The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)


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Stephen Clucas, Professor Mark Jackson, and Professor Peter Mandler for their advice and feedback on this article which considerably improved earlier versions of it. The project provided new angles on a range of long-term historical processes shared by the U. Skip to Main Content. Search in: This Journal Anywhere. Advanced search. Journal homepage. Enabling JavaScript in your browser will allow you to experience all the features of our site. Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. Webber argues for a new interpretation of Sartrean existentialism. Careful consideration of his existentialist writings shows this to be the unifying theme of his theories of consciousness, freedom, the self, bad faith, personal relationships, existential psychoanalysis, and the possibility of authenticity.

Developing this account affords many insights into various aspects of his philosophy, not least concerning the origins, structure, and effects of bad faith and the resulting ethic of authenticity. See All Customer Reviews.

The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre by Jonathan Webber

To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of evil is to fear. By the decision to choose hope one decides infinitely more than it seems, because it is an eternal decision. Existentialists oppose definitions of human beings as primarily rational, and, therefore, oppose positivism and rationalism. Existentialism asserts that people actually make decisions based on subjective meaning rather than pure rationality.

The rejection of reason as the source of meaning is a common theme of existentialist thought, as is the focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own radical freedom and our awareness of death. Kierkegaard advocated rationality as a means to interact with the objective world e.

Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre

Like Kierkegaard, Sartre saw problems with rationality, calling it a form of "bad faith", an attempt by the self to impose structure on a world of phenomena—"the Other"—that is fundamentally irrational and random. According to Sartre, rationality and other forms of bad faith hinder people from finding meaning in freedom. To try to suppress their feelings of anxiety and dread, people confine themselves within everyday experience, Sartre asserts, thereby relinquishing their freedom and acquiescing to being possessed in one form or another by "the Look" of "the Other" i.

An existentialist reading of the Bible would demand that the reader recognize that they are an existing subject studying the words more as a recollection of events. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing these commandments upon them, but as though they are inside them and guiding them from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life—or the learner who should put it to use?

Although nihilism and existentialism are distinct philosophies, they are often confused with one another as both are rooted in the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the apparent meaninglessness of a world in which humans are compelled to find or create meaning.

Existentialist philosophers often stress the importance of Angst as signifying the absolute lack of any objective ground for action, a move that is often reduced to a moral or an existential nihilism. A pervasive theme in the works of existentialist philosophy, however, is to persist through encounters with the absurd, as seen in Camus ' The Myth of Sisyphus "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" , [52] and it is only very rarely that existentialist philosophers dismiss morality or one's self-created meaning: Kierkegaard regained a sort of morality in the religious although he wouldn't himself agree that it was ethical; the religious suspends the ethical , and Sartre 's final words in Being and Nothingness are "All these questions, which refer us to a pure and not an accessory or impure reflection, can find their reply only on the ethical plane.

We shall devote to them a future work. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. Like Pascal , they were interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom.

Unlike Pascal, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche also considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser. Nietzsche's idealized individual invents his own values and creates the very terms they excel under. By contrast, Kierkegaard, opposed to the level of abstraction in Hegel, and not nearly as hostile actually welcoming to Christianity as Nietzsche, argues through a pseudonym that the objective certainty of religious truths specifically Christian is not only impossible, but even founded on logical paradoxes.

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Yet he continues to imply that a leap of faith is a possible means for an individual to reach a higher stage of existence that transcends and contains both an aesthetic and ethical value of life. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were also precursors to other intellectual movements, including postmodernism , and various strands of psychotherapy. However, Kierkegaard believed that individuals should live in accordance with their thinking.

The first important literary author also important to existentialism was the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Jean-Paul Sartre , in his book on existentialism Existentialism is a Humanism , quoted Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov as an example of existential crisis. Sartre attributes Ivan Karamazov's claim, "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted" [55] to Dostoyevsky himself, though this quote does not appear in the novel. Dimitri mentions his conversations with Rakitin in which the idea that "Then, if He doesn't exist, man is king of the earth, of the universe" allowing the inference contained in Sartre's attribution to remain a valid idea contested within the novel.

In the first decades of the 20th century, a number of philosophers and writers explored existentialist ideas.


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The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo , in his book The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations , emphasized the life of "flesh and bone" as opposed to that of abstract rationalism. Unamuno rejected systematic philosophy in favor of the individual's quest for faith. He retained a sense of the tragic, even absurd nature of the quest, symbolized by his enduring interest in Cervantes ' fictional character Don Quixote.

A novelist, poet and dramatist as well as philosophy professor at the University of Salamanca, Unamuno wrote a short story about a priest's crisis of faith, Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr , which has been collected in anthologies of existentialist fiction. Another Spanish thinker, Ortega y Gasset , writing in , held that human existence must always be defined as the individual person combined with the concrete circumstances of his life: " Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia " "I am myself and my circumstances".

