Philosophical Background to Jean-Paul Sartre's
"Existentialism Is a Humanism"

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified May 3, 2007

1. Plato and Aristotle regarded contemplation (theoria) as the highest type of human activity, higher than good moral action (praxis) and good making (poiesis). For them the philosophic life is superior to a political life or an artisan's life. The existentialists, on the other hand, put action and feeling in the center of their studies.

2. Combining Christian and Greek philosophical themes, medieval Christian philosophers affirmed that:

(a) God's mind contains forms or natures, also known as essences,
and some added that
(b) in giving them existence, He determines what they will do.
Most Christians also held that:
(c) individual humans have free choice and so are responsible for what they do.
But it is easy to see how one might infer from (a) and (b) that:
(c') what people do is predetermined.
The followers of John Calvin (16th century) did make this judgment.

Sartre rejects (a) and (b) since he thinks (c') follows and that if (c') is true, then it follows that:

(d) people are not responsible for their actions.
According to Sartre, (d) is false and we all tacitly know that it is. He also rejects (a'), which he thinks is presupposed by (a) and (b):
(a') There exists an eternal, omnipotent, creator God.
3. People influenced by Descartes' mechanistic picture of nature hold that the world is a system of deterministic natural laws. (A well-known example of this is the French Enlightenment philosopher and materialist Baron D'Holbach.) Sartre denies that human beings are subject to deterministic laws (though he seems to accept that the rest of the universe is).

4. Many modern thinkers, influenced by the apparent successes of physics and chemistry, hold that morally neutral science is the only objective knowledge and the highest form of human activity. Sartre rejects the notion that the passionless attitude of "value-neutral" science is the sole admirable form of consciousness.

5. Descartes held that:

(a) we can only know that of which we possess clear and distinct ideas.

(b) mathematical description of nature is the main avenue of progress towards knowledge.

(c) passions, prejudices, etc. are in themselves intellectually unclear and indistinct

(Curiously, in his Traite des Passions Descartes provides an analysis of the passions partially modeled on the writings of the ancients but, reflecting his modern Enlightenment side, related to a strictly mechanistic account of bodily processes.)

6. Like existential phenomenologists generally Sartre believes that we can have knowledge regarding forms of consciousness that have not traditionally been regarded as clear and distinct: we can meaningfully describe passions, ecstatic experience, habits, prejudgments, moods, etc. (Careful description of such phenomena is the phenomenological aspect of existentialism.) In other words, Sartre believed that we have reflective access to the most important (prerational) parts of consciousness. We may need post-Cartesian terminology, and we can find some of it with previous phenomenologists like Husserl or Heidegger; literature can also be a source.

7. Sartre and most other existentialists hold that passions, moods and choices preceding calculation and reasoning are more basic to what we are than calculation and reasoning. (Aristotelians would say that Sartre inherits from Descartes and others an overly narrow conception of reason.)

8. Socrates and Plato held that personal actions must be justified in terms of the way they enhance or detract from the well-being of the community and promote the moral excellence of the individual. Some existentialists claim that this way of reasoning leads individuals to accept the values of the crowd and thus helps stifle creativity.

Sartre might have said that one can select community well-being and moral excellence as one's value if one wishes, but we should not pretend that there is a pregiven standard for well-being or moral excellence. Each person selects his or her ideals. He might have added that a liberals, socialists, libertarians, and religious conservatives are likely to have different notions of moral excellence.