Existentialism and Humanism

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Existentialism and Humanism
File:Existentialism and Humanism (French edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Jean-Paul Sartre
Original title L'existentialisme est un humanisme
Translator Philip Mairet
Country France
Language French
Subject Existentialism
  • 1946 (Les Editions Nagel, in French)
  • 1948 (in English)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 70 (English edition)
ISBN 978-0413313003

Existentialism and Humanism (or "Existentialism is a Humanism", French: L'existentialisme est un humanisme) is a 1946 philosophical work by Jean-Paul Sartre. Once a popular starting-point in discussions of Existentialist thought, the book is based on a lecture called "Existentialism is a Humanism" that Sartre gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on October 29, 1945. Several authors have criticized the work, and Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in it and regretted its publication.


Sartre asserts that the key defining concept of existentialism is that the existence of a person is prior to his or her essence. The term "existence precedes essence" subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. Put simply, this means that there is nothing to dictate that person's character, goals in life, and so on; that only the individual can define his or her essence. According to Sartre, "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards".

Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls "deterministic excuses" and claims that people must take responsibility for their behavior. Sartre defines anguish as the emotion that people feel once they realize that they are responsible not just for themselves, but for all humanity. Anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide humanity and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Anguish is also associated with Sartre's notion of despair, which he defines as optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible. Sartre claims that "In fashioning myself, I fashion Man", saying that the individual's action will affect and shape mankind. The being-for-itself uses despair to embrace freedom and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result. He also describes abandonment as the loneliness that atheists feel when they realize that there is no God to prescribe a way of life, no guidance for people on how to live; that we're abandoned in the sense of being alone in the universe and the arbiters of our own essence.


Existentialism is a Humanism has been translated into English several times, and was once, in philosopher Mary Warnock's words, "a popular starting-point in discussions of existentialist thought."[1] Philosopher Martin Heidegger criticized Sartre, writing in a letter to Jean Beaufret that while Sartre's statement that "existence precedes essence" reverses the metaphysical statement that essence precedes existence, "the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement." In Heidegger's view, Sartre "stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being."[2]

Sartre has been criticized by philosopher Thomas C. Anderson for asserting without explanation that if a person seeks freedom from false, external authorities, then he or she must invariably allow this freedom for others.[3] Philosopher Iris Murdoch found one of Sartre's discussions with a Marxist interesting, but otherwise considered Existentialism and Humanism to be "a rather bad little book."[4] Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in Existentialism and Humanism, and regretted its publication. Warnock believes he was right to dismiss the work.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Warnock, Mary. Introduction to Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Routledge Classics, 2003, p. xvii.
  2. Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. HarperPerennial, 2008, p. 232.
  3. Anderson, Thomas C. Foundation and Structure of Sartrean Ethics. University Press of Kansas, 1979
  4. Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Chatto & Windus, 1997, p. 111.


External links