Sartre baudelaire essay

Essays on existentialism jean paul sartre

There are odors succulent as young flesh, sweet as flutes, and green as any grass, while others — rich, corrupt and masterful —. Baudelaire conceived of Flowers of Evil as an antidote to the false and shallow meliorism of modern culture. It still is. Similary, his idealism is quite at home with allegory, another tendency of his thought that seems shockingly conservative. With its vision of displacement in urban squalor, the poem prefigures the scenes of refugee camps that have come to seem a permanent feature of modern life.

We know the phenomenon all too well. How better to convey the agony and humiliation of exile than by allegorizing a swan? Like Daedalus dead-set against the sky — the sky quite blue and blank and unconcerned — that straining neck and that voracious beak, as if the swan were castigating God! In any case, the imagery is expansive enough to convey a sense of the universal pain of exile and precise enough to convey a sense of the sufferings of a real animal — once again, the best or worst of both worlds.

Unlike the Dr. Phil sort, it has the advantage of not glossing over horror and despair, so that instead of telling readers how they should feel, it tells them how in all likelihood they do feel or anyway how they feel in some of their most vulnerable moments. This quality is also known as courage, but not for this alone does Flowers of Evil support and solace the soul. Phil and even from the somewhat milder treatment of ennui that had figured earlier in the book. Its five quatrains consist essentially of one bravura sentence structured as a series of subordinate clauses resolved grammatically — and only grammatically — in the two concluding stanzas.

When the skies are low and heavy as a lid over the mind tormented by disgust, and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down on us a daylight dingier than the dark;. Can anything be salvaged from such despair? Yes, if not exactly triumphantly. The soul survives this assault on its integrity because, in the first place, there is a self to assault. Racked by ennui and despair, the self that Baudelaire depicts is in some respects a most unattractive one, yet it remains whole. That Baudelaire was incapable of such compromise was his undoing and our good fortune.

Like a blasphemous Jesus, he took on our worst sins — pride, sloth, envy, lechery — and turned them into art. Eliot and others have found in him a profound religious yearning beneath the blasphemy. I, on the contrary, find blasphemy beneath the blasphemy. He asserted, if anything, the necessity of belief in a self that, threatened from forces within and without, might remain whole and integral, if only through the consciousness of its own suffering.

He had work to do. Tormented, slothful, and sickly, he managed to produce masterpieces in every genre to which he turned his hand: metrical verse, prose poetry which he more or less invented , translation, and art criticism. Whores, beggars, the debauched and the dying fitfully awaken to a cold and damp morning — not a promising start to the day.

And yet this city will clothe itself in beauty and get to work:. Shivering dawn, in a wisp of pink and green, Totters slowly across the empty Seine, and dingy Paris — old drudge rubbing its eyes — picks up its tools to begin another day. Image Credit: Wikipedia. Mentioned in: On Poetry. And yet this city will clothe itself in beauty and get to work: Shivering dawn, in a wisp of pink and green, Totters slowly across the empty Seine, and dingy Paris — old drudge rubbing its eyes — picks up its tools to begin another day.

But while a philosophical definition of existentialism may not entirely ignore the cultural fate of the term, and while Sartre's thought must loom large in any account of existentialism, the concept does pick out a distinctive cluster of philosophical problems and helpfully identifies a relatively distinct current of twentieth- and now twenty-first-century philosophical inquiry, one that has had significant impact on fields such as theology through Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and others and psychology from Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss to Otto Rank, R. Laing, and Viktor Frankl.

On the existential view, to understand what a human being is it is not enough to know all the truths that natural science—including the science of psychology—could tell us. Existentialism does not deny the validity of the basic categories of physics, biology, psychology, and the other sciences categories such as matter, causality, force, function, organism, development, motivation, and so on. It claims only that human beings cannot be fully understood in terms of them. Nor can such an understanding be gained by supplementing our scientific picture with a moral one.

