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  There have been no greater defenders of the view that humans are free than the existentialists. Although their influence was in substantial decline at the end of the last century the legacy of their thinking is still evident in the ideas of many thinkers, artists, writers and even many students.  We shall examine the ideas of one of the most famous of this group of philosophers.  The thought of Jean Paul Sartre may appear to be quite appealing to those who hold for human freedom.  However the thinking of the existentialists is so radical and extreme that the implications of human freedom may be quite disturbing.  In their writings the existentialists report of becoming quite disturbed and even physically ill as they would contemplate the full import of their ideas.  It may be comforting to believe that we are free.  For the existentialists that freedom is so extreme that it is part of our very being, our defining characteristic.  The tremendous responsibility that accompanies that freedom can produce a “fear and trembling” and a “sickness unto death” even “nausea”.  How do the existentialists arrive at their ideas of human freedom? 

Key Ideas:








VIEW: Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16

READ : Dallas Roark  On Existentialism 


Jean Paul Sartre ,  French Existentialist  1905-1980

Sartre was a writer and existentialist following World War II. At the heart of his philosophy is a deep yearning for freedom and a concomitant sense of responsibility. While one is never free of their situation, Sartre felt, "in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one."


Source One  Source two  Source Three

READ:  Text: Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)

For Sartre a basic idea shared by nearly all existentialists is that:   Existence precedes essence

By this what is meant is that: Human beings first come into existence then they determine their own essence.

There is no essence to any thing that exists.  There is no pre-existent essence that makes a thing what it is.  There is no essence to a human being that preexists the human and makes a human what that human is.  There is no essence to being a male or a female.  There are no predetermined roles.  NOTHING is predetermined.  There is NO fate or destiny.  Humans make themselves what they are.  Humans choose to believe what they do about themselves.  Humans choose to believe in something called a human nature.  But humans make that nature what it is by choosing to be what they are.  There is no God that predetermines what humans are and even if there is a God, God made humans free to determine their own natures.  Humans are freedom.  I am what I choose.  We are what we decide we are.  There is no nature for a woman that requires that she produces children, stay at home and raise them and stay apart form the business world of men. A woman, any woman can be whatever she chooses.  She can have her body altered to take on the physical characteristics of a male.   All talk of absolute equality and opportunity and anti-discrimination and anti-stereotyping owes a great deal to the ideas of the existentialists.

Consider this view of time: 

We are told the story of how there was a beginning to time and how there will be an end of time.  There was a creation and there will come an end.  God started the universe and God will end it.  This is the Western Story.  It is a linear tale.  Time has a beginning moves ahead and will come to an end.

[start--------------------middle -----------------end]


Each of us has a personal time line and history.




We believe that we exist in each second of time throughout our lives.  Each moment is a s a pearl on a string of pearls.


      PAST                                 PRESENT                            FUTURE

Birth                                           now                                      DEATH



We think that we are in some way the string of pearls. 


There is no string of pearls.  There is no collection of moments.  There is no self that exists throughout the entire span of time.

For Sartre, there is no SELF that exists through time.  There is only the now and in the now, the eternal present, there is only the awareness and not the awareness of our self being aware.  We each of us are only aware of the computer in front of us, its light, the feeling of the chair on our buttocks, the floor on the bottom of our feet.  We are not aware of something called the SELF that would be doing these things and feeling these feelings.  We are only the collection of awareness and we are not aware of the self being aware.  We are our awareness.  We are BEING.  We are BEING –FOR-ITSELF. 

There is NO PAST.  There is NO FUTURE.  They do not exist.  There is only the present.  You can not touch the past.  You can not see it, hear it or prove that it exists.  Not in any way does the past have real BEING. The past exists only in our memory AND THAT EXISTS ONLY IN THE PRESENT.  Thus, the past can not determine in any way what we do because it DOES NOT EXIST.  Neither does the future exist!  We are always in the present and we are free to choose what of the past (our memories) we shall use and in what way we shall use it.  We are also free to project into the future any idea we choose of what it is we want to be, including dead!  It is all a matter of choice.

If I believe that I am a woman trapped in a man’s body then I can choose to change that body.  If I decide I am to be a bird then I can begin to fly by jumping high and flapping my arms.  I may not fly very far, I may not fly very well and I may not look to others as a bird but I am not to allow them to define who I am or what I am.  I am FREE to be whatever I choose.  I can be Master or Slave to others thoughts about what and who I am and how I am to act and live.  I can determine my own mode of BEING, my own essence.  If others attempt to define me or confine me with definitions and DNA analysis and their attempts to categorize me and stereotype me, I have a choice.  I can either accept their attempts to turn me into a thing for them to manipulate and confine or I can refuse and be who and what I decide I am and am to be.

