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L’existentialisme est un humanisme

One of the benefits of having never been interested in reading other people’s philosophy, is that I get to discover them in digestible bits and pieces over a long period of time. I have always found it impossible to learn anything without first having a curiosity about it – which why public education was always a complete waste of time for me. I can only seem to learn answers to questions when the questions are my own.

This is perhaps not unrelated to my topic here of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and his use of the phrase “Existence precedes essence” in his 1945 lecture L’existentialisme est un humanisme* (turned later into a book). The terms existence and essence can be confusing, and in some senses are interchangeable. Sartre’s use of existence and essence would actually be nearly opposite to my own sense of those words.

If you read the lecture, in which he defends existentialism from misinterpretations by Communists, who accuse the philosophy of being a bourgeois privilege that promotes ‘quietism’, and by Christians as undermining the authority of God and being generally too abstract and lacking human sentiment. Sartre’s defense is to show how existentialism is, to the contrary, an exaltation of humanism and the vital importance of taking action on behalf of your fellow man. He says

“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.”

Looking into the origins of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, I can see that in all likelihood she lifted the name for her ideology from reversing Sarte’s assertion that man is responsible for all men. In 1962, she writes that the Ethics of Objectivism are Self-interest:

3. “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

Of course, Rand had her own personal reasons for despising those meddling Marxist do-gooders. Had she been more down with the whole ‘compassion for fellow human beings’ thing, her views would seem strikingly similar to Sartre’s existentialism, especially with his assertion that “Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, he is also only what he wills himself to be”. His use of ‘existence precedes essence’ is to say that human nature is predicated on the freedom to actualize itself intentionally. Human essence is a wildcard to be used as we see fit. Thus, his existentialism is an action oriented ethos, He says “there is no doctrine more optimistic, since man’s destiny is within himself; . . . . It tells him that action is the only thing that enables man to live”

I would not disagree with that, as far as it goes. Although it is not quietism as he felt the Marxists contended, it could be appropriated (as Rand did) for the justification of selfish motives since it seems to de-emphasize the role that the circumstances of one’s birth play in limiting the effect that one’s will can have on self-actualization. I do think that the Christian criticism is more misguided, since existentialism explicitly exalts humanist values. While existentialism does run counter to Christian doctrine, I think that it is not incompatible with concepts of divinity which honor liberation. Bob Marley’s Stand Up For Your Rights expresses this:

“Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. Jah!”

Where it gets muddled for me is on the metaphysical level. When Sartre talks about essence, he is talking about purpose – human purpose. When he is talking about existence is is talking about the existence of the experience of living a human life. This is very different from talking about existence in general, of matter, of forms, etc. When I think about ex-istence in the absolute sense, I am thinking about that which is ex-terior to the subject. That which is independent from our personal thoughts and feelings. Subjectivity is, by contrast, that which literally ‘ins-ists’ and is in-terior by the subject. It could be said informally that our feelings and thoughts exist, that they ‘are’ phenomena which is part of our being, which is a phenomena in the universe, and that is true too. It could further be said that everything that exists in that way, which simply ‘is’ can only appear to be through some insistence of essential forces or energies.

I think that existence and essence in the general, non-human sense are a dialectic rather than a procession through time. They are relativistic terms. To say that one precedes the other can be locally true in either case, but it obscures the deeper truth. It invites us to mistake two levels of human experience – the innate and the intentional, for structural antagonists of the universe as a whole. What I see as more relevant is the juxtaposition between the capacity to discern aesthetic differences like essence and existence and the indifference to such distinctions. That I would say is the true essence: The sense of difference with the logic of unity (i.e. metaphor, presentation and representation). The true essence of existence is the opposite: The sense of indifference with the logic of differentiation (i.e. mechanism, mathematics).

What this does is to slide the dichotomy out from the world of anthropocentric philosophy and into the realm of scientific conjecture. We are no longer talking about only the human condition and human psychology, but talking about the common sense of all phenomena. This is the solution to the Mind Body problem…both Mind and Body are figments of subjective experience, only the body is locally misrepresented as an object (when it is actually trillions of discrete histories dating back to the beginning of the universe) and the mind is misrepresented as a subject of the body or of God (when it is actually eternity focused into a single, human gauged, perceptual inertial frame of ‘now’).

*L’existentialisme est un humanisme, Nagel, 1946, translation by Frechtman published as Existentialism (also see below), Philosophical Library, 1947, translation by Mairet published asExistentialism and Humanism, Methuen, 1948.

  1. June 3, 2013 at 8:30 am

    uncannily, your article – a-sociatively (sic) – happens as (post) precursor to a response I made very recently to another conversation somewhat unrelated … (sorry, ignore all that, I’m still trying to step down from metaphysical-reference):

    indeed; I’d go further to say that we both ‘see’ and develop our selves through the mere acts of perception and experiencing – artists do the same … almost-consciously, and, in the process, form objects. Like oysters. But moreso, in becoming aware of this – the self experiencing the world which is the ‘other’ that defines the ‘self’ in the first place – the artist has the potential to see the fabrication for what it is (a beautiful, artful fabrication) and live in that realisation like a magician … or go mad if they can’t.

    • June 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      “the artist has the potential to see the fabrication for what it is (a beautiful, artful fabrication) and live in that realisation like a magician”

      Yes, I think that’s true. Just as the artist is generally driven to that vision by having no other choice and learns gradually to spend more of their lives using it to see, it might be the case that more and more people are having to find that artistic capacity in order to live, even as non-artists.

      • June 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm

        … virtually or otherwise; no, just virtually, I’m not sure our econo-culture breeds artists anymore, it exploits them for fetish-consumption

      • June 3, 2013 at 3:33 pm

        It’s true. I was thinking more in the idealized sense of an artist being someone with an artistic temperament, or who tries to approach their life as a creative opportunity.

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