Existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre

Existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre


1.1 Self: An Existential Approach

Existentialism is better seen as a style of philosophizing rather than a philosophy. Thus, existentialists have some patterns of thought following their existential traits. Hence, they deny that reality can be neatly packaged in concept or presented as an interlocking system. “An inquisitive style of thought that sets to adopt with ardent mastery the world in relation to man’s life in it.”1 Jean Paul Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger made remarkable imprints among the existentialist thinkers. The basic style of their philosophizing begins with man rather than nature. Philosophy of the subject rather than the object per se. William Barrett’s definition of existentialism sets the existentialists’ agenda in motion:

A philosophy that confronts the human situation in its totality, to ask what the basic conditions of human existence are and how man can establish his own meaning out of these situations.

From the foregoing therefore, the existential approach to self is not very difficult to define.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy was the first to make a dialectical shift in the history of thought, breaking apart philosophy from the chains of scholastic ‘theocentricism’ to the modern ‘anthropocentricism’. In his famous cogito, he sets out to posit the “I” as the referential point of existence. Hence, the “I” becomes the starting point and the end point “terminus a quo and terminus ad quem” of his ontological status quo. The ‘I’ becomes the thinking subject.

But, a remarkable attempt to move the straight points of philosophy from the “abstract thinking subject to more concrete base, in the total, multi-dimensional human experience of involving in a world of affairs was carefully explored by John Macmurray.”3 Toeing the same line of argument, the existentialists owe their thought in agreement with John Macmurray’s view of the self as an ‘agent’ as against the traditional understanding of the self as the ‘subject’.

In his own words, “the ‘I’ act (the self as agent) replaces the ‘I’ think (the self as subject) as the place where existential philosophy finds its beginning.”4 Thinking according to him is an abstraction from the totality of self as agent. Having given a skeletal view of the general notion of the existential self as the existentialism owes to Macmurray, it is very pertinent at this juncture to X-ray what three front liners existentialists have as their views in relation to self.

In order to bring the intrinsic meaning of the existential self to the fore, Soren Kierkegaard driving home his message made an allusion to the idea of the ‘anonymous crowd’. In his own words, Being in a crowd unmakes one’s nature as an individual self by diluting self.”5  He further stresses:

Acrowd in its very concept is untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible or at least weakens his sense of duty, vision and responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.6

From a different angle, Martin Heidegger with a bold stroke shifted the nineteenth-century continental philosophy away from the traditional concerns about theories and focused it on the concern of thinking individual (self). He sets out to explore the deepest nature of self as an existing being.  Fascinated by the question of being (Zeins frage) he desires to explore the fundamental ontology – the phenomenological analysis of the ‘Dasein’. In his fundamental task of de-structuring the essential components of the Dasein, he does not intend to joke when he remarks, “Dasein has a pre-ontological understanding of his own being because; being reveals itself gratuitously to him.” By making serious enquiry into the meaning of being through rational and fundamental questions, the existential approach to self in Heidegger’s line of thought is not very difficult to disclose, implying that it may be.

Jean Paul Sartre not dismissing his phenomenological background approaches the question of self as the only unique Consciousness.According to him, the mode of the existence of the Consciousnesses is to be conscious of itself and being conscious of his consciousness, its law of existence is correctly defined.8

He further maintains that insofar as Consciousness is conscious of itself, it is purely absolute. The central message of the celebrated book of Sartre, Being and Nothingness presents an existential concept of self “as the unique individual that is essentially free even though in chains, is a master of his own fate.”9 He therefore projects the self in conformity with the analysis of Cartesian thought, as individual human being seeking for apodictic certainty as a referential point of departure. The actual message of self in Sartrean philosophy may not be correctly sent without the cause to “make a veritable insight into the ontological and epistemological variations, wherein the Cartesian cogito becomes essentially manifested.”10   

Hans Gadamer would have been forgotten in the arc of intellectual history if not for his celebrated line ‘No one speaks from nowhere, thus, to speak implies speaking from a particular point of view. Bearing this in mind, the question of self in Sartrian philosophy may not be exhaustively explored without a necessary reference to his phenomenological background.

