Jean-Paul Sartre EXISTENTIALISM IS A HUMANISM (1945)


Inspired by Hans Hauge’s denunciations of Jean-Paul Sartre in his recent ‘Ensomhedsparathed’ (2019), I thought it would be instructive to return to Sartre’s concise exposition of existentialism and try and figure out why Gilles Deleuze referred to Sartre as ‘a breath of fresh air’. As a philosophy student I must have read this, but reading it now fifteen years later without the same theoretical allegiances, three key things emerge. 1. The work, originally based on a single lecture, is exceptionally clear and systematic and anticipates and refutes the main objections to existentialism which are frequently levelled, namely, a) that it is a philosophy of inner-struggle focalised around subjective experience and as such could be seen to amount to little more than a form of bourgeois luxury quietism, where one is only engaged in trying to get one’s ‘inner house’ in order, b) that it licenses spontaneous rash or self-indulgent behaviour on Dostoyevsky’s ground that because God is dead, then everything is permitted, and c) that it places undue emphasis on the unseemly things in life—angst, nausea, anguish—and forgets the joy in an infant’s grin. Rather than inner struggle, Sartre contends that existentialism is a ‘philosophy of action’, where only objective judgements of your actions in a situation will count. Rather than unwittingly endorsing bourgeois sensibility, with its romantic intrigues and little secrets, Sartre weaves in a Kantian version of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return: there are no social norms that a man or woman should appeal to other than his or her own capacity as fundamentally undetermined ‘free’ subject, and so every action he or she undertakes should be done with the knowledge that this act will function as an exemplar to others. It is like a strange Nietzschean-Kantian hybrid of the golden rule—show what you do is free, so that others might recognise their own freedom—only Sartre does not vouchsafe these actions through appeals to some timeless ideal or principle of logic, nor are they premised on some dim intuition of a future pleasure. For Sartre, the ethical act is only that which is willed with full conscious commitment and is therefore retrospectively justified insofar as the action was done with the full knowledge of the risks and of what it stood for. As for existentialism’s undue focus on life’s grimaces, Sartre concedes that this is both true and worse than true. By eviscerating physiological and socio-economic determinations from decisions (as in Kant’s Second Critique), the value of action can be said to be emptied out into cool, abstract justifications, which the subject might take pride in for being theirs and theirs alone, but which are divorced from feelings of sentiment. Let’s clarify with an example. If we imagine an overworked and well-intentioned teacher choosing to correct and edit a student essay beyond what is considered acceptable, she can justify her actions on the grounds that the line between ‘teacher support’ and ‘teacher collusion’ is at times very difficult to determine, and it often takes much more time and effort to communicate with enough generality, scaffolding and modelled responses so that a student finally hits upon the formula required by their examiners. As compensation for a lack of time in class, the teacher could comment on the student’s essay with more directness than is standard. By doing so, the teacher would then be a) contributing to the artificially high standards for other teachers in her position, and b) taking away the chance for her student to learn from their own mistakes or do well through their efforts alone. Arguably, it would be better to let them fail and allow other teachers greater acclaim for achieving better results, that is, if the teacher in question felt comforted by her sense of integrity. On the other hand, there is the knowledge of the situation: other better financed schools will have more hours allocated, and other students will have extra-tuition and guidance through paid tutors or through cultural capital in the household (the mother with the master’s degree). Is it the teacher’s obligation to ‘game the system’ by helping those who are less advantaged, accepting that a bourgeois meritocratic principle cannot truly operate in a world which is unequal? The choice is either/or, but the teacher’s sense of inner justification cannot appeal to absolute standards or even to what might look like happier or less successful students. Instead, for Sartre, the teacher must take heart in an inner narrative principle: she can speak with good faith of her actions, so long as her actions and intentions are consistent. In this situation, the teacher will know what is the right thing to do, and, in any case, others will judge her according to their own standards, regardless of whether those standards coincide with hers. Hell is other people who don’t agree. Does that mean heaven is to be with those who do? 2. The extent to which Sartre’s lecture anticipates the philosophers of the event in Badiou and Deleuze seems crystal clear. The simple idea that ‘the subject’ of an artwork is the artworks themselves and not the potential artwork bouncing around the artist's brain is inherited by both Deleuze and Guattari, and Badiou. Badiou’s notion of the ‘truth procedure’ in politics, which involves a fidelity to the truth of a political event, also seems indebted to Sartrean notions of how commitment to a party is what generates the subject of politics, which Sartre develops as far as he can in the unfinished ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’. The notion of history as a ‘hieroglyph’ which needs to be perceived and, as Sartre puts it here, ‘deciphered’, has some similarities to Badiou’s notion of excavating an event. Overall, aside from heralding a liberation from ideal censures, Deleuze must have been inspired by Sartre’s decision to remove philosophy from academia and dry epistemological quibbles and to instead show its dynamic connection to lived experience. Reading this lecture leaves you feeling that you could change your life; it is vitalist in the best sense of the word. We can also imagine Deleuze being delighted to see English Spinozist George Eliot’s tender heroine Maggie Tulliver affirmed as an unlikely existentialist hero for her renunciation of Stephen Guest: her Parmenidean constancy resisting the Heraclitean ‘Floss’. 3. Weaknesses. Sartre’s strain to ally his mode of existentialism with Heidegger seems awkward to readers who know how thoroughly his overture will be rejected in his ‘Letter on Humanism’. In this reply, Heidegger expends much effort in distinguishing his richer, more elusive form of ‘existence’ from that of Sartre's, whom, he contends, remains trapped within subject/object metaphysics. Heidegger will ask how is it that Sartre is so quick to make a distinction between thinking and acting? Surely thinking is an important mode of human action, if not the defining one? Then there’s the role of others in Sartre. To avoid making value purely internal and solipsistic, Sartre claims that it is through our actions we can be objectively judged. Yet such an inversion only displaces value onto an aggregate of external opinion: perhaps not so removed from what Heidegger disparaged as ‘das Mann’. Arguably, Sartre’s existentialism functions like a choose-your-own-adventure story and makes use of appeals to personality archetypes like ‘the hero’ or ‘the coward’, which may have seemed more plausible during the years of the French resistance, but today seem like metaphysical remainders which are not consistent with his approach. If a coward isn’t based on objective traits but only on their actions, and no action can be judged in advance, only retrospectively, then how to determine who counts as a coward? Do we ever know the extent of our own cowardice? We can also see how Sartre’s uncritical conception of language, which functions more-or-less like a transparent medium for intentions in their inner debates, would seem obsolescent once the structuralists took hold in French theory. Lastly, there’s Sartre’s sphere of action, which he manages to carve out for us like an auratic forcefield in the world of historical and physical causations—so long as these latter factors don’t appear related to what we decide is our course of action. Such a suspension gives us a blast of wind in our sails that encourages us to do great deeds. Now take a deep breath, and choose the ball.