Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existential Humanism

(an existential psychoanalysis, 1973)

Lecture on Jean-Paul Sartre; revised 12 August 2010

We will begin with a quotation that typifies Sartre's existential attitude that it is man’s responsibility to make himself by taking a contrary instance n the following quote:

Those who hide their complete freedom from themselves out of a spirit of seriousness or by means of deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards; those who try to show that their existence was necessary, when it is the very contingency of man’s appearance on earth, I shall call stinkers” (October 1945 public lecture)

Existence precedes essence; that is the hallmark of existentialism and Sartre. Man makes himself, despite his contingency in the world.

Being and Nothingness (1943) is Sartre's magnum opus. The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) is a jewel of a book that attempts to synthesize ontology and phenomenology into a grand theory. It did not work.

Key Ideas

I. Existence precedes essence—we are thrown into the world into situations not of our making; so we have to remake them according to the existential deed that affirms our humanity. Promethean impulse.

II. Man is a useless passion—man’s desires are ever voiding themselves in a desperate search to structure meaning into the world.

III. Man exercises a will to be God—man wills to be a first cause of his contingency to ground it in his deeds. This statement exhibits a personal sovereignty in defiance of a resistant world.

IV. "Hell is other people" (from the novel No Exit). He believed that the master/slave relationship defined the human condition in every dimension. Sartre took his paradigm from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.

You are a being for another consciousness and hence lose your freedom for "being for itself," reverting to the dependency relation of pure facticity of an in-itself—an object without a transcendental subjectivity, lacking possibilities to link with others. This subjectivity emanated from Cartesian rationalism. René Descartes had a profound influence on Sartre, though that of a foil. You can no longer be a morally autonomous human being in good faith. That notion was taken from Kant and his "good will.” That paradigm prevails in all aspects of life, sex, work, friendship, and ultimately politics, which for Sartre was the domain in which your form your project for freedom in your own life world.

Theses and Findings

I. Freud has essentialist categories of truth, transference, dream interpretation, the psychoanalytic relationship, Consciousness, and so forth that determine man and make him unfree, subject to contentless theoretical categories.

Sartre said there is a problematic reality of immanence. There are qualities in things that are not there. He fights the objectification of the self in the doctor’s office. The doctor depends on the patient to invent himself because they are both opaque to each other at the outset of the project. A master/slave relationship pertains. The doctor depends on the patient’s free associations for becoming more than a rote player; finally, he recognizes the humanity of the patient, not clinically sanitized and boxed into the classification of a mental case.

For Freud, the ego is an empirical entity. For Sartre, man is a phenomenal or ontic reality without pure self-consciousness; rather he is ever engaged in the activity of inventing himself by possessing and having the other; thus he rises above mere Being and facticity. The act is one of appropriation of the self, even necessarily by violence to attain individuality. Man has Dirty Hands by his involvement with others.

II. Man becomes filled with nausea of the world that is too much with him. You void the viscosity of being through appropriation and leave a hole in the universe that is really a space of freedom. For example, there is a satiety in eating; hunger by fasting; at oral stage of development, so you lose your freedom in Freud’s world, because the individual is fixed at a stage of development of a metatheory. In Freud's world, the patient is totally inert and without an ethical purpose in the reified clinical setting, where the doctor is the master who interprets reality, one-sidedly, to his submissive client. Hence, it is a power relationship, with an overlay of master and slave taken from Hegel's epic description of this paradigm in his magnum opus of 1807.The self in theory does not correspond to the individual in the lived life world (Lebenswelt). The self has been defined by its situation in context, whereas the individual has a consciousness for itself and with other that allows for individuation and freedom.

III. Men desire to be the first cause of their being. Hence, domination ensues. Man appropriates self, others, and things—the master/slave relationship. Men attribute values to money, sex, object that negate themselves. Transcendence is the freedom to overcome the environment and incorporate it into the self, including others. There is always the appearance of things—phenomena; there is its reality in working upon it; the so called “for and in-itself” that achieves Reason (noumena are other, spiritual or mental beings in Freud—where there is a true mind and body scission). Freud’s topography is a reification of humans—the doctor subdivides him into abstract categories and defines away his humanity. Mind is a fundamental unity for Sartre. There are material, self-evident unities within man, who makes the whole world one of action, reaction, and overcoming of limits. For example, in reading a book there is resistance, then incorporation, assimilation, and triumph in dissolving it by empathizing and understanding it.

