Existential Freedom: Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre wrote Existentialism and the Human Emotions in response to the critics who viewed the corollary of his existential philosophy to be solipsism or quietism. Whether existentialists are religious or secular, Sartre states that it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity. Thus, subjectivity is the necessary starting point, for “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” (15)

Sartre says that man is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future and consequently is what he has planned himself to be.  Man is a plan which is aware of itself, where nothing exists prior to this plan. (16) This runs contrary to the Cartesian paradigm stemming from “I think, therefore I am” where essence precedes existence, where concepts are the genesis of operating processes (13). In this view man is dictated by and in bondage to a priori ideas and concepts as a way of existing. However, man’s existence precedes preexisting determinations. In this way existence precedes his very essence, rendering man totally free.

Freedom is the predetermined nature that establishes a commonality of human nature. Existence is a universal human predicament, a condition that precedes consciousness, a situation man finds himself in. (14) Man’s commodity is his necessity to determine, his freedom in choosing to be. With this freedom, Sartre says, comes a responsibility for determining what he is. Every act contributes to the creation of man’s image so that every choice establishes an essence of man. (17) Man is always responsible for his choice to choose what he is to be and how he is to live: he is always in the making, continually projecting himself into the world and materializing his freedom through action, through deciding. (50)

Sartre emphasizes the responsibility man has to this freedom. A dishonest man is one who believes in passion and other deterministic excuses. Man is responsible for his passions. There is no conception prior to what man has expressed through his actions. (23) Man fashions himself through his actions, by expressing himself through a series of undertakings, through an ensemble of choices, in which he is the sum of the organization and relationships contained therein. (33) This image of man forms a constitution that is continually manifested through his total involvement on the basis of the repeated acts he forms. (34) In this way, man is a destiny unto himself in which his actions enable him to live. (35)

This freedom extends not only to the individual, but to others. Because there is no a priori conception of man, what he is and should and can be, every choice and action contributes to what we believe the image of man ought to be. (17) By allowing for the understanding of self and others, intersubjectivity establishes a universality among men that is a comprehensible human condition. Sartre says his choices to pass beyond or recede from limits or deny or adapt, represent a configuration of man in a set of circumstances. (33) This configuration is perpetually made through choosing or building an understanding of other’s configuration. (39) Thus, since the creation and invention of man’s image occurs our freedom comes with a responsibility to all mankind.

Sartre says that the fundamental project of human reality is the desire to be God since God “represents the permanent limit in terms of which man makes known to himself what he is”. (63) Freedom is the choice to create itself its own possibilities. Consequently, freedom is a lack of being. By being something concrete, one is not free. Therefore, the annihilation of being is freedom. (65) Man’s project, Sartre says, is to manifest freedom through a lack of being by making itself the desire of being, that is, making “the project-for-itself of being in-itself-for-itself”. (66)

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel Press, 1987.

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