Summary of Sartre’s Theory of Human Nature

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes of the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature. )

Sartre: Radical Freedom

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 -1980) was France’s most important philosopher for much of the twentieth-century as well as an important novelist and playwright. Sartre is classified as an existentialist. This means at least three things. Sartre is interested in: 1) the uniqueness of an individual life, not abstract theories about a shared human nature; 2) the meaning of life from a subjective point of view; and 3) the freedom to choose one’s projects, meanings, and values. To better grasp existentialism, here is a very brief sketch of some of a few of the philosophers who influenced Sartre.

The Danish Christian Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is usually thought of as the first existentialist, although there is an existential dimension in many previous Christian thinkers especially Augustine and Pascal. Like Marx, Kierkegaard reacted to Hegel’s philosophy, rejecting its abstruse metaphysics and focusing instead on individuals and their choices. Kierkegaard believed people generally choose one of the following as their basic attitude toward life: 1) they searched for pleasure; 2) committed to family, work, and social responsibility; or 3) concentrated on religion and the divine. The latter life is the best but it involves taking a “leap of faith.” [Kierkegaard writes of his agony about choices and their implications as passionately as anyone.] What is most important about Kierkegaard’s thought for existentialism is its turning away from objective truth to focus on subjective consciousness.

The other seminal figure in existentialism is the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 -1900), who is famous for declaring that “god is dead.” The idea is that religion no longer plays a very significant role in western culture, we have seen through its illusions, and we need to find the meaning of life without invoking gods. Nietzsche thinks we must create our own values, we must become supermen who reject conventional, religious values [“slave morality”] and exert our will to power [“master morality”] Nietzsche investigates subjective phenomena like  emotions, will and consciousness. [The most accessible introduction to existentialism that I know of is William Barrett’s Irrational Man.]

Sartre’s Life and Work – Much of Sartre’s work originates from and is influenced by his experiences as a Frenchman in Nazi occupied France. His focus on choice was surely influenced by the choice that the French faced: collaboration, resistance, or quiet self-preservation. He later became a Marxist, although he thought Marxist philosophy would benefit by emphasizing freedom. He joined the Communist Party in the early 1950s, although he left it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He was politically active later in life, supporting exploited workers, nascent political revolutions and condemning American aggression in Vietnam. In the first phase of his thinking, he focuses on individual freedom, and in the second, he explores the social and economic limits on human freedom. [It is if his early bedrock belief in freedom was shaken by the reality of the social and economic world.]

Metaphysics: Consciousness and Objects, Atheism – Sartre distinguishes human consciousness and inanimate non-consciousness. This is not a distinction between two different substances, it is not a mind/body dualism, but between “two modes of being.” One is the way conscious beings exist—being for itself—the other the way non-conscious things exist—being in itself. Consciousness is always about something, including sometimes itself, whereas inanimate things are not conscious. [He’s trying to get at what it is to be, to be conscious, to be human.] The other main foundation of Sartre’s thought is his thoroughgoing atheism. He assumed that there are no transcendent values, and no intrinsic meaning or purpose for our lives. Life is absurd, we are forlorn. We have to grow up and choose our own values and projects. The meaning of life isn’t something discovered, but something we create. We must give our lives meaning.

Theory of Human Nature: Existence and Essence, Negation and Freedom – Sartre doesn’t believe in a human nature or essence that precedes individuals. Rather our existence precedes our essence; we have to create our own essence. Nothing, not god or evolution, created us for any purpose other than the purposes we choose. Of course Sartre recognizes that we are biological beings, but there are no general truths about what we should or ought to be. The most basic thing we can say about humans is that they are radically free, to be anything except to not be free. [They can choose anything except choose not to choose.] In his words, we are “condemned to be free.” Consciousness is also aware that it is not the objects it ponders, that many things are not the case, and that we lack many things. The concept of nothingness or negation relates to freedom for Sartre. For the ability to conceive of what’s not the case—I could have done that—implies the freedom to imagine and choose other possibilities. In large part consciousness is this conceiving or desiring things to be different—not to be as they are. Negation implies freedom of mind and of action.”

