In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre has two central motives: responding to his critics, and explaining his philosophy for a broader audience that has begun using the term “existentialism” without understanding what it really means. Sartre is stuck in the difficult position of answering critics from two opposite sides. On the first side are Christians who think existentialism has no hope for humanity, makes values too relative, and remains too focused on the material world at the expense of the spiritual one. On the other hand are Communists who think his philosophy is too focused on individual subjectivity to make political solidarity possible and too contemplative to support concrete action. In both cases, Sartre responds by inverting the critics’ accusations and suggesting that the critics’ doctrines are, in fact, the ones deserving of their own critiques.
Sartre’s Christian critics argued, first, that his philosophy was too pessimistic and, secondly, that it precluded moral condemnation of evil. Each accusation is, more broadly, an argument that existentialism is incompatible with Christian doctrine because of Christianity’s emphasis on redemption in the afterlife, as well as the public expression of moral judgments in the present life. The accusation of pessimism fits closely with the public perception that existentialism lacks hope and contrasts with a Christian doctrine that sees everyday beauty as evidence of a divine will. Sartre’s responds that existentialism is actually a realistic optimism, which contrasts with Christianity’s bad faith. He sees Christianity as denying the reality of despair and moral responsibility in human life, choosing instead to imagine a fantasy universe where everything always turns out right in the afterlife and everyone ends up where they belong because of God’s providence. Conversely, existentialists believe people have control over their own moral character and, therefore, are capable of change. To Sartre, this is more optimistic because it means people aren’t stuck in the morality they currently have; someone evil can learn to improve themselves and someone good can get even better.
But the Christian critics also say that Sartre can never call anyone evil because, on the existentialist view of morality, “everyone can do whatever he pleases and is incapable, from his own small vantage point, of finding fault with the points of view or actions of others.” When he addresses this criticism, Sartre says it is true in two ways, yet false in the crucial way. First, it is true insofar that an existentialist life lived with authenticity—in which a person “chooses his commitment and his project in a totally sincere and lucid way”—prevents that person from deciding that another person is morally superior. And it is true insofar as existentialists reject the notion of moral progress, believing the human condition to be constant and people’s moral character tested in similar ways throughout the ages. However, Sartre says that the criticism is ultimately false because existentialists can judge people who act in bad faith. This is not moral criticism in the sense Christians seek (people cannot judge others for violating divine Commandments, which Sartre believes do not exist), but it is criticism of another’s moral beliefs. When someone acts in bad faith by choosing to believe that they are forced to take some course of action that they actually choose of their own free will, they are acting in a morally inconsistent way and therefore can be judged for negating their own freedom.
The Communist criticisms say, first, that existentialism prevents anyone from acting and, secondly, that it prevents people from working together. Each criticism suggests that existentialism is inadequate to politics because it is shortsightedly focused on the individual. Sartre argues that existentialism is actually all about action—indeed, he thinks that “reality exists only in action” and the purpose of confronting anguish through existentialism is to learn to act in more informed and conscientious ways. While it is true that existentialist subjects (like anyone else) can choose to do nothing, Sartre argues that it is, in fact, harder for them to do so in good faith because choosing nothing is still a choice for which one must be held morally accountable. The second criticism is that existentialism prevents individuals from working in solidarity with others, which is necessary for the Communist class struggle to be successful. Sartre argues, however, that such communal commitments can and absolutely should form part of an existentialist life (as they do in his own), as long as the person limits themselves to a realistic appraisal of the conditions in which they are acting. Sartre argues that believing in political movements is just like “counting on the fact that the train will arrive on time”—he would act with people he trusted in service of causes he cared about, but he suggests that it is illogical to believe one’s party will prevail due to “faith in the goodness of humanity.” Sartre believes in politics, in other words, but not blind political allegiance.
Not only does Sartre refute his Communist and Christian critics, but he also makes it clear that one can be a Communist or a Christian (or maybe even both) and also an existentialist. Although he is a staunch atheist himself, Sartre is clear that, first, there are Christian varieties of existentialism and, second, one need not disprove God in order to be an atheist existentialist. He discusses the Christian existentialisms of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, who argued that the only real solution to the meaninglessness of a life without God was to accept that one must believe in God even if it is irrational. For Sartre, human freedom and responsibility are facts of the world that determine the meanings of our lives, even if some higher power also exists. And there is little question that existentialism is compatible with Communism, especially because Sartre would identify publicly as a Marxist soon after delivering this lecture and then spend most of the 1950s trying to develop a Marxist theory of class struggle that still made space for individual moral responsibility. In fact, he critiqued certain forms of Marxism for arguing that, if people are just the products of material and historical conditions, they behave deterministically. Sartre believed his own doctrine was the only way to accurately understand history without reducing its participants to cogs in a machine.
In addition to responding to explicit arguments his critics have offered against existentialism, Sartre’s other goal in Existentialism Is a Humanism is to dispel his audience’s misconceptions about his philosophy. Sartre attributes much of the broad condemnation of existentialism to the fact that it has now begun to circulate beyond the community of specialists who understand it, and he laments the fact that “those who thrive on the latest scandal or fad” have latched onto the term as a form of social currency. Sartre cites an anecdote about a woman who exclaims “I think I’m becoming an existentialist” whenever she says something vulgar, which suggests that the general public views existentialists as nihilistic, angry pessimists who believe in nothing and accordingly refuse to act—an image that endures to the present day. But Sartre argues that this public image couldn’t contrast more with the true existentialism, which is a pragmatic, reflective, and creative doctrine focused on embracing human freedom. However, he chose to defend his philosophy in this lecture at the Club Maintenant not only to set the record straight, but also because it was an opportunity to develop his audience’s awareness of the human moral predicament.
Throughout his lecture, Sartre hints at why he thinks so many readers speak against existentialism without understanding it; by the end, he explicitly states that they are acting in bad faith. For instance, he argues that Christians have failed to distinguish between, on the one hand, the existentialist concepts of anguish, abandonment, and despair and, on the other, the concepts these words represent in Christianity. He sees this as intellectual laziness, which is bad faith because it looks for the easiest possible way to avoid existentialism’s conclusions. Similarly, he argues that people who improperly adopt the label “existentialist” are exhibiting bad faith by willfully misrepresenting (and encouraging others to misinterpret) the term, rather than actually studying existentialism and investigating the human condition it seeks to illuminate. Because existentialism encourages people to critically reflect on their own circumstances, lives, and values, it may not be surprising that enormous movements like Christianity and Communism, which require a certain amount of ideological consensus to function, might be wary of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre concludes that the main criticisms against existentialism have been leveled not out of a sincere engagement with its ideas, but rather through a self-interested desire to escape the implications of those ideas. Of course, by choosing to address his critics in a public lecture, Sartre inverts their strategy just like he inverts their criticisms: by forcing them to confront the facts about the human condition and, hopefully, turning them into existentialists too.
Existentialism and Its Critics ThemeTracker
Existentialism and Its Critics Quotes in Existentialism Is a Humanism
Many will be surprised by what l have to say here about humanism. We shall attempt to discover in what sense we understand it. In any case, let us begin by saying that what we mean by “existentialism” is a doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment and a human subjectivity.
It makes me wonder if what they are really annoyed about is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. For when all is said and done, could it be that what frightens them about the doctrine that I shall try to present to you here is that it offers man the possibility of individual choice?
The truth is that of all doctrines, this is the least scandalous and the most austere: it is strictly intended for specialists and philosophers.
When God creates he knows exactly what he is creating. The concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain concept within this divine intelligence.