Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism sets out the main claims of existentialism, and defends these against some of the criticisms laid against it. He makes two fundamental claims – that God is dead; and that all claims about humanity and the world must begin with human experience. Given that these two claims are true, Sartre concludes that ‘existence precedes essence.’ What he means by this is that human beings are without any purpose or ‘essence’ not of their own making. Let’s explore these claims some more.
If we think about an everyday object – let’s say a chair, for example, – we can see that the chair has been made with specific qualities and functions in order to carry out a specific purpose, i.e. to function as something for us to sit on. The manufacturer of the chair already has in mind what he wants the chair to look like, the types of qualities and functions that he wants it to have, before he goes about making it. This specific set of qualities and functions exist before the chair exists, in the mind of the manufacturer. Sartre thinks that when we talk of human beings having a specific essence, we are making the assumption that we – like the chair – have been made according to a specific set of qualities and functions in order to carry out a specific purpose. In other words, we assume that even before we are born what we are – our essence – already exists in the mind of a supernatural manufacturer, i.e. God.
But if God is dead, then this can not be true. Therefore, existence precedes essence – unlike the chair, we do not have a specific set of qualities and functions in order to carry out some or other purpose; rather the responsibility falls solely on us as individuals to make for ourselves meaning and purpose. In the absence of a supernatural manufacturer, we make ourselves. But how, without the manufacturer’s blueprint, do we go about making ourselves? For Sartre, the answer to this question is what defines existentialism as a philosophy of action – the freedom to will as we choose.
This brings us to the second of Sartre’s claims – that all claims about humanity and the world must begin with human experience. It was Descartes, three hundred years earlier, who concluded that the only thing we cannot doubt is that we are thinking things – ‘I think, therefore I am,’ – and for Sartre, it is this human subjectivity – our lived experience, that underpins his claim that we have the freedom to choose how to act. Our lived experience shows us that we are always free to act upon this or that: think about the next choice that you make: you could stop reading this post, continue, get up and get a glass of water, take the dog out, get some ice-cream, and so on. The point is that our lives are filled with possible actions, and we are free to choose which ones to take.
This takes us on to Sartre’s next point: by choosing this or that, we at the same time choose a set of values. This is because for Sartre, we can’t choose something that we do not think is good; therefore each choice is also an affirmation of its value. This kind of pick-and-mixing of values faces criticisms for being overly individualistic, but for Sartre, our freedom can not come without responsibility.
His defence against these criticisms is the radical claim that individual choices legislate for humanity as a whole. What does this mean? Well, Sartre believed that in choosing this or that, we at the same time choose that action for the rest of humanity. In this way, human beings are not only responsible for making themselves – ‘existence precedes essence’ – we are also responsible for defining humanity as a whole. In a post-God world, only human beings can choose what to make of their existence. In doing so, we act prescriptively – Sartre says that we are ‘condemned to be free.’ Our freedom condemns us for the reason that all of our actions our prescriptive – will as we want, we can not deny the weighty responsibility that accompanies our freedom to will as we choose.