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Existentialism and Humanism

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Existentialism and Humanism (French: L'existentialisme est un humanisme, "Existentialism is a Humanism") is a 1946 work by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, based on a lecture called "Existentialism is a Humanism" he gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on 29 October 1945. Existentialism and Humanism was the title used in the United Kingdom; the work was originally published in the United States as Existentialism. The work, once influential and a popular starting-point in discussions of Existentialist thought, has been criticized by several philosophers. Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in it and regretted its publication.

Existentialism and Humanism
Existentialism and Humanism (French edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Jean-Paul Sartre
Original title L'existentialisme est un humanisme
Translators Philip Mairet
Carol Macomber
Country France
Language French
Subject Existentialism
Publisher Les Editions Nagel, Methuen & Co
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 70 (English edition)
ISBN 978-0413313003



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. Sartre closes his work by emphasizing that existentialism, as it is a philosophy of action and one's defining oneself, is optimistic and liberating.

Publication historyEdit

First published in French in 1946, Existentialism and Humanism was published in an English translation by Philip Mairet in 1948. In the United States, the work was originally published as Existentialism.[1] Another English translation, by Carol Macomber, was published under the title existentialism is a humanism in 2007. It has an introduction by Annie Cohen-Solal and notes and preface by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre.[2]


Existentialism is a Humanism has been translated into English several times, and was once, according to the philosopher Mary Warnock, "a popular starting-point in discussions of existentialist thought,"[3] while in Thomas Baldwin's words the lecture Existentialism and Humanism was based upon "seized the imagination of a generation."[4]

Several philosophers have criticized Existentialism and Humanism.[5][1][6][7][3][8] Martin Heidegger wrote in a letter to the philosopher and Germanist 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."[5] Marjorie Grene found Sartre's discussion of "the problem of the relation between individuals" in Existentialism and Humanism to be weaker than the one he offered in Being and Nothingness (1943).[8] Walter Kaufmann commented that while "L'existentialisme est un humanisme" "has been widely mistaken for the definitive statement of existentialism" it is "a brilliant lecture which bears the stamp of the moment." According to Kaufmann, Sartre makes factual errors, including misidentifying philosopher Karl Jaspers as a Catholic, and presents a definition of existentialism that is open to question.[1] Thomas C. Anderson criticized Sartre 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.[6] 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."[7] Sartre himself later rejected some of the views he expressed in the work, and regretted its publication. Warnock believes he was right to dismiss it.[3]

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek sees a parallel between Sartre's views and claims made by the character Father Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880): whereas Sartre believes that with total freedom comes total responsibility, for Father Zosima "each of us must make us responsible for all men's sins".[9]

The neurobiologist Steven Rose, writing in Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism (1997), commented that Sartre's views on human nature represented an extreme that he did not share, and described a statement in which Sartre maintained that man "will be what he makes of himself" as a "windily rhetorical paean to the dignity of universalistic man" and "more an exercise in political sloganeering than a sustainable philosophical position." He pointed to aging and disease as factors that limit human freedom.[10]



  1. ^ a b c Kaufmann 1975, pp. 280–281.
  2. ^ Kulka 2007, p. 10.
  3. ^ a b c Warnock 2003, p. xvii.
  4. ^ Baldwin 2005, p. 835.
  5. ^ a b Heidegger 2008, p. 232.
  6. ^ a b Anderson 1979.
  7. ^ a b Murdoch 1997, p. 111.
  8. ^ a b Grene 1959, pp. 72–73.
  9. ^ Zizek 2004, p. 327.
  10. ^ Rose 1997, pp. 1, 5–6.



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