Existentialism is a Humanism, decoded

I would like to defend existentialism against a number of criticisms.

Our critics say that existentialists encourage people to give up in despair. But by ‘existentialism’, we mean the philosophy that makes human life possible and declares that every truth and every action have a context and a subjectivity. Some people say we focus on the bad side of life. A sophisticated lady, I hear, says, “I think I’m becoming an existentialist” every time she utters a bad word. Philosophers of popular wisdom—and how sad it would be to be one of those!—find us even sadder. But they say things like, “everything happens for a reason” and “don’t cry over spilt milk” and “nothing ever changes”. Yet these same people say existentialists are dark and depressing. I wonder if it is not our optimism that upsets them. Perhaps it is our belief in choice. To find out, we need to talk about philosophy and what it is we call existentialism.

Few people could define ‘existentialism’, even though many use the word. Existentialism isn’t at all scandalous; in fact, it is an austere doctrine, of interest only to technicians and philosophers. It is a little complicated, however, because there are two kinds of existentialists: Christian and atheist—I am an atheist. Both groups believe that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that we must begin from subjectivity. What does this mean? Think of a manufactured object, like a pair of scissors. It was made by someone who was thinking. She thought about how to cut paper and how to put the scissors together, and how to make them efficiently. Thus, they have a shape and a purpose, and nobody would just happen to make an object of that shape without thinking about the purpose of a scissors.

For a manufactured object like this, essence precedes existence. The purpose and assembly of the scissors are worked out in advance, before they are actually manufactured. The essence (or the purpose, or the function) of the tool is already decided before it exists.

God is described as a craftsman. God is supposed to produce humans well, and according to a design, and we are supposed to have his spirit—so clearly atheistic existentialism is more consistent than Christian existentialism. Atheistic existentialism says that that if there is no God, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence: humankind. We mean that people come into the world before they are defined —in contrast to objects (like the scissors), which are defined before they come into the world. People are, at first, nothing, since there is no divine plan; this is the first principle of existentialism, and it is also called subjectivity. We are often criticized for it, but all we are saying is that people have more dignity than things. People exist; people are thrust into the future and know that they have a future. People think of themselves as projects, not objects.

But if existence precedes essence, then we are responsible for what we are. When we say that people are responsible for themselves, we do not mean to say that that each person is responsible for her individuality; instead, we want to say that she is responsible for all people. We can never choose evil; what a person chooses is always good, for herself, and nothing can be good for an individual without being good for everyone. Therefore, we have much more responsibility than it appears at first, because every choice involves all humankind.

Now we can see what the existentialist jargon ‘anguish’, ‘abandonment’ and ‘despair’ means. Existentialists say that people are in ‘happy anguish’. We mean that every person who realizes that she is making a decision for all people when she makes a decision for herself must have a sense of deep responsibility.

Certainly, many people do not believe that they need to take that kind of responsibility, and when asked “But what if everyone did that?” just shrug and say, “Everybody does not do that.” We cannot avoid the question so easily, though; we can only avoid it with ‘bad faith’.

When, for example, a sergeant orders an attack and sends a number of men to die, he chooses, and he chooses alone. Of course, he must follow orders from his commanders, but the orders are vague and general, and the sergeant must interpret them for the particular circumstances he is in. In this situation, he must feel anxiety. He, and he alone, is making life and death decisions. All leaders feel that anguish—and far from preventing them from acting, that anguish is required for a free decision. Feeling torn between different choices means that the choices are being considered carefully, and, when a choice has been made, the choice is valuable because it was chosen.

We talk about abandonment, because God does not exist and we must explain what that means. Dostoevsky wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permitted, and therefore we are lost; there is no fixed star we might use to orient ourselves. We must strike out in a direction of our choosing and not one given to us. There is no human nature; there is no determinism. We are free. We are freedom. We have neither excuses nor justifications for our conduct.

Let me give you an example of abandonment. I had a student in an ethical dilemma. His father had left him. His brother had been killed by the Nazis, and his mother loved my student very dearly. In fact, she lived for him; he knew that she would be heartbroken if he left her. Yet my student wanted to avenge the killing of his brother by fighting in the French Underground, even while he wanted to support and care for his mother—and perhaps even keep her alive.

