Sartre opens his lecture by declaring his goal: “to defend existentialism against some charges that have been brought against it.” He names four charges: two from Communists and two from Christians. The Communist accusations are that, first, existentialism is an action-averse, merely contemplative philosophy, and secondly, that it remains caught in the “pure subjectivity” of Descartes—in other words, that existentialism’s focus on the meaning of the individual self leads it to ignore the interconnections among people and their projects. The Chrstians’ accusations are, first, the suggestion that existentialism focuses disproportionately on the negative aspects of life and, secondly, that its individualism would destroy any means by which people could condemn others’ actions.
From the start, Sartre confronts his public image head-on, focusing on the misunderstandings that lead his critics to dismiss existentialism outright. His framing of the objections also foreshadows some of the central arguments he later makes for existentialism: that it is the only intellectually honest framework for human action because it forces people to take responsibility for their moral actions and judgments, that it is therefore an optimistic rather than pessimistic philosophy, and that it recognizes the intersubjectivity of the human world—the fact that each person’s understanding of their existence depends on the existence and contributions of other people. .
Sartre briefly elaborates on the lecture’s title by acknowledging that his audience might be surprised that Sartre sees existentialism as a kind of humanism. This is largely because the public mistakenly views existentialism as pessimistic. He suggests that, in fact, existentialism’s critics are the true pessimists: the public fears Sartre’s aversion to traditional concepts of morality only because they are so afraid of the evil they see that they resign themselves to the repressive status quo and refuse the “possibility of individual choice” that existentialism offers.
Sartre believes that his critics willfully misunderstand his theory in order to avoid confronting the existentialist conclusion that they are morally responsible for their actions and beliefs. He later defines this kind of avoidance as bad faith: blaming external factors for one’s moral errors in order to pretend that one did not freely choose to make them.
Sartre then tries to more explicitly define “existentialism.” He suggests that the public uses the term as a fashionable insult rather than actually understanding what it means and he reminds the audience that existentialism is “strictly intended for specialists and philosophers.” Sartre distinguishes Christian existentialists from atheist existentialists like himself, but he declares that their commonality is the concept that “existence precedes essence.” What he means is that human existence is the opposite of the existence of a manufactured product, such as a paper knife, whose essence precedes its existence because its manufacturer creates it to fulfill a particular purpose.
Sartre is suggesting that the source of his notoriety might be the inadequate explanation of his specialist theories to the public, rather than the content of that philosophy itself. “Existence precedes essence” is the foundational proposition of Sartre’s philosophy, but it was also important for earlier existentialists like Kierkegaard and Heidegger, although they did not express it in the same words. He introduces the paper knife to draw a distinction between things that have a definite purpose – and therefore are not free – and humans, who are free because they define their own purposes in living.
Sartre likens the knife’s manufacturer to the traditional idea of God as creator: under this view, humans are the material forms of God’s ideas. Sartre suggests that early atheist philosophers, despite dispensing with the idea of God, nevertheless maintained the traditional view that essence precedes existence by trying to explain people through a primordial “human nature” that defines people’s essence in advance. These atheists’ views contrast with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, which maintains that for humans existence precedes essence. In other words, one finds oneself in the world before one becomes anything—people have the power to define themselves through acts of their own will, rather than their essence being determined by some nebulous “human nature.” He calls this power to define the self ‘subjectivity.’
Sartre’s concept of subjectivity builds directly from his notion that existence precedes essence and it allows him to carefully differentiate his views from other forms of atheism. He introduces the traditional Christian idea of God to contrast existentialism, which sees humans as lacking an inherent purpose and therefore free to determine their own purpose. In his view, the Christian notion that humans are designed for a particular destiny is restrictive. For Sartre, Christianity and atheistic notions of fixed “human nature” deprive people of their characteristic freedom.
