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I was posting this in my group so I felt i should post it with you all.

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  • contempoplatonista
    We have now, I think, dealt with a certain number of the reproaches against existentialism. You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 15, 2005
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      We have now, I think, dealt with a certain number of the reproaches
      against existentialism. You have seen that it cannot be regarded as
      a philosophy of quietism since it defines man by his action; nor as
      a pessimistic description of man, for no doctrine is more
      optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. Nor is it
      an attempt to discourage man from action since it tells him that
      there is no hope except in his action, and that the one thing which
      permits him to have life is the deed. Upon this level therefore,
      what we are considering is an ethic of action and self-commitment.
      However, we are still reproached, upon these few data, for confining
      man within his individual subjectivity. There again people badly
      misunderstand us.

      Our point of departure is, indeed, the subjectivity of the
      individual, and that for strictly philosophic reasons. It is not
      because we are bourgeois, but because we seek to base our teaching
      upon the truth, and not upon a collection of fine theories, full of
      hope but lacking real foundations. And at the point of departure
      there cannot be any other truth than this, I think, therefore I am,
      which is the absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to
      itself. Every theory which begins with man, outside of this moment
      of self-attainment, is a theory which thereby suppresses the truth,
      for outside of the Cartesian cogito, all objects are no more than
      probable, and any doctrine of probabilities which is not attached to
      a truth will crumble into nothing. In order to define the probable
      one must possess the true. Before there can be any truth whatever,
      then, there must be an absolute truth, and there is such a truth
      which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody;
      it consists in one's immediate sense of one's self.

      In the second place, this theory alone is compatible with the
      dignity of man, it is the only one which does not make man into an
      object. All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man
      including oneself as an object – that is, as a set of pre-determined
      reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and
      phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone. Our aim
      is precisely to establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values
      in distinction from the material world. But the subjectivity which
      we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual
      subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one's own
      self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too.
      Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant,
      when we say "I think" we are attaining to ourselves in the presence
      of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of
      ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito
      also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition
      of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in
      the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked
      or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any
      truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of
      another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so
      to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the
      intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of
      the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think
      or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we
      find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of "inter-
      subjectivity". It is in this world that man has to decide what he is
      and what others are.

      Furthermore, although it is impossible to find in each and every man
      a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is
      nevertheless a human universality of condition. It is not by chance
      that the thinkers of today are so much more ready to speak of the
      condition than of the nature of man. By his condition they
      understand, with more or less clarity, all the limitations which a
      priori define man's fundamental situation in the universe. His
      historical situations are variable: man may be born a slave in a
      pagan society or may be a feudal baron, or a proletarian. But what
      never vary are the necessities of being in the world, of having to
      labor and to die there. These limitations are neither subjective nor
      objective, or rather there is both a subjective and an objective
      aspect of them. Objective, because we meet with them everywhere and
      they are everywhere recognisable: and subjective because they are
      lived and are nothing if man does not live them – if, that is to
      say, he does not freely determine himself and his existence in
      relation to them. And, diverse though man's purpose may be, at least
      none of them is wholly foreign to me, since every human purpose
      presents itself as an attempt either to surpass these limitations,
      or to widen them, or else to deny or to accommodate oneself to them.
      Consequently every purpose, however individual it may be, is of
      universal value. Every purpose, even that of a Chinese, an Indian or
      a Negro, can be understood by a European. To say it can be
      understood, means that the European of 1945 may be striving out of a
      certain situation towards the same limitations in the same way, and
      that he may reconceive in himself the purpose of the Chinese, of the
      Indian or the African. In every purpose there is universality, in
      this sense that every purpose is comprehensible to every man. Not
      that this or that purpose defines man for ever, but that it may be
      entertained again and again. There is always some way of
      understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive man or a foreigner if
      one has sufficient information. In this sense we may say that there
      is a human universality, but it is not something given; it is being
      perpetually made. I make this universality in choosing myself; I
      also make it by understanding the purpose of any other man, of
      whatever epoch. This absoluteness of the act of choice does not
      alter the relativity of each epoch.

