Home > Philosophy > The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre

The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre

Routledge | 2008-12-12 | ISBN: 0415411181 | 169 pages | PDF

Recent developments in ethical discourse have brought the issue of the nature and development of character traits to the forefront of philosophical debate once again. This discussion tends to revolve around theories derived from Aristotle’s account of character, and overlooks Sartre’s existentialist alternative entirely.

This accessible book presents an existentialist alternative to the currently dominant Aristotelian view of character. It will be of interest, therefore, to academics and graduate students concerned with virtue ethics and the theory of character as much as to those concerned with Sartre and existentialism in general. The book should set both the agenda and the standard for future discussions of Sartre’s work within philosophical discourse.

The existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre is an account of the way that we humans exist, in contrast to the ways in which such things as chairs and tables, flowers and trees, rocks and planets, and cats and dogs exist. It aims to elaborate the central structures of our lives, around which all the things that we do are built. This topic is interesting in its own right and Sartre’s consideration of it is among the most thorough and systematic available. But there is more reason than this to study it. For answering the question of exactly what we are is also central to addressing some of the pressing issues that we all face. This is what motivated Sartre. He intended his philosophy to be much more than an abstract theory to be studied in libraries. He wrote about it in the popular press and illustrated it in his fiction because he saw the questions of how we should treat one another, how we should organize our societies, and how we should each think about our own plans and hopes and dreams as simply unanswerable unless we consider them within the framework of a theory of human existence and as receiving only disastrously wrong answers when the framework itself is wrong.

The theory that he developed, however, has been interpreted in a variety of different ways. This is partly because he does not always express himself as clearly as he might. He seems to have found it necessary to develop a new conceptual repertoire in which to express his thought, but he could have been more careful to explain his terminology. But it is also partly because most commentators on his existentialist work focus on one aspect of it or another, or at least one aspect at a time, at the expense of the overall picture. It then often turns out that one commentator’s reading of one part does not sit easily with their own or someone else’s reading of another part. The aim of this book is to present a single coherent picture of the central themes of Sartrean existentialism. We will see that this philosophy is the elaboration of one basic idea, one that is rarely identified as being even a part of it, and that this idea has much to offer to current debates over issues that we all face. The idea at the centre of Sartrean existentialism is simply that an individual’s character consists in the projects that person pursues.

We should not understand this as claiming that actions result from nothing more than a decision about what to do, as though there were no such thing as spontaneous action and as though one’s decisions did not any way reflect deeper facts about oneself. This is important because one common caricature of Sartre has him claiming that everything we experience and do is something we just choose there and then. It is sometimes even said that he thinks we can decide how something will look to us and what emotions to feel about it. This caricature comes about because Sartre likes to say that all of our experiences and actions are in some sense chosen, but he does not mean that when we are confronted with something we decide how it will look to us, how we will feel about it, what we will think about it, and what we will do about it. He uses the language of choice in this way to emphasize his view that we have reflective control over the deeper aspects of ourselves that in turn determine how things will look to us, how we will feel in response to things, and the relative importance each consideration will have for us when we deliberate about what to do.

Each person’s spontaneous and considered responses to their environment fall into patterns that we have come to describe in the language of character traits. Sartrean existentialism is basically the claim that these patterns result from the set of projects the individual pursues. If this is right, then a person’s character, their traits such as honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, kindness and meanness, and so on, are rooted in the projects that they have adopted and that they can alter. This is not to say that each trait is something that the individual deliberately and knowingly adopts, as though one cannot be a petty or bitter person without wanting to be. Neither is it to say that we are always very well aware of our character traits, as if one could not discover after careful reflection that one is rather insensitive. It is just to say that the overall patterns in a person’s behavior are determined by the overall set of projects that they are pursuing. It is to say that our characters are neither physically necessary effects of our genetic structures nor inescapable outcomes of formative experiences nor simply habits that have become entrenched by repetition, but rather manifest the purposive and goal-directed projects that we are engaged in and that we can change.

This lack of solidity at the core of the individual, this dependence of one’s identity on merely contingent and changeable factors, this lightness of human being, is something that Sartre thinks we have covered over. We prefer to think of ourselves as having fixed natures that determine our thoughts, feelings, behavior, and thereby ultimately our destinies, he claims. In this way, we can evade the feelings of responsibility that come with recognizing that we do not have to see things this way, we do not have to think along these lines, we do not have to behave like this. So we deceive ourselves about the true structure of our own existence. This is what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’, and as we will see in the second half of this book he considers it to be a socially pervasive phenomenon that accounts not only for the way people think about themselves and others, but also for much of our treatment of one another, and even for some aspects of the way in which we have ordered our world. He sees this attitude as lying at the heart of such widespread social ills as racial hatred.

Although his philosophy is often portrayed as gloomy and pessimistic, this is a misrepresentation he complained about ever since it started circulating soon after the publication of Being and Nothingness. Sartrean existentialism is an optimistic theory, which teaches that we can learn to accept the way we really are, to see one another as we really are, and thereby get away from the basic problem underlying many of our ills. Not only that, but it also argues that the values we each already hold should lead us to embrace this alternative to bad faith, which he calls authenticity, as we will see towards the end of this book. As well as unpacking the idea that character consists in projects and considering the value of this idea as a contribution to contemporary discussions of the nature of agency, character, and the self, we will investigate the ethical claim that we ought to recognize this truth about our existence rather than accept the illusion that we have learned to find comforting.

The picture of Sartrean existentialism presented in this book is based entirely on Being and Nothingness and Sartre’s published works preceding and immediately following it. For it is in these works that Sartre formulates the basic theory of character that this book analyses. His work over the subsequent three and a half decades continues to refine this theory, but tracing that further development is a large and separate task. Even within these few early works, the details of Sartre’s theory change in important ways, as we will see, which is something that many commentators have overlooked. We will not be concerned with Sartre’s posthumously published notebooks either, even those from the same period of his life as the published works we are considering. This is partly because it can be misleading to read a philosopher’s publications in the light of other ideas that they sketched but never fully worked out or put into print, ideas that were then selected and ordered decades later by someone else, but mainly because we will fi nd all that we need without having to take this controversial step.

This book aims to contribute not only to the understanding of Sartrean existentialism itself, but also to various current debates in moral philosophy by highlighting the distinctive advantages of this theory of character over its rivals and by distinguishing between a broadly Sartrean view of character and the details of Sartre’s own position. It supersedes my article ‘Sartre’s Theory of Character’. Although some basic aspects of that article have found their way into the first few chapters of this book, others have been substantially revised or even jettisoned in order to make better sense of the bigger picture that this book discusses. The first few chapters also draw occasionally on some recent work of mine concerning psychological experiments into the nature of character and the attribution of traits, so for full justification of the points made in these areas.

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