On the one hand, if he were to go to fight, he might be killed right away. He might end up doing only paperwork. He might get stuck in a refugee or prison camp. In short, before he left, he had no way to tell how effective he would be. So, on the one hand, he could take a chance and perhaps make a large difference—or, more likely, make no difference at all. On the other hand, he could help out his mother in a very real, very certain, but very small way. Therefore, he had a choice to make.

How could he choose? With Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine is far too vague. It says, choose the hardest way, love your neighbour, sacrifice. But how do those rules help? Which way is the hardest? Who should he love—his mother or his compatriots? What should he sacrifice? His pride or his family?

Could he use an ethical system to choose? No. Kant says, “never treat others as a means, only ever as an ends.” That is useless! Whatever he chooses, he will end up treating someone as a means.

This is the trouble with values. Values are vague. They are too imprecise to help with concrete cases. So, some might say, perhaps we should trust our instincts. And that is just what my student said; he said he’d follow his heart—if he loved his mother enough, he’d stay with her. Otherwise, he’d leave. But how could he determine how much he loved his mother? He can only tell how much he loves her by staying with her. It is very easy for me to say, “If I win the lottery, I’ll pay off my friends’ mortgages”, but until I win the lottery, I simply don’t mean it. I make my sentiments meaningful by acting on them, but I also make my actions meaningful by basing them on feeling. It is a vicious circle. My student cannot say that he will base his actions on feeling instead of theory; he feelings are based on actions even while his actions are rooted in feeling.

Gide says that playful, imaginative feelings and real, living feelings are almost the same. My student would decide that he loves his mother by staying with her, not before he makes the decision to do so. The feeling is built by the actions, and so I cannot try to feel my way through the actions. I get the feeling of love for my family by loving my family. My student, then, cannot say to himself “do I love my mother enough to stay?” before he actually stays and loves her.

Perhaps, you say, he should go see a priest or a professor. If he did, though, he would already have chosen the answer. When he came to see me, an existentialist, he knew what I was going to say: you are free to choose; you are free to invent. No ethical code can help you.

Catholics might say that there are mystical signs. Let’s face it: whatever the signs say, we read the directions we want from them. When I was a captive in the French Resistance, I knew a man who had been a failure at everything: love, money, family, and even military training. He took this all as a sign that he was not meant for secular triumphs—but he could have interpreted the signs in any number of ways. Perhaps he should have become a revolutionary. Perhaps a carpenter. The ‘signs’ do not say anything. He wanted to interpret the ‘signs’ in the way he did. This is what we mean by ‘abandonment’. There is no guide or map. There are no signs. We choose who we want to be.

Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “I can’t do it. Let them do it.” Existentialism is the opposite of quietism, since it says there is no imaginary identity we have apart from what we have accomplished. We are nothing but our projects. People do not have potential; people are nothing but their actions, nothing more than the lives they have lived. Of course this is horrifying to many people. Some people want to think that they failed because they were dealt a bad hand or had bad luck— “of course I never found love; I just never met the right person. Of course I haven’t accomplished much, but I still have time and potential.” But, for us, there is no love other than the love that is being built. There are no books other than those that have been written, no paintings other than those that have been painted. Of course, we do not mean that people are one-dimensional; an artist should not be judged as a person based only on her artwork.

When we are reproached, it is not for our pessimism, but for our optimistic toughness. An existentialist says that a coward is responsible for his cowardice. He wasn’t born like that; he made himself a coward. Saying this scares people. People want to have been born a coward or—especially—to have been born a hero. A hero can get out of bed heroically, sip coffee valiantly, iron his shirt with a lion’s heart. What we say is that a coward is a coward, and a hero is a hero, and it is always possible for the coward to become a hero and for the hero to become a coward. What matters is the total commitment, not a particular action.

I think those are all the criticisms. Now I’d like to speak about subjectivity. There is only one true starting point: “I think therefore I am”.