      What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the
      absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man
      realises himself in realising a type of humanity – a commitment
      always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch –
      and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which
      may result from such absolute commitment. One must observe equally
      the relativity of Cartesianism and the absolute character of the
      Cartesian commitment. In this sense you may say, if you like, that
      every one of us makes the absolute by breathing, by eating, by
      sleeping or by behaving in any fashion whatsoever. There is no
      difference between free being – being as self-committal, as
      existence choosing its essence – and absolute being. And there is no
      difference whatever between being as an absolute, temporarily
      localised that is, localised in history – and universally
      intelligible being.

      This does not completely refute the charge of subjectivism. Indeed
      that objection appears in several other forms, of which the first is
      as follows. People say to us, "Then it does not matter what you do,"
      and they say this in various ways.

      First they tax us with anarchy; then they say, "You cannot judge
      others, for there is no reason for preferring one purpose to
      another"; finally, they may say, "Everything being merely voluntary
      in this choice of yours, you give away with one hand what you
      pretend to gain with the other." These three are not very serious
      objections. As to the first, to say that it does not matter what you
      choose is not correct. In one sense choice is possible, but what is
      not possible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must know
      that if I do not choose, that is still a choice. This, although it
      may appear merely formal, is of great importance as a limit to
      fantasy and caprice. For, when I confront a real situation – for
      example, that I am a sexual being, able to have relations with a
      being of the other sex and able to have children – I am obliged to
      choose my attitude to it, and in every respect I bear the
      responsibility of the choice which, in committing myself, also
      commits the whole of humanity. Even if my choice is determined by no
      a priori value whatever, it can have nothing to do with caprice: and
      if anyone thinks that this is only Gide's theory of the acte gratuit
      over again, he has failed to see the enormous difference between
      this theory and that of Gide. Gide does not know what a situation
      is, his "act" is one of pure caprice. In our view, on the contrary,
      man finds himself in an organised situation in which he is himself
      involved: his choice involves mankind in its entirety, and he cannot
      avoid choosing. Either he must remain single, or he must marry
      without having children, or he must marry and have children. In any
      case, and whichever he may choose, it is impossible for him, in
      respect of this situation, not to take complete responsibility.
      Doubtless he chooses without reference to any pre-established value,
      but it is unjust to tax him with caprice. Rather let us say that the
      moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art.

      But here I must at once digress to make it quite clear that we are
      not propounding an aesthetic morality, for our adversaries are
      disingenuous enough to reproach us even with that. I mention the
      work of art only by way of comparison. That being understood, does
      anyone reproach an artist, when he paints a picture, for not
      following rules established a priori. Does one ever ask what is the
      picture that he ought to paint? As everyone knows, there is no pre-
      defined picture for him to make; the artist applies himself to the
      composition of a picture, and the picture that ought to be made is
      precisely that which he will have made. As everyone knows, there are
      no aesthetic values a priori, but there are values which will appear
      in due course in the coherence of the picture, in the relation
      between the will to create and the finished work. No one can tell
      what the painting of tomorrow will be like; one cannot judge a
      painting until it is done. What has that to do with morality? We are
      in the same creative situation. We never speak of a work of art as
      irresponsible; when we are discussing a canvas by Picasso, we
      understand very well that the composition became what it is at the
      time when he was painting it, and that his works are part and parcel
      of his entire life.

      It is the same upon the plane of morality. There is this in common
      between art and morality, that in both we have to do with creation
      and invention. We cannot decide a priori what it is that should be
      done. I think it was made sufficiently clear to you in the case of
      that student who came to see me, that to whatever ethical system he
      might appeal, the Kantian or any other, he could find no sort of
      guidance whatever; he was obliged to invent the law for himself.
      Certainly we cannot say that this man, in choosing to remain with
      his mother – that is, in taking sentiment, personal devotion and
      concrete charity as his moral foundations – would be making an
      irresponsible choice, nor could we do so if he preferred the
      sacrifice of going away to England. Man makes himself; he is not
      found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality,
      and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of
      circumstances upon him. We define man only in relation to his
      commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us for
      irresponsibility in our choice.

