Existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre


Existentialism is a philosophical and literary movement of the 19th and 20th century which began as a revolt against the traditional philosophy, especially that of Hegel, gained massive support and appreciation in Europe after the Second World War. It is difficult to give a neat and precise definition of the term because of the marked diversity of views and opinions of philosophers and writers associated with this movement. And the confusion is increased by the fact that many thinkers famous as Existentialists themselves denied the label of Existentialist, for example, Heidegger and Camus. And we must also keep in mind that Existentialism not only encompasses philosophers, but also writers like Dostoevsky and Kafka who do not have a well-defined philosophical view of the world. Kaufmann writes “… it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism. The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic; and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism.” [1] However, even though we may not have a sharp and clear definition of the term, certain common views and themes can be observed in this movement. The common theme among the existentialists is the emphasis on individual existence, leading to subjectivity, individual freedom, choice and responsibility, and such emotions like despair, aguish, dread and nausea. The question central to existentialism is “What does it mean to exist as a human being, and what are its implications on life?”

Prominent existentialists include Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Existentialists have been divided into two groups: the religious or Christian existentialists and the atheist existentialists. Atheistic existentialists deny the existence of any determining factor such as God in human life, and therefore believe in absolute human freedom and responsibility. Christian existentialists, like Kierkegaard, attempt to describe the relationship of man with God. However, this existence of God does not impose a meaning or a reality to the person’s existence. The individual still suffers from the anguish of deciding for himself and making his own choices.

Existentialism attempts to describe our desire for rational decisions despite living in an irrational world. To be born in this world is to find one abandoned and responsible for one’s existence, and to realize with anguish that the reality is devoid of meaning. Although an individual is bound to perish and die, he can invent purposes and projects which will give meaning to his existence, which is otherwise meaningless-in-itself. The term ‘Existentialism’ was coined by Gabriel Marcel and first popularized by the French philosopher and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Although existential attitude can be seen in past thinkers like Saint Augustine and Blaise Pascal, Kierkegaard is almost undisputedly accepted as the founder of the movement.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a Danish philosopher and theologian, who was religious to the point of being neurotic. His father was of a very stern religious nature, and his deep sense of sin greatly influenced Kierkegaard, and the impressions of his childhood remained forever in his life. An important event in the development of Kierkegaard was his meeting with Regine Olsen, a girl whom he began to love deeply and proposed in 1840. However, one year later he broke off the engagement. The exact reasons are still uncertain. Kierkegaard mentions in his journals that he took this decision because his melancholic nature made him unsuitable for marriage. There is sufficient evidence to support the view that Kierkegaard never fully recovered from his passionate love for Regine. Later in life he wrote a serious of different books under different pseudonyms. Even though his style was eloquent, forceful and passionate, the writings were largely ignored in his own life. He was regarded as an eccentric by the people around him. His intense criticism of the Danish Church also earned him much disapproval from the religious establishment.

Kierkegaard was greatly repelled by the Hegelian concern for the Whole, with its intoxication with the Absolute. He saw the individual being sacrificed in this utterly rational philosophy, and felt that the reality of individual existence had evaporated. Kierkegaard thought that Hegel in his search for the Absolute had forgotten that he was first and foremost a man. He writes about the Hegelian professor, “While the ponderous Sir Professor explains the entire mystery of life, he has in distraction forgotten his own name; that he is a man, neither more nor less, not a fantastic three-eighths of a paragraph.”[2]

He used strange pseudonyms for his works like Johannes Climacus, Johannes de Silentio and Anti-Climacus, whom he had created to represent different ways of thinking. He also did this because he didn’t want to associate himself with the ideas present in these works. This creates a difficulty to ascertain what Kierkegaard really believed in, and what he was just arguing for as part of a pseudo-author's position. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is perhaps presented most clearly in Philosophical Fragments.

The central question with which Kierkegaard is concerned is, “Is there a purpose to human life?” And in his works, as he explores the answer to this question, he presents an image of human life as full of anguish and uncertainty, absurdity and meaninglessness.

The starting point for Kierkegaard is an old problem posed by Socrates in a dialogue of Plato, Meno. Socrates raised the question: can we learn what we do not know? He argued that if we really did not know it, we would not be able to recognize the knowledge when it is learned. If a person does not know that 3 times 9 is 27, how does he recognize 27 as the true answer when he learns it. The conclusion which Socrates had derived from it was that we do not learn anything new, but what is thought to be ‘learning’ is merely a ‘recollection’ of all the true knowledge that is already present inside us.