Whether or not there is a god is a matter for humans to choose.  No matter what humans do they must choose.  Even if they decide not to choose they have chosen.  For Sartre, humans are condemned to be free.  Humans can not escape from their freedom as long a s they live. Some humans can not tolerate the radical freedom and they choose to kill themselves.  Then there is no more freedom and the human has become BEING-in-itself, a thing, a corpse.  Humans decide whether or not to accept the BIBLE.  They decide whether or not to believe in a god.  If a human hears a voice or sees some vision the human must decide, is it:

a.      illusion, hallucination

b.     the devil appearing as God

c.      God, or entity sent from God

There is no escaping the choice.

For Albert Camus, an existentialist, the first and most important philosophical question is :

Why not kill myself?

Each human is capable of suicide.  It does not require a great deal of education or a great deal of chemicals or equipment.  People can think of a dozen or more ways to kill themselves that requires no money.  There are dozens of items in supermarket or hardware store with which a suicide can be facilitated. So, each day some human arises and does not commit suicide they have decided not to do so.  They have decided to live their life and accept what is on their daily schedule.  There is no escaping that we choose the life that we lead because if we did not want it we could do other wise.  We could even kill ourselves and end it all.  But we don’t.  We go on.  We choose to go on living.  We choose to continue on in this course and put up with all the work.  It is a choice.  We are free.  We can do otherwise.  We can leave the course, leave college, and leave the country.  We can do many things and we can choose not to choose anymore and commit suicide. 

There are many people who act as if they have no choice.  This is the one evil for Sartre.  The one bad thing is to act as if, to speak as if there were no choice and as if one were not responsible for what one does or what is done with what one does.  This is BAD FAITH.  There are many people who commit this bad act.  They attempt to convince others that they are not responsible for their actions and that they are not really free.  They make up many explanations and excuses for what they have done.  They choose to represent the actions as being somehow forced upon them and not the result of choice at all.

My abusive parents made me do it.

My junk food diet made me do it.

My drugs made me do it.

Too much violent television made me do it.

My premenstrual cramps made me do it.

My post partem depression made me do it.

The devil made me do it. 

Anything other than themselves made them do it.  The truth is that they did it and that they chose to do it!  No one makes anyone do anything.  We choose to go along or we don’t.  We are free to say NO!  We are free to struggle against those who would compel us to do something.  We can resist.  We can fight against them.  Or we can choose to surrender and thus enslave ourselves.   No one makes any one a slave.  People can imprison others.  They can put shackles on a human and physically abuse them.  But no one makes any one a slave.  Each person becomes a slave when they decide to go along and follow the commands of the master. 

For Nietszche, an existentialist, there are the Masters and the Slaves.  We each choose what we are to be.  The Masters should use and abuse the Slaves.  Exploit them for their own pleasure.  All humans desire but one thing, POWER.  The WILL to POWER is

Nietszche’s foundational notion.  We each have it.  Some choose to exercise it. Others don’t.  When the Slaves grow tired of being Slaves and they don’t want, wish or will to be Slaves any longer they shall rise up and fight against the oppression.  Even if they are to die, they die free, as fighters and not as slaves. 


This is an idea that originates with Nietszche. 

Human beings bear total responsibility for their choices. Human beings are responsible for how they exercise their freedom. Human beings determine their own morality and bear responsibility for how they do so. Human beings choose not just for themselves but for everyone else with each choice they make, they set examples and encourage others to act likewise.  Human beings are radically free.  So, humans are responsible for the consequences of their actions.  Humans are responsible for what is happening to their world.  There is no god to set things right.  If there is that god does not intervene into human freedom (affairs).  Thus humans are totally responsible for all that they do and all that results from it. 

Humans are BEING-for-Itself.  Humans are not things, inanimate objects, BEING-in-itself. Human beings are conscious. Human beings are not things. Human beings are not conscious of consciousness. Human beings are not a self or immortal spiritual entity. Human beings exist in the present only. Human beings are free. Human beings are free to become what they project.  Human beings can not escape from their freedom. Human beings are condemned to be free. To deny this freedom or pretend it isn't so are acts of BAD FAITH. Human beings are what they project. Human beings must make choices. 

Now, this is a radical view of freedom.  There have been few stronger expressions of human freedom than what you will find in the works of the existentialists.  You may find quite a bit to admire or identify with in their writings.  You may agree with them.  You may choose to think that you are free.

There are those who would explain your actions as determined by your prior conditioning.  They hold that you are not free, either being wholly determined in all that you do or for the most part. 

Proceed to the  next section.

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