In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the  history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 15, which looks at existentialism, and primarily the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. This extract is from the section that explores Sartre’s concept of freedom and his relationship to Marxism.

‘Existence comes before essence’. So claimed Sartre in his celebrated 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. It is a phrase that gets to the heart (one might even say the essence) of his understanding of human nature and of human freedom. Humans do not possess a given nature, an unchanging essence, from which their capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather humans create themselves and their nature by acting upon the world.

This, for Sartre, was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from a Godless world. ‘When we think of God as the creator’, Sartre observed, ‘we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan’. God ‘makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife’. But what if there is no God? Then there can be no God-created human nature. More, there can be no human nature at all. The only coherent way in which we can speak of a distinctive human nature is as a preconceived creative plan for human beings, just like the only way we can speak of a paper-knife is as a consciously manufactured artefact. Only God, in other words, could have created human nature. If we do not believe in God, we cannot believe in human nature. For Sartre the death of God provided also the last rites for human nature.

The idea that without God, there can be no human nature might seem a strange view, especially for an atheist, in the post-Darwinian world. The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had transformed the debate on human nature by suggesting a mechanism by which to create without a Creator, to design without a designer. ‘Origin of man now solved’, Darwin had written in his notebook in 1838. ‘He who understands baboon will do more for metaphysics than Locke.’

Yet, in the decades that followed the The Origin of Species, and despite the publication in 1872 of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and the Animals, in which Darwin attempted to demonstrate the common evolved roots of human emotions,  Darwinism came to be seen as a mechanism though which to understand not a common human essence but the plurality of essences that were said to constitute the human species. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, the idea of race, and of innate, evolved group differences, dominated discussions of human nature.  With the exception of one or two isolated figures, it was not till the 1970s, a century after the publication of The Expression of the Emotions, that serious consideration began to be given to the concept of an evolved common human nature. Sartre, in his discussion of existentialism and humanism, was engaging with the ghosts, not of Darwin, but of Aristotle and Descartes. He was challenging not so much the idea of a biologically defined human nature as of a determinist view of history.

The key distinction for Sartre was that between people and things, between subjects and objects, between what he called, borrowing from Hegel, pour-soi (being-for-itself) and en-soi (being-in-itself).  Things have a definable essence, exist to perform a function, follow natural laws, and are determined by prior causal conditions. Persons have no definable essence, but define and redefine themselves constantly, and are radically free.

For Aristotle, an object could only be understood in relation to its purpose or function. This was as true for a human being as it was for a rock, a tree, a statue or a book. Humans had a particular function for which they had been designed: the exercise of reason. For humans to flourish they had to act virtuously in accordance with reason. Sartre dismissed this whole vision of human function and human flourishing.  There was no God to define what should be the human function. Humans were unique in the cosmos in that they themselves had to play God. Humans, and only humans, could define for themselves their function, their role in life. ‘Man’ as Sartre put it ‘is nothing else but what he makes of himself’.

Sartre’s vision is, in one sense, quite Cartesian, an image of a world divided between people and things, between a mechanistic nature and self-conscious humans, who could not be understood in terms of mechanistic nature. This affinity was, perhaps, inevitable; Sartre had, like virtually all modern French philosophers, supped from the earliest days on the milk of the Discours.  In another sense, however, Sartre was proposing a profoundly anti-Cartesian view.  For Descartes, the ego was the one unquestionable truth in the universe, the starting point for all philosophy. The only thing of which I can be sure is that I exist. The ego existed before consciousness, and was responsible for consciousness. For Sartre, to the contrary, consciousness helped create the ego. This might seem, at first hand, a strange way of looking on the issue. Sartre is suggesting that I don’t create my thoughts; my thoughts create me. This, however, is the way that many contemporary philosophers and neuroscientists understand the notion of the self. The self is not a thing, or an object, that makes us conscious of the world. Rather, the disparate strands of our consciousness unifies into the self. For Sartre, as for a contemporary philosopher like Daniel Dennett (who is, of course, no existentialist), the ego is that which is created when the various different strands of consciousness become unified. As a result of the unity, ‘I’ come to be.

