This is a summary/commentary of Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism.
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Page references refer to this edition of the text.


pp.17-19 pre-empting objections to existentialism
  • existentialism discourages action – all actions futile \ just sit around!
  • excessive emphasis on misery, rather than the smiles on children’s faces!
  • excessive emphasis on individual Þ isolation, so solidarity with others
  • denies lasting objective value, so can’t find fault in others

pp.20-22 What is existentialism?: existence precedes essence
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pp.23-24
man is responsible for choosing his actions and is \ responsible for what he is
responsible means you are answerable
[whatever I do, I have chosen it (actively, or due to inertia, or due to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I consider other options less palatable) \ I am always responsible for what I do – I could always run away, or kill myself!]

subjectivism = the freedom of the individual subject to choose what he will be
subjectivism = man’s inability to transcend subjectivity

“in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men” [universalisability]
choosing Þ creating/ fashioning an image of man as we think he ought to be
choosing affirms the value of what we choose
responsibility is greater because it is applying to all
[in order to be consistent, I have to accept that a person similarly placed to me should do as I do – it would be inconsistent to say that I should do this but others shouldn’t, or that others should but I don’t have to – choosing to act in a way that you don’t think could be universalised is immoral – like Kantian ethics but with a relativist rider “similarly placed to me”]

pp.25-27 anguish
anguish = realising/ aware of your utter responsibility for what you do, your decisions (including choosing for all humanity), and the full consequences of your actions – great weight; potentially stressful
should always think “what if everyone did what I am doing?”
evading = bad faith
it is always on me to decide whether to believe someone, or to take another’s advice about values or action – it is always my responsibility – it is always me who is choosing/ deciding
e.g.1 Abraham has to decide whether it is God really speaking to him (or the Devil or voices) – responsibility is still on him \ anguish
e.g.2 General sending people to war – feels anguish/ stressed – indicates right decision because feels utter responsibility, fully aware of consequences and decided carefully

[c.f. p.54 when choosing between a cream pastry and a chocolate éclair, you are not choosing in anguish! rather, the feeling arises when you realise your utter responsibility for the consequences of your action – you are of course though making a free choice in choosing your cake]

pp.27-34 abandonment
abandonment = God does not exist; accept consequences (c.f. Madman); don’t adopt “God ethics” without God!; no objective values ‘out there’; no rulebook; you are alone without help; abandoned = nothing to rely on (¬ God, ¬ objective values)
[“God is dead” and “abandonment” are both metaphors – realising there is no external objective standard of value, or rulebook]

there are no excuses/ external sources of justification; can’t blame human nature (because existence precedes essence); you are free to choose; can’t say we had to because of God or some set of values
“man is condemned to be free” – thrown into the world, now responsible for yourself, have no option – you are not free not to be free

e.g. son – mother upset, brother killed in war: look after mother vs. join corps?
‘abandoned’ by moral codes; ‘abandoned’ by God; no objective source for answers (far too many sources claiming to be objective!)
if you take advice, you choose whose advice to take; you choose how to interpret signs, experiences, advice; you choose the theory, religion, teacher – you are responsible, all on you!

abandonment implies anguish

pp.34-36 despair
do not resort to quietism (shoulder-shrugging, giving up, because don’t know whether what you do will have the impact you want, or whether factors outside your control will frustrate you, or even whether you will make an impact)

commit and act! act without hope – despite not knowing exactly what will happen – I commit and act in despair

p.37-39 no counterfactuals; you are your actions
“Man is nothing other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself… he is nothing more than the sum of his actions” – continually choosing and \ creating ourselves, ¬ fixed

people don’t like this – people like to say “circumstances were against me – I’ve never written a book cos I didn’t have time” etc.

scepticism about counterfactuals – there is no love other than the deeds of love; no potential other than that which is manifested; you aren’t an author if you haven’t written anything (you can’t be a hypothetical author, hypothetically courageous etc.) + we judge a novelist on the novels he did write, not on the ones he didn’t!

reality alone counts!
dreams and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes

a coward is responsible for his cowardice
cowardice isn’t biological; he makes himself a coward through his actions
you are responsible for how you choose how to respond to your ‘given’ biology [facticity] – biology/ temperament may be given, but you make yourself a coward by giving up!