Sartre turns to the concept of subjectivity and argues that a human subject is a “project”—both in the sense of a continuous undertaking, and in the sense that a person projects into their own future, imagining what they will become and forming an idea of themselves. This makes everyone responsible for their own person, but also “responsible for all men” because people express values through their actions. When someone chooses to do something, they are affirming that they believe what they choose to be good—otherwise, they would not have chosen it. But, since the human “good” should be the same for everyone, whenever anyone chooses something “good” for themselves, they reflect a view of what is “good” for humanity as a whole. Sartre argues that existentialism’s “fundamental meaning” lies in the fact that people cannot overcome this condition of subjectivity. Sartre says that he will next clarify three concepts: anguish, abandonment, and despair.
The basic outline of Sartre’s argument is now complete: existence precedes essence, so human life should be viewed as a project of creating purpose. Furthermore, every person is just a sum of their actions, and therefore those actions determine that person’s moral character. Each human project is a response to the shared human condition and so every action expresses a set of values common to all people. Although he does not say so explicitly (in part to avoid biasing or confusing the nonspecialists in his audience), Sartre’s explanation is already deeply indebted to earlier philosophers. For example, Heidegger famously championed the notion that people “project” into their futures by imagining their future selves.
Sartre turns to anguish, which describes a person’s pain at realizing that they are morally responsible for their actions because those actions project an ideal for humanity as a whole: the individual becomes a moral “legislator” for humankind. Sartre says that people can either confront or choose to ignore their anguish. Confronting anguish means asking “what if everyone acted that way?” and realizing one’s responsibility to answer morally for one’s actions. Anyone who fails to interrogate their decisions is therefore acting in “bad faith.”
Now that Sartre has explained the basic tenets of existentialism to his audience, he turns to an in-depth explanation of some of his most misunderstood conclusions. Anguish, abandonment and despair, for Sartre, are simply facts about the universe, and existentialism’s purpose is to help people confront these facts rather than conceal them through bad faith. The public’s notion that existentialism causes anguish, despair and moral abandonment reveals their own bad faith; for Sartre, people must recognize the fundamental facts of anguish, abandonment and despair, rather than running from them, in order to actually live freely and morally. Sartre also continues to engage his philosophical predecessors. Here, for instance, he borrows Kant’s notion that each person acts as a “legislator” when they act because their actions express underlying principles about good and bad.
Sartre says that anguish does not prevent action but is rather a “condition of action.” He gives the example of a general who feels anguish at his responsibility for sending his troops into battle and cites the Biblical story of Abraham, who is said to have sacrificed his son at God’s request. Sartre imagines that, in Abraham’s position, he could not know he was speaking to an angel rather than the devil or a hallucination; he uses this to demonstrate how, in the absence of a dedicated belief in God, “it is always I who must decide whether or not this is the voice of an angel.”
Sartre’s argument that anguish has nothing to do with inaction is meant to respond to the Communist objection that existentialism prevents people from taking moral action because existentialists believe there are no definite values in the world. In fact, Sartre argues, believing in predetermined values is lying to oneself about the true source of values: our actions. The version of the Abraham story Sartre is referencing comes from Kierkegaard, who in his book Fear and Trembling imagined how Abraham could take the “leap of faith” required to sacrifice Isaac. Sartre reveals his suspicion of such faith when he argues that he could not have known whether it was truly the “voice of an angel” and not a hallucination.
Sartre moves on to abandonment, by which he means simply the fact “that God does not exist, and that we must bear the full consequences of that assertion.” Whereas earlier French secularists believed that society still needed a moral code to hold together without organized religion, Sartre says that existentialists must confront the horror of the moral void humans enter after losing faith in God, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, the fact that “if God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Without a fixed human nature to blame for mistakes, nor a God to say what is right, people are “condemned to be free.” Sartre argues that we are responsible for all our choices, even those that seem to be the results of “passion” or supernatural “signs.”
The notion that God has “abandoned” people—that in the modern world it is no longer viable for people to believe in an all-powerful, benevolent God—is deeply indebted to the Enlightenment, during which philosophers tried to reground morality in humans rather than in received doctrine. However, Sartre is also critical of the Enlightenment’s search for a “human nature” to replace the fixed values provided by religion; this criticism is closely indebted to the work of Nietzsche.