Unlike many contemporary philosophers, however, Sartre does not conclude from this that the ‘I’ is a fiction or that ‘free will’ is a meaningless concept.  Rather the opposite.  The fact that the ego is contingent upon consciousness suggests to Sartre that humans are radically free and that this radical freedom, not any pre-given essence, defines what it is to be human. Radical freedom arises out of the very nature of the human condition. ‘There is no difference’, as Sartre puts it, ‘between the being of man and his being free.’

For Sartre, the question ‘How shall I live?’ cannot be answered by appealing to a fixed human nature or essence, to a pre-exiting ego that helps define our thoughts, beliefs and values.  Neither God, nor human nature, neither science, nor theology, nor yet philosophy, can set out the answers to the fundamental questions of existence. Only I can determine how I should live; I alone am responsible for the decisions that I make.  ‘Man’, Sartre concluded ‘is condemned to be free’. Why condemned? Because ‘he did not create himself, yet nevertheless is at liberty, and from the moment he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does.’

* * * * *

Imagine, Kierkegaard wrote in his pseudonymously published The Concept of Anxiety, a man standing at the edge of a cliff. When he glances over the edge, he is overcome with dread, not just because he is filled with fear at the thought of falling, but also because he is seized by a terrifying impulse deliberately to leap. ‘He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy’, Kierkegaard gnomically observed. That dizziness ‘is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss.’ For if ‘he had not looked down’, he would not have felt that dread. What grips that man, Kierkegaard suggests, is dread of the possibilities open to him; what he experiences ‘is the dizziness of freedom’.

Sartre, too, sees what he calls ‘anguish’ as the condition of human freedom. Since nothing can determine our choice of life for us, neither can anything explain or justify what we are. There is no inherent meaning in the universe. Only we can create meaning. Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and fellow existentialist, called this sense of groundlessness the ‘absurdity’ of life. There is, Camus observes in The Myth of Sisyphus, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’ Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. The only way to find meaning, the only way to bridge the chasm between the cold, silent world and the human need for moral warmth, is to create our own meaning, our own values. Sartre similarly sees the world as absurd in the sense that there is no meaning to be found beyond the meaning that humans create. The price of making meaning is anguish.

The recognition that humans have to bear responsibility for our lives and the values we create is the source of anguish.  A wholly authentic or truly human life, Sartre suggests, is only possible for those who recognize the inescapability of freedom and its responsibility and are happy to live with anguish. But humankind, Sartre agrees with TS Eliot, mostly ‘cannot bear too much reality’. They fear, they dread, they feel enchained by, the responsibility of freedom.

Humans try to avoid the anguish that comes with looking over the cliff edge by hiding the truth from themselves, by pretending that there is no cliff, that something or someone has erased that edge. There are, Sartre suggests, many ways in which people do this. The most important, and the idea for which Sartre is probably most celebrated, is that of ‘bad faith’. People often try to evade the terrifying realities of the human condition by ordering their lives according to some preordained social role, in essence by turning themselves into objects, in an effort to deny the burden of subjectivity.

Sartre’s most famous illustration of bad faith is of a waiter who exaggerates his every movement, who embroiders all his conversations, so as to appear more ‘waiteresque’.  He is just too eager to please, too ostentatious in his deportment, too Uriah Heepish in the way he demeans his own status. Everything about him suggests that he thinks of himself as entirely circumscribed by his role as a waiter. And yet his exaggerated behaviour reveals not just that he is play-acting, but also that is aware that he is play-acting, aware that he is more than merely a waiter. But he self-consciously denies that something more, turning himself into an object in the world, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter.  This conscious self-deception Sartre calls ‘bad faith’.

The existential conception of the good life is, then, an authentic life, a life lived in good faith, a life defined by the pursuit of consciously self-chosen values and purposes for which the chooser takes full responsibility. This seems to suggest the good life is distinguished not by what is chosen, but by the manner in which it is chosen. The fact that a choice is made in good faith, openly, honestly and in full knowledge of the consequences, seems to matter more than that it is a good choice.

