Sartre: Existentialism is Humanism

In Existentialism is Humanism (1946), Sartre stresses clearly that the existence of a person precedes her essence. This assertion, put simply, means that only the individual can determine his essence throughout his own life:

"Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards".

The rejection of all "deterministic excuses" - character, history, faith, biology - holds people fully responsible for their situation. The idea of man freely choosing his actions is what allows moral judgement according to Sartre: when people are free to act this way or another, they are responsible.

A full realization of such responsibility is followed by anguish, which is associated with a sense of despair that stems from man's fundamental abandonment. With no God to prescribe a way of life, man is left orphaned in the universe, the arbiter of his own way.

Despair turns into in a strange optimism when the moral responsibility in its roots is taken as the foundation of a possible meaning. In the absence of expectations or birthrights, man can embrace freedom and take meaningful action in acceptance of the consequences.

ReadingExistentialism is Humanism


Questions to ponder:

* How does the common idea of essence threaten freedom?

* Why is it tempting to associate existentialism with nihilism?

* Is politics without identities possible at all? If not, what could then be a political identity of this undefinable being that man is?

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  • Howard P.

    It was a lively far ranging discussion of freedom to act in the absence of God. Many good and insightful comments. Sartre being raked over the coals and being defended made the evening fascinating.

    December 15, 2013

    • Stephen M.

      I agree! Thanks for the interesting evening, and looking forward to next month's chat.

      December 16, 2013

  • karine

    Why is the RSVP closed? is the meeting cancelled?

    November 13, 2013

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