Jean-Paul Sartre


  • 1928: met Simone de Beauvoir, his lifelong companion and the author of The Second Sex.
  • 1940: Sartre was conscripted into the French military before being captured by Nazi Germany. He was held as a prisoner of war for over a year before escaping to join the French Resistance.
  • His major works included Nausea (1938), Being and Nothingness (1943),  and No Exit (1944),
  • After World War II, he became a committed socialist. While he condemned the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union, Sartre believed that the workers of the USSR were better off than those who lived in the West.
  • In 1948, the Catholic Church placed all of Sartre’s works on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books.
  • 1960s: Sartre became a hero of the student revolutionaries in France and the United States.


Existence Precedes Essence

  • One of the best known of Sartre’s sayings was “Existence precedes essence,” by which he meant that what we are is more important than how we define ourselves.
  • Sartre’s slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” 
  • JPS: “A human being is nothing else but what he makes of himself; he exists only as much as he realizes himself.”
  • Tim Rayner explains Sartre’s view: “Sartre argued that we must actively create our life through choices and decisions. We must not fall into the trap of letting life define us. We must define it. We must become meaning makers in life, creating sense and purpose through our decisions.”
  • JPS wrote: “What existentialists have in common is that they believe that existence comes before essence. . . . man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. . . . to begin with, he is nothing.”


  • There is no God, no good, no transcendent set of values by which we will be judged.  We should endeavor to live the life we desire even though the universe is absurd and life is ultimately futile.
  • No human activity is inherently better than any other. We choose to make one act better than another by our choice to do it.
  • With each choice, I make myself and imply an entire morality whether I like it or not.
  • Do whatever you want–just be aware of the act of choosing.

The Gift and Curse of Freedom

  • Sartre believed that modern society was dominated by structures that failed to affirm and actually damaged the individual’s sense of self: capitalism, colonialism, racism, and sexism.
  • Existentialism, as said, is all about freedom. At the heart of freedom is choice and at the heart of choice is action.
  • Despite these pressures, Sartre believed that people are always free.
  • Humans have the freedom to choose their own identities, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. As a prisoner of war under the Nazis, Sartre experienced a situation in which this freedom was incredibly curtailed.
  • Freedom is humanity’s gift and curse, because with freedom comes the responsibility to shape our own lives.
  • Ethics are a matter of individual conscience; there are no universal standards of behavior.
  • Freedom makes us anxious, because there is nothing but our freedom itself to stop us from performing dangerous, destructive acts at any moment.
  • This does not mean that we can never choose. As Sartre says, “Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose (Being and Nothingness, p. 503).”
  • Gary Cox notes that, according to Sartre, this freedom is boundless:

Just as freedom is necessary, so it is also limitless. Not limitless in the sense that a person is free to do anything, fly unaided, walk on water or lick his elbow, but limitless in the sense that his obligation to be free, his obligation to choose a response in every situation, is unremitting. Even if a person is disabled and unable to walk, for example, his freedom is still unlimited. He is not free to walk in the sense of being at liberty to walk, but he is still free to choose the meaning of his disability and hence responsible for his response to it. Controversially, Sartre says, ‘I can not be crippled without choosing myself as crippled. This means that I choose the way in which I constitute my disability (as “unbearable,” “humiliating,” “to be hidden,” “to be revealed to all,” “an object of pride,” “the justification for my failures,” etc.)’ (Being and Nothingness, p. 352).

The Difficulty of Knowing the Self

  • Gary Cox: “Being a true existentialist, practising authentic behaviour, can be as simple as this. As simple as the difference between having your hand held and holding hands.”
  •  Leslie Stevenson notes:

“The crucial concept in his diagnosis is that of self-deception or ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi). Bad faith is the attempt to escape anguish by pretending to ourselves that we are not free. We try to convince ourselves that our attitudes and actions are determined by our character, our situation, our role in life, or anything other than ourselves. Sartre gives two famous examples of bad faith. He pictures a girl sitting with a man who she knows very well would like to seduce her. But when he takes her hand, she tries to avoid the painful necessity of a decision to accept or reject him, by pretending not to notice, leaving her hand in his as if she were not aware of it. She pretends to herself that she is a passive object, a thing, rather than what she really is, a conscious being who is free. The second illustration of the cafe waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously ‘acting the part’. If there is bad faith here, it is that he is trying to identify himself completely with the role of waiter, to pretend that this particular role determines his every action and attitude. Whereas the truth is that he has chosen to take on the job, and is free to give it up at any time. He is not essentially a waiter, for no man is essentially anything.” (Seven Theories of Human Nature,1974) 

  • Sartre described living in a state of mauvais foi, which means bad faith, when we delude ourselves.
  • Fundamentally, we engage in bad faith when we:
    • attempt to impose meaning or coherence on our lives.
    • internalize identities granted by other people or society (the good soon, the humble worker).
    • claim that our actions are “just the way we are.”
  • The best way to thinking of bad faith is as an ongoing project of self-distraction or self-evasion.
  • We cannot actual deceive ourselves, as that is impossible.


“The difficulties facing a person striving for sustained authentic existence are enormous. In his War Diaries Sartre acknowledges his own failure to achieve sustained authentic existence. ‘I am not authentic, I have halted on the threshold of the promised lands. But at least I point the way to them and others can go there’ (War Diaries, p. 62). Sartre does not mention, however, why others should achieve what he, of all people, failed to achieve. If the great champion of authenticity, with his vast will power and his superior mental strength cannot achieve authentic existence, what hope is there for the rest of us? A quick summary: Authentic existence is a project that has to be continually reassumed. A person is only as authentic as his present act. Even if he has been consistently authentic for a whole week, if he is not authentic right now then he is not authentic. Given the world’s endless temptations to bad faith, the difficulties of resisting regret and imposed inauthenticity, the fact that habit and other people’s expectations shape a person’s life as much as his capacity to choose, it is very difficult for anyone to sustain authenticity for a significant period of time. Most people are probably only capable of achieving authenticity occasionally. Nevertheless, authenticity is an existentialist ideal worth struggling for.” –Gary Cox

  • Self-actualization means recognizing factual realities outside the self that are acting on and shaping the self (facticity).
  • To some extent, Sartre presents a paradox: we are responsible for our own consciousness, but it’s never quite graspable, as it is always changing. Authenticity is an incredible challenge. A person cannot simply be authentic, he has to be authentic. That is, he has to constantly strive to be authentic without ever being able to become an authentic thing.
  • If a person ever thinks he is authentic in the same way that a rock is a rock, he is no longer authentic and has actually slid back into bad faith. Authenticity is not a permanent foundation that a person chooses to establish at a particular time once and for all, but rather what existentialist philosophers call a metastable foundation that a person must constantly maintain by constantly choosing authentic responses to his situation.
  • For Sartre, to dispense with wilful ignorance and irresponsibility and instead to courageously affirm the existential truths of the human condition – abandonment in a Godless universe, freedom, responsibility, mortality and so on – is to overcome bad faith in favor of authenticity. 


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