Social Science

Jean-Paul Sartre

Written: Lecture given in 1946

Source: Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian

Publishing Company, 1989;

First Published: World Publishing Company in 1956;

Translator: Philip Mairet;

Copyright: reproduced under the “Fair Use” provisions;

HTML Markup: by Andy Blunden 1998; proofed and corrected February 2005.

Retrieved from

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm5/30/17

My purpose here is to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that

have been laid against it.

First, it has been reproached as an invitation to people to dwell in quietism of despair.

For if every way to a solution is barred, one would have to regard any action in this

world as entirely ineffective, and one would arrive finally at a contemplative

philosophy. Moreover, since contemplation is a luxury, this would be only another

bourgeois philosophy. This is, especially, the reproach made by the Communists.

From another quarter we are reproached for having underlined all that is ignominious

in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or base to the neglect of

certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong to the brighter side of

human nature: for example, according to the Catholic critic, Mlle. Mercier, we forget

how an infant smiles. Both from this side and from the other we are also reproached

for leaving out of account the solidarity of mankind and considering man in isolation.

And this, say the Communists, is because we base our doctrine upon pure subjectivity

– upon the Cartesian “I think”: which is the moment in which solitary man attains to

himself; a position from which it is impossible to regain solidarity with other men who

exist outside of the self. The ego cannot reach them through the cogito.

From the Christian side, we are reproached as people who deny the reality and

seriousness of human affairs. For since we ignore the commandments of God and all

values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary. Everyone

can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning

either the point of view or the action of anyone else.

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It is to these various reproaches that I shall endeavour to reply today; that is why I

have entitled this brief exposition “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Many may be

surprised at the mention of humanism in this connection, but we shall try to see in

what sense we understand it. In any case, we can begin by saying that existentialism,

in our sense of the word, is a doctrine that does render human life possible; a

doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an

environment and a human subjectivity. The essential charge laid against us is, of

course, that of over-emphasis upon the evil side of human life. I have lately been told

of a lady who, whenever she lets slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness,

excuses herself by exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.” So it appears

that ugliness is being identified with existentialism. That is why some people say we

are “naturalistic,” and if we are, it is strange to see how much we scandalise and

horrify them, for no one seems to be much frightened or humiliated nowadays by what

is properly called naturalism. Those who can quite well keep down a novel by Zola

such as La Terre are sickened as soon as they read an existentialist novel. Those who

appeal to the wisdom of the people – which is a sad wisdom – find ours sadder still.

And yet, what could be more disillusioned than such sayings as “Charity begins at

home” or “Promote a rogue and he’ll sue you for damage, knock him down and he’ll do

you homage”? We all know how many common sayings can be quoted to this effect,

and they all mean much the same – that you must not oppose the powers that be; that

you must not fight against superior force; must not meddle in matters that are above

your station. Or that any action not in accordance with some tradition is mere

romanticism; or that any undertaking which has not the support of proven experience

is foredoomed to frustration; and that since experience has shown men to be

invariably inclined to evil, there must be firm rules to restrain them, otherwise we

shall have anarchy. It is, however, the people who are forever mouthing these dismal

proverbs and, whenever they are told of some more or less repulsive action, say “How

like human nature!” – it is these very people, always harping upon realism, who

complain that existentialism is too gloomy a view of things. Indeed their excessive

protests make me suspect that what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism,

but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine

that I am about to try to explain to you is – is it not? – that it confronts man with a

possibility of choice. To verify this, let us review the whole question upon the strictly

philosophic level. What, then, is this that we call existentialism?

Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to

explain its meaning. For since it has become fashionable, people cheerfully declare

that this musician or that painter is “existentialist.” A columnist in Clartes signs

himself “The Existentialist,” and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so

many things that it no longer means anything at all. It would appear that, for the lack

of any novel doctrine such as that of surrealism, all those who are eager to join in the

latest scandal or movement now seize upon this philosophy in which, however, they

can find nothing to their purpose. For in truth this is of all teachings the least

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scandalous and the most austere: it is intended strictly for technicians and

philosophers. All the same, it can easily be defined.

The question is only complicated because there are two kinds of existentialists. There

are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel

Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other the existential atheists, amongst

whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself. What

they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes

before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective. What exactly

do we mean by that?

