52B/52W, Week 3: L'existentialisme est un humanisme



L'existentialisme est un humanisme - Jean-Paul Sartre

I used to be very weary of the philosophical writings of the second half of 20th century, particularly that of France. Introductions to the subject given in CEGEP seemed to highlight the fact that everything concerning philosophy coming out of France was somehow or another an off-shoot of marxism. Obviously, the post-war context made marxism a very important, but was post-war France such a apologist of the soviet model? As it turns out, no. My CEGEP teacher left out a very important nuance when describing the post-war philosophical experience on the old continent, namely that the left branched out in multiple currents which in some cases where a quite radical departure from marxism in it’s bastardized form as deployed east the Federal Republic of Germany.

The one thing I really like about Sartre’s description of existentialism is exactly what I loath of classical marxism: the role of responsibility. Sartre’s idea that human existence is experienced in subjective consciousness, and that this subjectivity is a condemnation to choosing one’s own becoming gives the individual the full power over his existence. Existence precedes essence;  in other words, you are what you do. By ignoring God and the divine, Sartre also ignores the possible existence of divinely inspired human essence. Where Nietzsche invites the individual to pillage the corpse of God acquire his power to define existence, Sartre ignores that these powers even exist, and asks us to define them ourselves. If existence where a lock, Nietzsche would have stolen the keys, whereas Sartre would have impressioned them: fashioned them through the tangibility of our subjective experience. I see in this some sort of enthusiastic nihilism, which exalts man as the master of it’s own destiny, the creator of it’s essence through it’s both his individual and collective actions.

Sartre seems to see the burden of creating our essence as a good thing, as he states that through this obligation to choose the morals which define our being, man always chooses what is righteous (p.32). To me, this presents a flaw in his philosophy: if we always choose righteousness, then how can we explain wrongful behaviour? His definition of free will allows this to be true, since it implies moral relativity. I was under the impression that relativists consider moral outliers to be necessary yet unmeaningful, the extreme values of a set which cancel each other out when the sum of the set is averaged. While Sartre implies relativism, he doesn’t seem fully committed to it. The enthusiasm he demonstrates through the mention of “righteous” moral choice and not moral choice per se, and his  being a proponent of socialism (NOT marxism, as the book tells us), a project which definitely champions certain moral values, is not typical of a relativist. It’s as if he hoped that the moral outliers will be more abundant on the side of good; this is obviously incoherent with his conception of free will. This is where I think Nietzsche makes more sense: where he empowers man and gives him the freedom to do what he will, good or evil, Sartre empowers us, only to then discreetly asks us to be nice. Once man is empowered, he has no obligation to listen to anybody other than himself.

This book, because it is basically the transcription of a conference, is easy to read. Being derived of the spoken word, it doesn’t bear the tricky formulations inherent to philosophical treaties which fully exploit the acuteness of the written word with the trade-off of increased complexity. It’s relatively short too. Really, there’s no reason why this book should not be read; if not for the philosophical content which is very good sample of what modernism has to offer, it is an interesting read for the insight that it provides on the post-war philosphico-political debate.

Bottom line: read it.