IV. Bad Faith is when the individual lies to himself consciously while denying the consequences of one’s actions. For example, we achieve freedom through the other by reciprocity in activity and respect for their self-consciousnesses. To be for and in-itself is to be free. To negate the other is to revert to a self-objectification or being in-itself. You make your history by mediating an environment: existence precedes essence!

V. Man is a law giver to his world. That is humanism where values create man’s condition not God’s dicta. This happens in the particularities of the moments that summarize your life. You are not determined in your behavior. You seek yourself beyond yourself where subjectivity is transcendent in discursive will formation where social activity ensues. You alone are responsible for the fate of the whole world. Since God does not exist, all men make their project possible; unfreedom is not possible in choosing for humanity. But he does fail because he dies. There are no apriori givens to man; only your freedom.

VI. Man exhibits a desire to be a God to establish the basis of his existence. Freedom is “in and for-itself.” It stems from a desire being a lack of being. You then form a project. Humans live in contingencies where there are not absolutes to constitute your world. Rather, your freedom negates that absoluteness.

VII. Existential psychoanalysis constitutes the framework of the situation of the patient. Individuals historically evolve. You examine choices rather than complexes, like Oedipal, Electra, or any number of mythic others. You form an attitude affirmatively to life: you can choose your attitude even in the face of death. There is no unconscious or that censor that creates it in bad faith. You are not the product of a bad childhood. Rather, you will undergo a self-analysis by Knowing Thyself for the present, which is independent of the past.

VIII. There are three categories to existential psychoanalysis: to make (to act), to have (possess), and to be (exist). The “serious” man is hiding from himself, not authentic in his existence but an opaque given forever—in permanence—but historicity denied. You overcome by appropriation. The gift ensnares the other—appropriation by destruction—obligates the other against his will. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The attitude of seriousness is denying the negativity of being determined. You, in bad faith, deny your freedom by saying you can be nothing other than a facet of yourself. You, falsely, essentialized the purely contingent.


Sartre uses four cases: the student choosing between going to war or staying at home to support his mother (the issue of cowardice); the waiter automaton, who does not relate to his customer; the successful Jew as self-hating pariah, who allows himself to be defined as ambitious, greedy, pushy, and so forth; the homosexual pederast (Sartre thought of Genet, who loved children and could not do otherwise; so Sartre says you must embrace your self in your own terms, even if laws are flouted). There is no rulebook of ethics to make a choice. You choose radically alone to be free of being stigmatized. You choose how you make a project, or worldview, of a characteristic such as heroism. We are overdetermined. There is a substrate to these four beings who help define your humanity in our reciprocal actions. There is subjectivity and intersubjectivity. You then find yourself, and do not let others do so, such as a psychoanalyst. You must overcome your self-hatred to be for real.

In conclusion, what Sartre accomplished philosophically was radical. He took back the Newtonian, Darwinian, and Freudian impersonal worldviews; so, once again, man reigned supreme and wrote his history in script and deed. What we might call praxis, the project or enterprise that theory must incorporate, a plan of action to change the world in man’s image.

Sartre's Ethics

Sartre puts emphasis on integrity and moral autonomy. Emotions are facts, though. They can be agents of actions. Sartre makes it clear that the nature of human relations is one of conflict in which neither party may triumph, except for special cases of political praxis. Conflict is even at the core of love courtships that entail a struggle for power.This holds true for the institution of marriage, which is perhaps why he did not marry Simone de Beauvoir.

Sartre was much influenced by the master/slave relationship of Hegel and the concept of Dasein in Heidegger. However, for Sartre, consciousness is not with others but for others, in which there is a one-sided power dyad. Sartre resolves this dilemma of the Other's gaze that enslaves me by objectification by killing the oppressor. Being-in-itself is the nothingness consciousness which has no subjectivity. The self is out there in the world. There is no unconscious as in Freud, in which behavior is determined psychically. The subject can always say No, the Great Refusal, and reinvent himself. Consciousness-for-itself involves the self extending itself to encompass the world and its projects. It was what gives individuals their authenticity. The I of Freud is a fiction with no substantive reality, in Sartre's critique of him in Being and Nothingness. Treating others as pure object involves making your project in the world that of doing evil. He calls that bad faith because the oppressor can never know himself as he truly is when not dialoguing with a morally autonomous other.