Sartre’s lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism seeks to accomplish two aims: first, it tries to offer an accessible (although incomplete) introduction to his existentialist philosophy, and secondly, it tries to address some of the wide-ranging and often vicious criticism he received from other philosophers, as well as from the French public and media.
Sartre opens by briefly outlining some of the principal criticisms his doctrine has received, from the denigration of “existentialists” by laypeople who have not tried to understand his philosophy, to the Communist complaints that existentialism refuses to take action and focuses too closely on the individual at the expense of others, to the Christian accusations that existentialism is pessimistic and destroys all standards for moral judgment. Rather, Sartre says, existentialism is an optimistic, action-oriented philosophy that centers moral responsibility and people’s interconnections with others.
Sartre then defines “existentialism” for his audience: its core is the idea that “existence precedes essence.” Unlike a manufactured object, like a paper knife, that is designed before it is created, he argues, humans come into the world before they have definite values, purposes or characters. Whereas the paper knife’s essence precedes its existence, a human’s existence precedes its essence. The consequence of this fact is subjectivity, or one’s freedom to define oneself through action; since there is no preexisting human nature, goal for human life, or divine mandate to act in particular ways, “man is nothing other than what he makes of himself.” A person is a human project, just the sum of their actions, but they can also imagine what they will and should become in the future. In other words, human life is a project (in the noun sense) and people project (in the verb sense) an image of themselves in order to define their essence. This universal human predicament, which Sartre calls the human condition, contrasts with the notion of an essential human nature that earlier atheists espoused to preserve the moral codes of religion while dispensing with God as a figurehead. Because the human condition is universal, the way any individual addresses it through their actions expresses a set of values about what is “good” for humanity as a whole; each person becomes “responsible for all men,” the creator and exemplar of a unique moral code for humankind.
After finishing the basic sketch of his core existentialist arguments, Sartre turns to three central and often-misunderstood concepts in existentialism: anguish, abandonment and despair. The freedom to define one’s values is also at the same time the obligation to define oneself in some way, and anguish is the painful realization of moral responsibility that accompanies choice. Whereas Christians see existentialism as painful and pessimistic because of its relationship to anguish, Sartre argues that anguish is actually a consistent feature of all decision-making; rather, he says, people have a tendency to make themselves believe that they are not in control of their own actions so that they can avoid feeling responsible for what they have chosen to do. This evasion of moral responsibility is called bad faith.
Abandonment is the fact that, as Sartre puts it, people are “condemned to be free.” Because for Sartre belief in God is no longer viable in modernity, people are left without a predetermined moral compass and forced to answer for their choices. He gives examples of a student and a Jesuit he met in a prison camp to demonstrate that even people’s “passions” and the “signs” that people see in the world, when they influence actions, do not alleviate responsibility for those actions. Despair (in French, literally non-hope) means that people should think about circumstances rationally, based on the available information, instead of having faith that their actions will be rewarded or that forces they cannot see will resolve circumstances in their favor.
Sartre returns to the criticisms others have leveled against existentialism, now addressing them explicitly. He first responds to the notion that existentialism confines people to their individual subjectivity. He argues that recognizing one’s subjectivity is always already recognizing the existence of others with parallel subjectivities who are also confronting the human condition. Then, he responds to the accusation that existentialism makes values meaningless. He compares the human project to a work of art: while there is no predetermined measure for a good or bad artwork or life (and, if there were, artists and subjects would not truly be free), an artwork can still clearly be valuable because it expresses its own value structure and offers a distinct perspective on the world. Similarly, the existentialist subject can express values even though they are the one who determines those values.
Next, Sartre responds to the Christian accusation that existentialists cannot morally judge others. He argues that that judgment should properly consist not in judging another by one’s own moral code but rather by recognizing the inconsistencies in another’s moral paradigm: in other words, recognizing bad faith. Usually, this bad faith consists of a person’s insistence that they have no choice but to follow a moral code that they have indeed chosen. This constitutes a denial of the freedom that, for Sartre, is the foundation of all values. He gives examples of two literary characters who, despite their opposite attitudes toward sex, he takes as morally equivalent because they both choose their paths for the sake of their freedom; these contrast with instances where people would make the same choices because they feel that they have no power to deny the passions or social expectations that encourage those choices. The final objection is that existentialist values “need not be taken very seriously” because they are up to individuals. Sartre responds that subjective value is, in fact, all the value that there is; in fact, people’s professions, hobbies and political causes, among other things, are deeply valuable to them precisely because they choose them of their own free will.
To conclude his lecture, Sartre explains the sense in which, contrary to popular belief, existentialism is a humanism. He differentiates his humanism from that of thinkers like sociologist Auguste Comte, who believe that every person has intrinsic value by virtue of their humanity. Sartre finds this illogical and wonders what the source of this value could possibly be when, in fact, “man is constantly in the making”—people are not born inherently valuable, but rather constantly create the value in their own lives. Rather, Sartre argues, his existentialism is humanist in the sense that it refuses to appeal to God to make sense of the human condition and grounds the moral aims and truths of human life in humans themselves.