To illustrate his point about “passion,” Sartre tells the story of a student who was forced during World War II to choose between staying with his mother in France and leaving to fight for the liberation of his country. Sartre argues that this moral dilemma cannot be resolved through received doctrine—either choice would violate an apparent moral obligation, and the choice of which doctrine to follow or how to measure his feelings for his mother would itself be a moral choice. Sartre says that the only way the student could prove he loves his mother enough that he ought to stay with her would be to actually prove his love by choosing to stay; at the end of the day, principles reflect rather than determine actions. For Sartre, there is no right answer to moral dilemmas of this sort; he tells the student to “invent” his own solution.
Attributing mistakes to “passion” is, for Sartre, one prominent way people display bad faith: they say there is some uncontrollable force within them that caused them to act, rather than taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences thereof. The example of the student demonstrates that, although moral codes often seem like consistent guides to action, they fail to provide guidance in many real-world situations where people have no choice but to violate a moral rule. In a sense, the student is “abandoned” by morality. In making a difficult choice, he first tries to find a doctrine that will tell him which to choose, then tries to measure his passions in order to determine which he loves more, but he ultimately realizes that there is no preexisting formula for his moral choice; rather, he must “invent” a moral code through his own choice. This fact of free choice allows people to build their individual moral compasses but it also makes them wholly responsible for the outcomes of their actions.
To illustrate his point about “signs,” Sartre tells the story of a man he met when he was detained in a German prison camp. The man was given a scholarship to a religious school but found little success in any of his subsequent endeavors and decided that his failures in the secular world must have been a sign from God telling him to join the Jesuit order. Sartre suggests that there are myriad ways to interpret this sign—the man could have decided “to be a carpenter or a revolutionary.” The man, Sartre says, is fully responsible for his own interpretation of the sign.
This example is designed to refute the (generally Christian) notion that the world contains messages about people’s destinies, aptitudes, and nature. Sartre shows that the selection and interpretation of such “signs” are still subject to people’s free choice, and his accusation of bad faith toward his critics is always in the background. Here, he is suggesting that it is their fault for misinterpreting him. In saying that the Jesuit could have chosen carpentry or revolution, Sartre slyly criticizes his Christian and Communist critics’ deep faith in Jesus and proletarian revolution, respectively.
Sartre explains “despair” as the fact that people, upon looking realistically at the probabilistic conditions surrounding their ability to act, “should act without hope” that things will somehow work out in their favor. He then addresses the Communist objection that this means that existentialism cannot accommodate solidarity, since, to be effective in their actions, people have to rely on others. Sartre argues that he would rely on people he knows reasonably well and trusts to support his goals, but merely that he “cannot count on men whom I do not know based on faith in the goodness of humanity or in man’s interest in society’s welfare.” In our estimations of circumstances that affect our ability to act, Sartre says, “I must confine myself to what I can see.” He argues that his is not a quietist doctrine that resigns oneself to inaction while letting others do all the work, but rather precisely the opposite: one that believes “reality exists only in action.”
Again, Sartre argues that one of the attitudes the public associates with existentialism—despair at the world’s inherent meaninglessness—is not a result of his philosophy, but rather a condition it seeks to address. He argues here for a close attention to circumstances and a practical attitude toward action, rather than an idealistic faith that things will work out if one has the right goal in mind. Sartre is also seeking to demonstrate the connection between his philosophy and his early political activities, including his participation in resistance groups during the German occupation and his decision to found a journal of “engaged letters” the same month he gave this lecture.
Sartre sums up his core belief that “reality alone counts” and recapitulates his contention that existentialism’s critics are actually attacking its optimism rather than its pessimism. This is because existentialism blames people for their own moral shortcomings rather than explaining them by recourse to environment or temperament. He suggests that his critics are horrified because they do not want to admit that, for instance, “the coward, as we present him, is guilty of his cowardice.” He reinforces that existentialism is “a morality of action and commitment” and turns to the next objection: the notion that existentialists “imprison” people in their subjectivity.
