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Currents: existentialism

Kristen Tran '13, a business administration major, has contributed an essay called “Existentialism,” which she wrote for Philosophy 100 with Associate Professor of Humanities Craig Greenman. For this assignment, students were able to choose their own topic based on class readings and had to defend their position on the topic.


By Kristen Tran '13

What is existentialism? Some would argue that existentialism is “encouraging people to remain in a state of quietism and despair” (Sartre, 17). Others argue that existentialism exposes “all that is sordid, suspicious or base, while ignoring beauty and the brighter side of human nature” (Sartre, 17). Christians and other religious groups have also reproached existentialism. A philosopher by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre defended existentialism during his lecture at “Club Now” in October of 1945. This lecture was translated into a book entitled Existentialism Is a Humanism. Based upon the arguments presented by Sartre, I do not believe that existentialism encourages people to be in negative states or ignores the brighter side of human nature. Many people may criticize existentialism because humans have difficulty accepting that we determine who we are despite our limitations. Generally speaking, humans do not like to take the blame for anything that happens. We always seem to come up with excuses for why we act in certain ways. I think that existentialism represents a realistic view of life. There is a basic principle to existentialism. This principle states that even with all of the limitations that humans are presented with, we are forced to make choices and we are responsible for ourselves as well as everybody else.

Sartre explains that the basic principle of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. Existence precedes essence only for human beings. “A man is nothing but a series of enterprises, and that he is the sum, organization and aggregate of the relations that constitute such enterprises” (Sartre, 38). Essentially, human beings are nothing other than what they make of themselves. For example, I cannot claim that I am brave because I want to be. I need to choose to be brave and prove that I am through my actions and choices. Only then I can say that I am a brave person. Existence precedes essence also means that every human being is solely responsible for their actions because we choose who we are. Humans are born as “nothing” and then become who they are through their choices and actions. Sartre noted that there is no basis for making these choices; we just have to make them. Humans do not have a set purpose because we spend our lives creating who we want to be. We create who we are through our choices and actions. Humans are nothing more or less than what they make themselves to be.

People who criticize existentialism may claim that we cannot choose who we are because there are certain aspects of life that every human is born with and cannot control. For example, we cannot control the fact that humans are going to eat, sleep, breathe and die. We also have no control over our culture, class, age or family history. Sartre classifies these limitations as the human condition. Although this human condition exists for everybody, we cannot say that it prevents us from making choices. We are forced to make decisions every day that we are alive. “What never varies is the necessity for him to be in the world, to work in it, to live out his life among others” (Sartre, 42). Sartre believes that these limitations do not fully determine who we are. Humans get to choose how to react to these limitations. Some may claim that they “do not choose” how to react to these limitations; they just deal with it. However, by not choosing to react to these limitations, the person is still making a choice. The human condition exists for everyone who is alive. Humans are incapable of changing things such as their: heritage, family history, age or height. Despite the fact that we cannot change all limitations, we can certainly react to them. “What is impossible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must realize that if I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice” (Sartre, 44). For example, I was born a female. I had no control over being born as a female. I can either accept and live my life as a female or get a sex change. Either way, I am making a choice on how to react to my limitations. The human condition may be a set of limitations that humans have no control over. Even so, humans are constantly making a choice to react to these limitations or choosing to not react.

Humans are forced to always make choices. By making choices, each individual becomes responsible for everyone else. “In creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be” (Sartre, 24). By choosing ourselves, we are creating an image of what human beings should be. Thus, each person becomes responsible for all other human beings. As a result, every human being has influence over everybody else. In addition, every single person is a leader. For example, if I skip class because I do not feel like going to class, I am creating an image. I have an image that other people should not go to class when they do not feel like it. If other people begin to skip class because they do not feel like going, I must claim responsibility for the effect. Nobody is solely responsible for just themselves. We create images of how other people should act based upon our own decisions.

Sartre states that humans are always free. Freedom allows humans to make choices. Freedom is also the basic value for people to judge others. As humans, we use freedom to construct ourselves. Sartre would say that people who claim that they are not free are acting in bad faith. “Bad faith is obviously a lie because it is a dissimulation of a man's full freedom of commitment” (Sartre, 48). For example, I would be acting in bad faith if I claimed that I could not help but to steal food from a store because I am not free and I do not have any control over my actions. Bad faith has nothing to do with religion. Somebody is acting in bad faith when they deny that they are free to make their own choices. Without freedom, humans would not be able to make choices that construct who we are.

The basic principle that existence precedes essence is only applicable to humans. For objects, essence precedes existence. While humans are born as nothing and decide who they want to become through their actions, objects already have a purpose before being created. For example, “we cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper knife without knowing what purpose it would serve” (Sartre, 21). Objects will always have a definite purpose. Objects would not be created without having a purpose prior to the creation. As a result, essence precedes existence for any object.

How is one able to measure the strength of a feeling? Some may say that people cannot measure the strength of a feeling because feelings cannot be seen, only felt. However, Sartre would refute this argument by stating that we prove our feelings through our actions. “I may say that I love a friend well enough to sacrifice a certain sum of money for his sake, but I can claim that only if I have done so” (Sartre, 32). Everybody has faced a situation where somebody has claimed to feel something but has not acted upon it. I cannot claim that I love somebody if I am not proving that I do through my actions. Words are only words without actions to back them up.

The basic principle of existentialism is that existence precedes essence for human beings. Essence precedes existence for objects. Objects always have a definite purpose and this purpose is known prior to the creation of the object. On the other hand, humans are not born with a definite purpose. We create who we want to be through our actions. Our actions also create an image of how we expect other people to behave. Humans are nothing more or less than the sum of their actions. “He is not like that as the result of his physiological makeup; he is like that because he had made himself a coward through his actions” (Sartre, 38). Despite the set of limitations that are referred to as the human condition, humans are forced to make choices on a daily basis. People can choose to react or not react to these limitations. Either way, choices are being made. Choosing not to do something is still making a choice. In addition to constantly having to make choices, humans are free. Freedom allows humans to construct themselves. Freedom is the basic value for everything. Bad faith is a term used when people claim that they are not free. Many people have criticized existentialism and will probably continue to in the future. People may criticize existentialism because nobody likes to take responsibility for their actions. It is much easier to place the blame on things in life we cannot control than to accept responsibility. It is hard to deny that existentialism makes logical sense. We cannot deny that our actions shape who we are and that we are responsible for our actions. Thus, I believe that existentialism makes logical sense and displays a realistic view of life.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Ed. John Kulka. Trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2007. Print.