Thursday 25 September 2008

Being human without the safety net

Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre

When it comes to the elusive doctrine of existentialism, I am a complete amateur. But I know a philosophical sucker punch when I see one. Sartre’s lecture of 1945, transcribed into a 60-page book now republished by Methuen, is a historical lesson in philosophical admonition. He attempts to deal with a series of accusations levelled at the existentialist movement from diverse corners of the intellectual community.

In doing so, he brings together the ideas of an equally diverse set of thinkers, from Dostoevsky to Jaspers, and we emerge at the text’s conclusion with a neat explanation of what Sartre means by ‘existentialism’. However, this book is more than just a collection of bastardised ideas. At the time of its delivery, it marked a stand against the impenetrable and highly academic school of analytic philosophy, and an attempt to apply philosophical vigour to the investigation of actual human experience. In this way, Existentialism and Humanism is a fantastic piece of popular philosophy: a route into the ideas of some of the greatest philosophers throughout history, and a manifesto for making philosophy ‘useful’ without losing any devotion to scrutiny.

Whilst the thinkers that have come to be labelled ‘existentialist’ differ wildly in their philosophical and spiritual outlook, the are united by a sense of rebellion. In the case of Kierkegaard, widely considered the founding father of the existentialists, it was a rejection of Hegel’s attempts to create a complete system of philosophy that formed the starting point of his thought. Where Hegel had spent a lifetime constructing a complex notion of reality as a totality of reason, Kierkegaard sought to focus philosophical attention of the lived experience, and to claim that human brings had an inner life that could not be characterised through any systematic philosophy. Where Hegel had worked to systemise the objective, Kierkegaard bore rigorous devotion to exploring the subjective.
The existentialist rebellion continued with the development of the Phenomenological movement, via the work of Husserl and Heidegger. It was Husserl who looked to bracket off questions of the objective, in order to devote adequate investigation to the lived experience. Although he did not reject the questions of metaphysics, his focus is rigidly held by the investigation of knowledge as human beings experience it. This avenue is followed by Heidegger, who despairs at the state of modern philosophy in its refusal to tackle, what he terms, the question of ‘being’. Heidegger was also responsible for bringing aspects of the human condition under philosophical scrutiny, that had previously been considered un academic (care, anxiety and despair are perhaps most notable). It is roughly this philosophical trend towards, what Kierkegaard termed, the ‘inner life’ of human beings that sets the stage for Sartre and his account of Existentialism as a humanist school of thought.

Sartre seeks to defend existentialism against objections levied at them by the religious and political community. Firstly, that existentialism invites people to ‘dwell in the quietism of despair’, and to accept that philosophical investigation is essentially contemplative (rather than directed to any objective questions about reality). Secondly, that the existential movement simply underlines ‘all that is ignominious in the human situation’, and thirdly that existentialists deny ‘the importance of human affairs’. Sartre then looks to characterise the Existentialist movement as performing the opposite function to that of which it stands accused: namely that it answers substantial questions about reality, that it highlights what should be considered powerful about human existence and that it establishes human action as the sole author of human nature.

Sartre begins with the existentialist mantra ‘existence before essence’. To explain what this means, he contrasts human beings to butter knives. The butter knife has been designed and produced to serve a certain purpose and to interact with the world in a certain way. This set of guidelines for the knife’s inhabitation of the world, its ‘essence’, is conceived of prior to its existence. Its essence comes before its existence. Sartre’s brand of existentialism (which he terms ‘aesthetic’) claims that in the absence of God, there must be at least one being whose existence comes before essence (presumably the one who doles out the essences in the first place). This being is man. We enter the world; we inhabit the world, and then define ourselves afterwards. Sartre claims that we are too often fooled by the idea of a ‘human nature’, to which we force ourselves to become accountable. We find it comforting to believe that we are not the sole authors of our actions, and the way we behave can be explained in terms of something wholly external and beyond our control.

It is once we do away with the safety net of ‘human nature’ that the human being is confronted by the terrifying idea that he is in fact responsible for shaping the way humans in general will behave. It is we who shape our own ‘human nature’, in everything we do. Every instance in which I decide to behave in a certain way rather than another sets a standard for the human beings who are faced with the same decision in the future. It is this feeling of constantly creating our own essence, and the responsibility that our very existence brings along with it, that leads us to make every decision in ‘anguish’. I am not going to pretend I know exactly what Sartre means by ‘anguish’ in this context, firstly because I don’t think he knows himself, and secondly because it sounds like he is borrowing from Heidegger, and that is another story all together.

While it is commonplace to question the originality of many of Sartre’s ideas, particularly in this short book, it is perhaps more interesting to acknowledge, and respect, the type of philosophising that Sartre endorses. It is clear from the outset that he views philosophy as too important to be consigned to ivory towers. He works to bring the ideas of many thinkers into line with the human experience, and into an analysis of how we find ourselves in the world.

This project is mirrored in recent additions of ‘popular philosophy’ that attempt to adapt and contextualise ancient thinking to suit the requirements of the modern day. But what marks Sartre out from the crowd of popular philosophers is his refusal to sugarcoat the pill. This is not the kind of book that has been written to ease stress or to help the reader through tough times. It is anti-therapeutic: an attempt to force human beings to acknowledge their unique position as entirely self-determining. Further than this, Existentialism and Humanism is a concise history of philosophical rebellion and, if for just that reason alone, it is a great model for the future of the popular philosophy movement.

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.