Categories of moral theory such as intention, blame, responsibility, character, duty, virtue, and the like do capture important aspects of the human condition, but neither moral thinking governed by the norms of the good and the right nor scientific thinking governed by the norm of truth suffices. But while it is true that the major existential philosophers wrote with a passion and urgency rather uncommon in our own time, and while the idea that philosophy cannot be practiced in the disinterested manner of an objective science is indeed central to existentialism, it is equally true that all the themes popularly associated with existentialism—dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on—find their philosophical significance in the context of the search for a new categorial framework, together with its governing norm.

Sartre's existentialism drew its immediate inspiration from the work of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Though in Heidegger would repudiate the retrospective labelling of his earlier work as existentialism, it is in that work that the relevant concept of existence finds its first systematic philosophical formulation. As Sartre and Merleau-Ponty would later do, Heidegger pursued these issues with the somewhat unlikely resources of Edmund Husserl's phenomenological method. And while not all existential philosophers were influenced by phenomenology for instance Jaspers and Marcel , the philosophical legacy of existentialism is largely tied to the form it took as an existential version of phenomenology.

The existentialists welcomed Husserl's doctrine of intentionality as a refutation of the Cartesian view according to which consciousness relates immediately only to its own representations, ideas, sensations. According to Husserl, consciousness is our direct openness to the world, one that is governed categorially normatively rather than causally; that is, intentionality is not a property of the individual mind but the categorial framework in which mind and world become intelligible.

In turning phenomenology toward the question of what it means to be, Heidegger insists that the question be raised concretely : it is not at first some academic exercise but a burning concern arising from life itself, the question of what it means for me to be. Existential themes take on salience when one sees that the general question of the meaning of being involves first becoming clear about one's own being as an inquirer.

One can find anticipations of existential thought in many places for instance, in Socratic irony, Augustine, Pascal, or the late Schelling , but the roots of the problem of existence in its contemporary significance lie in the work of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard developed this problem in the context of his radical approach to Christian faith; Nietzsche did so in light of his thesis of the death of God. A focus on existence thus led, in both, to unique textual strategies quite alien to the philosophy of their time.

In Kierkegaard, the singularity of existence comes to light at the moment of conflict between ethics and religious faith. Suppose it is my sense of doing God's will that makes my life meaningful. How does philosophy conceive this meaning? In doing so I lose my individuality since the law holds for all but my actions become meaningful in the sense of understandable, governed by a norm.

Now a person whose sense of doing God's will is what gives her life meaning will be intelligible just to the extent that her action conforms to the universal dictates of ethics. But what if, as in case of Abraham's sacrifice of his son, the action contradicts what ethics demands? Kierkegaard [ 3 ] believes both that Abraham's life is supremely meaningful it is not simply a matter of some immediate desire or meaningless tic that overcomes Abraham's ethical consciousness; on the contrary, doing the moral thing is itself in this case his tempting inclination and that philosophy cannot understand it, thus condemning it in the name of ethics.

God's command here cannot be seen as a law that would pertain to all; it addresses Abraham in his singularity. Abraham has no objective reason to think that the command he hears comes from God; indeed, based on the content of the command he has every reason, as Kant pointed out in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone , to think that it cannot come from God.

His sole justification is what Kierkegaard calls the passion of faith. Since it is a measure not of knowing but of being, one can see how Kierkegaard answers those who object that his concept of subjectivity as truth is based on an equivocation: the objective truths of science and history, however well-established, are in themselves matters of indifference ; they belong to the crowd. The truths that matter to who one is cannot, like Descartes' morale definitif , be something to be attained only when objective science has completed its task.

Situations

Responding in part to the cultural situation in nineteenth-century Europe—historical scholarship continuing to erode fundamentalist readings of the Bible, the growing cultural capital of the natural sciences, and Darwinism in particular—and in part driven by his own investigations into the psychology and history of moral concepts, Nietzsche sought to draw the consequences of the death of God, the collapse of any theistic support for morality. Like his contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose character, Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, famously argues that if God does not exist then everything is permitted, Nietzsche's overriding concern is to find a way to take the measure of human life in the modern world.

