Past Meetup

Sartre's "Existentialism Is a Humanism"


From the 1940s through the 1950s, existentialism was the most widely discussed philosophy in Europe and America. Its progenitors were the 19th century philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, followed most notably in the 20th century by Heidegger and Sartre (Camus is omitted here because he was recognized more as a successful literary writer and essayist than as a systematic philosopher). Some of the key themes of Sartrean existentialism are:

● In a universe without God, life is meaningless.
● If life is meaningless, then man’s existence is absurd.
● Existence precedes Essence, that is, man has no essential characteristics but becomes who he is by the choices and actions of his life.
● Anxiety results from the omnipresence of death and the lack of moral anchors.
● Facticity is the accidental events occurring in one’s life, events beyond one’s control: place and time of birth, genetic heritage, global warming.
● Other people, through The Gaze, have the power to redefine you, undermining identity and self-esteem.
● Authenticity requires the rejection of conformity and the acceptance of a unique self.
● Because man is free he is totally responsible for his actions; hence engagement in the world is obligatory--to sit on the sidelines is to perpetuate injustice.

In 1943 Sartre published his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, a work in phenomenology that builds on the insights of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. He was also strongly influenced by Marx and tried to reconcile Marxism with existentialism, even going so far as supporting, for a time, Stalinism. With Bertrand Russell he was one of the most respected public intellectuals and activists of his time, protesting colonialism and the persecution of minorities. His prodigious output resulted in several noteworthy novels and plays, the most famous being Nausea and No Exit. In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he rejected on the grounds that writers should align themselves with social movements rather than with institutions.

Existentialism Is a Humanism was written by Sartre as a defense of his philosophy. In 55 pages he discusses the major tenets of existentialism and explains why it is superior to other belief systems. In addition to this essay, the Yale University Press edition contains an Introduction by Sartre scholar Annie Cohen-Solal as well as Sartre’s commentary on Camus’ The Stranger, a novel Sartre considered a milestone in existential literature. The Yale edition is available from ( ($9.95 new and from $4.23 used). A free public domain copy can be accessed here (

The following resources provide analysis, bibliographies, lecture notes, and videos:

Wikipedia: "Jean-Paul Sartre" (, "Existentialism" (, "Absurdism" (, "Existence Precedes Essence" (, "Bad Faith" (, "Facticity" (, "Being and Nothingness" (

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Jean-Paul Sartre" (, "Existentialism" (

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Sartre's Existentialism" (, "Sartre's Political Philosophy" (, "Existentialism" (

Jonathan Webber, The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre ( Routledge, 2009. (complete text of the 169 page book)

Santos Kumar Pal, “A Critical Analysis of Sartre’s Existential Humanism” ( Indian Philosophical Quarterly 30 no. 3 (October 2003):[masked].

Wesley Morriston, “Freedom, Determinism, and Chance in the Early Philosophy of Sartre” ( The Personalist 58 (1977):[masked].

Stuart Z Charmé, "The Different Voices of Sartre's Ethics" ( in Sartre and Existentialism. Ed. William L. McBride. Garland, 1997, pp. 70-86.

T. Storm Heter, "No, We Are Not All Murderers: Sartrean Ethics and Collective Responsibility" (paper delivered at the North American Sartre Society, October 2006; author is Professor in Dept. of Philosophy, East Stroudsburg University)

Debbie Evans, “[masked]: Existentialism and Humanism 60 years On” ( Sens Public: International Web Journal 1 (2007)

Brad Cherry, “On the Coherence of Sartre’s Defense of Existentialism Against the Essentialist Charge of Ethical Relativism in His 'Existentialism and Humanism'" ( (Honors Student Philosophy paper published by the Dept. Of Philosophy at Sewanee University)

Lecture Notes:

“Outline of Sartre’s 'Existentialism Is a Humanism' (" by Professor R. C. Pinto, Dept. Of Philosophy, University of Windsor

“Notes: Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’ (1946)” ( by Professor Timothy Quigley, Dept. Of Philosophy, The New School

“Sartre’s ‘The Humanism of Existentialism’” ( by Professor G. J. Mattey, Dept. of Philosophy, University of California--Davis

“The Ethics of Absolute Freedom” ( by Professor David Banach, Dept. Of Philosophy, St. Anselm College (not really lecture notes but an expository essay targeted to his students, critiquing Sartre's philosophy)


"Existentialism: Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Existentialism Is a Humanism" ( and "Jean-Paul Sartre: Existence Precedes Essence" ( by Professor Gregory B. Sadler, Professor of Philosophy, Fayettville State University

"Sartre and Existence Precedes Essence" ( and "Existentialist Philosophy: Authentic Humanism: Part 1" (; "Part 2" (; "Part 3" ( by Professor Stephen Hicks, Dept. of Philosophy at Rockford College

"Sartre and 'The Others'" ( by Professor Corey Anton, Dept. of Communication Studies, Grand Valley State University