Sartrean Existentialism: Specific Principles (2023)

Critical Essays Sartrean Existentialism: Specific Principles

In order to simplify things even further, one should study a point-by-point list of existentialist principles. This is a summary useful for understanding several of Sartre's works, and it is representative of his major ideas.

The Problem

Existence is absurd. Life has no meaning. Death is the ultimate absurdity: It undoes everything that life has been building up to. One is born by chance; one dies by chance. There is no God.

The Solution

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One must make use of freedom; only freedom of choice can allow one to escape "nausea."

The System

(1) Existence
Precedes Essence Our acts create our essence. Humanity alone exists; objects simply are (for example, they do not exist per se). Animals and vegetables occupy an intermediary position. Plants grow, form fruits, live, and then die. Animals are born, chew their food, make sounds, follow their instincts, and die. Neither plants nor animals make deliberate choices or carry through with responsibility.

(Video) Sartre: "Existence Precedes Essence" EXPLAINED | Existential Philosophy


Historically, philosophy before Sartre was "essentialist." That is, it was concerned with defining the essence of each species, with providing details about generic traits. Existentialism, on the other hand, places existence before essence. Man exists (is born) before he can be anything, before he can become anything; therefore, his existence precedes his essence. His state of existence precedes his state of becoming. An individual is responsible for making himself into an essence, of lifting himself beyond the level of mere existence. This is where choice and action come in. Sartre offers the argument about the artisan and his craft: "When you consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper cutter, this object was manufactured by an artisan who started from a concept; he referred to this concept of a paper cutter and also to the technique of producing it as a part of the concept — which is basically a recipe. Thus, the paper cutter is simultaneously an object which is produced in a certain manner and which has a definite purpose; one cannot suppose a man making a paper cutter without knowing what the object will be used for. That's why we say that, for the paper cutter, essence . . . precedes existence. . . . It's a technical vision of the world in which one can say that production precedes the existence of an object. When we conceive of a God-creator, this God is usually thought of as a superior artisan. . . . In the eighteenth century, with the atheism of the philosophers, the notion of God was done away with, but not so with the idea that essence precedes existence. . . . Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It declares that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man — or, in the words of Heidegger, human reality. What does this mean, that existence precedes essence? It means that man exists first, finds himself, ventures into the world, and then defines himself. . . . Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive it. Man is simply, not only in the way by which he conceives himself, but as he wishes himself to be, and since he conceives himself after existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself."

Thus, Sartre takes the traditional assumption of "essence precedes existence" and changes it into "existence precedes essence." This is a direct result of his atheism whereby God does not exist. Man is born at random, and objects such as paper cutters simply are (they do not exist). Sartre distinguishes between "to be" and "to exist." One must exist before one can have essence, but objects and animals simply are.

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(2) Freedom
Man's situation is an unhappy one: what is good? and what is evil? Since there is no way of separating them, man is condemned to a life of freedom in which he must choose. If one rejects the notion of God, who is to say what is good and what is evil? No one, since there are no absolutes: There is good in evil and evil in good. One cannot act and remain pure since too many fears and obstacles would present themselves; of necessity, one must make choices and assume the consequences.

Sartre delineates three categories within his definition of freedom:

  • the man whom he compares to a stone: this man makes no choices and is happy in his no-choice life. He refuses to commit himself (engagement), to accept responsibility for his life. He continues in his passive habits. Sartre scorns him. In The Flies, this person is represented by the Tutor.
  • the man whom he compares to plants: This man is not happy. But he lacks the courage to take responsibility for his actions. He obeys other people. He is the one who suffers from "nausea." Sartre scorns this man the most of all three groups.
  • the man not compared to stones or plants: This man suffers from freedom. He has the nobility to use freedom for the betterment of his life. He is the one whom Sartre admires.

(3) Responsibility
Man must be committed, engaged. He has a responsibility before other citizens for his actions. By acting, he creates a certain essence for society ("by choosing for oneself, man chooses for all men"); any action which one takes affects the rest of humanity. From the moment when man makes a choice, he is committed. One must not renege on one's responsibility (as does Electra in The Flies), nor must one place the responsibility for one's actions onto the shoulders of someone else. Man should not regret what he has done. An act is an act.