Unlike Dostoevsky, however, Nietzsche sees a complicity between morality and the Christian God that perpetuates a life-denying, and so ultimately nihilistic, stance. Nietzsche was not the first to de-couple morality from its divine sanction; psychological theories of the moral sentiments, developed since the eighteenth century, provided a purely human account of moral normativity. On the account given in On the Genealogy of Morals , the Judeo-Christian moral order arose as an expression of the ressentiment of the weak against the power exercised over them by the strong.

The normative is nothing but the normal. Yet this is not the end of the story for Nietzsche, any more than it was for Kierkegaard. In such a situation the individual is forced back upon himself. On the one hand, if he is weakly constituted he may fall victim to despair in the face of nihilism, the recognition that life has no instrinsic meaning.

He has understood that nihilism is the ultimate meaning of the moral point of view, its life-denying essence, and he reconfigures the moral idea of autonomy so as to release the life-affirming potential within it. If such existence is to be thinkable there must be a standard by which success or failure can be measured.

To say that a work of art has style is to invoke a standard for judging it, but one that cannot be specified in the form of a general law of which the work would be a mere instance. Rather, in a curious way, the norm is internal to the work. For Nietzsche, existence falls under such an imperative of style: to create meaning and value in a world from which all transcendent supports have fallen away is to give unique shape to one's immediate inclinations, drives, and passions; to interpret, prune, and enhance according to a unifying sensibility, a ruling instinct, that brings everything into a whole that satisfies the non-conceptual, aesthetic norm of what fits, what belongs, what is appropriate.

As did Kierkegaard, then, Nietzsche uncovers an aspect of my being that can be understood neither in terms of immediate drives and inclinations nor in terms of a universal law of behavior, an aspect that is measured not in terms of an objective inventory of what I am but in terms of my way of being it.

Neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche, however, developed this insight in a fully systematic way. That would be left to their twentieth-century heirs. In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence project , alienation, and authenticity must be understood.

At first, it seems hard to understand how one can say much about existence as such. Traditionally, philosophers have connected the concept of existence with that of essence in such a way that the former signifies merely the instantiation of the latter. It is from essence in this sense—say, human being as rational animal or imago Dei —that ancient philosophy drew its prescriptions for an individual's way of life, its estimation of the meaning and value of existence.

Having an essence meant that human beings could be placed within a larger whole, a kosmos , that provided the standard for human flourishing. Such an entity's existing cannot, therefore, be thought as the instantiation of an essence, and consequently what it means to be such an entity cannot be determined by appeal to pre-given frameworks or systems—whether scientific, historical, or philosophical. Of course, there is a sense in which human beings do instantiate essences, as Heidegger's phrase already admits.

Entities of the first sort, exemplified by tools as they present themselves in use, are defined by the social practices in which they are employed, and their properties are established in relation to the norms of those practices. A saw is sharp, for instance, in relation to what counts as successful cutting. Entities of the second sort, exemplified by objects of perceptual contemplation or scientific investigation, are defined by the norms governing perceptual givenness or scientific theory-construction.

An available or occurrent entity instantiates some property if that property is truly predicated of it. Human beings can be considered in this way as well. However, in contrast to the previous cases, the fact that natural and social properties can truly be predicated of human beings is not sufficient to determine what it is for me to be a human being. This, the existentialists argue, is because such properties are never merely brute determinations of who I am but are always in question.

It is what it is not and is not what it is Sartre Human existence, then, cannot be thought through categories appropriate to things: substance, event, process. In this sense human beings make themselves in situation: what I am cannot be separated from what I take myself to be. If such a view is not to collapse into contradiction the notions of facticity and transcendence must be elucidated.

