Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Man is nothing 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 in 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).

Jean-Paul Sartre said to Charlie Parker once: 
"Jazz is like a banana - it has to be consumed on the spot." 

Consciousness: Nothingness Into Being
When Sartre argues that “existence precedes essence” he means “that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” Sartre argues that because “consciousness brings nothingness into being by questioning being,” man's subjectivity in reaction to his existence must be the starting point of creating meaning and value in life. Sartre says “there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is”(345).
"If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

Existentialism: Dialectic 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 affirms that all existentialists, both atheistic and Christian, share the belief "that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point" (Existentialism and Human Emotions).

Paper-Cutter People: “Essence Precedes Existence”:
David Banach notes in his lecture “Ethics of Absolute Freedom” that Sartre's argument Existentialism and Human Emotions criticizes the old view of “essence precedes existence” because it reduces people to artifacts with preceding essence and a predetermined nature tied to a project outside themselves. He quotes Sartre's example of a paper-cutter to explain how we came to believe that man had been created with specific function determined by an essence:
Let us consider some object that is manufactured, for example, a book or a paper-cutter: here is an object which has been made by an artisan whose inspiration came from a concept. He referred to the concept of what a paper-cutter is... Thus, the paper-cutter is at once an object produced in a certain way and, on the other hand, one having a specific use… Therefore, let us say that, for the paper-cutter, essence ... precedes existence (344).
Sartre says “When we conceive of God as the Creator, He is generally thought of as a superior sort of artisan... Thus the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of the paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer...Thus, the individual man is the realization of a certain concept in the divine intelligence” (Existentialism and Human Emotions 14). It is because God's essence can no longer be used to define man's existence in the absolute that existentialism's critics find the idea that “existence precedes essence” so difficult to overcome.

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”(Kadir 52).
"You must be afraid, my son.
That is how one becomes an honest citizen."

Absence of God: A priori Ethics, Private Subjectivity, and Freedom's Responsibility
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 against 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.

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).

Soren 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 that following Abraham's example “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).
"Man is condemned to be free; 
because once thrown into the world, 
he is responsible for everything he does."

Three Objections to “Essence Precedes Existence”
Sartre objects to essence preceding existence because it masks his anguish. A person faced with absolute freedom wishes to abdicate responsibility through some form of “bad faith” to deny this inescapable freedom. Facticity allows people to claim that their life's essence has been predetermined by outside forces therefore they do not control their life because they do not choose. Anxiety emerges when faced with the responsibility of free choice while having a lack of external value. Despair occurs when absolute freedom restricts us to what is under our control. Existentialists need to recognize these possible deceptions and self-denials in order to understand the condition of freedom they have been placed in. Sartre argue that although existentialist recognize the difficulty of losing God as an external predetermined value, “it is plain dishonesty for Christians to make no distinction between their own despair and ours and then to call us despairing” (367). “Existence precedes essence” does not suffer from this loss of external value because happiness within ourselves and our existence which cannot be taken away by external force if we embrace absolute freedom.

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).
For Sartre, American jazz music was an expression of freedom, imperfection, and authenticity. 
He wrote in Nausea:
"For the moment, the jazz is playing; there is no melody, just notes, a myriad of tiny tremors. The notes know no rest, an inflexible order gives birth to them then destroys them, without ever leaving them the chance to recuperate and exist for themselves.... I would like to hold them back, but I know that, if I succeeded in stopping one, there would only remain in my hand a corrupt and languishing sound. I must accept their death; I must even want that death: I know of few more bitter or intense impressions."

Absolute Freedom: The Impossibility of Transcending Human Subjectivity
Sartre says that existentialism does not outline a philosophy that allows subjectivity and absolute freedom to exonerate man from his actions. He argues that man's subjectivity means that man is “not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence.” Man's will defines his essence and in light of subjectivity and the absence of God, man is all the more responsible for his actions. It is because of the responsibility that comes with absolute freedom that Sartre's argument that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” is so dramatically consequential, Sartre proposes that “such is the first principle of existentialism”(347).

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). Kant's universal values gave individuals escape from their subjectivity the same way God did by asserting predetermined principles. Sartre argues transcending human subjectivity is impossible and makes the existentialist realize that “our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed, because it involves all mankind”(Sartre 346).

Existentialism's Three Objections to “Existence precedes Essence”

So you're able to do anything, no matter what!"

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.

You're unable to pass judgment on others, 
because there's no reason to prefer on configuration to another.”

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).

Everything is arbitrary in this choosing of yours. 
You take something from one pocket and pretend you're putting it into the other”

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

Existentialism as Dialectic Humanism: 
The Doctrine of Action and the Acknowledgment of the Other
Sartre argues that even though there are no a priori values in life, he does not mean that values are just arbitrary. 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 an individual's essence on his own and through his efforts with others. In this way, Sartre's philosophy breaks from the trappings of both Descartes' cogito and Kant's universal values.
"Commitment is an act, not a word."