But can this be true? Can it really be the case that a heroin dealer and a  neurosurgeon can both be said to live the good life if both chose to be what they are freely, honestly and in good faith? Suppose the heroin dealer chose to act as he did, while the neurosurgeon took up his scalpel for the ‘wrong’ reasons. Should we really say that the heroin dealer is the better person? Or take Nazi Germany. Some people joined the Nazi party because they truly believed in exterminating Jews and in creating the 1000-year Reich. Others did so because they wanted an easy life, to gain promotion, or to gain access to goods and services that might otherwise be denied them. Were those who joined the Nazis because they truly believed in its evil aims really more moral than the time-servers?

Few existentialists would, of course, agree with such a proposition, least of all Sartre. His life of political activism was testament to the importance he placed upon the content of values expressed, not just the manner in which it was expressed. It was testament, too, to the importance he placed upon struggle. In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus retells the ancient Greek tale as a metaphor for the making of meaning. Having scorned the gods, Sisyphus is condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll all the way down again, forcing the eponymous hero to begin his labours once more, and to continue to do so for eternity. Meaning, Camus insisted, can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus.

For Sartre, too, struggle was central to his vision of how to infuse the world with meaning. But there was more to struggle, for Sartre, than simply acting upon the world. Struggle was to act not simply for the sake of it but for a reason; Sartre increasingly came to see meaning as created not simply through activity without end, as with Sisyphus, but rather through social engagement and social transformation. The early Sartre saw freedom and agency as ends in themselves. The later Sartre saw the importance of freedom, and of the responsibility it placed upon humans, as inextricably linked to the project of social transformation. ‘Man’, as he put it, ‘defines himself by his project’. It was this idea that led Sartre to Marxism. Some former friends, such as Raymond Aaron, found Sartre’s dalliance with Marx inexplicable. Partly he was repulsed by the kind of social change demanded by communism and by the actually existing socialism of the Soviet Union. Partly also Aaron found it impossible to imagine how the idea of individual subjective freedom, that was at the heart of existential philosophy, could be reconciled with a materialist view of history.  For Sartre, it was precisely his desire to understand individual freedom against the background of historical change that drew him to Marxism. It was for him  a recognition that existentialism could not simply be a philosophy of the individual or the subjective, and that freedom was collective as well as individual.

As so often, Sartre best expressed these ideas through an illustration rather than an argument. There are, he observed, two kinds of crowds. One is like the queue that forms every morning at a bus stop on the Place Saint-Germain in Paris, the other like the revolutionary mob that had stormed the Bastille. The bus queue is an expression of seriality, of a ‘plurality of isolations’. The queue is a crowd in the sense that individuals who share the same objective – to get on the bus – come together in the same physical space. But every individual in that queue tends to see every other as a potential competitor for a limited resource – a seat on the bus. Each is an obstacle to the aims of the others.  The crowd that stormed the Bastille also comprised individuals in the same physical space. But every individual, rather than competing with every other to achieve the same objective, necessarily had to assist each other.  The bus queue is devoid of any wider meaning. Its unity, Sartre writes ‘is not symbolic’ because ‘it has nothing to symbolize; it is what unites everything’. The queue is united by nothing more every individual’s subjective desires. The storming of the Bastille is resonant with wider symbolism. The mob only formed because of wider aims, aims that were social and historical rather than individual and personal. It is a ‘fused group’, not a ‘seriality’.

Freedom, Sartre came to believe, derived not simply from individual choices but from the way that individuals cooperated to achieve their ends. The individuals in a bus queue passively accept the given conditions and hence limit their freedom and their capacity for choice. In storming the Bastille, the crowd was acting as a battering ram upon history, choosing consciously to transform their conditions, and hence transforming the possibilities of freedom. Sartre rejected the idea, held by many, perhaps most, Marxists, that history had a preordained end that it was possible to know, and to which the unfolding of history inevitably led. There was, for Sartre, no inevitability about history, no predetermined course or conclusion. History was the collective expression of human choice and action. How history developed depended upon the choices people made and the actions in which they engaged. In storming the Bastille, the crowd was attempting to shape the course of history, to bend it to its will. Hence its historical, and existential, importance.