1.2 Existentialism: A Phenomenological Background

The word “phenomenology” has quite a long history in philosophy. Occasionally, it was employed by Immanuel Kant to stand for the study of phenomena or appearances as opposed to things in themselves. Hegel, in his phenomenology of mind, used the word for his exposition of the manifestations of the stages of the mind, from perception, through the forms of consciousness, to the highest intellectual spiritual activities. Husserl’s Introduction to Pure Phenomenology bracketed, questions concerning reality and tends to devise methods for detailed and accurate descriptions of various kinds in their pure essences.

A brief intellectual tour in the existentialists’ environment will reveal that it was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) that first picked up the intellectual relay- race in German phenomenology. Thrilled by the Cartesian cogito, he plans to establish from a phenomenological background, the self, from the focal point of action as the existing agent. The undeniable influence he asserted on his successors, thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Merleau-ponty and Jean Paul Sartre carried along the phenomenological relay race. Due to the fact that existentialism owes its definitive emergence to phenomenology, invariably most existentialists are phenomenologists though the reverse may not be the case, notwithstanding, there is an undeniable fact of close tie that developed between the two styles of philosophy. The fact is obvious; “Phenomenology seems to offer existentialism the kind of methodology necessary to pursue the investigations into human existence.”12 Fascinated by Cartesian methodic doubt, Husserl radicalized its tenets with a certain degree of consequence. The transcendental consciousness could no longer be characterized in terms of a thinking matter, a ‘res cogitans’ but an acting matter. In his argument, he stresses that if consciousness only exists as consciousness of something, then, Husserl’s interpretation of the methodic doubt implies that the ‘physical ‘I’ would perish along the line, “because the ‘I’ presents the character of an object.”13 The existentialists developed phenomenology to suit their own purpose. The point of divergence between Husserl and the existential phenomenologists is not very difficult to pinpoint. Whereas the former places emphasis on essence and approaches phenomenology as an apodictic science, the latter stresses on existence. The existentialists’ allegiance to existence could be seen in Sartre’s assertion ‘existence precedes essence’. In this regard, they refuted Kantian dualism that supposed some hidden ‘noumena’ of which the ‘phenomena’ is merely the appearance.

In his book ‘L’Action’, Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) argues, “the starting point of philosophy should be sought not in abstract ‘I’ think but in the concrete ‘I’ act.”14 To buttress this fact, the existentialists insist on action, for according to them, only in action does existence attains correctness and fullness. Where thought, passion and inward decision are lacking, there will be nothing worthy of the name action. Despite the premium existentialists place upon action, it does not seem to connote they are pragmatists. A proper juxtaposition of the differences and similarities of both the former and latter leads us into the next sub-heading. The pragmatists and the existentialists without doubts place a greater percentage on man as a deciding agent. But as the former views man as a functional man the later approaches him from the point of ‘Homo Viator’. The former to a greater extent highlights optimism from the utilitarian standpoint. They occupy themselves with issues of success in every undertaking, with little or no attention to the tragic and frustrating sides of life as expressed in most existentialists’ writings.

Berdyaev clearly remarks on the difference between the duo in his words, however close the latter could be at some points with the former:

They are distinguished from them by the fact that their interest is in the intensity of life even its tragic intensity rather than its outward expansion and success.”15

Existentialists acknowledge the obvious situations of man’s existence as a fact of life. This I plan to unmask in the preceding sub-heading.

1.3 Facticity of Existence

A simple look at this phrase elicits the two contending concepts: Fact and Existence. In the philosophy of science, facts are said to be the ultimate tribunal. As such without facts, there would not be any result. The issue is not different in the field of law and other disciplines.

