Existentialism Of Jean Paul Sartre


  • Self: An Existential Approach.

Existentialism is better seen as a style of philosophizing rather than a philosophy. Thus, the existentialists have some patterns of thought following their existential traits. Hence, they deny that reality can be neatly packaged in concept or presented as interlocking system. “An inquisitive style of thought that sets to




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 adopt with ardent mastery the world in relation to man’s life in it.”1 Jean Paul Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger made remarkable imprints among the existentialist thinkers. The basic style of their philosophizing begins from man rather than nature. A philosophy of the subject rather than the object per se. William Barrett’s definition of existentialism sets the existentialists’ agenda in motion:

A philosophy that confronts human situation in its

totality, to ask what the basic conditions of human

existence are and how man can establish his own

meaning out of these situations. 2

From the foregoing therefore, existential approach to self is not very difficult to define.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy was the first to make a dialectical shift in the history of thought, breaking apart philosophy from the chains of scholastic ‘theocentricism’ to the modern ‘anthropocentricism’. In his famous cogito, he sets out to posit the “I” as the referential point of existence. Hence, the “I” becomes the starting point and the end point “terminus a quo and terminus ad quemof his ontological status quo. The ‘I’ becomes the thinking subject.

But, a remarkable attempt to move the straight points of philosophy from the “abstract thinking subject to more concrete base, in the total, multi-dimensional human experience of involving in a world of affairs was carefully explored by John Macmurray.”3 Toeing the same line of argument, the existentialists owe their thought in agreement with John Macmurray’s view of the self as an ‘agent’ as against the traditional understanding of self as the ‘subject’.

In his own words, “the ‘I’ act (the self as agent) replaces the ‘I’ think (the self as subject) as the place where existential philosophy finds its beginning.”4 Thinking according to him is an abstraction from the totality of self as agent. Having given a skeletal view of the general notion of the existential self as the existentialism owe to Macmurray, it is very pertinent at this juncture to X-ray what three front liners existentialists have as their views in relation to self.

In order to bring the intrinsic meaning of the existential self to the fore, Soren Kierkegaard driving home his message made an allusion to the idea of the ‘anonymous crowd’. In his own words, Being in a crowd unmakes one’s nature as an individual self by diluting self.”5  He further stresses:

A crowd in its very concept is untruth, by reason of the                 fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent           and irresponsible or at least weakens his sense of duty, vision         and responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.6

From a different angle, Martin Heidegger with a bold stroke shifted the nineteenth century continental philosophy away from the traditional concerns about theories and focused it upon the concern of thinking individual (self). He sets out to explore the deepest nature of self as an existing being.  Fascinated by the question of being (Zeins frage) he desires to explore the fundamental ontology – the phenomenological analysis of the ‘Dasein’. In his fundamental task of de-structuring the essential components of the Dasein he does not intend to joke when he remarks, “Dasein has a pre-ontological understanding of his own being because; being reveals itself gratuitously to him.”7  By making serious enquiry into the meaning of being through rational and fundamental questions, the existential approach to self in Heidegger’s line of thought is not very difficult to disclose, implying though it may be.

Jean Paul Sartre not dismissing his phenomenological background approaches the question of self as the only unique Consciousness. According to him,

The mode of the existence of the Consciousnesses

is to be conscious of itself and being conscious of

his consciousness, its law of existence is correctly


He further maintains that insofar as Consciousness is conscious of itself, it is purely absolute. The central message of the celebrated book of Sartre, Being and Nothingness presents an existential concept of self “as the unique individual that is essentially free even though in chains, is a master of his own fate.”9 He therefore projects the self in conformity with the analysis of Cartesian thought, as individual human being seeking for apodictic certainty as a referential point of departure. The actual message of self in Sartrian philosophy may not be correctly sent without the cause to “make a veritable insight into the ontological and epistemological variations, wherein the Cartesian cogito becomes essentially manifested.”10   

Hans Gadamer would have been forgotten in the arc of intellectual history if not for his celebrated line ‘No one speaks from nowhere, thus, to speak implies speaking from a particular point of view. Bearing this in mind, the question of self in Sartrian philosophy may not be exhaustively explored without a necessary reference to his phenomenological background.