      In the second place, people say to us, "You are unable to judge
      others." This is true in one sense and false in another. It is true
      in this sense, that whenever a man chooses his purpose and his
      commitment in all clearness and in all sincerity, whatever that
      purpose may be, it is impossible for him to prefer another. It is
      true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. Progress
      implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation
      which is always changing, and choice remains always a choice in the
      situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when it
      was a choice between slavery and anti-slavery – from the time of the
      war of Secession, for example, until the present moment when one
      chooses between the M.R.P. [Mouvement Republicain Poputaire] and the

      We can judge, nevertheless, for, as I have said, one chooses in view
      of others, and in view of others one chooses himself. One can judge,
      first – and perhaps this is not a judgment of value, but it is a
      logical judgment – that in certain cases choice is founded upon an
      error, and in others upon the truth. One can judge a man by saying
      that he deceives himself. Since we have defined the situation of man
      as one of free choice, without excuse and without help, any man who
      takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some
      deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. One may object: "But why
      should he not choose to deceive himself?" I reply that it is not for
      me to judge him morally, but I define his self-deception as an
      error. Here one cannot avoid pronouncing a judgment of truth. The
      self-deception is evidently a falsehood, because it is a
      dissimulation of man's complete liberty of commitment. Upon this
      same level, I say that it is also a self-deception if I choose to
      declare that certain values are incumbent upon me; I am in
      contradiction with myself if I will these values and at the same
      time say that they impose themselves upon me. If anyone says to
      me, "And what if I wish to deceive myself?" I answer, "There is no
      reason why you should not, but I declare that you are doing so, and
      that the attitude of strict consistency alone is that of good
      faith." Furthermore, I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare
      that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no
      other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that
      values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can
      will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all
      values. That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract: it
      simply means that the actions of men of good faith have, as their
      ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such. A man
      who belongs to some communist or revolutionary society wills certain
      concrete ends, which imply the will to freedom, but that freedom is
      willed in community. We will freedom for freedom's sake, in and
      through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we
      discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and
      that the freedom of others depends upon our own. Obviously, freedom
      as the definition of a man does not depend upon others, but as soon
      as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others
      at the same time as my own. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I
      make that of others equally my aim. Consequently, when I recognise,
      as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes
      his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any
      circumstances, but will his freedom, at the same time I realize that
      I cannot not will the freedom of others. Thus, in the name of that
      will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form
      judgments upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly
      voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those
      who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with
      deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show
      that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of
      the appearance of the human race on earth – I shall call scum. But
      neither cowards nor scum can be identified except upon the plane of
      strict authenticity. Thus, although the content of morality is
      variable, a certain form of this morality is universal. Kant
      declared that freedom is a will both to itself and to the freedom of
      others. Agreed: but he thinks that the formal and the universal
      suffice for the constitution of a morality. We think, on the
      contrary, that principles that are too abstract break down when we
      come to defining action. To take once again the case of that
      student; by what authority, in the name of what golden rule of
      morality, do you think he could have decided, in perfect peace of
      mind, either to abandon his mother or to remain with her? There are
      no means of judging. The content is always concrete, and therefore
      unpredictable; it has always to be invented. The one thing that
      counts, is to know whether the invention is made in the name of