Risking some oversimplification, they can be approached as the correlates of the two attitudes I can take toward myself: the attitude of third-person theoretical observer and the attitude of first-person practical agent. Facticity includes all those properties that third-person investigation can establish about me: natural properties such as weight, height, and skin color; social facts such as race, class, and nationality; psychological properties such as my web of belief, desires, and character traits; historical facts such as my past actions, my family background, and my broader historical milieu; and so on.

From an existential point of view, however, this would be an error— not because these aspects of my being are not real or factual, but because the kind of being that I am cannot be defined in factual, or third-person, terms. Though third-person observation can identify skin color, class, or ethnicity, the minute it seeks to identify them as mine it must contend with the distinctive character of the existence I possess.

There is no sense in which facticity is both mine and merely a matter of fact, since my existence—the kind of being I am—is also defined by the stance I take toward my facticity. Transcendence refers to that attitude toward myself characteristic of my practical engagement in the world, the agent's perspective.

An agent is oriented by the task at hand as something to be brought about through its own will or agency. Such orientation does not take itself as a theme but loses itself in what is to be done. Thereby, things present themselves not as indifferent givens, facts, but as meaningful: salient, expedient, obstructive, and so on.

It may be—the argument runs—that I can be said to choose a course of action at the conclusion of a process of deliberation, but there seems to be no choice involved when, in the heat of the moment, I toss the useless pen aside in frustration. But the point in using such language is simply to insist that in the first-person perspective of agency I cannot conceive myself as determined by anything that is available to me only in third-person terms.

Because existence is co-constituted by facticity and transcendence, the self cannot be conceived as a Cartesian ego but is embodied being-in-the-world, a self-making in situation. Because my projects are who I am in the mode of engaged agency and not like plans that I merely represent to myself in reflective deliberation , the world in a certain sense reveals to me who I am. For reasons to be explored in the next section, the meaning of my choice is not always transparent to me.

Baudelaire

Existential psychoanalysis represents a kind of compromise between the first- and third-person perspectives: like the latter, it objectifies the person and treats its open-ended practical horizons as in a certain sense closed; like the former, however, it seeks to understand the choices from the inside, to grasp the identity of the individual as a matter of the first-person meaning that haunts him, rather than as a function of inert psychic mechanisms with which the individual has no acquaintance. In the first place, though it is through my projects that world takes on meaning, the world itself is not brought into being through my projects; it retains its otherness and thus can come forth as utterly alien, as unheimlich.

This experience, basic to existential thought, contrasts most sharply with the ancient notion of a kosmos in which human beings have a well-ordered place, and it connects existential thought tightly to the modern experience of a meaningless universe. In the second place, the world includes other people, and as a consequence I am not merely the revealer of the world but something revealed in the projects of those others. I am not merely looking through a keyhole; I am a voyeur.

I cannot originally experience myself as something—a voyeur, for instance. Only the other can give rise to this mode of my being, a mode that I acknowledge as mine and not merely the other's opinion of me in the shame in which I register it. It is because there are others in the world that I can take a third-person perspective on myself; but this reveals the extent to which I am alienated from a dimension of my being: who I am in an objective sense can be originally revealed only by the Other.

This has implications for existential social theory see the section on Sartre: Existentialism and Marxism below. Finally, the self-understanding, or project, thanks to which the world is there for me in a meaningful way, already belongs to that world, derives from it, from the tradition or society in which I find myself. The idea is something like this: Practices can allow things to show up as meaningful—as hammers, dollar bills, or artworks—because practices involve aims that carry with them norms, satisfaction conditions, for what shows up in them.

But norms and rules, as Wittgenstein has shown, are essentially public, and that means that when I engage in practices I must be essentially interchangeable with anyone else who does: I eat as one eats; I drive as one drives; I even protest as one protests. To the extent that my activity is to be an instance of such a practice, I must do it in the normal way. Deviations can be recognized as deviations only against this norm, and if they deviate too far they can't be recognized at all. If such standards traditionally derive from the essence that a particular thing instantiates—this hammer is a good one if it instantiates what a hammer is supposed to be—and if there is nothing that a human being is, by its essence, supposed to be, can the meaning of existence at all be thought?