Kierkegaard accepts that the question raised by Socrates is a valid one, but doesn’t accept the solution. He presents his own answer. Kierkegaard says that learning is possible, but in learning, a strange miraculous thing occurs. There is a moment of enlightenment which changes the person, makes him different in such a way that he is now able to recognize a truth, of which he was ignorant previously. Kierkegaard calls the source of this enlightenment as God. It is only God’s involvement into human life that makes learning possible.

However, Kierkegaard says that if this moment of enlightenment has to be effective, man has to desire it, but since he is ignorant, he must desire it without knowing at all what it entails, or what would it be like. Kierkegaard gives an example. Suppose a mighty king wants to marry a girl, but can only marry her if the girl loves him for himself, and not because of any other reason like money or power. Now, to make sure that the girl does not fall in love with him because of his wealth or power, he has to conceal these things from the girl. Similarly, to make the moment of enlightenment effective for us, God has to conceal the benefits of enlightenment from the people so that the person would not desire it because of its potential benefits, but desire it for the sake of enlightenment itself.

Kierkegaard is extremely skeptic of reason and says that it is impossible to achieve objective, necessary knowledge about things related to human life. He said that the only escape was to recognize our miserable condition of total ignorance, and to a have blind, irrational faith in God, that God would bring us out of this chaos of ignorance. Kierkegaard accepts that necessary, objective knowledge is possible in mathematics, but that knowledge is just about concepts like ‘points’, ‘lines’ and ‘circles’ that if they existed, then they would obey these rules. But there is no such existential system of necessary truths about human life.

And now we are face to face with the human predicament: we have no knowledge at all about the purpose and meaning of human life, and yet we have a dire need of such knowledge to live our lives. Either we can remain in our state of utter skepticism, or, as Kierkegaard advises, we can take a leap of faith, a ‘leap into absurdity’, an irrational belief that there is something called ‘God’ who can give us enlightenment if we desire it. We can never know if this decision was correct. It could be the wrong decision. But this is the ‘risk’ of faith which we must take.

Since Kierkegaard was a Protestant, he believed that the moment of enlightenment had taken place in human history in the form of Incarnation of Jesus, with the coming of God to earth in human form and sacrificing himself for the believers. But God created the situation in which it was impossible to recognize him as God, save by faith. The contemporaries of Jesus saw him as a man, just like they were. And yet, they had to choose whether to believe or not to believe in him. Reason is helpless and silent in such situations. “I believe because it is absurd” Kierkegaard quotes the famous medieval saying.

Kierkegaard took the Biblical Abraham as his hero. Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son. It was an order that was brutal and meaningless according to human reason and standards, but Abraham took the leap of faith and emerged successful from this test. Kierkegaard’s ‘Knight of Faith’ is someone who believes and acts in virtue of the absurd, someone who sticks to a belief even in the light of over-whelming contrary evidence.

And here it is necessary to stress that Kierkegaard believed in subjective truth, that every individual must find the truth of his own life; a fact that is perhaps revealed by his choice of using different pseudonyms for his different works. He wrote in his Journal "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."[3]

Kierkegaard said that there were three stages in human life. First is the Aesthetic, in which the individual cares only for his personal happiness. The second is Ethical or Social, the stage of a good citizen, in which the person realises his duties to the society and carries them out. The third and highest stage is Existential in which the person recognizes the absurdity of his life and takes the leap of faith.

Perhaps now we can appreciate why Wittgenstein called Kierkegaard "by far, the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century".

Along with Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche is also recognized as one of the founders of Existentialism. He died too early to be a part of this movement, and it is unsure whether he would have accepted this label. Unlike Kierkegaard, Nietzsche is atheistic, and proclaims the ‘death of God’. But like Kierkegaard, he too emphasizes the passion and anxiety of an individual man. A number of similarities can be seen between the two: both were highly critical of the rational and idealistic structures of philosophy. Both wrote in an unsystematic manner and with a passionate, intense literary style. Both recognized the harmful effects of organized religion on society. In comparison with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, we have Nietzsche’s Superman, the acme of Nietzsche’s will to power, an idealised person who defines his own morality. Kierkegaard takes the character of Abraham for the portrayel of his ideas and Nietzsche uses the character of Zarathustra. Kierkegaard speaks contemptuously of the ‘crowd’ while Nietzsche expresses his hatred for the ‘herd’. Such similarities indicate that Nietzsche too had Existential elements in his philosophy. However, it is be remembered that Nietzsche is a multi-faceted philosopher, and to reduce him to any one label such as existentialist or postmodernist would surely fall short of an accurate description of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Kaufmann writes, “Existentialism suggests only a single facet of Nietzsche's multifarious influence, and to call him an existentialist means in all likelihood an insufficient appreciation of his full significance… Existentialism without Nietzsche would be almost like Thomism without Aristotle; but to call Nietzsche an existentialist is a little like calling Aristotle a Thomist.”