[I have absolute freedom (“condemned to be free”) in that there are always choices and I cannot avoid choosing, but there are clearly some things I cannot choose (so there are constraints/limits to what it is in my power to choose)
$ your facticity, your situation – the things in the world (biology; society; your environment; the past; the Other; yourself?) that you don’t/didn’t have control over, the given
your facticity/ situation also frames your choices (e.g. you couldn’t smoke if there were no cigarettes; your being tortured frames your choice as to whether to betray your comrades or hold out for longer) – you can’t be entirely abstracted/isolated from your situation
you still choose though how to respond to your facticity/situation
Simone de Beauvoir coined the phrase “situated freedom” = our choices are constrained, though not determined, by our situation
you are responsible for your facticity (your past, your limitations, your prior actions, biology, events) in that you choose how to respond to it – e.g. whether to wallow in self-pity, or regret or do something constructive – you are not your facticity, but rather you are your freely chosen response to your facticity
to what extent are sense of humour, sexual preference, panic reactions, insanity, part of your facticity and to what extent are they chosen?]

people would rather blame their biology, think that one is born a coward/hero Þ deny their own responsibility, say I couldn’t have done otherwise, blame causes or other factors, say it was inevitable, had to happen because of an external framework of values – refusing responsibility – but comforting

given that we are continually creating ourselves, the coward can cease to be a coward (through ceasing cowardly actions)

p.40-1
existentialism is ¬ quietist/defeatist – defines man by his actions so have to act (only hope is in committing and acting)

existentialism is ¬ pessimistic – man’s ‘destiny’ is within himself \ optimistic!

too subjectivist? – well, you can’t break out from your (subjective) consciousness
self-absorbed? no – gives man dignity and self-respect – you are different/better than a mere object because you choose
+ there are many characteristics or roles that don’t make sense without others being present or others acknowledging me as such e.g. jealousy, shame, being a waiter(!) \ need others – not just subjective Þ intersubjectivity – I decide what I am and what others are, and they are deciding about me too.

p.42-3
no universal human nature/essence, but $ a universal human condition: that we are all born, have to make our way, and die – objective in that common for everyone, subjective in that meaningless if not experienced
absolute/universal character of free choice/commitment, but relativity of a culture/era

p.44
obj: You can do whatever you like. (accusation of lack of seriousness)
I cannot avoid choosing, but not flippant, changing your mind on a whim – gravity, seriousness – I choose an attitude to a situation, commit myself, and \ commit humanity (my vision as to how human beings should be)

p.45
“moral choice is like constructing a work of art” – creation; invention
no predefined picture to be made; artist commits himself in painting his own picture; the picture that ought to be painted is precisely the one that is; no values a priori, but values will be reflected in the painting (e.g. coherence); cannot judge it until it is finished

p.47-8
obj: You cannot judge others because anyone’s values are equally valid.
we do judge others when choosing ourselves, and when so choosing in the presence of others (\ declaring how I think all humans should be – and implicitly passing judgement on those who act differently) – in saying freedom is important for me, I am saying it is important for all

we pass judgement in judging someone to be acting in bad faith – making an “error”, in that they lack consistency
bad faith = not accepting your own responsibility for your actions and yourself; making excuses, blaming other factors that made it inevitable/determined, saying/believing you had no choice

“what if I want to be in bad faith?” – well, you can so choose, but it is difficult to see why you would want to! if you realised you lacked integrity, you wouldn’t want to.

p.49
authenticity – you are acting authentically if you acknowledge that existence precedes essence, that you are entirely responsible for your actions and yourself (and \ are continually creating who you are) and in so committing you are choosing for others; continually choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility rather than responses that signify a flight from freedom and responsibility i.e. bad faith

cowards = conceal their freedom and responsibility from themselves by making deterministic excuses, blaming others [see flirt, waiter + homosexual e.g.s below]
scum/swine/bastards (les salauds) = think they are necessary beings, rather than acknowledging they are merely contingent/accidental, thinking world revolves around you, arrogant
cowards + scum are both inauthentic/ act inauthentically
[authentic/inauthentic can be seen as Sartre’s new moral framework, replacing good/evil]

p.50-51
2 literary examples, both of a woman in love: in one, she loves so much she lets her lover go; in the second, she loves so much she splits the couple up – this shows how two contradictory actions can both be authentic in their own way (in that about integrity, internal consistency, committing to a path)
[c.f. examples of waiter and ‘flirt’ where it could be difficult for us, as an third-person observer, to determine whether they are acting authentically or in bad faith – a given action can be authentic or inauthentic depending on the individual’s first-person mental state, internal consistency]

p.52-53
existentialism is a humanism, not because man is treated as some supreme value, but because man is abandoned, no legislator other than himself, so must make his own choices to realize himself as fully human – so nothing other than man

consequences of atheism – what is left after the death[/silence] of God
not attempting to prove God doesn’t exist – if God were to exist, it makes no difference – it is still on you!
[“God is silent” Þ Christian existentialism – I don’t know what God wants me to do, so it is still all on me]