Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre on Subjectivity

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself”

Jean-Paul Sartre's essay “Existentialism” from Existentialism and Human Emotions explains the problem that stems from Sartre's assertion that “consciousness brings nothingness into being by questioning being.” Sartre's atheistic existentialism argues that God's existence is not relevant to discussing human values, using subjectivity as the starting point for evaluating how we find meaning in existence. For atheist existentialists “existence precedes essence.” Instead of a definable human nature predetermined by God, existentialists acknowledge the absence and nothingness in living with freedom and possibility that his absence highlights. Finding meaning in freedom requires individuals to continue define their essence in response to the conditions of their existence. A tension arises between defining one's essence in relation to one's existence which is already an unstable concept due to the nature of self reflection and subsequently defining one's essence relation to the existence of others. Subjectivity becomes a dilemma for an individual because ultimately “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre 345).
Subjectivity: Private Subjectivity/Transcendent Subjectivity
Sartre argues, “The word subjectivism has two meanings, and our opponents play on the two. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, that an individual chooses and makes himself; and, on the other that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity. The second of these is essential to the meaning of existentialism”(346). Subjectivity arises from the perceptions people have of existence as defined by the individuality of Descartes' cogito. The problem becomes that self reflection becomes the only certainty individuals have in defining their meaning and existence. “I think; therefore, I exist” becomes the philosophical starting point for Sartre because private subjectivity shows a person what is possible within themselves (357). Sartre's writings Creative Conformity: Descartes and Being and Nothingness would outline “Cartesian Freedom” as two kinds of freedom “(i) creative or productive freedom and (ii) conformative 'freedom'”(Kadir 51). The tension between those that believe in God and atheist existentialists described in “Existentialism” stems from the ambiguity of God's existence combined with a need for absolute morality. This disagreement arises because “The freedom which Descartes ascribes to God, Sartre reserves for man”(52).

"I have no need for good souls: an accomplice is what I wanted."

The existentialist “thinks it very distressing that God does not exist” (Sartre 349). Without a god there can no longer be an a priori Good. Existentialists argue that the framework of God as a concept to transcend human subjectivity in creating “secular ethics” around the concept of God. Without god, atheist existentialists argue that there is no essence to compare to for the meaning of existence, existence finds its essence in private subjectivity.

"You must be afraid, my son.
That is how one becomes an honest citizen."

Sartre argues that the loss of God is why anguish occurs when the existentialist is posed by the impossibility of transcending human subjectivity through private subjectivity. We understand that our reflection through private subjectivity could be flawed in a way that makes us blind to or otherwise unable to accept our actions' consequences. Taking responsibility for freedom requires acknowledging that one's actions can be wrong despite our belief that “we can never choose evil” (346). We act in “bad faith” and lie to ourselves about the consequences or we accept our subjective reality acting with “anguish, forlornness, despair” like Abraham (347). Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling exemplifies how this anguish transforms Abraham's action from a question of ethics to a transcendent religious belief. Sartre argues “every man ought to say to himself, 'Am I really the kind of man who has the right to act in such a way that humanity might guide itself by my actions?' And if he does not say that to himself, he is masking his anguish”(349).

"If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

Sartre argues that existentialism is criticized not for “pessimism” but for “optimistic toughness” (356). The coward is responsible for being a coward just as much as a hero is responsible for being a hero. Although man's “private subjectivity” is the “point of departure,” existentialism is not a “philosophy of quietism, since it defines man in terms of action;”(357). Sartre's existentialism meets criticism for its “radical position on the totality of human freedom” (King 19).

Whether distrusting a belief in God, deceiving private subjectivity, or denying the destiny of mankind, the burden of freedom becomes that man is “condemned every moment to invent man.”(Sartre 350). Sartre argues that accepting the responsibility inherent in defining one's freedom with the pressures of creating meaning in life. To act is to assert a universal value or to negate universal values in a way that attempts to transcend human subjectivity. For Sartre “freedom is absolute, or it is not at all. Man is deeply influenced by his family and environment, but he freely chooses how he will relate to this influence” (King 19).

"Man is condemned to be free; 
because once thrown into the world, 
he is responsible for everything he does."
Absolute Freedom?: Three Objections
Sartre addresses three objections to existentialism directly in an attempt to explain how humanism transcends human subjectivity. Critics argue that existentialism makes constructing moral values impossible given the arbitrary nature of subjective perspective. Sartre mocks the idea that acknowledging freedom of choice means “So you're able to do anything, no matter what!” (Sartre 360). Sartre compares making moral choices to “making a work of art” in that it is clear there is no definite painting to be made. There is no a priori rule to art but “we never say that a work of art is arbitrary” (361). This is why Sartre rejects the first definition of Humanism as honoring man as a higher value. He rejects the idea that we can think of man as an end because he is always in the making. Man's good creations are not evidence for the good nature of his a priori essence but rather a reflection upon what he has made of his freedom and choices in his existence.

The second objection Sartre imitates is that with existentialism “You're unable to pass judgment on others, because there's no reason to prefer on configuration to another” (360). Sartre's definition of Humanism makes clear that reflection on others is necessary to construct subjective value in a society. By choosing who we associate with we are making choices about what we do with our freedom. There is choice with consequence, though subjective reality might make us blame circumstance. Sartre says by recognizing that “existence precedes essence” a free human being realizes that he is obliged to want freedom for others (363).

Sartre's atheist existentialism laments the loss of God as an absolute authority on right and wrong who can grant an individual absolution from the responsibility of freedom and choice. Sartre addresses a third criticism that in existentialism that “Everything is arbitrary in this choosing of yours. You take something from one pocket and pretend you're putting it into the other” (360). Existentialism simply points out the arbitrary nature of any choice of how we use our freedom. Even with the arbitrary decision to choose to discard God “there has to be someone to invent values.” Existentialists reject the belief that if there is no a priori purpose to life that somehow “fundamentally, values aren't serious, since you choose them” (365).

"Commitment is an act, not a word."

Sartre outlines existentialism as a constructive philosophy to define Humanism. His second definition of Humanism reflects the idea of how to transcend human subjectivity by arguing that being a humanist requires “acknowledging that man is constantly outside himself.” Sartre's philosophy acknowledges the difficulty in defining our relationship to the Other but ultimately finds Humanism as a hopeful promise for cooperation. The concept of “passing-beyond” individual subjectivity and transcending into the human universe allows for the “particular fulfillment” of “liberation”(366). A man who can make freedom for himself can make freedom for others. Existentialism is an optimistic “doctrine of action” which should not be seen as in despair over how the existence of God affects human essence. Man's existence provides the possibility of defining man's essence on his own and through his efforts with others.


"For an occurrence to become an adventure, 
it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it."


Works Cited

Kadir, Kazi A. Sartre & God. Karachi, Pakistan. Al-Ilm Agencies, 1975. Print.

King, Thomas M. Sartre and the Sacred. Chicago, 1974. The University of Chicago Press. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism. ”Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. Print.