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers holds an important position in the history of Existentialism, as he was the connection between the existential philosophy of the 19th century and the existential philosophy of the 20th century. He coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” — the philosophy of existence – which was a forerunner of the term existentialism. The basic ideas which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had presented were further developed in the philosophy of Karl Jaspers. Just like these two philosophers, Jaspers had a great contempt for traditional philosophy and especially the manner in which philosophy was taught at universities. Jaspers wrote many books and papers but his works were not systematic elaborations of his own philosophy but were meant to encourage debate. He was not trying anyone to convince a philosophy but forcing them to think about their own existence and what were its implications. Jaspers believed that there are two states of being: Dasein and Existenz. Jaspers used the term Dasein to represent the minimal form of existence, the existence from a scientific and objective point of view. Existenz is the subjective state of Being. Jaspers strongly believes in decision making and freedom, but he accepts that there are limits to freedom, which exist as ‘boundary situations’ in the form of death, suffering, guilt, chance, and conflict. Jaspers considers that in order to analyze oneself one needs to consider his interaction with the society. Unless we know what others think and expect of us, we cannot decide who we are or what we want to be. Jaspers, therefore, presents a view in which all people depend upon society for self-definition, even if the act of definition is a rejection of society’s values; a rebel gains his identity as a rebel by virtue of his opposition to the established norms of society. No one is truly separate from society. As a result, individuals experience a constant sensation of conflict: a desire to define the self freely while requiring society for that definition. Like Kierkegaard, Jaspers too believes in a ‘leap of faith’; a free choice to believe in an existence greater than that detected by science.

Martin Heidegger was another German philosopher whose work on phenomenological ontology was extremely important in the development of Existentialism. And even though Heidegger denied being an Existentialist, his name has become an integral part of all list of Existentialists. Many scholars consider Heidegger’s role in the formation of existentialism to be even greater than that of Kierkegaard, and Heidegger is sometimes described as a ‘reluctant father of existentialism’[4]. However, Heidegger is also quite difficult to understand, so it is beyond my ability to do due justice to his status.

Heidegger based his philosophy upon the study of Being and the method he used was that of phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of the way in which things appear or are present to consciousness. According to Heidegger, a concept must be defined without using itself as reference. And therefore “Being” was defined as a collection of concepts.

Heidegger believed that ‘human being’ -- not human beings, or the human individual, but Being as the abstract noun -- is comprised of four components: concern, being-toward-death, existence, and moods. Dasein is the act of "being there" in essence. And here we must take care because Heidegger uses Dasein in a different sense from that used by Jaspers.

Concern is the ability to care about oneself and one’s existence. Being-towards-death represents the view that the only proof that an individual understands existence is the understanding and acceptance of death. The moment one accepts death is the moment when essence is properly realized. Understanding that life is finite enhances the importance of all further decisions. Existence, or Existenz, represents knowing that one exists and is not static, but rather changing with time. And, moods are reactions to other beings, which further allow a person to define himself.

Being-there, Dasein, can be expressed in several fashions. Here I will only mention two of the modes: Authenticity and Inauthenticity. Authenticity represents the choice of self, when you yourself decide what you want to be. Inauthenticity is its opposite, when you let others define who you are or when you work to fit in the definitions prepared by other people.

The French philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre is certainly the most famous and stimulating figure of Existentialism, and it is primarily to him that Existentialism owes its fame. Since Sartre was the first major philosopher to accept the label of Existentialist, it is sometimes argued that Existentialism should be confined to the philosophy of Sartre alone. He was born in Paris, and taught philosophy till World War II, when he was called in military service and during the service he was caught and imprisoned by the Germans. During and after the war, he became increasingly interested in socialism and developed his own version of Marxist sociology. His last major philosophical work Critique of Dialectical Reason was an attempt to reconcile Existentialism and Marxism. Sartre wrote not only philosophical works but also short stories, novels and plays. He refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, believing that Nobel Prize is a bourgeoisie institution and accepting it would compromise his integrity as a socialist thinker. Sartre’s most important philosophical work is Being and Nothingness. His famous lecture Existentialism is a Humanism provides an easy summary of his basic philosophy, but Sartre later expressed his dissatisfaction over the contents of this lecture and regretted the fact that he had published it. His philosophical novel Nausea is of paramount importance in existential literature, and his trilogy of novel Roads to Freedom is accepted as a twentieth century classic. Among his short stories, The Wall is of great importance as it represents many of his ideas of anguish, despair, choice and responsibility. Among his plays No Exit is prominent and also contains his famous quote: "Hell is other people".