The subjectivity in the cogito is not the wishy-washy subjectivity of individual opinion. In the cogito, we can find others as well as ourselves. When I say, “I think” (even if Descartes would disagree), I see myself in front of ‘the other’, and the other is as certain to me as myself. I can only see truths about myself by putting myself in the place of another and seeing me as the other would. I define myself against and by the other, and I need her to understand myself. And, when I see that there are parts of me that are private, I find freedom. The other helps or opposes me. This is how we find ‘intersubjectivity’. Against the other, I see what is me and what is not me.

Furthermore, there is a universal human condition. While our historical situations vary (some of us are born slaves, some kings), there are a priori limits that outline our fundamental situation in the universe: we live in the world, we are surrounded by others, we are mortal, and we work on our lives. These limits are neither subjective nor objective; they have both a subjective and an objective side. They are subjective because they are lived, and they do not exist except as human experiences. They are objective because we all live them and we do not create these limits. Thus, every human life, no matter how individual, has universal value. I can understand the life of an Indian, a Chinese, or an African American. There is always a way to understand the impaired, the child, or the foreigner—if we have enough information.

Our critics say that subjectivism leads to moral promiscuity, that we cannot judge others, and that, if existentialism is true, we merely chose existentialism—so existentialism is not very serious. These objections are not very good.

The first objection, you can choose anything, is not accurate. There is one thing I cannot choose: I cannot choose to not choose! By not choosing, I choose. Compare action to making art. An artist paints on a blank canvas. She invents. She does not have a picture to be painted or rules that must be followed; she constructs her painting, and the painting to be made is exactly and only the picture that was made. It is the same for moral actions. Both in art and in ethics, we cannot decide a priori what to do.

Secondly, we are told that we cannot judge others. This is partly true. Whenever a person chooses her project sincerely and lucidly, she could not prefer another. It is also true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. The human condition is the same everywhere. The moral problem has not changed since the time when one could choose between slavery and emancipation.

But existentialists can judge, because all people choose in front of others. People choose who they want to be. We can judge, then, that some choices are based on error and others on truth. This isn’t a value judgment, but it is a fact. Some decisions are made poorly.

We can judge a man by saying he is in bad faith. Life is freedom of choice, so every person who hides behind the excuse of his passions or behind a false determinism is acting in bad faith. As I said, this is not a value judgment; it is just the truth. When we choose, however, we choose for all of humankind. When I want my freedom, I want it for all people. So, when a man says that he wants to hide his freedom behind some flimsy excuse, when a man says that he is just a slave to his passions or causes—well, I call that man a coward. Those men who say they were destined to be here, or that the world has a plan—I call them bastards. Kant said that the free person wants freedom for herself and for others. That is an objective ethics—take, for example my student. His action is concrete, but his theories are abstract. He must make a free decision, and the only thing that matters is whether his choice and his action is done in the name of freedom.

The third objection is this: “you receive with one hand what you give to the other”, that is to say, our values are not very serious, since we just chose them; they weren’t, I suppose, given by God or as a universal law. I reply: I’m sorry, but existentialism is still correct. God does not exist, so values must be invented. These are just the facts. And anyway, life still has value; it simply does not have value before you are born. You give your life meaning by choosing what you will do with your life. Thus, you see, there is the possibility of creating a human community.

There are two kinds of ‘humanism’. There is the humanism that makes heroes out of some and revels in their successes. This is the humanism of the people who watch the

Olympics or revere astronauts. These people consider themselves honoured by the acts of other people. This humanism is absurd. It is a cult that leads to fascism.

But there is another kind of humanism, which says that people can stand outside themselves and transcend themselves. We can see ourselves in the future and pursue transcendent goals. When we step outside ourselves, we have real knowledge and we truly exist. There is no universe other than the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. Existential humanism is the acknowledgement of this subjectivity and our presence in the human world, while knowing that self-transcendence is what makes us human. Humanists know that people make the laws that bind them; yet it is by only turning away from herself and looking out into the world that a person realizes what it means to be human.

Existentialists do not care to prove that God does not exist. Even if God existed, it would not change anything. That’s our point of view. We don’t think God exists, but it doesn’t really matter. Humankind must look at itself and see that nothing can save us, not even a proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic.