartre. Understanding that the discussion of existentialism had shifted from the purely academic platform of philosophers to the dinner table of the everyman, he said:

“In the past, philosophers were attacked only by other philosophers. The general public did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care. These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.”


The Public Trial: Charges against Existentialism

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some of the charges that has been brought against it…” And thus begins Sartre’s lengthy, didactic, and illuminating monologue explaining the tenets of existentialism. It was a simplified version of the philosophy addressed to existentialism’s main detractors—the Communists and the Christians.

Being an atheist, Sartre only aimed to correct the mistaken notions some Christians had about the philosophy. To his religious critics, existentialism focused too much on the basest parts of humanity—in the process, completely disregarding the better side of human nature. They also questioned the philosophy’s morality. To them, denying God’s existence and ignoring his teachings meant man could do exactly as he pleased.

As for the Communists, Sartre had hoped for some form of reconciliation with the movement. For while he was unbending on his views, he felt that by giving a thorough clarification of existentialism’s points, his Communist critics would find that their beliefs weren’t so different after all. But the Communists were under the impression that existentialism was a bourgeois philosophy, a contemplative doctrine that encouraged quietism, inaction, and despair.

Both sects also accused existentialism of focusing too much on subjectivity, thereby overlooking the possibility of and necessity for human solidarity. To this, Sartre answered with a definition of Existentialism. He asserts that existentialism is a “doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment of human subjectivity.”

He claimed that the allegations made by Communists and Christians alike were furthered only by a terrible misunderstanding. Over the course of its existence, ‘existentialism’ had become a catchword, “applied so loosely that it has come to mean nothing at all.” Through the discourse, Sartre aimed to debunk these charges and to put forth the belief that existentialism is actually a form of humanism.


Christian Existentialism vs. Atheist Existentialism

Underneath the umbrella of existentialism resides two distinct philosophical movements—Christian Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. While both movements believe that existence precedes essence and that subjectivity should be the philosopher’s main point of departure, there are fundamental differences between their treatments of these notions.

Now, before we delve into the disparities of these two movements, let’s take the time to understand what we mean by existence precedes essence. For Christian Existentialists, existence precedes essence because man is the product of God’s intelligence. But for Atheist Existentialists—the movement which Sartre belongs to—because God does not exist, the only being whose existence precedes essence is the one being that exists prior to developing its essence and morality. That being is man.

Another notion that separates Christian existentialism with its atheist cousin is its understanding of the human condition. While Christian existentialists believe in ‘human nature,’ which helps explain man’s actions, atheist existentialists only subscribe to the idea of a shared ‘human reality.’

Human reality is a term borrowed from Heidegger. It does not concern itself with dictating human nature, rather it talks about the shared limitations of man. To paraphrase Sartre, the human reality is this—man is born into the world, exists among others in the world, and will eventually perish in the world. There is no shared nature that predetermines man’s actions.

This brings us to the first principle of existentialism—that “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself,” or in simpler terms—the world of human subjectivity.


What does Sartre mean by Subjectivity?

Merriam-Webster defines subjectivity in philosophy as “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind.” For existentialist philosophers, subjectivity refers to how “prior to man’s projection of the self, nothing exists.” Man only begins to exist after he begins to exercise his freedom of choosing his projects/morality. Because man is responsible for what he chooses, he is also responsible for who he becomes.

But beyond being responsible for himself, man is also responsible for the rest of mankind. This is because what man chooses for himself, he also chooses for all men. According to Sartre, “to make a choice is to affirm at the same time, the value of what we choose.” So if a person decides to live an honest life, he is, in fact, saying that all men must lead honest lives. Sartre also points out that man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”

Once man comes to terms with these truths, he experiences the weight of anguish, abandonment, and despair. Existentialists redefine these words to illustrate the effects of their philosophy.


The Existentialist’s Anguish…

 Sartre defines anguish as man’s realization of his “full and profound responsibility.” It is an awareness of his inability to move past human subjectivity, an acknowledgment that his choice matters to the rest of mankind. As a guiding point, Sartre says, we must always ask ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” To not ask this question or to ignore it completely is to lie to oneself. To create excuses for one’s behavior is to act in bad faith and to struggle with a bad conscience.

To illustrate this anguish, Sartre tackles Kierkegaard’s idea of the anguish of Abraham. In the Bible, God sent a messenger to Abraham asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham made the choice to believe that it was God’s will. While he was determined to follow God’s orders, the choice was not without pain or anguish. This is the same emotion felt by generals and commanders during the war. For the sake of the greater good, they may sacrifice the lives of their men in the process—it is a torment-filled decision, but one that does not stop them from acting.

In our daily lives, we too are sometimes faced with choices laced with anguish. It is an emotion anyone with responsibilities can attest to. It is a shared experience, but one that is rooted in subjectivity and resulting in action.


… Sense of Abandonment…

“Man is condemned to be free: Condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Sartre

Abandonment is what man experiences because God does not exist. Because there is no God, and consequently no code of conduct that must be followed, we bear the full responsibility for the values we choose to uphold. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Indeed, that is accurate. It is one of the starting points of existentialism and is one of the accusations hurled by Christians against the philosophy.

But while everything may appear allowable, existentialists believe that there are no excuses for our actions. Because God does not exist, a person cannot explain his choices as being a result of ‘human nature.’ In Sartre’s words, “We are left alone and without an excuse.”

Man cannot hide behind passion or signs. Because feelings are built by the actions we take and choices we make, emotions can never be used as guidelines for our actions. As for signs, we are the ones who choose to interpret their meaning. In short, abandonment is the acknowledgment that we alone must decide who we must become—and that decision entails anguish.


…and Despair

Despair, on the other hand, is the idea that man must limit his decisions and actions to things that he can control. Choices are made based on the available probabilities that will allow action. As Descartes once said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” For existentialists, this means acting without hope or expectation.


A Response to All Allegations

That existentialism breeds quietism and inaction. As a response to the Communists’ allegation, Sartre replies that existentialism cannot breed quietism, because reality only exists in actions. Man is nothing other than his project…he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”

That it is a pessimistic description of man. Outside of it being an atheist philosophy, according to Sartre, existentialism is actually rather optimistic because it’s one that furthers the belief that man’s destiny lies within himself. And that while man is nothing more than his project, it is a project that does not define him completely. For projects can be reevaluated, re-planned, and repeated.

That existentialism is a bourgeois and individualistic philosophy. Sartre acknowledges that the point of departure is the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am.” But this is so, only because existentialists want a solid base to build their philosophy—one that is not based on “comforting theories full of hope but without foundation.” But contrary to the philosophies of both Kant and Descartes, the existentialist’s idea of “I think…” is to think within the presence of others, to see the other as a condition of one’s own existence. So rather than dwelling in the world of subjectivity, existentialism actually enters into the field of “intersubjectivity.”

That the philosophy leaves man free to do as he pleases. While on the one hand, this is true, Sartre asserts that “Man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind.” And since man is responsible for all his choices, he must always choose what is good, not only for himself but for the rest of mankind.

That the philosophy makes it impossible to judge other people for their wrongdoings. Again, this is both true and untrue. For when man commits to his project in a lucid and genuine manner, in the pursuit of what is good for all, then he cannot choose anything else. However, if the choices are made in bad faith—then these choices can be judged for having been made in error.

To which, Sartre says, “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

That existentialism makes it impossible to build a human community. While the philosophy teaches its pupil to focus on the areas of life one can control, it doesn’t mean that one cannot belong to an organization or party. Sartre advises the existentialist philosopher to act, create, to invent, but without illusions or unfounded hope.


Existentialist Humanism

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man’s choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a project or special achievement that betters the state of all.


A Reader’s Reaction to Existentialism is a Humanism

As a reader, the question here is whether or not Sartre was successful in defending existentialism against its critics. In this humble reader’s opinion, Sartre did well in addressing all their concerns and in establishing the foundations of his young philosophy. Admittedly, some of the points were rigid and lacking in refinement. But it is important to remember that this was an attempt from Sartre to simplify his philosophy and make it more palatable to the masses.  He was also at the point in his life wherein he was yet to fully fine-tune his philosophical and literary work.

Now, despite being an incomplete picture of existentialism, I highly recommend this work to anyone in crisis over the purpose of life. For a book on philosophy, this slim volume is an easy read and one that comes with a lot of chewable and digestible truths.

Rating: A++ (because one + is not enough)

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