‘To exist’ from its Latin etymology ‘ex-sistere’ means, ‘to stand out’, ‘to emerge’. To ‘lie around’ seem to highlight the clearer meaning of existence in recent times- ontological location. Here, to exist implies being located somewhere in the world, to have a place in the real world. In passing the message of what it means to exist, Martin Heidegger made allusion to the idea of ‘Dasein’. Jean Paul Sartre explores the content of the ‘Pour-soi’ for itself. The question above all is, what the facts of existence are in the existential mind? Existentialists use the word ‘Facticity’ to designate the limiting factor in existence. From etymology, the word had been coined to translate the German ‘Faktizitat’ and French ‘Facticite’. It is as opposed to the background of the word factuality that has to do with the objective state of affairs observable in the world.  It is an inward existential awareness of one’s own being. No one has chosen to be. As Augustine Farrer voices out “The loneliness of personality in the universe weighs heavily upon us, it seems terribly improbable that we should exist.”16 Man from time immemorial has formed some beliefs or even revelations about his origin and destiny. How truthful or valid such assumptions are, may not be our concern here. The only fact we know beyond doubt is that ‘we are’. Where we came from and where we are going remains under the confines of mystery. Existence never escapes from the tension between possibility and facticity. Facticity opens for us the radical finitude of human existence.

Robert Cumming gave a clearer insight into facticity as portrayed in Sartre’s ideology. The “for-itself” is, insofar as it appears in a condition which it has not chosen, it is, in so far as it is thrown into the world and abandoned in a situation.”17 In the thought of Heidegger, facticity means that man finds himself in a situation where he is bound to be. ‘Thrownness’, ‘Geworfenheit’ in Heideggerian thought underlines to a greater extent the intrinsic meaning of facticity. “Being thrown into existence, without his prior knowledge the ‘Dasein’ finds himself in a circumstance that is not his own making.”18 Facticity is an outright revelation of the limitations of the ‘Dasein’. In a case, the ‘Dasein’ realizes some givens beyond his control, things he cannot alter even if he wants to.

Some factors project certain unavoidable existential situations. Death, Temporality, Guilt and Alienation tend to summarize those inescapable conditions of life. As Heidegger rightly puts, death is the possibility of the impossibility of existence. Heidegger is one of the existentialists that never approached the issue of death with reservation. At death alone could the ‘Dasein’ be correctly defined. He sees death as the last possibility of all, that which makes impossible any further possibility. In temporality, man’s nature as being time-bound is re-defined. Man as a creature of time must pass away in time. The transience of human life is one of the most poignant aspects of finitude. No matter, whatever may be the case; man must be a client to the tribunal of birth and death.

Pessimistic though the existentialists may seem to be, as some thinkers argue as opposed to pragmatists, they have always not failed to recognize the obvious fact of disorder in human existence. Thus, man experiences guilt and sometimes feels alienated from what he encounters around him.

Karl Marx pointed out the fact of alienation in the revolutionary changes in man’s material condition. From the existential angle, alienation implies that one is mortgaged in inauthentic existence. Without facticity, Robert Cumming, avows “Consciousness would choose its attachment to the world in the same way as souls in Plato’s republic choose their condition.”19


1. J.Macquarie, Existentialism (New York: World-Publishing Co, 1972), p.14

2. T. Ajayi, Freedom, Choice and Responsibility (WAJOPS: vol.7, AECAWA Publication, 2004), p.79.

3. S.E.Stumpf, Philosophy: History and Problems (U.S.A: Mc Graw- Hill, 5th (ed.), 1971), p.487.

4. C.Ekwutosi, unpublished lecture note on Heidegger’s Metaphysics  (Pope John Paul II Seminary Awka, 2005), p.2

5. R.Cumming, The Philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre  (New York, Random House, Inc., 1965), p.51.

6. The Cambridge Companion to Sartre, (ed) Christian Howells (U.S.A: Cambridge Uni.Press, 1992), p.68.

7. J. Macquarie, Op.cit, p.22.

8. Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Op. cit p.72.

9. J. Macquarie, Op.cit.p.59.

10. R. Cumming, Op.cit, p.167.

11. C. Ekwutosi, Op.cit, p.3.