Sartre rejects Freud’s psychic determinism as well as the idea of the unconscious. Sartre believes we choose our mental states like emotions. This may be true sometimes but other emotions, like concern and care, seem to be very much a part of our nature. He also thought that character traits are choices. I am not shy, I choose to be shy. While this may be partly true we now know enough about biology to know that it’s not the whole truth. Still Sartre thinks that our radical freedom is evident when we make resolutions. I say I won’t eat cookies starting Monday, but when Monday rolls around and I’m confronted with cookies—I face my freedom because my past resolution doesn’t constrain me. Confronting choices leads to angst or anguish. We don’t know what we will do or what to do. We can jump off a bridge, and we could throw our child off a bridge too. When we confront our freedom it brings anxiety.

Diagnosis: Anguish and Bad Faith, Conflict with Others – Freedom brings anxiety which we try to avoid by denying our freedom. But we cannot escape freedom, we must choose, we are condemned to be free. [Think about the anxiety of choice. What job should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I live? What should I believe?] A way out of choice is to imagine we must believe this or do that, to act in bad faith in Sartre’s language. This is a kind of self-deception where we imagine that our thoughts and actions are determined when they are up to us. [You could be an axe murderer or join the Peace Corps. You could be an atheist or a join a religious order. You could do or think whatever you want.] In Sartre’s famous examples a woman acts in bad faith when she doesn’t recognize her freedom to resist a man’s advances; and the waiter acts in bad faith when he assumes, if he does, that he must act like a waiter. The woman is not an object to be seduced and the man is not essentially a waiter. Actions and beliefs are sustained by our choices.

Sartre rejects that bad faith could be explained by Freudian repression. Is there a censor in the mind that represses? If so it must decide what to repress and what not to, so it must be aware of what’s repressed so as not to be aware of it. Bad faith then describes a whole person, not some part of their mind. But to say one is sincere or has good faith is also problematic because again, we are not essentially anything. If I act gay, shy or arrogant there is still a distinction being made between the self doing the describing and the self that is described. But we cannot be described because we are not artifacts. So I am not essentially shy, gay, or arrogant. To say so is to act in bad faith. [Sartre says you choose to be gay, shy or arrogant.] While this is all perplexing, the key and best idea in Sartre is that we can always be different from we are, which is probably a good thing to believe.

Sartre does think we can justifiably infer that other people have minds. [Some thinkers argue that we can’t know this.] When others look at us we know we are being observed, hence we experience emotions like shame, embarrassment or pride. Sartre also argues that relationships between conscious people are necessarily ones of conflict. Other people look at us and objectify us, thereby threatening our freedom. In response we might try to control others by treating them as objects. So Sartre believes that Hegel was right; all human relationships are master/slave relationships that depend on differences in power. Sartre believed that master/slave relationships were expressed in sexual desires, and he also thought that we couldn’t really respect the freedom of other people. This is Sartre at his bleakest. [When you read Sartre you often feel that he just had a fight with his longtime lover, companion, and intellectual giant, Simone de Beauvoir.]

Prescription: Reflective Choice – Sartre rejected objective values—values are wholly subjective. So there is no specific way of life or course of action he can recommend. What he can do is condemn bad faith and praise making choices with an awareness that nothing determines them. This means accepting responsibility for our actions, beliefs and everything else about ourselves, while rejecting the idea that there are objective values to which we must adhere. [Sartre, following Marx, ascribes the latter to the ruling classes for whom the status quo works.]

Sartre illustrates how objective values [or ethical theories] don’t help us in situations where we must freely choose. In a famous story he asks: should a man go off to fight the Nazis or stay home and care for his mother? No moral theory, intuition, or emotion tells you what to do. You must simply exercise your freedom and choose. [To say that some moral principle forces you to do one thing or another is to act in bad faith, it denies your freedom.] Sartre is partly right that no moral theory answers every moral question, but that seems different from saying you should do whatever you want.

What Sartre says we should do is act authentically. We should act recognizing that we are free to act in many different ways, and we are responsible for our actions. Today Sartre’s assertion flies in the face of research about how much of our mental processes are unknown to us consciously. [Not to mention the influence of genes and environment on our behavior.] But Sartre maintains that to have self-knowledge entails understanding the reasons, not the causes, of our actions and beliefs. He also thinks that people must choose their own values and create their own meaning in life. But is authentic choice all there is to it? If so it would seem Sartre has to commend dedicated Nazis, compulsive child tortures, or sadists like Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Rumsfeld and other members of the George W. Bush administration who approved torture. Also, Sartre would have to condemn someone who does apparently good things because they believe in objective values. But does that make those things wrong? So an ethics which boils down to “just choose” is incomplete.