Existentialism arises with the collapse of the idea that philosophy can provide substantive norms for existing, ones that specify particular ways of life. Authenticity—in German, Eigentlichkeit —names that attitude in which I engage in my projects as my own eigen. What this means can perhaps be brought out by considering moral evaluations. In keeping my promise I act in accord with duty; and if I keep it because it is my duty, I also act morally according to Kant because I am acting for the sake of duty.

But existentially there is still a further evaluation to be made. But I can do the same thing authentically if, in keeping my promise for the sake of duty, acting this way is something I choose as my own , something to which, apart from its social sanction, I commit myself. But such character might also be a reflection of my choice of myself, a commitment I make to be a person of this sort. In both cases I have succeeded in being good; only in the latter case, however, have I succeeded in being myself.

Some writers have taken this notion a step further, arguing that the measure of an authentic life lies in the integrity of a narrative , that to be a self is to constitute a story in which a kind of wholeness prevails, to be the author of oneself as a unique individual Nehamas ; Ricoeur In contrast, the inauthentic life would be one without such integrity, one in which I allow my life-story to be dictated by the world. Be that as it may, it is clear that one can commit oneself to a life of chamealeon-like variety, as does Don Juan in Kierkegaard's version of the legend.

Even interpreted narratively, then, the norm of authenticity remains a formal one. As with Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith, one cannot tell who is authentic by looking at the content of their lives. Authenticity defines a condition on self-making: do I succeed in making myself , or will who I am merely be a function of the roles I find myself in?

Thus to be authentic can also be thought as a way of being autonomous. Being a father authentically does not necessarily make me a better father, but what it means to be a father has become explicitly my concern. It is here that existentialism locates the singularity of existence and identifies what is irreducible in the first-person stance. At the same time, authenticity does not hold out some specific way of life as a norm; that is, it does not distinguish between the projects that I might choose.

Thus existentialism's focus on authenticity leads to a distinctive stance toward ethics and value-theory generally. The possibility of authenticity is a mark of my freedom , and it is through freedom that existentialism approaches questions of value, leading to many of its most recognizable doctrines. Existentialism did not develop much in the way of a normative ethics; however, a certain approach to the theory of value and to moral psychology, deriving from the idea of existence as self-making in situation, are distinctive marks of the existentialist tradition.

Existential moral psychology emphasizes human freedom and focuses on the sources of mendacity, self-deception, and hypocrisy in moral consciousness. The familiar existential themes of anxiety, nothingness, and the absurd must be understood in this context. As a predicate of existence, the concept of freedom is not initially established on the basis of arguments against determinism; nor is it, in Kantian fashion, taken simply as a given of practical self-consciousness.

Rather, it is located in the breakdown of direct practical activity. Both Heidegger and Sartre believe that phenomenological analysis of the kind of intentionality that belongs to moods does not merely register a passing modification of the psyche but reveals fundamental aspects of the self.

Fear, for instance, reveals some region of the world as threatening, some element in it as a threat, and myself as vulnerable. In anxiety, as in fear, I grasp myself as threatened or as vulnerable; but unlike fear, anxiety has no direct object, there is nothing in the world that is threatening. And with this collapse of my practical immersion in roles and projects, I also lose the basic sense of who I am that is provided by these roles. In thus robbing me of the possibility of practical self-identification, anxiety teaches me that I do not coincide with anything that I factically am.

Further, since the identity bound up with such roles and practices is always typical and public, the collapse of this identity reveals an ultimately first-personal aspect of myself that is irreducible to das Man. The experience of anxiety also yields the existential theme of the absurd , a version of what was previously introduced as alienation from the world see the section on Alienation above. So long as I am gearing into the world practically, in a seamless and absorbed way, things present themselves as meaningfully co-ordinated with the projects in which I am engaged; they show me the face that is relevant to what I am doing.