(Video) Jean-Paul Sartre - Existentialism is a Humanism [Philosophy Audioboook] Full Lecture

(4) "The others"
Other people are a torture for two reasons:

  • they are capable of denying one's existence and one's freedom by treating one as an object; for example, if you do a cowardly act, and another person calls you a coward, this cuts off the possibility of your doing something heroic or courageous; it stereotypes you as a coward, and this causes anguish.
  • others judge you, observe you without taking into consideration your intentions (either your intentions about a future act or an act which you've already committed). The image they have of you may not correspond to the one you have of yourself. But you can't do without them because only they can tell you who you are. Man does not always understand the motives behind his actions; therefore, he needs others to help in this process. But there is relief; man can say to himself: "I am torture for them, just as they are torture for me."

Sartre offers four ways of defending oneself from the torture of "the others":

  • evasion or avoidance: One can isolate oneself from them, go to sleep, commit suicide, remain silent, or live in obscurity;
  • disguise: One can try to fool others, lie to them, give a false image, resort to hypocrisy;
  • emotions: One can inspire emotions such as love and friendship in others, make oneself liked/loved by them: "My lover accepts me as I accept myself." Therefore, an "other" judges you as you judge yourself;
  • violence: A dictator can put people in prison to prevent them from saying what he doesn't want to hear.

Sartre concludes that if any of the above four conditions prevail(s), one finds oneself in circumstances that are hell.

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(5) Commitment
Man must not be indifferent to his surroundings. He must take a stand, make choices, commit himself to his beliefs, and create meaning through action. Sartre is in favor of an engaged literature, of art that has a goal, a purpose. As with a man shooting a gun in the air or directly at a target, it's better to have a target, a message. The readers should feel their responsibilities; the author should incite the readers to action, infuse an energy into them. Sartre is interested in a "historical public" (that is, a public of a certain precise moment in history): He addresses himself to the public of his times. Ideally, an author should write for a universal audience, but this is possible only in a classless society.

But the compromise is to address all readers who have the freedom to change things (for example, political freedom). People hostile to Sartre's writings criticized him of assassinating literature. But he replied that he would never ignore stylistics, regardless of the ideas he was developing. He claimed that a reader should not be aware of a writer's style, that this would get in the way of understanding the piece of literature. Commitment to one's writing, he argued, was as vital as commitment to all other actions in one's life.


What is the principle of Sartre's existentialism? ›

Sartre's theory of existentialism states that “existence precedes essence”, that is only by existing and acting a certain way do we give meaning to our lives. According to him, there is no fixed design for how a human being should be and no God to give us a purpose.

What are the main principles of existentialism? ›

Of this work, there are generally three core principles that emerge as central to existentialist philosophy: phenomenology, freedom, and authenticity.

What are at least 2 principles of Sartre's existentialism? ›

There is no God. One must make use of freedom; only freedom of choice can allow one to escape "nausea." Precedes Essence Our acts create our essence. Humanity alone exists; objects simply are (for example, they do not exist per se).

What are the 3 key terms from Sartre's existentialism is a humanism? ›

Sartre says that he will next clarify three concepts: anguish, abandonment, and despair. The basic outline of Sartre's argument is now complete: existence precedes essence, so human life should be viewed as a project of creating purpose.

How does Sartre define existentialism quizlet? ›

How does Sartre express the main idea existentialism (i.e., what is the formula of existentialism)? "EXISTENCE PRECEDES ESSENCE." The fact of what something is, precedes how something is. Human beings are radically free, in that we need to figure out what we are in choosing and doing.

What are the principles of existentialism in education? ›

Existentialists believe that every individual is unique and education must cater to the individual differences. Therefore, the objective of education is to enable every individual to develop his unique qualities, to harness his potentialities and cultivate his individualities.

