Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un humanisme [Existentialism and Humanism]

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Existentialism is a Humanism is the text of a conference given by Jean-Paul Sartre in October 1945. He had already published several philosophical works, including Being and Nothingness, several plays, and the first two volumes of The Roads to Freedom. He was already a famous writer, whose work has been widely read and criticized. Through this conference, Sartre intended to make his philosophy more accessible and to respond to several criticisms addressed to him.

Definition of existentialism

Sartre’s conference begins by defining existentialism through its effects: it is a “doctrine which makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment and a human subjectivity” (p. 18). This optimistic definition makes it possible to understand that it is not a question of considering the human being only for themselves, but also the “environment” in which they live. Thus, to understand a human being, it is necessary to start from subjectivity without neglecting external reality. This philosophical thesis is part of humanism. Historically, humanism is a movement born during the Renaissance. It is a question of defending the idea that humans are capable, by themselves, without religious authority, of developing their knowledge, of reaching the truth. About values, it is a question of defending the idea of human dignity whatever its origin, and of founding a fully human and therefore modest wisdom. Sartre wanted to try, in this conference, to account for the complexity of a philosophy of existence.

Thinking about existence without the essence

The concepts of existence and of essence are classic concepts of ontology, that is the branch of philosophy which is interested in the question of being, which asks what it is to be. To explain these theses, Sartre started from an example of a letter opener in order to illustrate the notion of essence. The essence is the concept of a thing. It is the set of characteristics that it possesses and without which it cannot be what it is. These are necessary characteristics. Among these essential characteristics is the usefulness of something that must therefore be known before being able to be manufactured. Thus, there is a double anteriority of essence over existence: a chronological one because you first have to know what the thing is before you can manufacture it. A logical anteriority: the thing can only be what it is because there is a concept of the thing. It works perfectly when it comes to considering the human creation of material objects like the letter opener. Since human beings are also created by God according to a Christian philosophy, their concept preceded their existence in divine understanding. There would be a “human nature”, that is to say a set of determinations which is found in all humans, in a universal way, and which precedes their existence. However, such a philosophy reduces the existence to the fact of being, for any specific essence. So, when we affirm that there is a human essence, we are referring to an abstraction whose existence we can debate.

The contingency of human existence

Sartre’s existentialism is an atheistic philosophy, that is to say a philosophy which rejects belief in God. What is the consequence for human existence? Sartre reversed the traditional relationship between essence and existence.

First of all, what does it mean “to exist”? The concept can be understood following Heidegger in Being and time, as the fact of keeping outside oneself (ek-sistence), that is to say of not coinciding with one’s being. On the contrary, to exist is, for human beings, to be detached from what they are and from relating to their being. Human beings are aware of what they are, aware of being present in the world. Existence is primary, it is a contingent fact, which finds no prior reason. Human existence is a fact, but this fact could not have been.

Thus, Sartre gives a negative definition of human: “he is nothing” (p.22). This negation is precisely the being of a human. There is no potential, there are no virtual qualities to implement. Sartre refuses a substantial conception of human. On the contrary, there is an indeterminacy of existence. This thesis of the nothingness of being is the foundation of freedom; since human existence is nothing, it is free. This freedom is the specific mode of human existence. It is not one of the qualities of the human being. To exist for a human being is to be free. Human existence is not doomed to remain nothing. Humans are the authors of their own existence. A human being is what she or he makes herself or himself. We can therefore qualify this thesis of freedom-spontaneity, and this thesis marks the priority of doing over being. It is only by what they do that human beings are. In other words, we immediately understand that there is no villain in itself, no policeman in itself, no boy in itself, but only human beings who act and constitute their being.

To exist as a project

A human being exists “for-itself”, dynamically characterized in that she is a project, that is to say a dynamic of overcoming. This concept of project must be understood as an action, that is to say the fact of throwing oneself forward. This dimension of the human being is found in their very consciousness as intentionality, as an opening towards the outside, the possible, the future. We must rule out the idea that the project has already been written and that it should then be carried out. There is no human nature, there is no pre-established pattern. Therefore, there is an inescapable and absolute responsibility.

Is the existential project a voluntary decision? Sartre develops a non-voluntarist thesis of freedom. In other words, freedom is not a characteristic of the will, it is the very being of humans. They are free. The decisions are not the origin of the project, they are part of a project that has already started. We deliberate when we have already chosen, it is a way of taking action, to weigh up the pros and cons.


Every human being is the author of their being. Since there is no one who has predetermined their choices for them, they make their own choices. Making their own choices is precisely what makes them who they are. So they are fully responsible. To be responsible is to have to answer for your actions. It is to bind oneself to one’s actions. There is a link between the people and their actions: one can ascribe such an act to such a person. Now, human beings are what they do, so we can ascribe their being to themselves, they are responsible for it.

