June 2014


Written by Sophie van der Linden

Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with the lives of human beings, challenging what is valuable and why. Through existentialism we learn that everything in our lives is our own choosing. While alive we realize life is absurd and meaningless, we are battling with hell and then all progress is erased by death. This ultimately is a frightening thought but defended by Jean Paul Sartre as humanistic and liberally life-affirming. Sartre demands we live freely as culprits to our every exploit and answerable to every aspect of life. Although we all bear symptoms of the same condition Sartre believes we can never achieve community with other people, as they enhance our hellish existence by posing dangerous threats to our ever-sought freedom.

Sartre proclaims the existence of man and of the world as meaningless. There is a fissure, a discrepancy within humans, for they embody both subject and object, incapable of consoling either. There is also a discrepancy between man and the world. Man seeks to call the world home, to master it, to understand it and become one with it but Sartre renders this impossible as man is the only being on earth that is ‘more' than what he is. The world is perpetually menacing to man. He is not born anything except human and free, the rest is up to him and him only. Sartre states in Being and Nothingness "man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards defines himself ". "It is because at first he is nothing… only afterwards will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be". He is ever evolving and deciding at every instant what he is and what he can be. To recall the catch phrase of existentialism, his existence precedes his essence. This is what makes his being unique in the world, as the world has no interior value, no self-awareness nor hidden meanings. It is purely its sheer, unadulterated physicality. The world is meaningless for Sartre since it is uncreated and it lacks an inside. There is no divine structuring or purpose for things for there are no gods and no masters. The world has no reason for being there, to put it simply, it just is.

Sartre's entire philosophy is moved by the crucial imminence of man's total freedom while alive. Because life has no meaning man is awarded absolute control. Nietzsche killed God for Sartre, leaving man abandoned, the master of his fate and the sole creator of his essence. This situates every heaven and every hell here on earth. Every man is condemned to freedom, he does not choose it, but is born with the sole responsibility for his life. There is nothing that man ought to be, there is no given meaning in life, no ethical code prewritten into the fabric of the universe. We have no moral compass to guide us, leaving us with the decision of right and wrong. Sartre adds another layer to this terrifying freedom, saying that in choosing for oneself, one chooses for the entirety of mankind. In acting, we project an image of what we think is meaningful, asserting our action as permissible, therefore appropriate for fellow man. Freedom is far from easy and responsibility involves intense commitment and strength of character. We cannot escape choosing, as failing to choose is a choice in itself. We must either choose at all times or have our lives chosen for us, renouncing of responsibility as a choice in itself which we are still responsible for. For Sartre the best living is autonomous and self-governing living.

Any free, autonomous and authentic existence must commence from facing-up to the darkness, devastating nothingness, and meaninglessness that permeate life. The existential man finds himself meandering around in arbitrary and capricious senselessness, walking sightless for he is bound to nothing. He is a visitor to the world with no destination, for when he leaves it he will be gone. Regardless of his earthly goals and devotions, he is residing in a hellish maze of his own picking. Existential malaise or nausea results from this encounter and realization of incessant failure in seeking coherence in a world of rank meaninglessness and ridiculous absurdity. Existence isn't grounded in absolutes, but that we are fundamentally unsecured, surrounded by accidentality, contingency and fluidity. Albert Camus states that at any time the feeling of inherent meaningless and absurdity can strike any man in the face. He describes the nausea as "the divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting... there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death". Full freedom means free choice and free choice means total answerability and responsibility.

For any situation no matter how devastating, Sartre says "for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it". In Being and Nothingness Sartre describes a man being conscripted into war. He says that it is his choice, as he could have gotten out of it by desertion or suicide. But for whatever reasons, be it fear of cowardice or issues of responsibility, he upon his own free will has chosen to participate, making it his fault and his war. Each situation must be accepted and owned. This may be hard to grapple with, unforgiving, insufferable and vicious but no existentialist would deny it, as it is the price we pay for freedom. This is why I state hell is on earth.

Living authentically means escaping enculturation learning to control impulsivity, emotions and passions and understanding that these (like all things) are a choice rather than an inescapable burden. We write the plans freely for our own lives, creating the goals we pursue. In becoming transparent and understandable to oneself, Sartre argues that human beings become more integrated, attentive, whole and individual. It means that one is more embodied, present and conscious, allowing possession of sole autonomy and complete control. Once at this point, one can arrange their life and value system around freely selected principles and become entirely answerable for every decision in life. By organizing and living in a world through the power of freedom, one can make the most of being alive and create intensely personal meaning that is special. Sartre believes this kind of living alleviates existential nausea, removes the feeling of guilt, excuse, regret, despair and misery. Sartre demands we continually exercise our freedom and that choice only ceases at death. This awesome, splendid and terrifying freedom weighs down on every man and the whole of every life is a struggle with it, but for good consequence. Decisions are made by referring to nothing except an intensely personal mind.