For Sartre, existentialism is a deeply optimistic doctrine: it argues that people are capable of moral improvement because they freely choose their actions and are responsible for their choices. This contrasts with opposing doctrines that lay the blame for wrong actions on forces outside peoples control, thereby suggesting that people are powerless to overcome their weaknesses and moral failings.
Sartre agrees that existentialism starts with individual subjectivity and specifies that its foundational truth is Descartes’s famous I think, therefore I am. He proceeds to argue that existentialism alone recognizes people’s dignity, whereas deterministic and materialistic theories that see people’s behavior as predictable and predetermined turn them into objects incapable of action. Sartre argues that starting with individual subjectivity does not mean sacrificing a consideration of others, because to speak “I think” is to address an audience and therefore acknowledge the existence of the other. Declaring one’s own existence means entering intersubjectivity, a state in which one recognizes that one’s existence is only confirmed by the presence of others.
Sartre argues that his interpretation of “I think, therefore I am” actually disagrees with how Descartes and Kant understand the foundational truth of subjectivity. For them, one can only discover oneself in this way, but for Sartre, discovering oneself is also discovering others. His notion of intersubjectivity is deeply indebted to earlier thinkers, most of all Hegel and Heidegger, who argue in various ways that the individual human is a fundamental product of interpersonal life because people require the recognition of others to realize that they themselves are moral actors. The fact that an individual is always already intertwined with collective life is part of the reason that every individual action expresses a moral code for humanity as a whole and it also gives Sartre’s later work its political urgency.
Although Sartre does not believe in a universal human nature, he argues that there is a universal human condition. This condition consists for every person of the “necessity for him to be in the world, to work in it, to live out his life in it among others, and, eventually, to die in it.” Every human project is a response to these universal conditions and, therefore, everyone can potentially be understood by every other human being.
Sartre’s differentiation between human nature (a fixed human essence by which people are defined, whether they like it or not) and the human condition (a common set of circumstances in which people find themselves, but to which they respond in various ways) is designed to demonstrate that, for existentialists, there is still something universal about human life—and therefore that people can still be held morally accountable to others. This also clarifies the difference between Sartre’s atheist existentialism and earlier atheists, who believed that some things are inherently right and wrong even if God does not exist.
Sartre turns to the three remaining criticisms of existentialism, which also center on its subjectivism. The next objection is that existentialism makes all values meaningless and would therefore let people choose to do whatever they like. Sartre replies that, even though one must choose what to do, doing nothing is still a choice—people are forced to make a choice. He compares moral choice to art: while there is no “correct” artwork to make, the artwork an artist makes still expresses their moral values and therefore is not meaningless or gratuitous.
Although Sartre has already made all the necessary arguments to refute his critics’ worries about his philosophy, he explicitly returns to their remaining objections one-by-one. He compares human life to art in order to emphasize that both are governed by complete freedom—they have no predetermined meaning, but they nevertheless both create meaning.
The next criticism is that, under existentialism, people would not have a way to judge others. Sartre responds that the existentialist subject can, indeed, judge others by recognizing that their choices are based in false judgments or bad faith. Bad faith is not a moral “wrong” but rather an error—acting in bad faith means lying to oneself about the fact that one freely chooses one’s values. Bad faith is the error of blindly believing that one is necessarily bound to moral values that one has, in fact, freely chosen. Once people realize the fact of abandonment, Sartre suggests, there is only one path: recognizing “freedom as the foundation of all values.” Because freedom is a self-explanatory fact that is essential to the universal human condition, people can validly pass judgment on those acting in bad faith. In fact, because everyone’s freedom is interdependent with everyone else’s, acting in a way that denies others’ freedom also constitutes bad faith.