To choose oneself is also to choose an image of humankind. Why in choosing oneself, do we choose all humans? Here, it is in the relation to our actions that a universalization is possible. Indeed, if we act, it is because we believe that the action to be carried out has a meaning and a value. On the one hand, this meaning, insofar as it is human, can be recognized by all humans. On the other hand, we act because we value the action. It is this value that is the reason for our action. However, if this possible action attracts us, it is because this value is positive. Even when we do “wrong”, we do it because we consider it worthwhile to do it. This valuation therefore constitutes an example of what humanity can be; it would even constitute a model according to Sartre. For example, getting married would constitute an example and a model of the romantic relationship as monogamous. To act is to give a representation of the value that we follow. Values do not exist in themselves, they only exist through our actions. Therefore, it is not in contemplation that we discover values, but in practice.


Anguish is defined as the feeling of responsibility. We do not always have this feeling, but it is impossible not to feel it. It is about showing that a human being always remains alone to make their choice. Even when they follow a path laid out by someone, it is their choices that give a certain value to this path, to this person who advises them to do something. So it is according to the choice that I make that I discover the value that I had given to this possibility. If we break down what is going on, we understand that it is only after taking action that we discover value. In other words, it is not the will that gives value to the possibility. Valuation depends on me, that’s true, but not on my will. It depends on my project, that is to say, on how I perceive the world, how I experience it.

The important thing to understand about anxiety is that it is different from fear. Fear concerns an external object, present or to come. I am afraid of spiders, afraid of death, afraid of heights. Anguish is fear of one’s own being. This is because humans are nothing that there is always a range of possibilities open to them; there is nothing to determine them to choose one path rather than another. Then, they experience this feeling of anguish. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre takes the example of a walker leaning over a cliff. Nothing forces him to jump or not to jump, it depends on him. He is capable of both actions. It is up to him to value the jump in the void, or the choice of staying on dry land. And it is precisely in this relationship to the different possibilities that anxiety is born. It is not the fear of emptiness, it is the fear of one’s own indeterminate, free existence. Therefore, anguish is the awareness of one’s own freedom and of being the author of the meaning of one’s actions, of the project of one’s existence.

Then, we can oppose authenticity to an inauthentic way of being. Authenticity consists in experiencing the indeterminate character of existence in anguish. It is also to know how to face it by giving meaning to our actions and by recognizing ourselves as the author of this meaning. On the other hand, an inauthentic way of being consists in running away, in lying to oneself in order to escape this anguish and the responsibility for one’s own existence. It is bad faith to claim that there are ways to follow and that we are not free. In the end, anguish isn’t a paralyzing force because it concerns people who act and find themselves faced with possibilities.


The thesis of the non-existence of God logically leads to the absence of a priori moral values, insofar as no conscience can think of them. The nature of their existence is a problem. Without values to give meaning to duties, there are no pre-established duties, no categorical imperatives. There is no afterlife and the foundation of morality therefore appears to be highly problematic.

This abandonment which until now has been considered from a moral perspective, has consequence in the question of freedom. Since humans are not like things, and since there is no essence created by a god, then humans are left to themselves, they are not determined. Abandonment - a concept borrowed from Heidegger (Geworfenheit) - is ultimately the consequence of the human existence, of the contingency of our existence. We are thrown into the world without any inner or outer guide.

“Man is condemned to be free” (p. 29). With this famous phrase, Sartre draws the conclusion from the developments in moral philosophy and ontology. This may seem paradoxical because condemnation is normally an external judgment which constitutes the conclusion of a judgment. Here, it is not the human who has chosen to be like this. There is a contingency of human existence. It is a condemnation of their being. Their being is not determined, so it is up to everyone to create their own existence, for which they are then responsible. They cannot not be free, there is a form of necessity for freedom, which can never be given up.

To better understand this, Sartre offers the example of a young man who hesitates between staying with his mother to help her and joining the French Resistance in England, without knowing if it will really have good effects (p.30-34). This young man is beset by anguish: he cannot decide between becoming a Resistance fighter and staying a good son. Everything depends on him. He could resort to some theories of moral philosophy in order to help him choose make his decision. He could ask a friend for a piece of advice. On the one hand, it should already be noted that the one whom we ask for advice is chosen. Choosing a person is already guiding the content of the advice we ask for. On the other hand, moral philosophies are always too vague and too general to guide a singular choice. There is no sure way, a way where good would necessarily triumph. There are only risky choices, which exclude other choices. However, we must assume that these choices only exist through us who make them. We must therefore accept this uncertainty of effects, this difficulty in choosing and assuming responsibility. There is indeed a relativity of values, but that does not mean that they are not important. On the contrary, these values are human and we must commit to making them exist. Without our actions, they do not exist. There is no ultimate guarantee of justice. Such is the anguish.

The effectiveness of existence

Existentialism is a philosophy of action. From the ontological description of human beings, important anthropological lessons can be drawn. A human being exists and is nothing. Their existence is not a perpetual vacuum, it is a tension towards values, towards possibilities that they will realize. So what is its existence made up of? It is made up of actions, of what they do according to their way of being-in-the-world?