But the connection between these meanings and my projects is not itself something that I experience. Rather, the hammer's usefulness, its value as a hammer, appears simply to belong to it in the same way that its weight or color does. So long as I am practically engaged, in short, all things appear to have reasons for being, and I, correlatively, experience myself as fully at home in the world. In the mood of anxiety, however, it is just this character that fades from the world.

As when one repeats a word until it loses meaning, anxiety undermines the taken-for-granted sense of things. They become absurd. Things do not disappear, but all that remains of them is the blank recognition that they are—an experience that informs a central scene in Sartre's novel Nausea. As Roquentin sits in a park, the root of a tree loses its character of familiarity until he is overcome by nausea at its utterly alien character, its being en soi.

While such an experience is no more genuine than my practical, engaged experience of a world of meaning, it is no less genuine either. An existential account of meaning and value must recognize both possibilities and their intermediaries. To do so is to acknowledge a certain absurdity to existence: though reason and value have a foothold in the world they are not, after all, my arbitrary invention , they nevertheless lack any ultimate foundation.

Values are not intrinsic to being, and at some point reasons give out. In commiting myself in the face of death—that is, aware of the nothingness of my identity if not supported by me right up to the end—the roles that I have hitherto thoughtlessly engaged in as one does now become something that I myself own up to, become responsible for.

This is not to say that Heidegger's and Sartre's views on freedom are identical. But the theory of radical freedom that Sartre develops is nevertheless directly rooted in Heidegger's account of the nothingness of my practical identity. Sartre 70 argues that anxiety provides a lucid experience of that freedom which, though often concealed, characterizes human existence as such. For instance, because it is not thing-like, consciousness is free with regard to its own prior states.

Motives, instincts, psychic forces, and the like cannot be understood as inhabitants of consciousness that might infect freedom from within, inducing one to act in ways for which one is not responsible; rather, they can exist only for consciousness as matters of choice.


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I must either reject their claims or avow them. For Sartre, the ontological freedom of existence entails that determinism is an excuse before it is a theory: though through its structure of nihilation consciousness escapes that which would define it—including its own past choices and behavior—there are times when I may wish to deny my freedom. This is to adopt the third-person stance on myself, in which what is originally structured in terms of freedom appears as a causal property of myself. I can try to look upon myself as the Other does, but as an excuse this flight from freedom is shown to fail, according to Sartre, in the experience of anguish.

For instance, Sartre writes of a gambler who, after losing all and fearing for himself and his family, retreats to the reflective behavior of resolving never to gamble again. This motive thus enters into his facticity as a choice he has made; and, as long as he retains his fear, his living sense of himself as being threatened, it may appear to him that this resolve actually has causal force in keeping him from gambling.

In order for it to influence his behavior he has to avow it afresh, but this is just what he cannot do; indeed, just this is what he hoped the original resolve would spare him from having to do. As Sartre points out in great detail, anguish, as the consciousness of freedom, is not something that human beings welcome; rather, we seek stability, identity, and adopt the language of freedom only when it suits us: those acts are considered by me to be my free acts which exactly match the self I want others to take me to be. Characteristic of the existentialist outlook is the idea that we spend much of lives devising strategies for denying or evading the anguish of freedom.

The idea that freedom is the origin of value—where freedom is defined not in terms of acting rationally Kant but rather existentially, as choice and transcendence—is the idea perhaps most closely associated with existentialism. While it does not explain evaluative language solely as a function of affective attitudes, existential thought, like positivism, denies that values can be grounded in being—that is, that they can become the theme of a scientific investigation capable of distinguishing true or valid from false values. How is it that values are supposed to be grounded in freedom?