Sartre likewise believed that human existence is not an abstract matter, but is always situated " en situation ". Although Martin Buber wrote his major philosophical works in German, and studied and taught at the Universities of Berlin and Frankfurt , he stands apart from the mainstream of German philosophy. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna in , he was also a scholar of Jewish culture and involved at various times in Zionism and Hasidism. In , he moved permanently to Jerusalem. His best-known philosophical work was the short book I and Thou , published in For Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is "man with man", a dialogue that takes place in the so-called "sphere of between" "das Zwischenmenschliche".

Two Russian thinkers, Lev Shestov and Nikolai Berdyaev , became well known as existentialist thinkers during their post-Revolutionary exiles in Paris. Shestov, born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family in Kiev, had launched an attack on rationalism and systematization in philosophy as early as in his book of aphorisms All Things Are Possible. Berdyaev, also from Kiev but with a background in the Eastern Orthodox Church, drew a radical distinction between the world of spirit and the everyday world of objects.


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  • Human freedom, for Berdyaev, is rooted in the realm of spirit, a realm independent of scientific notions of causation. To the extent the individual human being lives in the objective world, he is estranged from authentic spiritual freedom. Gabriel Marcel , long before coining the term "existentialism", introduced important existentialist themes to a French audience in his early essay "Existence and Objectivity" and in his Metaphysical Journal Harmony, for Marcel, was to be sought through "secondary reflection", a "dialogical" rather than "dialectical" approach to the world, characterized by "wonder and astonishment" and open to the "presence" of other people and of God rather than merely to "information" about them.

    For Marcel, such presence implied more than simply being there as one thing might be in the presence of another thing ; it connoted "extravagant" availability, and the willingness to put oneself at the disposal of the other. Marcel contrasted secondary reflection with abstract, scientific-technical primary reflection , which he associated with the activity of the abstract Cartesian ego.

    For Marcel, philosophy was a concrete activity undertaken by a sensing, feeling human being incarnate—embodied—in a concrete world.

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    In Germany, the psychologist and philosopher Karl Jaspers —who later described existentialism as a "phantom" created by the public [64] —called his own thought, heavily influenced by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Existenzphilosophie. For Jaspers, " Existenz -philosophy is the way of thought by means of which man seeks to become himself This way of thought does not cognize objects, but elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker".

    Jaspers, a professor at the University of Heidelberg , was acquainted with Martin Heidegger , who held a professorship at Marburg before acceding to Husserl's chair at Freiburg in They held many philosophical discussions, but later became estranged over Heidegger's support of National Socialism Nazism. They shared an admiration for Kierkegaard, [66] and in the s, Heidegger lectured extensively on Nietzsche. Nevertheless, the extent to which Heidegger should be considered an existentialist is debatable. In Being and Time he presented a method of rooting philosophical explanations in human existence Dasein to be analysed in terms of existential categories existentiale ; and this has led many commentators to treat him as an important figure in the existentialist movement.

    Following the Second World War, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement, mainly through the public prominence of two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus , who wrote best-selling novels, plays and widely read journalism as well as theoretical texts. Sartre dealt with existentialist themes in his novel Nausea and the short stories in his collection The Wall , and had published his treatise on existentialism, Being and Nothingness , in , but it was in the two years following the liberation of Paris from the German occupying forces that he and his close associates—Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others—became internationally famous as the leading figures of a movement known as existentialism.

    Beauvoir wrote that "not a week passed without the newspapers discussing us"; [70] existentialism became "the first media craze of the postwar era. By the end of , Camus' earlier fiction and plays had been reprinted, his new play Caligula had been performed and his novel The Plague published; the first two novels of Sartre's The Roads to Freedom trilogy had appeared, as had Beauvoir's novel The Blood of Others. Works by Camus and Sartre were already appearing in foreign editions.

    Sartre in Ten Minutes

    The Paris-based existentialists had become famous. Sartre had traveled to Germany in to study the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger , [72] and he included critical comments on their work in his major treatise Being and Nothingness. Heidegger read Sartre's work and was initially impressed, commenting: "Here for the first time I encountered an independent thinker who, from the foundations up, has experienced the area out of which I think. Your work shows such an immediate comprehension of my philosophy as I have never before encountered. In the s, Sartre attempted to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason.

    A major theme throughout his writings was freedom and responsibility. Camus was a friend of Sartre, until their falling-out, and wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel , Summer in Algiers , The Myth of Sisyphus , and The Stranger , the latter being "considered—to what would have been Camus's irritation—the exemplary existentialist novel. In the titular book, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate the futility of existence.

    In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.

    The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
    The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
    The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
    The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)
    The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy)

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