1.2 Existentialism: A Phenomenological Background.

The word “phenomenology” has quite a long history in philosophy. Occasionally, it was employed by Immanuel Kant to stand for the study of phenomena or appearances as opposed to things-in- themselves. Hegel, in his phenomenology of mind, used the word for his exposition of the manifestations of the stages of the mind, from perception, through the forms of consciousness, to the highest intellectual spiritual activities. Husserl’s Introduction to Pure Phenomenology bracketed,       

            questions concerning reality and tends to devise method

for detailed and accurate description of various kinds in

their pure essences.11

A brief intellectual tour in the existentialists’ environment will reveal that, it was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) that first picked up the intellectual relay- race in the German phenomenology. Thrilled by the Cartesian cogito, he plans to establish from a phenomenological background, the self, from the focal point of action as the existing agent. The undeniable influence he asserted on his successors, thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Merleau-ponty and Jean Paul Sartre carried along the phenomenological relay race. Due to the fact that existentialism owes its definitive emergence to phenomenology, invariably most existentialists are phenomenologist though the reverse may not be the case, notwithstanding, there is an undeniable fact of close tie that developed between the two styles of philosophy. The fact is obvious; “Phenomenology seems to offer existentialism the kind of methodology necessary to pursue the investigations into human existence.12 Fascinated by Cartesian methodic doubt, Husserl radicalized its tenets with a certain degree of consequence. The transcendental consciousness could no longer be characterized in    terms of a thinking matter, a ‘res cogitans’ but an acting matter. In his argument, he stresses that if consciousness only exists as consciousness of something, then, Husserl’s interpretation of the methodic doubt implies that the ‘physical ‘I’ would perish along the line, “because the ‘I’ presents the character of an object.”13 The existentialists developed   phenomenology to suit their own purpose. The point of divergence between Husserl and the existential phenomenologists is not very difficult to pinpoint. Whereas the former places emphasis on essence and approaches phenomenology as an apodictic science, the latter stresses on existence. The existentialists’ allegiance to existence could be seen in Sartre’s assertion ‘existence precedes essence’. In this regard, they refuted Kantian dualism that supposed some hidden ‘noumena’ of which the ‘phenomena’ is merely the appearance.

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In his book ‘L’Action’, Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) argues, “the starting point of philosophy should be sought not in abstract ‘I’ think but in the concrete ‘I’ act.”14 To buttress this fact, the existentialists insist on action, for according to them, only in action does existence attains correctness and fullness. Where thought, passion and inward decision are lacking, there will be nothing worthy of the name action. Despite the premium existentialists place upon action, it does not seem to connote they are pragmatists. A proper juxtaposition of the differences and similarities of both the former and latter leads us into the next sub-heading. The pragmatists and the existentialists without doubts place a greater percentage on man as a deciding agent. But as the former views man as a functional man the later approaches him from the point of ‘Homo Viator’. The former to a greater extent highlights optimism from the utilitarian standpoint. They occupy themselves with issues of success in every undertaking, with a little or no attention to the tragic and frustrating sides of life as expressed in most existentialists’ writings.

Berdyaev clearly remarks the difference between the duo in his words, however close the latter could be at some points with the former:

They are distinguished from them by the fact that their interest

is in the intensity of life even its tragic intensity rather than its

outward expansion and success.”15

The existentialists acknowledge the obvious situations of man’s existence as a fact of life. This I plan to unmask in the preceding sub-heading.

1.3 Facticity of Existence

A simple look at this phrase elicits the two contending concepts: Fact and Existence. In philosophy of science, facts are said to be the ultimate tribunal. As such without facts, there would not be any result. The issue is not different in the field of law and other disciplines.

‘To exist’ from its Latin etymology ‘ex-sistere’ means, ‘to stand out’, ‘to emerge’. To ‘lie around’ seem to highlight the clearer meaning of existence in recent times- ontological location. Here, to exist implies to be located somewhere in the world, to have a place in the real world. In passing the message of what it means to exist, Martin Heidegger made allusion to the idea of ‘Dasein’. Jean Paul Sartre explores the content of the ‘Pour-soi’ for-itself. The question above all is, what the facts of existence are in the existential mind? Existentialists use the word ‘Facticity’ to designate the limiting factor in existence. From etymology the word had been coined to translate the German ‘Faktizitat’ and French ‘Facticite’. It is as opposed to the background of the word factuality that has to do with objective state of affairs observable in the world.  It is an inward existential awareness of one’s own being. No one has chosen to be. As Augustine Farrer voices out “The loneliness of personality in the universe weighs heavily upon us, it seems terribly improbable that we should exist.”16 Man from time immemorial has formed some beliefs or even revelations about his origin and destiny. How truthful or valid such assumptions are, may not be our concern here. The only fact we know beyond doubt is that ‘we are’. Where we came from and where we are going remains under the confines of mystery. Existence never escapes from the tension between possibility and facticity. Facticity opens for us the radical finitude of human existence.

Robert Cumming gave a clearer insight to facticity as portrayed in Sartre’s ideology. The “for-itself” is, insofar as it appears in a condition which it has not chosen, it is, in so far as it is thrown into the world and abandoned in a situation.”17 In the thought of Heidegger, facticity means that man finds himself in situation where he is bound to be. ‘Throwness’, ‘Geworfenheit’ in Heideggerian thought underlines to a greater extent the intrinsic meaning of facticity. “Being thrown into existence, without his prior knowledge the ‘Dasein’ finds himself in a circumstance that is not his own making.”18 Facticity is an outright revelation of the limitations of the ‘Dasein’. In a case, the ‘Dasein’ realizes some givens beyond his control, things he cannot alter even if he wants to.