Being and Nothingness is Sartre’s most important philosophical document on existentialism. Sartre is concerned with answering the question, ‘What is it like to be a human being?’ In this book he describes that ‘human reality’ consists of two modes of existence: as Being and as Nothingness. Human beings exist both as an In-itself (en-soi) and For-itself (pour-soi). In-itself is the object, the opaque thing lacking consciousness. For-itself is the consciousness; it is not a thing; it is not what it is conscious of. A thing has no consciousness of itself. It simply exists.

In the novel Nausea, the hero Antoine Roquentin is over-whelmed by the existence of things. And the realization of this brute existence of things, that objects are there without any meaning at all, evokes a feeling of nausea in him. On the shore he picks up a pebble and is sickened by its existence. “I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! … it passed from the pebble into my hands… a sort of nausea in hands.”[5] This nausea is actually the realization of contingency of existence, that there is no reason why things exists, that things just happen to be there; the fact that the world is absurd.

The awareness of this contingency of the world, of its ridiculous nature, Diane Collinson explains, ‘generates a desire of the For-itself to exist with the fullness of being of an existing thing, but without contingency and without any loss of consciousness’; An idea which is not possible because ‘Consciousness can never become a thing and remain consciousness.’[6] Sartre calls the fusion of Being and Nothingness as ‘an unrealistic totality’ and an ideal ‘which can be called God’[7].

The first and most necessary fact of existentialism is that for humans, existence precedes essence. Consider any article of manufacture, say a paper knife. It was made by a worker who had a conception of it in his mind. It was made to serve a definite purpose, which was already present before the knife was created. No person would make a paper knife without knowing what it is for. That is, the essence of paper knife comes before its existence.

Since Sartre was an atheist, he rejected the notion of a God creating man like an artisan creates a paper knife. There is no abstract human essence or human nature because there is no creator; humans are not carefully designed artifacts made by a God. Man’s existence comes before his essence. A man first exists and finds himself in this world without any pre-determined purpose. He defines himself; he determines his own purpose of life. He constructs his own essence. Each individual simply is; what he will be, he decides himself. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. In this drama of life, man is forced to invent for him the character he is going to play, and what lines he is going to speak; there is no predetermined script. “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”[8]

I am free to determine my own life. I can choose what purpose and aim my life is to have. But this immense freedom brings a profound responsibility. I am totally responsible for my life. Nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there is no God, no determinism; there are no excuses for what I choose to make of myself.

A man is not just responsible for his own life, his own individuality but he is also responsible for all men. When a man chooses for himself, he chooses for everyone. When a person does any act, such as when he decides to marry, he is advocating monogamy as a practice for the whole humanity. Nothing can be better for one person until it is better for all. “What we choose is always the better, and nothing can be better for us unless it can be better for all…. In fashioning myself, I fashion man”[9].

This leads to anguish, which is a profound and intense awareness of one’s responsibility, because he is not just choosing for himself, he is legislating for the whole mankind. This anguish is well known to the persons who have held some responsibility. But in this dilemma of choice, there is no external authority to which one can turn for help. It is I, and I alone who can make the decision. Hence, I am bound to feel abandonment. This abandonment is an affirmation of the fact that there is no God. There is no God deciding things. It is I alone. With the inexistence of God, all hope of finding objective ethical values in the world is lost. There are no moral rules, everything is permitted. “Man is condemned to be free”, condemned because he did not ask for this choice, he didn’t desire this freedom. This liberty was imposed on him, and now he is responsible for it. One finds oneself alone, without any excuse. We cannot overcome this abandonment with anyone’s advice, because by choosing the person from whom to take advice, I already know, more or less, what he is going to advise.

But as I realize the intense anguish and responsibility, I also realize that my own powers and abilities are inadequate for the purpose. Hence, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of despair. We are forced to make a choice and follow a path of which we ourselves are uncertain. We cannot guarantee where it would lead us, and yet, we will be responsible for any thing, good or bad, which we encounter on it.

A man is nothing but the sum of his actions. He is what he has made of himself, not what he could have been. To believe that I faced unfavorable circumstances or that I was unlucky, and if I had been given the opportunity, I would have done excellent is self-deception for an existentialist. By thinking so I am deceiving myself. Man exists only in so far as he realizes himself. He is nothing else but what his life is. Why should we say about a person that had he lived he would have made a great achievement, when it is precisely this achievement, which he did not make? One is to be judged by what he is, not by possibilities, which were not fulfilled.