Inhabitants of the world are perpetually caught up in affairs, but Sartre demands that they recognize the futility of life. Sartre holds that many men reside and live entirely in bad faith, in a refusal to take responsibility or feel the weight of their powerful freedom. Men sink into the superficial, phony, artificial, insincere, false comforts of bad faith, failing to realize the liability for their actions and choosing to let outside factors mediate or justify their existence. They become a product of their situation as others have laid it out, blaming outside factors for the way they are. Trying to identify or validate our actions or thoughts in adherence to objectives, Sartre sees bad faith as making statements such as "I wouldn't do that, I'm a good person" or "I'm a writer." A lot of people dissolve into bad faith and most people live a pseudo-life, not in keeping with the heart of genuine existence. Failing to live responsibly, thoughtlessly seeking solace from the hostile barrenness and hollowness of modern life. Bad faith is betraying ones freedom by acting as if he is an object, treating himself as part of the causal chain and that he has no choice.

Sartre's freedom is unlimited, but far from easy or unrestricted. For Sartre other people are hugely detrimental to our efforts to behave authentically and exist freely. In the eternal facing of the hellishness of life, other people shake up our ability to act freely and take away our autonomy. Once we overcome and learn to deal with the hellishness of life, realizing that hell is only where we make it, we see that other people are also hell by endangering our freedom and inauthenticity. In No Exit Sartre blatantly announces "hell is other people". Human relationships are always discordant because they necessarily involve objectification and objectification is bad faith. Other people cause us to be a lot more reflective and conscious of our behavior. This is either the renouncing of one's own freedom in becoming object for the other, or robbing someone else's freedom by objectifying them.

Experiences with other people are necessarily tense, conflict ridden and competitive experiences. Others implement objective qualities upon us, which in our free states we try to avoid. They remove our freedom by defining and stabilizing us, locking us into particular ways of being seen. While at our heart, we are dynamic, changing and complex individuals. They cause us to be more reflective, appropriating our behavior as we think we want to be seen. When we are alone acting freely and become aware of being watched, the shudder of nervousness, self-consciousness and shame resonates through our bodies without any warning, changing our natural behavior. Sartre uses the example of somebody spying on a situation through a keyhole, inspired by vice, boredom or curiosity. He is bound up by the moment with no projection of a ‘self ' or an image, involved totally in what he is witnessing. He then hears footsteps behind him and is instantly embodied and aware of his physicality, from here on mediating his behavior through the gaze of the Other. Sartre sees this as acting in a way that is not in accord with true freedom. By the mere presence of an Other one is forced into bad faith, judging himself and treating himself wrongly as object.

Altering ones behaviour in the presence of the Other indicates the acknowledgement of them and the acknowledgment of their objectification. Selfconstructed fields of meaning are upset; one feels self-conscious, insecure and unsure. One becomes apprehensive, scared, dangerous and exposed, objectifying and judging themselves. It makes freedom feel restricted as ones behaviour is mediated through something else. Sartre sees objectification as inherently problematic, as it disrespecting of one's subjectivity and freedom. In the presence of an Other, one also realizes that they are the way the other sees him. The recognition that what others see me as is different to how I see myself adds another level to my self-alienation. I cannot coincide my subjectivity with my objectivity and how others see me is fundamentally inaccessible to me as I can never fuse my mind with that of another. According to Sartre, as long as I am object for the other my freedom is put in chains.

As much fear and discomfort the gaze of the other person can cause, other people's conceptions of us can approach as a way to see ourselves more objectively and totally. In feeling shame or pride in coming into contact with another, we realize that we are the way they see us but that aspect of our identity is ever inaccessible to us. In other words we cannot coincide what we are for-ourselves and what we are for the other, but each is constituent of identity. We all want to know how we are seen so we seek community with others to learn what we are for them and what they see in us. Getting into the minds of others is attractive for this reason Sartre says, but ultimately a fruitless task. We also make existence for the other free agents problematic, as we regard others as objects for ourselves. Sartre says that the fact that we exist communally without achieving community makes everybody's aims at free existence more difficult, anxiety ridden and hellish. In looking at someone or being looked at, one is engaging in combat. With the existence of others, we have more to battle than just the meaninglessness of the world.

Sartre's philosophy was drastic and life-changing for his immediate audience and remains to shock today. He spun over the dominant philosophy of G.W.F Hegel's self-consciousness, who held that other people were needed by us to come to realize ourselves as subjects, to become who we are, or become ‘self-actualized'. Hegel believed that we are actually dependent on other conscious minds in order to become subjects. Sartre says we're born as free subjects and other minds continuously torture that.

I think Sartre says we literally have to go through hell if we are to make our lives truly authentic and meaningful. I concede that existentialism, as did Sartre, is a philosophy that allows life to begin. Sartre demands man to fight immensely hard for what he believes in, to search extensively for meaning, to step up to his roles in life and live hard, to the fullest extent, remaining constantly challenged and inspired.