For this lecture, read Sartre’s essay Existentialism is a Humanism.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), pronounced, ‘Sart’, though the British pronounce it ‘Sar-truh’, who coined the term ‘Existentialism’, is often known better as an author of novels and plays than as a philosopher in Britain and America. This is in part political. With Stalin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia, many European intellectuals had to choose whether to continue to be Marxists or to abandon Communism all together, often remaining socialists, but identifying as ‘post-Marxists’ who no longer have faith in the entirely planned economy of Communism.
Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), a friend of Sartre, author of The Strangerand The Rebel, chose to abandon Marxism, while Sartre decided to continue to identify with Marxism and Communism, continuing to believe that violent revolution was unfortunately necessary and in the interests of the common people. Camus was often called an Existentialist, but he rejected the label and called himself an absurdist, like the Dada and Surrealist artists. In his novel The Stranger, his most famous work, a man is put on trial for killing an Arab teenager who tried to stab him. The judge and jury are not vindictive, as the Arab is a stranger to their culture, but then when it is revealed that the man never truly loved his mother, who was distant and cold to him, and that he did not really feel anything when she died, they turn against him and give him a harsh sentence, as he is now the stranger. This fits nicely with the way that Sartre turned the thinking of Heidegger about inauthenticity and technology towards social roles and racism.
Sartre saw his own philosophy as an extension of the work of Heidegger. In response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre wrote his Being and Nothingness. In it, he argues like Heidegger that the basic condition of humanity is anxiety, inauthentically interpreted as fear of particulars in the face of the indefinite unknown, and that much of the time we avoid this deeper fear by trying to keep what we like and avoid what we hate. In the process, we become ignorant of ourselves, of the world, and of our relationships with our fellow human beings. However, while Heidegger stressed our involvement and entanglement with the world, Sartre, following Kierkegaard, stressed our alienation and isolation in a world that offers no solid answers, leading many to consider Existentialism equivalent to nihilism.
Sartre, as a Heideggerian, argues that there is a consistent way that we inauthentically try to avoid the dynamic life of our relationships with others, both those with whom we are intimate (family, friends, partners) and those whom we pass on the street or encounter in a shop. Sartre uses his famous example of the cafe waiter to illustrate. Sartre did much of his writing in the cafes of Paris, and he describes the scene as if he is witnessing it firsthand. The waiter in a cafe plays his role, over-emphasizing the rigidity and seriousness of the gestures, the bows, the distribution and collecting of menus, the seriousness with which orders are taken, to define himself as a waiter, filling his role. We and he come to see him as a waiter and not as a human being.
The waiter becomes a robot, and his individuality disappears, both for our and his comfort. We find it easier to interact with a role than with the actor as a person, and the actor finds it easier to lose themselves in the role than to try to retain individuality while serving in their position. Recall Zizek’s earlier example, which seems lifted straight from Sartre. For Sartre, it becomes easy for us to lose sight of the situation as a whole, that this is not a waiter in essence but a human being playing the role of a waiter. While it would be tiresome to say, “Excuse me, authentic human individual playing the temporary role of a waiter, can I have another espresso?”, our substitution of the word ‘waiter’ for the individual does violence to our awareness of the situation.
Sartre wrote Antisemitism and Jew in 1944, as Paris was liberated from the Nazis. Like Nietzsche, Sartre argues that racism, that which the Nazis had for Jews as well as that which the French had and have for North African Arabs and native Africans, is a similar violent inauthentic effort to box up the other rather than deal with the complexity of our fellow human beings. Camus, Sartre’s former friend, was white and French but raised in Algiers, North Africa, and witnessed this racism firsthand, which is why it is central to the Stranger.
In his play No Exit, Sartre’s main character famously says, “Hell is other people”. We are constantly faced with others who do and do not know themselves as we do and do not know ourselves. Like the horizon of time for Heidegger, the ‘Other’ threatens to give us new strange meaning while taking our meaning away. To face this authentically is to have a good and positive faith in life and the creation of meaning. To have what Sartre calls “bad faith” is to trust that meanings are closed and dead, that the waiter is nothing more to oneself than a waiter, that the Jew, Arab or African is nothing more to oneself or one’s nation than simply ‘Other’ with no relation.
Sartre, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, believed that art can liberate us from the common human condition, however most art is inauthentic. Much literature reinforces our prejudices and ideas, giving us a shallow and false substitute for meaning in an increasingly mechanized and commodified world. Sartre sought to write and entertain in ways that opened up audiences to examine themselves, their world, and each other with new possibilities of meaning and activity. This is as true of the individual, who could come to identify with the waiter as a friend, as it is of society, which could come to identify with the marginalized and oppressed. Rather than hold up barriers between self and other, we must, as Hegel argues, seek resolution of contradictions not merely to gain the powers of reason, but to be truly alive. This is why Sartre joined Foucault in the streets of Paris in the sixties, to change what the Frankfurt School called the Establishment.
Sartre’s circle of fellow Existentialists included Merleau-Ponty, whom we have already discussed, as well as Simone De Beauvoir and Franz Fanon. Simone De Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)was a novelist and philosopher who had a central impact on the second wave of feminism that rose in the 50s and 60s. She studied mathematics and philosophy, writing her thesis on Leibniz. She began teaching at the same school as Merleau-Ponty, and then took the top test for philosophy in France, placing second just after Sartre. The two became close, and Sartre asked her to marry him, but instead the two shared a lifelong open relationship, never sharing a house or having children. Some have argued that Sartre took many of his best ideas from discussions with her, presenting them as his own. Today, the two are buried next to each other.
De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1949, arguing that women had been marginalized as the mysterious yet inferior Hegelian ‘Other’, and that, just like in marginalization of ethnic groups and the poor, women were cast as irrational and so their voices and problems went unheard and disregarded. Famously arguing that one is not born a woman but becomes one, she argued as an Existentialist that women must recreate their identity, choosing themselves as individuals as Kierkegaard would have it. For this, she is known as the founder of Existential Feminism, or Feminist Existentialism, both terms in use. Judith Butler, one of the most famous feminist philosophers today, similarly argues that gender is a performance.
Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961) began his career in psychiatry and became a revolutionary whose writings are a central source for Postcolonialism, sometimes called Neocolonialism. While Colonialism is the term for Western Europeans creating empires out of colonies and islands far away from their homelands, today we live in a world that is legally decolonized but remains largely in colonial form. Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony. Though middle class, he witnessed the racist brutality of the French military toward the African population who were descended from slaves brought by the French to Martinique to work on plantations. Fanon went to France and studied psychology and medicine, becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. He also studied philosophy, and attended lectures by Merleau-Ponty. Later, he ran a hospital in Algiers, applied experimental methods in anti-racist psychiatry, and supported the Algerian rebels against French colonialism.
In Fanon’s Damned of the Earth, which was published in 1961 just before his death, Fanon argued that colonialism had taught oppressed people to interiorize racism such that they considered themselves bad and ugly and thus became self-destructive and violent against their fellow oppressed people. Fanon, in accord with the Existentialism of Nietzsche and Sartre, saw racism as a form of lying to oneself to avoid the endless transformation of our existence and the questioning gaze of the Other. The black body and mind is devalued to affirm and celebrate the West, white culture and achievements including colonial control of the globe. His writings have been an inspiration to many anti-racist and anti-establishment groups, including the Black Panthers of Oakland.