Because Sartre denies the existence of predetermined moral good and evil, he cannot say that bad faith is an evil—rather, it is the logical error of freely choosing to believe that one is not free. Therefore, to some extent, Sartre agrees with the objection; existentialists have no right to judge people who have thoughtfully and conscientiously pursued their own personal moralities. For Sartre, judging others should not be about whether they fulfill specific moral principles, but rather whether their mode of action respects the absolute freedom of morality in the first place.
Sartre takes up two literary examples: a character from George Eliot, Maggie, who chooses to leave the man she loves because he is already engaged; and a character from Stendahl, La Sanseverina, who will sacrifice anything to pursue her passionate relationships. Sartre says these are “equivalent” moralities because both characters act for the sake of freedom. He contrasts these characters with versions that act out of bad faith: a woman who gives up the man she loves (like Maggie) but only because she believes she cannot have him and then a woman who pursues a passionate relationship (like La Sanseverina) but merely to satisfy her sex drive. Sartre concludes that the objection that existentialism disallows judgment of others is “both true and false. One can choose anything, so long as it involves free commitment.”
Even though Eliot and Stendahl’s characters appear to have opposite moral feelings about sex and relationships, for Sartre they are morally equivalent because they both act for the sake of freedom. While they choose the same ends as the characters Sartre invents, Sartre’s modified examples do not choose freedom—rather, they choose their paths because they feel powerless. This demonstrates that the central concern of Sartre’s existentialism is whether one acts authentically, with respect for one’s freedom, rather than what exactly one chooses.
Sartre takes up the final objection: that, since people choose their own values, those values “need not be taken very seriously.” Sartre responds that, because there are no preexisting values in the world, actions in fact determine all the value there is; he says that “life is nothing until it is lived.” People’s lives matter only insofar as their actions give their lives value.
Ultimately, Sartre closes his responses to his objectors by emphasizing that, if there is no God, subjective value is the realest value there is: life is full of the meanings people create through their choices. In fact, this means that people’s active investment in their relationships, accomplishments, and goals is precisely what makes their lives meaningful.
Sartre finally turns to the lecture’s title by addressing existentialism’s relationship to humanism. He says there are two things “humanism” can mean. The first is taking humans as inherently valuable. Sartre finds it illogical that all can be inherently valuable because of the accomplishments of a few, and he also suggests that it would take a standpoint outside humanity—that of “a dog or a horse”—to pass judgment on humanity overall. He declares any attempt to do so cultish and absurd because “man is constantly in the making”—there is no defined “humankind” with fixed abilities, accomplishments, or purposes.
Sartre is careful to distance himself from the dominant humanism of his day, that espoused by sociologist Auguste Comte. Again, the difference is between human nature and the human condition—Comte’s sort of humanism worships human nature but denies people the freedom to live outside a narrow picture of human accomplishment.
The second meaning of “humanism” is Sartre’s universal human condition, in which people act in the pursuit of goals and values outside themselves in order to make something meaningful out of their existence in relation to the world. This is “humanism” in the sense that “the only universe that exists is […] the universe of human subjectivity.”
Sartre answers the title question of his lecture: existentialism is a humanism grounded in the shared human condition—humanist not because it worships humans, but because it is designed for humans and recognizes that everyone is constantly trying to become the people they imagine they should be.
Sartre concludes by portraying existentialism as “an attempt to draw all of the conclusions inferred by a consistently atheistic point of view.” Sartre’s thought is not atheistic because it seeks to disprove God’s existence, but rather because it refuses to think that believing in God would change anything or rescue anyone from the human condition. He closes by reasserting that “existentialism is optimistic” and his critics act in bad faith, “confusing their own despair with ours.”
Sartre distinguishes his atheism—in which God’s existence is irrelevant—from forms of atheism that focus on disproving particular religious beliefs. By the end, Sartre has inverted the conventional religious critique of atheism: for him, atheism is not the denial of religious truths about morality (that God demands this or that, for instance); rather, religion is the denial of atheist truths about morality (that we are in control of and responsible for our own moral decisions).