Why ought I help the homeless, answer honestly, sit reverently, or get up? For instance, I do not grasp the exigency of the alarm clock its character as a demand in a kind of disinterested perception but only in the very act of responding to it, of getting up. If I fail to get up the alarm has, to that very extent, lost its exigency. Why must I get up? At this point I may attempt to justify its demand by appeal to other elements of the situation with which the alarm is bound up: I must get up because I must go to work. From this point of view the alarm's demand appears—and is —justified, and such justification will often suffice to get me going again.

But the question of the foundation of value has simply been displaced: now it is my job that, in my active engagement, takes on the unquestioned exigency of a demand or value. But it too derives its being as a value from its exigency—that is, from my unreflective engagement in the overall practice of going to work. Ought I go to work? If a man's got to eat, why not rather take up a life of crime? If these questions have answers that are themselves exigent it can only be because, at a still deeper level, I am engaged as having chosen myself as a person of a certain sort: respectable, responsible.

From within that choice there is an answer of what I ought to do, but outside that choice there is none—why should I be respectable, law-abiding? Only if I am at some level engaged do values and so justification in terms of them appear at all. And, as with all anguish, I do not escape this situation by discovering the true order of values but by plunging back into action. If the idea that values are without foundation in being can be understood as a form of nihilism, the existential response to this condition of the modern world is to point out that meaning, value, is not first of all a matter of contemplative theory but a consequence of engagement and commitment.

Thus value judgments can be justified, but only relative to some concrete and specific project. For this reason I can be in error about what I ought to do. It may be that something that appears exigent during the course of my unreflective engagement in the world is something that I ought not to give in to. If, thanks to my commitment to the Resistance, a given official appears to me as to be shot, I might nevertheless be wrong to shoot him—if, for instance, the official was not who I thought he was, or if killing him would in fact prove counter-productive given my longer-term goals.

Sartre's fictional works are full of explorations of moral psychology of this sort. For in order for such considerations to count I would have to make myself the sort of person for whom God's will, abstract Reason, or the current situation is decisive. Yet though I alone can commit myself to some way of life, some project, I am never alone when I do so; nor do I do so in a social, historical, or political vaccuum.

If transcendence represents my radical freedom to define myself, facticity—that other aspect of my being—represents the situated character of this self-making. Because freedom as transcendence undermines the idea of a stable, timeless system of moral norms, it is little wonder that existential philosophers with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir devoted scant energy to questions of normative moral theory.

However, because this freedom is always socially and thereby historically situated, it is equally unsurprising that their writings are greatly concerned with how our choices and commitments are concretely contextualized in terms of political struggles and historical reality.


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  8. For the existentialists engagement is the source of meaning and value; in choosing myself I in a certain sense make my world. On the other hand, I always choose myself in a context where there are others doing the same thing, and in a world that has always already been there. In short, my acting is situated, both socially and historically. Such choices make up the domain of social reality: they fit into a pre-determined context of roles and practices that go largely unquestioned and may be thought of as a kind of collective identity.

    In social action my identity takes shape against a background the collective identity of the social formation that remains fixed. On the other hand, it can happen that my choice puts this social formation or collective identity itself into question: who I am to be is thus inseperable from the question of who we are to be. Here the first-person plural is itself the issue, and the action that results from such choices constitutes the field of the political. But we cannot stop to examine all such differences here.

    Instead, we shall look at the positions of Heidegger and Sartre, who provide opposing examples of how an authentic relation to history and politics can be understood.


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    For Heidegger, to exist is to be historical. This does not mean that one simply finds oneself at a particular moment in history, conceived as a linear series of events. That this choice has a political dimension stems from the fact that existence is always being-with-others. Though authenticity arises on the basis of my being alienated, in anxiety, from the claims made by norms belonging to the everyday life of das Man , any concrete commitment that I make in the movement to recover myself will enlist those norms in two ways.

    The point is that I must understand myself in terms of something , and these possibilities for understanding come from the historical heritage and the norms that belong to it. The idea here seems roughly to be this: To opt for a way of going on is to affirm the norms that belong to it; and because of the nature of normativity it is not possible to affirm norms that would hold only for me.