What are the 4 major themes of existentialism? ›

The four themes of Existentialism that I found to be the most significant and recurring in the works of the existentialists are as follows: the individual, God, being, and truth.

What are the 4 components of existential theory? ›

Existential therapy focuses on specific concerns rooted in the individual's existence. The contemporary existential psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, identifies these concerns as death, isolation, freedom, and emptiness.

What are the 4 pillars of existentialism? ›

It was Yalom who defined the four “givens” of the human condition—death, meaning, isolation, and freedom, that have formed the cornerstone of modern-day existential therapy, and a method of psychotherapy that enables clients to face these givens head-on and so move towards living a more “authentic” and free existence.

What are the five main themes of existentialism? ›

  • Contents.
  • Who Am I?
  • The lack of norms, and anxiety.
  • Meaning and absurdity.
  • Self-deception and authenticity.
  • The individual and 'they'
  • Irreligion and religion.

What are the three types of being According to Sartre? ›

To ground these claims and produce a lexicon for his extremely complex phenomenology, Sartre develops a dense metaphysics that chops up reality into three fundamental types of being: being-in-itself and being-for-itself and being-for-others.

What is Sartre argument? ›

The central argument was that we are free and that freedom entails responsibility. Our choices are always choices of values so that our decisions always involve implications that stretch far beyond the individual context. Sartre illustrated his argument with some striking concrete examples.

What are the 3 key terms for understanding Sartre's ethical approach? ›

The key concepts in the Sartrean analysis of ethics are: freedom, angst, bad faith, and authenticity. We discuss each in turn. We begin our discussion with Sartre's notion that we are radically free. If we are in a bad mood, for example, it's because we choose to be.

What are the three stages of existentialism? ›

In the pseudonymous works of Kierkegaard's first literary period, three stages on life's way, or three spheres of existence, are distinguished: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

What are the two kinds of existentialists according to Sartre? ›

In Existentialism and Humanism Jean-Paul Sartre states that there are “two kinds of existentialists,” the atheistic, in which he includes himself, and the Christian, among whom he includes his fellow countryman Gabriel Marcel.

What is existentialism summary? ›

Existentialism is the philosophical belief we are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives. Our individual purpose and meaning is not given to us by Gods, governments, teachers or other authorities.

What is the main idea of existentialism quizlet? ›

What are the major themes of Existentialism? stress on concrete individual existence and, consequently, on subjectivity, individual freedom, and choice.

What is the first principle of existentialism? ›

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

What is the first principle of existentialism quizlet? ›

What is the first principle of existentialism? Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Absolute Individuality and Absolute Freedom.

What are the 6 tenets of existentialism? ›

  • Existence precedes essence.
  • Life is absurd.
  • Alienation.
  • Nothingness and Death.
  • Fear, Dread, Anxiety.
  • Freedom.

What are the two philosophical terms in Sartre's existential thought? ›

Sartre's ontology is explained in his philosophical masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, where he defines two types of reality which lie beyond our conscious experience: the being of the object of consciousness and that of consciousness itself.

What are the big five existential concerns? ›

Five major Existential Concerns (ECs) have been posited: Death, Isolation, Identity, Freedom, and Meaning (see Koole, Greenberg, & Psyzezynski, 2006). The present study is an analysis of the inter-relations between all five ECs, as well as their relationships with depression and existential thinking.

What are the two basic forms of existentialism? ›

Existentialism can assume two fundamental forms: atheistic and theistic II. The Essential Tenets of Atheistic Existentialism A. Atheistic existentialism accepts the following tenets of naturalism 1. Matter exists eternally.

What is the goal of Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism? ›

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man's choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a ...


1. Sartre - Existentialist Ethics
2. Sartre in Ten Minutes
(Eric Dodson)
3. Jean-Paul Sartre, Lecture 1: Existence Precedes Essence
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4. Self-Encounter: A Study in Existentialism (1961)
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5. Jean-Paul Sartre | Existentialism is a Humanism | Existentialist Philosophy & Literature
(Gregory B. Sadler)
6. Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism
(Overthink Podcast)


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