Authenticity and Freedom for Everyone – As Sartre’s thought developed he did come to see how freedom was situated within the contexts of facts about human beings—their facticity. Our freedom is limited by our bodies and our place in history and society [none of us will ever be born to Sam Walton and inherit about 20 billion dollars!] Some have the chance to go to Harvard or Oxford and become physicians or scholars, but most do not. So Sartre backtracked a bit from his claims about our radical freedom as his thought matured. He also advocated for social change. He believed that we might change the world by becoming  more godlike, by seeing ourselves as the only source of salvation and meaning in this world.

Sartre also came to believe that relationships with others could be authentic. If others sees you as free, they give some meaning to your life through that recognition. He even argues there can be authentic love. [Perhaps he was experiencing the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.] Still his most basic value was freedom, but not just the freedom that conscious beings have when they choose, “but the value judgment that every person ought to be able to exercise his or her freedom in concrete ways, and thus that human society should be changed in the direction of making this a reality for everyone.” To be authentic is to recognize the freedom of all people. And this obtains in a socialist, classless society where “all human beings will be able to express their freedom. Thus Sartre encourages us to use our freedom to change both ourselves and the world.

5 thoughts on “Summary of Sartre’s Theory of Human Nature

  1. Sartre is classified as an existentialist and is interested in the meaning of life from a subjective point of view and the freedom to choose one’s projects, meanings and values. Existentialism is the philosophical thinking that begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. Soren Kierkegaard who influenced Sartre, focused on individuals and their choices. Kierkegaard focused on subjective consciousness instead of objective truth. Nietzsche who also influenced Sartre, is well known for declaring that “God is dead.” He believed that we must create our own values and investigated subjective phenomena like emotions, will and consciousness.

    Sartre focused on individual freedom and explored the social and economic limits of human freedom. Sartre identified that there are two modes of being; human consciousness and inanimate non-consciousness. The difference between the two is that consciousness is always about something and inanimate things are not conscious.

    Sartre believed that the meaning of life is something we create and we must give our lives meaning. I think that’s really inspiring, that we are the drivers of our own lives. We can decide what to do and what not to do. There aren’t consequences for our decisions and we ultimately have the choice to do what we please and that’s powerful.

  2. “The most basic thing we can say about humans is that they are radically free, to be anything except to not be free.” This quote stood out to me for several reasons: 1) at first it seems contradictory, 2) no one is truly free, and 3) after close analysis I gained a better understanding of what Sartre means by this. As a more modern example, people are free to choose to go to a university. However, people attend university to earn a degree that will help them get a job and be a functional member of society. We, as humans, are making a choice with our “freedom” to pursue higher education. So, in the end, the choice was made for us by the society that we live in; the choice was not made out of freedom. Humans cannot make the choice to be free in a society that does not consist of freedom.

    That’s what I interpreted the quote as, but I’m not completely sure if I misunderstood or not. Anyways, I agree with Sartre that freedom is an important part of human nature, yet more of an illusion.

  3. I find it very interesting on how a time and place can shape someone so drastically. While reading about Sartre I found myself wondering. Would Sartre’s work be at all recognizable if he was let’s say raised in the southern United States rather than France? Would he have a completely different outlook on the world and humanity if he was born in my generation? Would other influential philosophers reach Sartre’s conclusions if they were in his place in time? Of course all of these answers are impossible to answer, but the thought really intrigues me.

    In regards to Sartre’s theory of human nature I have to say I couldn’t disagree any more. I feel as though individuals are formed from two things, biology and environment. Just as any other species we as human have a specific design. A design that gets passed down from generation to generation. This dictates the basic nature of a human. Choice of whether or not to accept or reject your nature, I feel is an uphill battle that will never end. The second, our environment shapes how we grow beyond our genetic makeup. Not to say that we can reject our human nature.

    On a side note, hearing Sartre speak on his lack of faith and being an atheist is extremely refreshing. In the previous chapters I found myself growing increasingly agitated by the blind following and integration of religious rules dictating how to live one’s life rather than to look at the issue rationally.

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