Sartre denies the existence of any human nature. “Although it is impossible to find in each and every man a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is nevertheless a human universality of condition.”[10]

For an existentialist, a moral choice is like a work of art. Like the creation of a piece of art, there is nothing predetermined. One can judge a painting only when it is complete. Just as an artist has the creativity and freedom to create whatever he desires, a man is not bound by any a priori moral laws. All abstract ethical theories breakdown when applied to real and concrete situations. An individual is forced to invent a law whenever he encounters a moral choice. There are no objective values to look up to. You have to make your own painting on the canvas of your life.

An important element of Sartre’s philosophy is ‘mauvaise foi’ translated as ‘bad faith’ or ‘self-deception’. It involves not being true to oneself and attempting to elude responsibilty by making different excuses. For example, a person may believe that his actions and choices have a basis in his sub-conscious or unconscious, and that he has no control over them. But by thinking so he is only deceiving himself in an attempt to escape from the sense of responsibilty. Similarly, one may believe in an unalterable fate decreed by an omnipotent God and that his life is already determined. This too is mauvaise foi. Ultimately there are only two choices: sincerety or self-deception, to be or not to be. In bad faith, we deceive ourselves, lie to ourselves. However, it must be noted that Sartre is not declaring ‘bad faith’ as morally bad. Sartre is not advocating a moral theory. The choice of entering into bad faith is as free a choice as any other choice. Sartre is just describing how men behave, not how they should behave.

In the Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre presents a synthesis of Marxism and Existentialism, and here he also repudiates many of his previous view of absolute freedom. In the Critique he recognizes that there are many barriers for complete personal freedom. “… let no one interpret me as saying that man is free in all situations.”[11]

The French Journalist Michael Rybalka divided the intellectual development of Sartre into three phases using the phrase ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ to represent the three kinds of philosophies to which Sartre adhered: Existentialism, from mid-30s; Marxism, from Second World War; and Anarchism in the last few years before his death in 1980. However, this classification despite useful is an over-simplification. Sartre remained an existentialist all his life, even when he was a Marxist.[12] Sartre’s marxism was not a pure marxism; it might be called ‘humanistic marxism’. He was aware of how actual marxism had produced practical results that crushed the aspirations of human individuals. He didn’t consider it only as a problem of political practice, but sees it as an actual flaw in marxist political theory. However, it is to be noted that Sartre came to declare existentialism to be a mere ‘footnote to Marxism’, hence greatly reducing its value.

Simone de Beauvoir was a French existentialist novelist, and after meeting Sartre she became his lifelong friend and associate, and contributed a great deal to the expression of existentialism. Her works were also crucial for the development of feminism. Her most important work in this regard is The Second Sex, which reveals how a woman is treated as ‘Other’. Beauvoir outlines how the literary, social, political and religious traditions have created a world in which it is natural to think of woman as a naturally inferior sex. She argues for women's equality, while insisting on the reality of the sexual difference. She applied existentialism to feminism, and just as Sartre had denied any eternal ‘human nature’, Beauvoir denied the distinction of ‘male nature’ or ‘female nature’. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” is one of the most famous lines from The Second Sex. Her literary works were read as an echo of Sartre’s philosophy in her own life, but now, gradually, her status as a separate philosopher is being recognized.

Sartre and Beauvoir had a very interesting relationship between them. In 1928, Sartre failed his exit exam and was forced to take it again. This however introduced him to Beauvoir who was in the session behind him. And the two found in each other their intellectual match. This time in the exist exam, Sartre came first and Beauvoir came second. And this is how they remained for the rest of their lives; One before the other. Both were deeply in love with each other and were great friends. But they never married. Sartre once did propose to Beauvoir but she refused. Despite the fact that they both had different affairs with other persons, they were never able to break away from each other, and remained in this unconventional love affair till Sartre died. Both greatly influenced each other’s philosophical development, and it is now thought that many of the concepts in Satre’s Being and Nothingness were the result of Beauvoir’s influence[13].


[1] Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre by Walter Kaufmann
[2] Quoted in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Page 379, Berkeley Books, New York, 1996
[3] Dru, Alexander. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1938
[4] Crowell, Steven, "Existentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[5] J P Sartre, Nausea, quoted in Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 159
[6] Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 159
[7] J P Sartre, Being and Nothingness, quoted in Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 159
[8] J P Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans by Philip Mairet (Mathuen, London 1975), page 26
[9] Ibid, page 29
[10] Ibid, page 46
[11] J P Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, quoted in Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 162
[12] Jean Paul Sartre: Basic Writings Edited by Stephen Priest (Routledge, New York, 2001)
[13] See appendix for details of their relationship