‘Men make their own history’, Marx had written, ‘but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Sartre borrowed this idea and transformed it into a framework for moral thought. His starting point was the recognition that questions of morality could never be brushed aside. Political theories, political practices, that attempted to exclude moral claims found at their heart an emptiness. So central is choice to every sphere of life, political and personal, that it cannot be evaded. Every time we act upon the world, we make a choice, and in so doing we take a moral stance.

But, Sartre argued, if morality can never be evaded, nor can it ever be understood in its own terms. People act not upon a world that they have created but a world, and a history, institutions and traditions, that already exist. ‘The tradition of all dead generations’, Marx had observed, ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ This did not mean, for Sartre, that human acts are predetermined, that humans are prisoners of their history or their culture or their biology. It meant simply that choices are made not upon a blank slate but upon one on which others had busily written. We are not merely the products of our circumstances but can make choices within those given circumstances. Indeed, we have to.

Sartre called the background against which we made choices ‘facticity’. The aim of social transformation is to transform facticity, and hence the possibilities of the choices we are able to make. Social transformation, the conscious remaking of society, the collective attempt to shape history, was for Sartre the means of bridging individual subjective choice and the objective given environment.

* * * *

Sartre was drawn to Marx not simply by his political beliefs but also because of the need to address a blindness at the heart of existentialism. In insisting on the importance of choice, freedom and responsibility, existentialists had foregrounded a crucial aspect of human lives, without which morality would become meaningless. But in turning every moral choice into a ‘leap of faith’, in unstitching choice from the rest of the architecture of our lives, existentialists had also transformed an important insight about the significance of human agency into an implausible demand detached from the reality of the human condition. Sartre turned to Marx to find a means of bringing existentialism back to earth, of relating individual freedom to the collective structures of society. He scaffolded existentialist ideas of freedom with a materialist understanding of history and infused the concept of agency into Marxist theories of social transformation, challenging determinist notions of historical change. But all this only raised new questions, about both Sartre’s existentialism and about his Marxism.

The later Sartre seems almost to reverse the argument about human freedom proposed by the earlier Sartre. ‘It would be quite wrong to interpret me’, he wrote in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, ‘as meaning that man is free in all situations as the Stoics claimed. I mean the exact opposite: all men are slaves insofar as their lives unfold in the practico-inert field’. The ‘practico-inert field’ is a very Sartrean term to describe the kind of human group that acts more like the bus queue than like the crowd storming the Bastille. It is, in Sartre’s view, characteristic of capitalist society.  In describing humans as ‘slaves’, Sartre does not mean that they possess no capacity to act freely. It is nevertheless a claim difficult to reconcile with the idea of radical freedom, of humans as beings who can make and remake themselves almost at will. Nor is it easy to reconcile with the existential belief that ‘Man is condemned to be free’ because ‘from the moment he is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does’, that ‘There is no difference between the being of man and his being free.’ For the later Sartre there clearly is a difference between the being of man and his being free, since true freedom is only possible under certain social conditions, that is, under certain conditions of being.

Sartre was confronted, too, by many of the same questions as Marx had been, though with even greater force since the reality of revolutionary transformation had become so much clearer. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, the challenge to capitalism had not freed people from ‘slavery’ but had created societies less free, less moral, and less conducive to self-realization. The tyranny of the Soviet empire, and of the other communist states, did not of itself discredit either Marxism, or Sartre’s fusion of Marx and Kierkegaard. But it did pose difficult questions for a moral theory that freedom required the overthrow of capitalism. At the same time, not only did alternatives to capitalism appear less attractive, they also appeared less achievable. By the time Sartre died in 1980, there was already growing disenchantment with the very possibility of social transformation. Within a decade, the collapse of Berlin Wall signaled not just end of the Soviet Empire but the fading of the dream of an alternative to the market system.

For Sartre, as for Marx, social transformation was the link between the subjective and the objective, between individual moral choice and the objective needs of society. Through mass movements, individual desires became transformed into historical possibilities. As such movements disintegrated in the last decades of the twentieth century, as the very possibility of such transformation seemed to ebb away, so the question was posed: if freedom is defined through struggle and through conscious social transformation, what does freedom mean in those conditions in which such struggle and such transformation no longer appear plausible?


