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Existentialism - Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)

ourselves self war freedom

Sartre developed his existentialist philosophy during the difficult years of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Paris, where he lived and spent virtually his entire life. At the center of his philosophy was an all-embracing notion of freedom and an uncompromising sense of personal responsibility. In the oppressive conditions of the Nazi occupation and during the embattled years following the war, Sartre insisted that everyone is responsible for what he or she does and for what he or she becomes or "makes of oneself," no matter what the conditions, even in war and in the face of death. Sartre later insisted that he never ceased to believe that "in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one" (New Left Review, 1971) an only slight revision of his earlier, brasher slogan, "man makes himself." To be sure, as a student of Hegel and Marx—and as one afflicted by physical frailty and the tragedies of the war—Sartre had to be well aware of the many constraints and obstacles to human freedom. But as a Cartesian, he never deviated from Descartes's classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one's "situation," Sartre tells us, but one is always free to "negate" that situation and to try to change it.

In his early work, Sartre follows Edmund Husserl's phenomenology, but he distinguishes between consciousness and the self. The self, Sartre suggests, is out there "in the world, like the self of another" (Transcendance of the Ego). It is an ongoing project in the world, and Sartre's existentialism is very much bound to the question of how we create that self and how we try to evade that responsibility. This preliminary defense of freedom and the separation of self and consciousness provide the framework for Sartre's great philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of "being-in-itself" and "being-for-itself," which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosen—our "facticity"—and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and choose—our transcendence. We may find ourselves confronting certain facts—poor health, a war, advancing age, or being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society—but it is always up to us what to make of these and how to respond to them. We may occupy a distinctive social role as a policeman or a waiter, but we are always something more; we always transcend such positions. When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in "bad faith." It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by "human nature." It is also bad faith to ignore the always restrictive facts and circumstances within which all choices must be made. We are always trying to define ourselves, but we are always an "open question," a self not yet made. Thus, Sartre tells us, we have a frustrated desire to "be God," to be both in-itself and for-itself, defined and free.

Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls "being-for-others." Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone "catches us in the act," and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear "for others." We "pin down" one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves.

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1958–1959), Sartre turned increasingly to politics and to a defense of Marxism in accordance with existentialist principles. He rejected the materialist determinism of Marxism, but he contended that political solidarity was the condition most conducive to authenticity. Not surprisingly, Sartre found the possibility of such solidarity in revolutionary engagement.

Existentialism - Simone De Beauvoir (1908–1986) [next] [back] Existentialism - Martin Heidegger (1889–1971)

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