Some factors project certain unavoidable existential situations. Death, Temporality, Guilt and Alienation tend to summarize those inescapable conditions of life. As Heidegger rightly puts, death is the possibility of the impossibility of existence. Heidegger is one of the existentialists that never approached the issue of death with reservation. At death alone could the ‘Dasein’ be correctly defined. He sees death as the last possibility of all, that which makes impossible any further possibility. In temporality, man’s nature as being time-bound is re-defined. Man as creature of time must pass away in time. The transience of human life is one of the most poignant aspects of finitude. No matter, whatever may be the case; man must be a client to the tribunal of birth and death.

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Pessimistic though the existentialists may seem to be, as some thinkers argue as opposed to pragmatists, they have always not failed to recognize the obvious fact of disorder in human existence. Thus, man experiences guilt and sometimes feels alienated from what he encounters around him.

Karl Marx pointed the fact of alienation in the revolutionary changes in man’s material condition. From the existential angle, alienation implies that one is mortgaged in inauthentic existence. Without facticity, Robert Cumming, avows “Consciousness would choose its attachment to the world in the same way as souls in Plato’s republic choose their condition.”19



2.1 Freedom: A Historical Review

Is one really free, a thinker asks, “When he does what he likes or when he does what he ought”? FREEDOM!!! Everybody echoes it. In every society, it is a natural phenomenon everybody desires. Nobody likes to be coerced into doing something against his/her wish. From man’s day-to-day experience, the fact of freedom can never be over emphasized. In every field of thought, discipline, age, the word freedom remains a highlighted icon on their psychological desktops.

The central point of reference in moral philosophy is without doubts man. Man as a free being by nature cannot do without making decisions; hence, the fact of freedom appears indubitable. Given that man as an existent being is a free being who has his life to live and can decide for himself what he wants out of various alternatives, the possibility of choice becomes a central fact of human nature. To this unassailable fact of freedom, Sartre on a par with Soren Kierkegaard remarks, freedom and existence are indistinguishable. Thus, “one does not first exist and becomes free; rather to be human implies to be free.”1 Without doubts, the word freedom tends to tow some kind of controversy saddled with historico-socio-cultural differences. As such, what is obtainable in man’s exercise of freedom differs from one cultural setting to another. Take the issues of abortion and manner of dressing as cases of study.

Freedom is easier to be pictured, illustrated, felt personally than it is to define. To different people, it could mean different things. The ideas of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ are also accommodated as aspects of freedom. Similarly, Paul Roubiczek views it as “acting in complete agreement with one’s innermost nature without any compulsion foreign to it.”2 In his celebrated book, Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre sets the authentic parameter for freedom, hear him:

Those who hide their complete freedom from themselves

out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic

excuses, I shall call cowards or refer to as bad faith.3

Following the above argument, a historical itinerary on the environment of freedom becomes necessarily imperative.

2.1.1 Freedom in Pre-Historic Era

Although the word freedom may appear to have many meanings, the restriction of the term to one of them does not remove the difference that may exist in the usage. In the pre-historic period, freedom tends to have its weight of meaning from political and moral dimensions. From the political and moral writings of the Ancient Greeks and Rome, freedom is identified with the meaning of political action. As such, a Greek is free in the sense that he participates in the administration of the ‘polis’. Thus, “If there is no ‘polis’, there is no freedom and if there is no freedom, there is no action.”4  In the Ancient Greece, freedom has a specific usage as a moral and social concept. It is either as a reference to circumstance that arises in the relations of man to man or its specific conditions on social life.

It is very ‘ad rem’ to remark that among the ancient philosophers, from the pre-Socratics to Plotinus, none gave freedom the attention it deserved. As against the intellectual premium being placed on the time honored great metaphysical questions: approach to nothingness, the soul, nature, time, eternity, et cetera.

It was Hanna Ardent who cleverly pointed out that the problems of freedom have their historical origins in theology rather than in an unbroken tradition of philosophical thought. The pre-Christian era shifted the idea of freedom from the initial assumption of, ‘I will’ and localized it in the ‘I can’. Socrates identified a kind of freedom that is consequent upon knowledge. According to him, “No man will do evil voluntarily, if he does evil, it is only because of error.”5

Aristotle views freedom as something that is marked out for some individuals by nature. Thus, he opines, it is clear that by nature, some are free and others slaves.

The Stoics teach the kind of freedom that mirrors the conscious acceptance of universal necessity determined by immanent reason. For them, freedom is not changing the order of things but in accepting it.