  1. Justiniano de Managua

    Here again is your “inveterate 84 year old believer-friend” who found very tasty the hors d’oeuvres of your new book and especially: SARTRE AND THE ANGUISH OF FREEDOM.

    You write: “Struggle was to act not simply for the sake of it but for a reason; Sartre increasingly came to see meaning as created not simply through activity without end, as with Sisyphus, but rather through social engagement and social transformation. The early Sartre saw freedom and agency as ends in themselves. The later Sartre saw the importance of freedom, and of the responsibility it placed upon humans, as inextricably linked to the project of social transformation. ‘Man’, as he put it, ‘defines himself by his project’. IT WAS THIS IDEA THAT LED SARTRE TO MARXISM.”

    What a pity that Sartre probably came to knew only “the Jesus of Faith” and therefore missed being “LED TO THAT POOR SLOB, THE HISTORICAL JESUS OF NAZARETH”, who as Sartre would say, WAS A MAN WHO COMPLETELY DEFINED HIMSELF BY HIS PROJECT:

    Mark:1:14,15 “After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the “Good News” from God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe in this Good News.’”

    Matthew 6:9.10 “You should pray like this: ‘OUR FATHER in heaven, may your name be held holy, YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IN HEAVEN’ “.

    John 19: 30 Jesus (dying hung on the cross) said, ‘IT IS FULFILLED’; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.

    HIS PROJECT is sketched out in the 4 Gospels. Easily summarized in a few little tidbits such as “The Beatitudes”; “Forgive your enemies”; “Love one another just as I have loved you;” “What you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me;” etc., etc. What more could be asked for when: “Sartre increasingly came to see meaning as created not simply through activity without end, as with Sisyphus, but rather through social engagement and social transformation.

    Again, as so often, the final word is: “But WHO is going to bell the cat?”

    Justiniano de Managua el 25 de marzo 2012

  2. I very much enjoyed this piece – thank you. You are spot-on when you say:

    “People often try to evade the terrifying realities of the human condition by ordering their lives according to some preordained social role, in essence by turning themselves into objects, in an effort to deny the burden of subjectivity.”

    Is that not exactly what current neuroscientists are doing by undermining free-will in turning the self-conscious subjective person into nothing more than the moving mechanisms of an objective nervous system? Seems like we still have a long way to go to get this right.

    I hope that in your book you take time to talk about Camus. As you know, he was very critical of Sartre seeking illusionary meaning through history – his ‘deification’ of history (e.g. when will this utopian paradise be realized? – always in some illusive future); Camus also had his own ideas on morality that would be important to consider (e.g. as discussed in ‘Neither Victims nor Executioners’).

  3. Brad, the neurobiological basis of human consciousness, which includes the illusion of free will, is a ‘facticity’. You don’t get to dismiss neuroscientific determinism as something that turns “the self-conscious subjective person into nothing more than the moving mechanisms of an objective nervous system” without denying this facticity.

    Your statement also assumes that to have one’s consciousness be neurobiologically determined is to lose one’s subjectivity. Not so. The feeling that ‘I’ am this specific person thinking and acting isn’t mutually exclusive with the fact that all that thinking and acting stems from deterministic neurochemical actions in my brain.

    Existentialism is undermined by the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, as I argue in this blog post. I realise that on this matter you are opposed to what Raymond Tallis scoffed as “neuromania”. But I stand with Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and other ‘brain-is-mind’ materialists.

    • I do not deny the ‘facticity’ of human existence or how it would unquestionably shape our nervous system and both conscious and unconscious behavior (including our decisions and choices). However, I am not convinced that this is enough to explain every aspect of consciousness (and every kind of choice). I therefore feel justified in dismissing a deterministic neuroscience that appears to deal with the problem of conscious subjectivity by calling it an ‘illusion’ or something without real agency or causal substance.

      I have read your blog post and will have to agree to disagree with you. If you are interested, you can read my own post on why the mind does not reduce to the brain and my position on the supposed illusion of free will.

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