Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French existential philosopher. It is difficult to know exactly what Sartre meant by existentialism. His book, Being and Nothingness would seem to explicate the nature of existentialism but made matters worse. Like Heidegger his philosophical writing is difficult to understand (his novels such as No Exit, Nausea etc are easier to understand. I am not sure that Sartre himself knew what he was writing about. I am not sure that he knew what existentialism means. Saying that Existence precedes essence means nothing, it is just a play of words.
Instead of worrying about what Sartre said let me take this opportunity to say what I think that existentialism means.
Looking at our lives on planet earth, it does not seem to make sense. We are born, live and die. If we ask: why are we living, we do not find any ready answer. Our lives seem meaningless and purposeless.
Oh, the various religions posit what to them is the purpose of living. But a little thinking quickly disposes those as rubbish.
Whoever created human beings gave them the faculty of reasoning and they ought to use it to evaluate religious propositions. Many of us who were raised by religious parents by age fourteen evaluated our religions, and found them vacuous, empty ceremonies.
The rational person rejects his received religion for it is empty words that do not give him meaning and purpose.
Science is a way of describing the material universe. As a descriptive endeavor, science has done a wonderful job describing physical phenomena. But science has no idea what the world is for and why we are living.
Why are we living? What is the purpose or meaning of existence? Science, like extant religions, has no clue. We do not know why we are living. We do not see any point to our lives. We do not see any meaning and purpose to our lives.
It is dreadful to live and not know why one lives. We eat food to stay alive, and work to make a living. We make money to be able to buy food to sustain our bodies. But why must our bodies be sustained?
Why are we kept alive? Honestly, one does not see any answer. This is depressing. To live is to be depressed, to be in despair, to be despondent.
As Schopenhauer observed, it seems that nature made a mistake in producing human beings, beings who seek meaning but do not see any meaning to their lives. It would seem that non-existence is better than meaningless existence.
Many confront existential nothingness and opt for suicide and kill themselves and get it over with. But suicide seems a cowardly option. It seems that there is another option.
Nietzsche recommended the tragic hero option. Live optimally, do what you want to do and do it maximally and then die. Life may be meaningless and purposeless still live and live well. Nietzsche was an existentialist.
Existentialism means seeing life with clarity of vision, seeing it for what it is, a meaningless thing. It means deciding to live despite life’s apparent meaninglessness. One, therefore, decides on what one likes doing and figures out what ones aptitude is and goes and trains for a job that one likes doing and that one has an aptitude in, and throws ones self into doing it. One does it for the fun of doing it, not because of any illusions that it would make life different from it is, meaningless. It is nice doing what one likes doing.
One must recognize that all our works amount to nothing. Consider that in a few billion years the sun would swell up into a supernova and incorporate our planet and blow both to smithereens and we end. Everything we do must come to dust. That is our fate.
Nothing we build lasts forever. The pyramids have been around for five thousand years but they are gradually been worn down by the elements. Give or take, a few more thousand years and they would become sand. Actually, one level 9 earthquake and they are reduced to rubbles.
Man is that creature that builds beautiful structures only to see them return to sand. Such is life, cest la vie; don’t cry for man. Qui Sara Sara, that is just the way life is.
Existentialism means understanding the futility of being a human being, and like a tragic hero who is destined to die still live doing what one enjoys doing. Like Sisyphus one keeps rolling that rock up a hill knowing that it would roll right back down. One never gives up. One just keeps doing what existence requires of us and despite all the plagues of this world one lives on. (See Albert Camus, Plague, The Rebel etc.)
Does life end with death? If I said yes I would be an atheist. I would be making a religious statement, for, in fact, I do not know for sure that life ends with death. I simply cannot answer that question. Does that mean that I am an agnostic? Agnostics say that they do not know any thing for sure and sit on the fence uncommitted to anything?
An existentialist posits what makes sense to him and lives as if it is true, even though he does not know that it is true.
Like Karl Jasper, I believe that there is life after death. I believe that there is a unified spirit world. I cannot prove its reality. I believe that man, if sane, is a loving and caring creature. This is despite seeing men who behave like predators and kill other men. I believe that we are loving creatures. I believe that we are ultimately spiritual beings. I cannot prove any of these through rational discourse and do not even try to.
True or not, I live as if my beliefs are true. I commit myself to living according to my beliefs. Living according to my beliefs makes my life seem peaceful and joyful.
Peace and joy seem good enough reason to live for me. This is what existentialism, means to me.
I believe that this is what existentialism means and that it is what Sartre was trying to say in his convoluted writing but managed to confuse rather than clarify it. Consider his Being and Nothingness.
What is nothingness? Nothing means no particular thing. No particular thing means everything. Therefore, to say that we are nothing is to say that we are everything.
Everything is one thing. We are everything; we are one thing. Being is nothing which is everything.
I do not know whether that was what Sartre said, and, frankly, I do not care what he said. I do not care what he said for he was a confused man torn between Marxism and existentialism.
Sartre attempted to borrow from Oriental religions (such as Hinduism’s concept of Nothingness) but did not seem to have studied and understood oriental religions. Sartre seems a confused Western philosopher.
In his book on the transcendence of the ego he seems to have an inkling of what I am talking about. There is something in us (Kant’s Thing in itself) that transcends our separated ego self. That thing in itself is beyond our present ego consciousness, in Sartre’s language; it is pre-reflective thinking, pre-thought. It cannot be explained or described in our ego based language, for the ego’s language is meant to describe a separated world, whereas that thing in itself is unified and therefore beyond the purview of ego language.
Self knowledge, as we currently understand it, is knowledge of the ego self, the separated self, the lower self. We cannot know the Thing in itself, the unified self that underlies our being, the ground of being.
In the unified spirit self there is no you and I, no other; all are one self; there is no subject and object, no seeing of others, for all are one self and there is no other person to see; in it there is no perception, for perception requires divided consciousness, separated selves.
God is unified consciousness; that unified consciousness, unified self, can only be experienced when the separated conscious self is tuned out. As long as one feels an I and not I, sees ones self as apart from other selves, one cannot experience unified spirit self, an eternal self.
Sartre wrote on many subjects and was also an activist; he took active part in the struggle to liberate third world countries from the clutches of European colonialism. As an activist he was admirable but as philosopher he was obscurantist. In the end, he helped popularize the philosophy of existentialism even if he did not clarify what it is.
Jean Paul Sartre. The Transcendence of the ego (1937)
Jean Paul Sartre. Nausea. (1938)
Jean Paul Sartre. The Unconscious. (1940)
Jean Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness. (1943)