Nevertheless, are there actions that we could not carry out but which we know we were capable of? Can genius remain hidden? Sartre replies in the negative. Those who claim that in themselves there were good intentions or creative ones, but that they did not have the opportunity to express them, are in “bad faith”. They pretend that there are potential qualities but that they have not succeeded in putting them into action. Sartre rejects this excuse. Only work and actions make genius and intentions exist. Without this work and these actions, there is neither genius, nor intentions, there is nothing. The genius does not exist before the work they created, it is concomitant. For example, Marcel Proust was not a genius before writing In Search of Lost Time. There is no cowardice in itself, it is our actions that make this cowardice appear. The hero can therefore become a coward and the quiet woman/man a hero! The past does not determine the future. Human beings do not coincide with themselves, since they have no essence. Until their death, human beings can do an action that contradicts everything they had done before.

Two responses to two objections

Since transcendental values do not exist, are our choices purely free? Are they not arbitrary? The choice is made in a situation. It is not free, it is part of a context. Even before choosing what we are going to do with our lives, we are already engaged in a certain situation, historical, social with a specific body and many things that surround us. However, it is not the values that impose themselves, we do not decide a priori. We make values exist through our action.

Can we judge actions made by other people? We can judge whoever is in bad faith. Those who hide their freedom with deterministic excuses, saying that they are not responsible because previous causes pushed them to act, Sartre calls them “cowards”. As for those who believe that their existence is necessary, that it gives them rights, that they are entitled to a certain attention, to advantages, Sartre calls them “bastards”.

We judge others on their authenticity, not in the name of general moral values. Decisions are taken in lucidity, with the awareness of being their author. Therefore, authenticity is valued by Sartre’s morality. Freedom is not wanted abstractly, but through each particular circumstance.

There is a universal dimension: living one’s freedom also means recognizing and wanting the freedom of others. There is a concrete dimension, too: everyone must create their solution to the moral problems they encounter. The way of living our freedom according to our project gives meaning to our life. This meaning does not exist, it is created by each human being according to her/his existence. Sartre brings to light the origin of values: they are relative since life has no meaning a priori. Our humanity lies in our ability to make sense of life. As we can see, this is not nihilism, it is not a question of criticizing values to the point of asserting that they are illusions. Values do exist, but only through our actions.

Political and moral perspectives

Sartre gave this lecture on the 29th of October, 1945, a few months after the end of World War II during which the Vichy government had collaborated with the Nazi regime and aided the deportation of Jews to extermination camps. The Vichy government considered Jews by nature inferior to other humans and made it a duty for French people to collaborate with the Occupiers in this process. In this context, we can see that Sartre’s argument is as profoundly political as it is philosophical: regarding the duty to collaborate, his lecture argues that human beings are free in their commitments and responsible for their choices and actions; there is no such thing as a transcendent moral or political value. Everyone freely gives a value to their choices according to their own existential project. Thus, everyone was free either to collaborate, or to be passive, or to resist. Regarding the existence of Jews, Sartre always rejected anti-Semitism, denying that there is no human nature which has predefined characteristics. Thus, he denies that there is a “being-Jew” [être-Juif]. Therefore, the problem of anti-Semitism resides in the thoughts of anti-Semitic people. This is what Sartre sought to establish in his book Anti-Semite and Jew [Réflexions sur la question juive] which was drafted in 1944 after the Liberation of Paris and published in 1946.

On its first publication Sartre’s Existentialism is a humanism was a huge success. It made the main theses of Being and Nothingness accessible to a wide readership. However, in the discussion that followed, Sartre himself said that he had had to simplify his ideas in order to make them accessible to as many people as possible. Nevertheless, even today, this text is often the gateway to understanding Sartre’s philosophy. Regarding his main theses, Sartre sought to establish a comprehensive existentialist moral philosophy in his Notebooks for an Ethics [Cahiers pour une morale] but this work was not completed in his lifetime and its drafts were only published posthumously. It is ultimately in the work of Simone de Beauvoir, particularly in her The Ethics of Ambiguity, that readers will find an existential philosophy of morality and freedom.


In this text, Sartre invites us to consider his philosophy as a philosophy of freedom and action. The descriptions he offers of humans are not pessimistic. Abandonment, despair and anguish are not described to discourage, but on the contrary to show that human freedom is great. Not absolute in the sense that it could do anything, but insofar as it is our very being, it allows human beings to be fully responsible for what they do since they are the authors of their own values. Sartre offers a description of human beings as a project and as a commitment.   

Works cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a humanism, Yale University Press, 2007.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and nothingness, Washington Square Press, 1993.

3418 words

Citation: Malinge, Yoann. "L'Existentialisme est un humanisme". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 19 April 2021 [, accessed 28 September 2023.]

11104 L'Existentialisme est un humanisme 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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