June 2014


Written by Sartre, Jean-Paul and Philip Mairet

In his essay Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre defines what existentialism is. He begins by identifying that the key starting point for existentialism is that: Human existence precedes human essence (p. 314).

There is no a priori human nature formulated by God. After we reject the idea that God exists, Sartre follows Heideggerian thinking by stating that there can only be one being for whom existence precedes essence. This "human reality" (Heidegger's terminology p.315) arrives first, then defines himself.

… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.

The starting point for man then is subjectivity, in that he defines his essence on his own terms and has the freedom to choose whatever he wants. This knowledge that we are free from any objective morality places a great responsibility on man. The anguish that Sartre says comes from a knowledge of how free we actually are is most important because it forces us to make decisions for ourselves (p.316). Sartre rejects that notion that it is possible not to choose because, in not choosing, you are making a choice. He says that we cannot escape our freedom and cannot blame deterministic excuses, but must take responsibility for our actions (p.323). There are no general ethics to guide man in making the right decision but only man's interpretation of what he does. This means that the emotions ascribed to a particular action are preceded by the action itself (p.320). Therefore, it is the subjective interpretation of actions that gives them value.

Anguish is a term used in philosophy, often as a translation from the Latin for angst. It is a paramount feature of existentialist philosophy, in which anguish is often understood as the experience of an utterly free being in a world with zero absolutes (existential despair). In the teachings of Sartre, anguish is seen when an utterly captured being realizes the unpredictability of his or her action. For an example, when walking along a cliff, you would feel anguish to know that you have the freedom to throw yourself down to your imminent death.

"What do we mean by anguish? – The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind in fact Sartre goes beyond even this. Not only am I responsible for everything that I am, but also when choosing any particular action I not only commit myself to it but am choosing as "a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind" (p. 30). So, to take an example Sartre uses, if I choose to marry and to have children I thereby commit not only myself but the whole of humankind to the practice of this form of monogamy. This is in many ways reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's concept of universalizability: the view that if something is morally right for one person to do, it must also be morally right for anyone in relevantly similar circumstances. Sartre labels the experience of this extended responsibility ‘anguish' (which he takes to be an unavoidable aspect of the human condition) to the feeling of responsibility experienced by a military leader whose decisions have possibly grave consequences for the soldiers under his command. – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it."

Sartre, Jean-Paul and Philip Mairet (Translator). Existentialism Is a Humanism. 1946.

Angst is a German word which means simply anxiety or fear, but in existential philosophy it has acquired the more specific sense of having anxiety or fear as a result of the paradoxical implications of human freedom. We face an uncertain future, and we must fill our lives with our own choices. The dual problems of constant choices and the responsibility for those choices can produce angst in us. However it is conceived, it is treated as a universal condition of human existence, underlying everything about us.

Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and centre of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity.