Existentialism is a humanism

“Existentialism Is a Humanism”
Jean-Paul Sartre

My purpose here is to offer a defense of existentialism against several
reproaches that have been laid against it.
First, it has been reproached as an invitation to people to dwell in quietism
of despair. For if every way to a solution is barred, one would have to regard any
action in this world as entirely ineffective, and one would arrive finally at a
contemplative philosophy. Moreover, since contemplation is a luxury, this would
be only another bourgeois philosophy. This is, especially, the reproach made by the
From another quarter we are reproached for having underlined all that is
ignominious in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or base to
the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong to the
brighter side of human nature: … Both from this side and from the other we are
also reproached for leaving out of account the solidarity of mankind and
considering man in isolation. And this, say the Communists, is because we base
our doctrine upon pure subjectivity – upon the Cartesian “I think”: which is the
moment in which solitary man attains to himself; a position from which it is
impossible to regain solidarity with other men who exist outside of the self. The
ego cannot reach them through the cogito.
From the Christian side, we are reproached as people who deny the reality
and seriousness of human affairs. For since we ignore the commandments of God
and all values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary.
Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of
condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else.
It is to these various reproaches that I shall endeavor to reply today; that is
why I have entitled this brief exposition “Existentialism is a Humanism.” ….
The essential charge laid against us is, of course, that of over-emphasis upon
the evil side of human life. I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets
slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by
exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.” So it appears that ugliness
is being identified with existentialism. That is why some people say we are
“naturalistic,” and if we are, it is strange to see how much we scandalize and


horrify them, for no one seems to be much frightened or humiliated nowadays by
what is properly called naturalism. …. It is, however, … these very people, always
harping upon realism, who complain that existentialism is too gloomy a view of
things. Indeed their excessive protests make me suspect that what is annoying them
is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom,
what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is – is it
not? – that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. To verify this, let us
review the whole question upon the strictly philosophic level. What, then, is this
that we call existentialism?
Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if
required to explain its meaning. …. The question is only complicated because there
are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst
whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on
the other the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well
as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the
fact that they believe that existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we
must begin from the subjective. What exactly do we mean by that?
If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-
knife – one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and
he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-
existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at
bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in
a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for
one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what
it was for. Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence – that is to say the sum
of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition
possible – precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or
book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world
from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.
When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the
time, as a supernal artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it
be a doctrine like that of Descartes, or of Leibniz himself, we always imply that the
will follows, more or less, from the understanding or at least accompanies it, so
that when God creates he knows precisely what he is creating. Thus, the


conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in
the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a
conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a
definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain
conception which dwells in the divine understanding.
Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater
consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence
comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any
conception of it. …. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence?
We mean 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.
Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a
conception of it. Man simply 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 is nothing else but that which
he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.
And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach
against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity
than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is,
before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it
is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of
being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self
nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain
existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to
be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision
taken – much more often than not – after we have made ourselves what we are. I
may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what is
usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous
If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible
for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in


possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence
squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for
himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but
that he is responsible for all men. ….
If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same
time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in
which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had
supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may
choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that
membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best
becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself
alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in
consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more
personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision
proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby
committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of
monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a
certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion
Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my own
choice, my conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof
whatever; there will be no sign to convince me of it. If a voice speaks to me, it is
still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an angel. If I
regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who choose to say that it is
good and not bad. … When, for instance, a military leader takes upon himself the
responsibility for an attack and sends a number of men to their death, he chooses to
do it and at bottom he alone chooses. No doubt under a higher command, but its
orders, which are more general, require interpretation by him and upon that
interpretation depends the life of ten, fourteen or twenty men. In making the
decision, he cannot but feel a certain anguish. All leaders know that anguish. It
does not prevent their acting, on the contrary it is the very condition of their action,
for the action presupposes that there is a plurality of possibilities, and in choosing


one of these, they realize that it has value only because it is chosen. Now it is
anguish of that kind which existentialism describes, and moreover, as we shall see,
makes explicit through direct responsibility towards other men who are concerned.
Far from being a screen which could separate us from action, it is a condition of
action itself.
And when we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we
only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the
consequences of his absence right to the end. ….
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God
does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an
intelligible heaven. …. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be
able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in
other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the
other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands
that could legitimize our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us
in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left
alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be
free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty,
and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for
everything he does. ….
As an example by which you may the better understand this state of
abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the
following circumstances. His father was quarreling with his mother and was also
inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German
offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but
generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply
afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and
her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice
between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his
mother and helping her to live. He fully realized that this woman lived only for
him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into
despair. He also realized that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on
his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live,


whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action
which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. ….
Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of
action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and
the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but
for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same
time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality
of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope
but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. What could
help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act
with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is
hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the
more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the
general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of
helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No
one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. ….
If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the
particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our
instincts. That is what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him he said, “In
the end, it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the
one I ought to choose. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything
else for her – my will to be avenged, all my longings for action and adventure then
I stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for her is not enough, I go.”
But how does one estimate the strength of a feeling? The value of his feeling for
his mother was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her. I may
say that I love a certain friend enough to sacrifice such or such a sum of money for
him, but I cannot prove that unless I have done it. I may say, “I love my mother
enough to remain with her,” if actually I have remained with her. I can only
estimate the strength of this affection if I have performed an action by which it is
defined and ratified. But if I then appeal to this affection to justify my action, I find
myself drawn into a vicious circle.
…. In other words, feeling is formed by the deeds that one does; therefore I
cannot consult it as a guide to action. And that is to say that I can neither seek
within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic,


formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a
professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel – from a priest, for example
you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what
he would advise.
While I was imprisoned, I made the acquaintance of a somewhat remarkable
man, a Jesuit, who had become a member of that order in the following manner. In
his life he had suffered a succession of rather severe setbacks. His father had died
when he was a child, leaving him in poverty, and he had been awarded a free
scholarship in a religious institution, where he had been made continually to feel
that he was accepted for charity’s sake, and, in consequence, he had been denied
several of those distinctions and honors which gratify children. Later, about the age
of eighteen, he came to grief in a sentimental affair; and finally, at twenty-two –
this was a trifle in itself, but it was the last drop that overflowed his cup – he failed
in his military examination. This young man, then, could regard himself as a total
failure: it was a sign – but a sign of what? He might have taken refuge in bitterness
or despair. But he took it – very cleverly for him – as a sign that he was not
intended for secular success, and that only the attainments of religion, those of
sanctity and of faith, were accessible to him. He interpreted his record as a
message from God, and became a member of the Order. Who can doubt but that
this decision as to the meaning of the sign was his, and his alone? One could have
drawn quite different conclusions from such a series of reverses – as, for example,
that he had better become a carpenter or a revolutionary. For the decipherment of
the sign, however, he bears the entire responsibility. That is what “abandonment”
implies, that we ourselves decide our being. And with this abandonment goes
Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.”
The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it
declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds,
“Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes
himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but
what his life is.” Hence we can well understand why some people are horrified by
our teaching. For many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, and


that is to think, “Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be
something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a
great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were
worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the
leisure to do so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is
because I did not find the man I could have lived with. So there remains within me
a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly
viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the
mere history of my actions.” But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no
love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is
manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works
of art. …. What we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of
undertakings, that he is the sum, the organization, the set of relations that constitute
these undertakings.
In the light of all this, what people reproach us with is not, after all, our
pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism. If people condemn our works of
fiction, in which we describe characters that are base, weak, cowardly and
sometimes even frankly evil, it is not only because those characters are base, weak,
cowardly or evil. For suppose that, like Zola, we showed that the behavior of these
characters was caused by their heredity, or by the action of their environment upon
them, or by determining factors, psychic or organic. People would be reassured,
they would say, “You see, that is what we are like, no one can do anything about
it.” But the existentialist, when he portrays a coward, shows him as responsible for
his cowardice. He is not like that on account of a cowardly heart or lungs or
cerebrum, … he is like that because he has made himself into a coward by actions.
There is no such thing as a cowardly temperament … A coward is defined by the
deed that he has done. ….
We have now, I think, dealt with a certain number of the reproaches against
existentialism. You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of
quietism since it defines man by his action; nor as a pessimistic description of man,
for no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. Nor
is it an attempt to discourage man from action since it tells him that there is no
hope except in his action, and that the one thing which permits him to have life is
the deed. ….


Our point of departure is, indeed, the subjectivity of the individual, and that
for strictly philosophic reasons. …. And at the point of departure there cannot be
any other truth than this, I think, therefore I am, which is the absolute truth of
consciousness as it attains to itself. Every theory which begins with man, outside of
this moment of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth, for
outside of the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than probable, and any
doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to a truth will crumble into nothing.
In order to define the probable one must possess the true. Before there can be any
truth whatever, then, there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth
which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists in
one’s immediate sense of one’s self.
In the second place, this theory alone is compatible with the dignity of man,
it is the only one which does not make man into an object. All kinds of materialism
lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object – that is, as a set of pre-
determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and
phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone. Our aim is precisely to
establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values in distinction from the material
world. ….
What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute
character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing
a type of humanity – a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in
no matter what epoch – and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern
which may result from such absolute commitment. ….
This does not completely refute the charge of subjectivism. Indeed that
objection appears in several other forms, of which the first is as follows. People
say to us, “Then it does not matter what you do,” and they say this in various ways.
…. For, when I confront a real situation – for example, that I am a sexual
being, able to have relations with a being of the other sex and able to have children
– I am obliged to choose my attitude to it, and in every respect I bear the
responsibility of the choice which, in committing myself, also commits the whole
of humanity. Even if my choice is determined by no a priori value whatever, it can
have nothing to do with caprice: …. Rather let us say that the moral choice is
comparable to the construction of a work of art.


It is the same upon the plane of morality. There is this in common between
art and morality, that in both we have to do with creation and invention. We cannot
decide a priori what it is that should be done. ….
In the second place, people say to us, “You are unable to judge others.” This
is true in one sense and false in another. It is true in this sense, that whenever a
man chooses his purpose and his commitment in all clearness and in all sincerity,
whatever that purpose may be, it is impossible for him to prefer another. ….
We can judge, nevertheless, for, as I have said, one chooses in view of
others, and in view of others one chooses himself. One can judge, first – and
perhaps this is not a judgment of value, but it is a logical judgment – that in certain
cases choice is founded upon an error, and in others upon the truth. One can judge
a man by saying that he deceives himself. Since we have defined the situation of
man as one of free choice, without excuse and without help, any man who takes
refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic
doctrine, is a self-deceiver. One may object: “But why should he not choose to
deceive himself?” I reply that it is not for me to judge him morally, but I define his
self-deception as an error. Here one cannot avoid pronouncing a judgment of truth.
The self-deception is evidently a falsehood, because it is a dissimulation of man’s
complete liberty of commitment. ….
The third objection, stated by saying, “You take with one hand what you
give with the other,” means, at bottom, “your values are not serious, since you
choose them yourselves.” To that I can only say that I am very sorry that it should
be so; but if I have excluded God the Father, there must be somebody to invent
values. We have to take things as they are. And moreover, to say that we invent
values means neither more nor less than this; that there is no sense in life a priori.
Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it
is nothing else but the sense that you choose. ….
…. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of
human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in
the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with
subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present
in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is
humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he


himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is
not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim
which is one of liberation or of some particular realization, that man can realize
himself as truly human.
You can see from these few reflections that nothing could be more unjust
than the objections people raise against us. Existentialism is nothing else but an
attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its
intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair. And if by despair one
means as the Christians do – any attitude of unbelief, the despair of the
existentialists is something different. Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that
it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares,
rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of
view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not
that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand
that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of
God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is
only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can
describe us as without hope.

From a public lecture given in 1946
Translator: Philip Mairet

Copyright: Reproduced under “Fair Use” provisions


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