Pages 70 (English edition)
Originally published 1946
Translator Philip Mairet
|Original title L'existentialisme est un humanisme|
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Similar Jean-Paul Sartre books, Philosophy books
Existentialism and Humanism (French: L'existentialisme est un humanisme, "Existentialism is a Humanism") is a 1946 philosophical work by Jean-Paul Sartre, based on a lecture called "Existentialism is a Humanism" he gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on 29 October 1945. Existentialism and Humanism was the title used in the United Kingdom; the work was originally published in the United States as Existentialism. Once a popular starting-point in discussions of Existentialist thought, the work has been criticized by several philosophers. Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in it and regretted its publication.
Sartre asserts that the key defining concept of existentialism is that the existence of a person is prior to his or her essence. The term "existence precedes essence" subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. Put simply, this means that there is nothing to dictate that person's character, goals in life, and so on; that only the individual can define his or her essence. According to Sartre, "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards".
Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls "deterministic excuses" and claims that people must take responsibility for their behavior. Sartre defines anguish as the emotion that people feel once they realize that they are responsible not just for themselves, but for all humanity. Anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide humanity and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Anguish is also associated with Sartre's notion of despair, which he defines as optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible. Sartre claims that "In fashioning myself, I fashion Man", saying that the individual's action will affect and shape mankind. The being-for-itself uses despair to embrace freedom and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result. He also describes abandonment as the loneliness that atheists feel when they realize that there is no God to prescribe a way of life, no guidance for people on how to live; that we're abandoned in the sense of being alone in the universe and the arbiters of our own essence. Sartre closes his work by emphasizing that existentialism, as it is a philosophy of action and one's defining oneself, is optimistic and liberating.
Existentialism is a Humanism has been translated into English several times, and was once, according to philosopher Mary Warnock, "a popular starting-point in discussions of existentialist thought," while in Thomas Baldwin's words the lecture Existentialism and Humanism was based upon "seized the imagination of a generation."
Several philosophers have criticized Existentialism and Humanism. Martin Heidegger wrote in a letter to philosopher and Germanist Jean Beaufret that while Sartre's statement that "existence precedes essence" reverses the metaphysical statement that essence precedes existence, "the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement." In Heidegger's view, Sartre "stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being." Walter Kaufmann commented that while "L'existentialisme est un humanisme" "has been widely mistaken for the definitive statement of existentialism" it is "a brilliant lecture which bears the stamp of the moment." According to Kaufmann, Sartre makes factual errors, including misidentifying philosopher Karl Jaspers as a Catholic, and presents a definition of existentialism that is open to question. Thomas C. Anderson criticized Sartre for asserting without explanation that if a person seeks freedom from false, external authorities, then he or she must invariably allow this freedom for others. Iris Murdoch found one of Sartre's discussions with a Marxist interesting, but otherwise considered Existentialism and Humanism to be "a rather bad little book." Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in Existentialism and Humanism, and regretted its publication. Warnock believes he was right to dismiss the work.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek sees a parallel between Sartre's views and claims made by the character Father Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880): whereas Sartre believes that with total freedom comes total responsibility, for Father Zosima "each of us must make us responsible for all men's sins".