If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-knife –

one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has

paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent

technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a

formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain

manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot

suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let

us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence – that is to say the sum of the formulae

and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible – precedes its

existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined

before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and

we can say that production precedes existence.

When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a

supernal artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it be a doctrine

like that of Descartes, or of Leibnitz himself, we always imply that the will follows,

more or less, from the understanding or at least accompanies it, so that when God

creates he knows precisely what he is creating. Thus, the conception of man in the

mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God

makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan

manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each

individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine

understanding. In the philosophic atheism of the eighteenth century, the notion of

God is suppressed, but not, for all that, the idea that essence is prior to existence;

something of that idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in Voltaire and even in

Kant. Man possesses a human nature; that “human nature,” which is the conception

of human being, is found in every man; which means that each man is a particular

example of a universal conception, the conception of Man. In Kant, this universality

goes so far that the wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the

bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental

qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we

confront in experience.

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Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater

consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence

comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any

conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do

we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all

exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If

man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is

nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of

himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a

conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be,

but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills

to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes

of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its

“subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say

by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to

say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels

itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which

possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a

cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of

intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not,

however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or

willing is a conscious decision taken – much more often than not – after we have made

ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in

such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and

more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence,

man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts

every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his

existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible

for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but

that he is responsible for all men. The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two

senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the

one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot

pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of

existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of

us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he

chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create

himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an

image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at

the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to

choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for

us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to

exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the

entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than

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we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I

may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that

membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best

becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself

alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in

consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal

case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds

simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not

only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus

responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I

would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

This may enable us to understand what is meant by such terms – perhaps a little

grandiloquent – as anguish, abandonment and despair. As you will soon see, it is very

simple. First, what do we mean by anguish? – The existentialist frankly states that

man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to

anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at

the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a

man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are

many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely

disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in

what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask

them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply,

“Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would

happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing

thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying

“Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying

implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals

itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called “the anguish of Abraham.” You know

the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; and obedience was

obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, “Thou, Abraham, shalt

sacrifice thy son.” But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was

indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs? A

certain mad woman who suffered from hallucinations said that people were

telephoning to her, and giving her orders. The doctor asked, “But who is it that speaks

to you?” She replied: “He says it is God.” And what, indeed, could prove to her that it

was God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I hear

voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my

own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can prove that they are

really addressed to me?

Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my own choice, my

conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof whatever; there will be

no sign to convince me of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is still I myself who must decide

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whether the voice is or is not that of an angel. If I regard a certain course of action as

good, it is only I who choose to say that it is good and not bad. There is nothing to

show that I am Abraham: nevertheless I also am obliged at every instant to perform

actions which are examples. Everything happens to every man as though the whole

human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct

accordingly. So every man ought to say, “Am I really a man who has the right to act in

such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do.” If a man does not say

that, he is dissembling his anguish. Clearly, the anguish with which we are concerned

here is not one that could lead to quietism or inaction. It is anguish pure and simple,

of the kind well known to all those who have borne responsibilities. When, for

instance, a military leader takes upon himself the responsibility for an attack and

sends a number of men to their death, he chooses to do it and at bottom he alone

chooses. No doubt under a higher command, but its orders, which are more general,

require interpretation by him and upon that interpretation depends the life of ten,

fourteen or twenty men. In making the decision, he cannot but feel a certain anguish.

All leaders know that anguish. It does not prevent their acting, on the contrary it is the

very condition of their action, for the action presupposes that there is a plurality of

possibilities, and in choosing one of these, they realize that it has value only because it

is chosen. Now it is anguish of that kind which existentialism describes, and

moreover, as we shall see, makes explicit through direct responsibility towards other

men who are concerned. Far from being a screen which could separate us from action,

it is a condition of action itself.

And when we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean

to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of

his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of

secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. Towards

1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they

said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without

it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential

that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence

ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not

to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work

on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same,

inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. In other words

– and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing

will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty,

progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date

hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. The existentialist, on the contrary,

finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him

all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any

good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is

nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since

we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God

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