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Philosophy

Existentialism Is a Humanism: Some Thoughts

I’ve always found Sartre a better writer (novelist, playwright, and so on) than a philosopher. Certainly, Being and Nothingness is an impressive work – an intelligent, thorough, analytic tome inquiring into the roots and nature of human subjectivity. And yet this text, at least, is a mixed bag for me. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to return to this text for the first time in God knows how many years and to read it afresh. But I did, and I wanted to collect some thoughts I had reading through it. I came away with quite a mixed impression. Let’s start with some of the negatives. At times, it’s almost sloppy: For example, with one hand he rejects Kant’s moral framework for its abstract and universal nature. It cannot, as Sartre says, provide us with any reliable answers in concrete moral situations because moral situations are always unique in their specificity. Granted.

Then, with the other hand, he smuggles back in Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative as the underlying axiom of free human acts. “When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.” (p. 48) For Sartre, one should always ask oneself, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” (p. 25) Kant returns to take vengeance upon Sartre! Sartre also vascillates wildly on the question of whether and how we might evaluate or form a judgement about how an individual seeks to act; is it a moral judgement, an aesthetic criticism, a logical indictment? The second one is perhaps the most interesting, but I’ll say a bit more about that below.

That said, there are many moments of brilliance. There is no doubting his skill as a writer, and his discussions of the constitutive conditions of anguish and abandonment are powerful and precise. He is at his best when he draws equally on Heidegger and Nietzsche; and yet at the decisive moment he always recoils from both. Pushed to the stage where it seems as if he is about to contruct a radical existentialism around human freedom and a Nietzschian ‘aesthetic’ life (there is much to be said about what such a project might look like), he pulls back and rejects such a project as a slight against Existentialism.

I think more broadly, my concern with Existentialism – at least in the form presented here by Sartre – is the radical freedom he attributes to the human subject. Sartre writes that when an existentialist describes a coward, “he says that the coward is responsible for his own cowardice. He is not the way he is because he has a cowardly heart, lung, or brain. He is not like that as a result of his physiological makeup; he is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions.” (p. 38) Powerful stuff, and I certainly grant Sartre that he decisively defeats the objection that Existentialism is pessimistic and powerfully demonstrates its quite radical optimism towards the subject.

Yet he seems to nevertheless overstate the case. We needn’t posit a ‘hard determinism’ on the basis of physical causality, genetic determinism etc. in order to ask difficult questions about whether man is really so free. We might, as Foucault does, inquire into the social and historical conditions which give rise to determinate social configurations and subjectivities – why do we believe x rather than y? What historical forces gave rise to contemporary images of thought? How does discourse and power inform and produce subjects under determinate conditions? Heidegger (whose work of course exercised a profound influence over Sartre) attends to these questions in detail – man is not just thrust into existence, he is always-already thrown into an existing historical situation, plunged into a web of social relations which existed and developed before his birth and will continue long after he dies. Part of our becoming-human is learning to navigate these forces. For Heidegger, we cannot choose just anything; if I am born in Paris in 1789, I cannot choose to become a Feudal lord or an astronaut. I have choice, yes, but it is always historically and socially conditioned. For Deleuze, the possibilities for how an infant brain might develop through its lifetime are not infinite, but neither are they pre-determined; they exist in a virtual field of difference, always carried forward into the future in an endless and complex process of becoming.

I’ve also never entirely accepted that Heidegger’s Being and Time is truly the anti-humanistic work that Heidegger later labelled it. In Heidegger’s discussions of anxiety, of care, embodied existence, thrown-ness, Being-towards-death, Dasein’s temporality, and so on, I think it is impossible not to discern elements of a humanistic philosophy, at least insofar as it is an attempt to provide account of the nature of Being through the lens of Dasein. Maybe this is one reason why Heidegger never finished writing the book – examining it in this way was bound to lead to such results. Sartre instead seems to reproduce the Subject-Object distinction (inevitably given his starting-point is the Cartesian subject) in almost violent terms; so radically does he resist the world of objects that he has to radically free the subject from all causal forces.

Something of the complexity of the varied forces which simultaneously structure, enable, and limit our freedom gets lost in Sartre’s thought. A fascinating debate between Sartre and Pierre Naville is documented as an appendix in the book and it is a fascinating read. Naville seems to really pin down Sartre for the way in which his account of subjectivity and radical freedom seems to return to a kind of bourgeois pre-modern liberal idealism. And yet… And yet. If Existentialism continues to exert such a profound influence over not just academic but the public imagination, it is because it touches on matters which deeply concern all of us. As Heidegger said, we are defined by care; we necessarily take an interest in how things are with Being. If you like, we are all plagued by huge, profoundly important questions: What kind of being am I? Am I free? Is there a God? I am, but how should I be? Moreover, in the absence of a God, we should ask Deleuze’s question: not ‘How should I live?’ but ‘How might one live?’ What rich and diverse possibilities exist to be experienced?

Contemporary analytic philosophy not only cannot answer such questions; it not only has no interest in answering them; it broadly says that such questions are meaningless. At best, they are questions which arise out of linguistic confusion: meaning, after all, is a predicate of a proposition; a life is not a proposition in the formal sense; so to ask after a ‘meaning’ of life is a mistaken endeavour right from the start. And where it does take the question to at least be a meaningful and valid question, all of the humanity and complexity of life inevitably gets lost in the pursuit of analytic rigour. Questions of meaning and purpose are reduced to answers to concrete questions: the conditions for a meaningful life are either subjective, objective, or a hybrid of the two. As always, all the life of philosophy is drained away in such an endeavour.

Existentialism is right to bring such questions to the fore, and in many ways it truly does capture in a stark light what is so tragic and beautiful about ‘the human conditon’. A wonderful writer and a profound thinker, Sartre is still worth reading and taking seriously, even though I think he was often mistaken. But, where he was mistaken, it was at least for the right reasons. Ultimately it mostly makes me want to plunge back into his plays and novels, and to return again to Being and Time.

Existentialism is a Humanism (2007: Yale University Press)