Freedom and Responsibility: Creative Freedom and Conformative Freedom
Sartre's writings Creative Conformity: Descartes and Being and Nothingness outline “Cartesian Freedom” as two kinds of freedom “(i) creative or productive freedom and (ii) conformative 'freedom'”(Kadir 51). These perspectives of the kinds of freedom exemplify Sartre's existentialism's use of Descartes and Kant. Descartes' philosophy exhibits how consciousness requires a dialectic relationship making “being” and “nothing” as distinct definitions. Descartes argues that “man is free to assent to, conform to, given truths” willing “being” out of “nothingness” for the self (54). Subjectivity gives man the freedom to act with “creative or productive freedom.” This freedom recognizes consciousness as “being-in-itself.”

Cartesian freedom also means “withholding positive judgment regarding the uncertain, the unclear, the untrue, and the false”(54). Kant's universal values also play a role in this conformative freedom. Sartre rejects the “world of seriousness” and “quietism” caused by this feeling of negative freedom. He instead outlines in Being and Nothingness the idea that without God, conformative freedom is best shaped through a humanism that acknowledges the look of the Other to judge actions instead of through Descartes' cogito's perspective of the “indifference” of God or the individual's despair of Kant's universal values (56). Sartre's Being and Nothingness emphasizes how consciousness “reflects back to us a significant part of who we are to which we have no other access, namely, our 'being-for-others.'”
"For an occurrence to become an adventure, 
it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it."

Acting and Action: Vulgarity and Authenticity
Existentialism's doctrine of action makes it a humanism that is neither indifferent or in despair over the Other. Man is free to create value by choosing their relationship and responsibility to the Other. However, as the sense of self's relation to others is mediated through others actions become a question of how “being-in-itself” and “being-for-others” create the tension between vulgarity and civility as well as the tension between authenticity and hypocrisy (Charmé 6). These tensions exemplifies how neither “being-in-itself” nor “being-for-others” can transcend subjectivity.

Sartre's “Existentialism” addresses “a lady who, when she let slip a vulgar word in a moment of irritation, excused herself by saying, 'I guess I'm becoming an existentialist'” (Sartre 342). Sartre's existential humanism requires the subversive powers of vulgarity and authenticity which is why its critics object to his contention that “existence precedes essence.” Vulgarity means to subvert the security that the a priori value structure created through God or that civility found the “essence” of Good. It is a direct confrontation with the “bad faith” of the Other. It recognizes that in constructing personal identity, individuals are “acting” for the Other (Charmé 7).

Action becomes the way to define the authenticity of the acting existentialist. Authenticity judges a person for their experience, not knowledge. Sartre “says more about what authenticity is not than he does about what it is” but actions are more clear method of assessing value towards the Other (8). Humanism attempts to transcend human subjectivity by reaching this point of honesty in acting and action for an existentialist. Though this “desire to be God” and transcend subjectivity is impossible, Sartre argues that this assessment of action is the only way for individuals to construct value in relation to themselves and the Other. Action is the only way to prove that we are not simply “acting” authentic but that our created essence is the result of our experience within our existence, both within and without.
‎"Laughter is proper to man 
because man is the only animal 
who takes himself seriously."

Stuart Zane Charmé's Vulgarity and Authenticity outlines these relationships to the Other as reflecting “Sartre's own response to the issue of civility” as “expressed in two major ideological directions” in his life. Sartre's “early philosophy of existentialism rejected civility in favor of the isolated individual who withdraws into a somewhat narcissistic dream of hermeutical omnipotence and self-apotheosis”(11). Later in life, “his Marxist turn, on the other hand, represented the quest for a revolutionary community in which authenticity would arise with the death of etiquette, manners, and the values which marginalize certain groups as Other” (12). Sartre attempted to “describe a future for humanity that might include both existential authenticity and a new form of communal existence” (13).
Jean-Paul Sartre's atheistic existentialism reconciles man's lack of meaning without God by determining value through one's actions. These actions define an individual's “essence” in relation to the “existence” that preceded it, embracing absolute and creative freedom. Though the look of the Other may lead one to question turning “nothingness into being,” an individual's adjustment to this responsibility of choice and the conformative freedom of relating to the Other. The impossibility of transcending private subjectivity makes Humanism the means Sartre suggests through which the individual can reconcile the problems of Descartes' cogito and Kant's universal values without the a priori ethics of God. Existentialism's “existence precedes essence” means that an individual can embrace absolute freedom to create one's essence through action while acknowledging how existence of the Other determines how we act. This reflection through the self and through the Other exhibits the freedom of his choices by making “being out of nothingness” because Man is nothing but what he makes of himself.”

Works Cited
Charmé, Stuart Zane. Vulgarity and Authenticity: Dimensions of Otherness in the World of Jean-Paul Sartre. Amherst: The University of Massachussetts Press, 1991. Print.

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.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957. Print.