    There is a kind of publicity and scope in the normative such that, when I choose, I exemplify a standard for others as well.

    Jean-Paul Sartre Books - Biography and List of Works - Author of '-Que Es La Literatura'

    Heidegger suggests that it was this concept of historicality that underwrote his own concrete political engagement during the period of National Socialism in Germany. Heidegger later became very suspicious of this sort of existential politics. But even here, in keeping with the existential notion of historicity, Heidegger's recommendations turn on a reading of history, of the meaning of our time. A very different reading, and a very different recommendation, can be found in the work of Sartre. In making me an object for his projects, the other alienates me from myself, displaces me from the subject position the position from which the world is defined in its meaning and value and constitutes me as something.

    This sets up a dimension of my being that I can neither control nor disavow, and my only recourse is to wrench myself away from the other in an attempt to restore myself to the subject-position. For this reason, on Sartre's model, social reality is in perpetual conflict—an Hegelian dialectic in which, for ontological reasons, no state of mutual recognition can ever be achieved. For social relations take place not only between human beings but also within institutions that have developed historically and that enshrine relations of power and domination.

    Thus the struggle for who will take the subject position is not carried out on equal terms. Employing similar insights in reflection on the situations of ethnic and economic oppression, Sartre sought a way to derive political imperatives in the face of the groundlessness of moral values entailed by his view of the ideality of values. At first, Sartre argued that there was one value—namely freedom itself—that did have a kind of universal authority.

    To commit oneself to anything is also always to commit oneself to the value of freedom. In the latter case, he is contradicting himself, since the very idea of writing presupposes the freedom of the reader, and that means, in principle, the whole of the reading public.

    Whatever the merits of this argument, it does suggest the political value to which Sartre remained committed throughout his life: the value of freedom as self-making. As this statement suggests, Sartre's embrace of Marxism was a function of his sense of history as the factic situation in which the project of self-making takes place. Because existing is self-making action , philosophy—including existential philosophy—cannot be understood as a disinterested theorizing about timeless essences but is always already a form of engagement, a diagnosis of the past and a projection of norms appropriate to a different future in light of which the present takes on significance.

    It therefore always arises from the historical-political situation and is a way of intervening in it. Marxism, like existentialism, makes this necessarily practical orientation of philosophy explicit. From the beginning existentialism saw itself in this activist way and this provided the basis for the most serious disagreements among French existentialists such as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, many of which were fought out in the pages of the journal founded by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Les Temps Modernes.

    Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism is a humanism

    But the later Sartre came to hold that a philosophy of self-making could not content itself with highlighting the situation of individual choice; an authentic political identity could only emerge from a theory that situated such choice in a practically oriented analysis of its concrete situation. Marxism is unsurpassable, therefore, because it is the most lucid theory of our alienated situation of concrete unfreedom, oriented toward the practical-political overcoming of that unfreedom.

    He thus undertook his Critique of Dialectical Reason to restore the promise of Marxism by reconceiving its concept of praxis in terms of the existential notion of project. Dialectical materialism is the unsurpassable philosophy of those who choose, who commit themselves to, the value of freedom. The political claim that Marxism has on us, then, would rest upon the ideological enclave within it: authentic existence as choice.

    Authentic existence thus has an historical, political dimension; all choice will be attentive to history in the sense of contextualizing itself in some temporally narrative understanding of its place. But even here it must be admitted that what makes existence authentic is not the correctness of the narrative understanding it adopts. Authenticity does not depend on some particular substantive view of history, some particular theory or empirical story.

    From this point of view, the substantive histories adopted by existential thinkers as different as Heidegger and Sartre should perhaps be read less as scientific accounts, defensible in third-person terms, than as articulations of the historical situation from the perspective of what that situation is taken to demand, given the engaged commitment of their authors.