Existentialism is a Humanism

Sartre tries to defend existentialism from its critiques such as it leads one to inaction, or it allows/fosters anarchy by removing “god” or some other institution that defines and judges mans’ actions. He also mentions anguish, forlornness and despair as emotions attached directly to “existenze”.

The point of the essay is simply that we are free, without god there would be no “looming” standard by which everything must conform, and which everything is subject to it terms of valuation. Integrity, action, and responsibility lies solely on man and not on any particular nature ascribed to him by otherworldly or institutionalized structures.

In relation to freedom, Existentialists generally deny that there is any fixed “human nature” which limits us in what we do and who we are. Whatever happens to us, it is a consequence of our choices and we must take responsibility for that – there is no way we can transfer that responsibility to any other agency, human or otherwise. This constitutes the feeling of anguish wherein man is alone and takes sole responsibility for his/her actions Sartre said that the man can only genuinely assert meaning through his actions, indeed his very existence lies in the extent that man fulfills himself; he is nothing more than the ensemble of his acts. Man has a choice, but in existential terms, when he so chooses, he chooses not only for himself but also for the whole of mankind (“In choosing myself, I choose the world”). It is this feeling, and knowledge that as everyone might see the world in this light, they would act accordingly to chose what is best for him and for all “others”, the critique that existentialism leads people into inaction is thus answered.

Another assertion of existentialism is that god does not exist (applies only to atheistic existentialists), and this implies that there is nothing higher than man that could set the standard as to what man ultimately is. “There is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Man is what he conceives himself to be”. (Froyd 2005) In this respect, forlornness arises for then there would be no standard by which everyone is judged, and in relation to the previous paragraph, man is condemned to be free. The essence of man can no longer be found and defined by pre-existing norms, it has to be created (existence precedes essence). The process of this creation, is only through (as I have mentioned earlier) action and choice. Anarchy cannot ensue if everyone thinks this way, because even if god didn’t exist, no one in their right mind (who also believes that “others” are well capable of the things he/she can do) would resort to brutish acts, rather he/she would do the opposite and act according to a universal maxim applicable to all (to borrow Kant’s terminology). This particular emotion is also related to Sartre’s notion of “authenticity” and “bad faith” on which the choices of man and his/her appraisal of the situation constitutes his “real” existence.

The third emotion despair arises because, though man is free, he is free in a prison. His freedom is limited by the freedom of the “others” – “My freedom ends where your freedom begins”. Despair arises because each moment we choose we are confronted by possibilities. For though we are ultimately free, the probability of enacting the choice is restricted by facts-of-life and of the freedom of others. In this light Marx may be said to be right that “men make their own history, but do not make it as they please, but they do it under circumstances already determined for them by history and their social conditions” (Marx 1845) In this sense, men make their own chooses but they act according to circumstances determined by history and social conditions.

Now, many would contend that Sartre’s defense is self-defeating in that existentialism is precisely against putting reason and rationality at the center, yet clearly in his essay he is using reason and rational arguments to stake his claim and defend the “ideals” of existentialism. My take on this issue would be that, perhaps it is not as self-defeating as one may think, precisely because existence is something that everyone shares so too must it be possible to be articulated. In this sense, reason has become a vehicle towards further understanding of “existenze”; it is not in any way putting it in the center. The things that cannot be adequately articulated (call it the sublimity of life/existence, or whatever term you may think suits this phenomenon) is not entirely defined here (a part may have been articulated such as the three emotions), the purpose of the essay was to answer false accusations (falseness here is not meant as to refer to a predefined notion of truth but rather how we understand a given discourse, in this sense the falsity is defined in terms of how existentialism comes to being in light of definitions or what one might rightly call language interplay in which the meaning of the discourse is seen or evaluated through other overlapping discourses – a need for a certain level of objectivity, so to speak) to this endeavor in that they seek to portray/promote a critical valuation of life but is hindered because other institutions have misconstrued what they sought to convey.

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