      Let us, for example, examine the two following cases, and you will
      see how far they are similar in spite of their difference. Let us
      take The Mill on the Floss. We find here a certain young woman,
      Maggie Tulliver, who is an incarnation of the value of passion and
      is aware of it. She is in love with a young man, Stephen, who is
      engaged to another, an insignificant young woman. This Maggie
      Tulliver, instead of heedlessly seeking her own happiness, chooses
      in the name of human solidarity to sacrifice herself and to give up
      the man she loves. On the other hand, La Sanseverina in Stendhal's
      Chartreuse de Parme, believing that it is passion which endows man
      with his real value, would have declared that a grand passion
      justifies its sacrifices, and must be preferred to the banality of
      such conjugal love as would unite Stephen to the little goose he was
      engaged to marry. It is the latter that she would have chosen to
      sacrifice in realising her own happiness, and, as Stendhal shows,
      she would also sacrifice herself upon the plane of passion if life
      made that demand upon her. Here we are facing two clearly opposed
      moralities; but I claim that they are equivalent, seeing that in
      both cases the overruling aim is freedom. You can imagine two
      attitudes exactly similar in effect, in that one girl might prefer,
      in resignation, to give up her lover while the other preferred, in
      fulfilment of sexual desire, to ignore the prior engagement of the
      man she loved; and, externally, these two cases might appear the
      same as the two we have just cited, while being in fact entirely
      different. The attitude of La Sanseverina is much nearer to that of
      Maggie Tulliver than to one of careless greed. Thus, you see, the
      second objection is at once true and false. One can choose anything,
      but only if it is upon the plane of free commitment.

      The third objection, stated by saying, "You take with one hand what
      you give with the other," means, at bottom, "your values are not
      serious, since you choose them yourselves." To that I can only say
      that I am very sorry that it should be so; but if I have excluded
      God the Father, there must be somebody to invent values. We have to
      take things as they are. And moreover, to say that we invent values
      means neither more nor less than this; that there is no sense in
      life a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to
      make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense
      that you choose. Therefore, you can see that there is a possibility
      of creating a human community. I have been reproached for suggesting
      that existentialism is a form of humanism: people have said to
      me, "But you have written in your Nausée that the humanists are
      wrong, you have even ridiculed a certain type of humanism, why do
      you now go back upon that?" In reality, the word humanism has two
      very different meanings. One may understand by humanism a theory
      which upholds man as the end-in-itself and as the supreme value.
      Humanism in this sense appears, for instance, in Cocteau's story
      Round the World in 80 Hours, in which one of the characters
      declares, because he is flying over mountains in an airplane, "Man
      is magnificent!" This signifies that although I personally have not
      built aeroplanes, I have the benefit of those particular inventions
      and that I personally, being a man, can consider myself responsible
      for, and honoured by, achievements that are peculiar to some men. It
      is to assume that we can ascribe value to man according to the most
      distinguished deeds of certain men. That kind of humanism is absurd,
      for only the dog or the horse would be in a position to pronounce a
      general judgment upon man and declare that he is magnificent, which
      they have never been such fools as to do – at least, not as far as I
      know. But neither is it admissible that a man should pronounce
      judgment upon Man. Existentialism dispenses with any judgment of
      this sort: an existentialist will never take man as the end, since
      man is still to be determined. And we have no right to believe that
      humanity is something to which we could set up a cult, after the
      manner of Auguste Comte. The cult of humanity ends in Comtian
      humanism, shut-in upon itself, and – this must be said – in Fascism.
      We do not want a humanism like that.

      But there is another sense of the word, of which the fundamental
      meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in
      projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to
      exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims
      that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing,
      and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is
      himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other
      universe except the human universe, the universe of human
      subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man
      (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-
      surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut
      up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this
      that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we
      remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself,
      thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that
      it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking,
      beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some
      particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.

      You can see from these few reflections that nothing could be more
      unjust than the objections people raise against us. Existentialism
      is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a
      consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least
      that of plunging men into despair. And if by despair one means as
      the Christians do – any attitude of unbelief, the despair of the
      existentialists is something different. Existentialism is not
      atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations
      of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God
      existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not
      that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem
      is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself
      again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not
      even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense
      existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is
      only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours
      that Christians can describe us as without hope.
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