For Plotinus however, freedom may be thought of as doing what one can do in the manner he wills it. Therefore, one is what he is, not because he has to be, but because “he is the master of himself inasmuch as it is as essence.”6

2.1.2 Freedom in Medieval Era

The Christian period introduced a new version of freedom conceived not as an inner human disposition but as a character of human existence in the world. Their concept of freedom is established against the interior slavery of sin. In opposition to Plato’s idea of a Tyrant being a slave to his interior passion as evident in the Republic. The Christian thinkers from their theocentric background introduced a new dimension of freedom with the liberating force of grace.

According to St. Augustine, to be free and to be human are one and the same thing. From a religions set up, Hannah Ardent identifies in Paul’s conversion, the first appearance of freedom. As the Stoics view freedom from the point of choice, the Christian thinkers review it from the angle of the ‘will’. To be free therefore, is to will, not without a serious effort to actualize it. For St. Augustine, true freedom cannot be divorced from the very fact of grace. The message of the medieval insights on freedom may not be very efficacious without reference to the reality of the transcendent Being. In the exact words of Augustine, “freedom is something we are born with and by virtue of this fact; we are doomed to be free.”7

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Thomas Aquinas however, rejected the idea of freedom as being proper only to a being that causes other things and is the cause of itself as well. He draws the picture of freedom as choice identified with the will, the rational appetite’. The root of freedom therefore, is the will as a subject, and reason as the cause. Freedom that is anchored on the transcendent being, not without the reality of grace, is the summary of the medieval idea of freedom.

2.1.3 Freedom in Modern Era

This period placed a greater level of emphasis on freedom in concordance with responsibility. As such, freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all. But it is noteworthy that in the 18th century philosophy, two prominent schools of thought that opposed each other distinguished themselves: ‘rationalism’ and the ‘empiricism’. A search for a more concrete and satisfactory concept of freedom was highlighted in the Cartesian tradition. The two schools of thought view freedom as the capacity of self-determination: ability to decide what to do. Man is by nature free, part of his very nature as a rational being is to be free. In a case, “to lose one’s rationality implies loosing one’s freedom.”8 The Cartesian methodic doubt de-structures the content of modern freedom, wherein the cogito becomes fundamentally a point of reference.  Baruch Spinoza openly declared himself as an antagonist of freedom, he vehemently argues:

‘Will’ cannot be called free, but only a necessary

cause, because like everything else, it demands a

cause which determines it to exist and operate in

a definite way.9

Thus, there is no free will in the mind; the mind in willing something has been determined by a certain cause a priori. Without further ado, one could figure out that Spinoza appears more or less deterministic in his approach to freedom. Similarly, Leibniz in opposition to freewill remarks in his Theodicy that each monad is free so long as it is not coerced from the outside, but develops its own life from inside.

The idea of freedom in Locke appears to differ from the positions Spinoza and Leibniz maintained. Locke sees freedom as “a power in any agent to do or forgo any particular action according to his determination.”10 Toeing the Lockean line of thought, S. I. Benn sees freedom as that intrinsic power which enables men to act or refuse to act and to do so in a way which he determines without compelling restraints from forces either external or internal. From the foregoing therefore, the parallel link between freedom and responsibility that underscore the modern era is not very difficult to point out.

2.1.4 Freedom in Contemporary Era           

At the heart of existentialism that stresses individuality, anxiety and authenticity is the proper meaning of the contemporary approach to freedom imprinted. The existentialists pilot the meaning of freedom in the contemporary era “as a structure of man’s being and a basic condition of his existence.”11 The contemporary era identifies the type of freedom that is inseparable from human existence; hence, to be free is to exist. Man does not acquire freedom they argue, because it is identical with his nature. It is upon this background that Jean Paul Sartre announced his dictum; “man is condemned to be free” the idea of man’s freedom is not negotiable. Since man is free, he cannot but make decision amidst alternatives. Even if one decides not to decide, it is in itself a decision. According to Sartre, “not to choose is to choose not to choose.”12

It is very pertinent to note some differences between the pragmatists and existentialists positions in relation to freedom. The pragmatists convey the meaning of freedom as having its weight of meaning on the ability to achieve one’s aim, or ambition. As against this prejudice, Sartre, remarks,

It is very necessary to point to common sense that the

formula, “to be free” does not connote obtaining what

one has wished, but rather, that oneself is determined

to wish (in the sense of choosing).13

Success and the material things of life are more or less not very important component of freedom from existentialists’ standpoint. Sartre rejects the view that man is a slave to his past. He further argues that if freedom reveals such obstacles to us, then its focal point is to make man virtuous in a world that is full of resistance. Undeniable though it is, Sartre defined freedom at the expense of the existence of God. But, notwithstanding, one fact is very clear; the precedence to man’s freedom makes his existence possible. Thus, freedom and responsibility are the essential ingredients of human existence


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