Existentialism; the philosophy of creating your own destiny

Jean-Paul Sartre was a revolutionary French philosopher of the 20th Century, elevating existential philosophy into popular culture. Tasking with evaluating the concept of ‘existence precedes essence’ (as the final essay of an undergraduate philosophy course), I have introduced why Sartre believed our destiny is in our hands, in addition to the ultimate deterioration of the moral framework in which he sought to construct.

by Jordan Pennells

Existential philosophy, popularised in the mid-20th Century by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, was self-classified as phenomenological ontology in his essay, Being and Nothingness[1]. Within the ontological study of being and reality, phenomenology addresses the nature of existence as experienced through the subjective first-person consciousness. Sartre summarised the crux of his philosophy when he said “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself”. Here, he postulates the fundamental maxim of existentialism; that existence precedes essence, or that humankind has arisen without any theistic-given purpose or fundamental human nature. Sartre intended for this notion to compel us to act in conviction towards the life we desire, realising that our destiny is within our control and cannot be attributed to, or relied upon, the occurrence of external factors. While I believe that Sartre was successful in preserving the philosophical underpinnings of existentialism, concerning why one should choose, he fails in his account of what one should choose, primarily concerning the unresolved issue of ethical relativism arising between individuals residing purely within their subjective reality.

Sartre begins his public lecture, entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme)[2], with addressing the interpretations and reproaches associated with existentialism. In Sartre’s view, the Cartesian cogito establishes the absolute truth of one’s subjectivity[3], entailing complete possession of one’s choices. Choices engender actions, which are the sole constituent of a person, independent of unexecuted thoughts or how one perceives themselves to be in their mind. The emotional implications of our radical freedom are threefold; abandonment, anguish and despair.

In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement, “God is dead”[4], heralded Sartre’s notions that moral frameworks should exist without the influence of religious institutions. Abandonment confronts this revelation of existentialism, being the complete loss of external moral and existential guidance. The subsequent void of morality must be replaced solely with the judgement of the individual, bearing the full weight of responsibility, without excuse, for their actions. The gravitas of this notion is revealed through the Kantian-esque extrapolation applied to the actions of the individual[5]. The realisation that in choosing for oneself, you are universally committing the choice to the rest of mankind, is Sartre’s portrayal of anguish. Despite the notion of universal human dignity that Sartre – somewhat contradictorily – invokes, one cannot rely on the compliance of others, but rather must cast away the passiveness of hope and rely upon oneself. While not connoted in the conventional sense, this is termed the despair of humanity. Oxymoronically, the abolishment of determinism and subsequent profound weight of responsibility for our actions is the freedom to which we have been condemned.

Despite strongly advocating for acceptance of our radical freedom in his early work, Sartre’s alignment with Marxism in later life saw him concede that one’s freedom was dependent on the historical and social content in which a person resides[6]. In this light, I propose an existentially unconventional aspect of the human condition that acts as a dependency on one’s freedom; the human genome. Historicality, as posited by Heidegger, is an a priori characteristic of each human based significant past events[7]. In concert with this notion, our evolutionary history has not only shaped our current condition over millions of years, but imposes natural constraints on action, in disagreement with radical freedom. However, genetics is by no means a purely deterministic process, as witnessed by people with the most severe genetic diseases that have shown it is possible to reconcile happiness in spite of their condition. To me, this does not invalidate Sartre’s maxim of existence precedes essence, as action still makes a man. Rather, there is a varying degree of constraint that must be overcome to realise ourselves, much like our abandonment. While I believe that this doesn’t affect Sartre’s account of why to choose, existentialism collapses regarding the ethical justifications of what to choose.

A shared human condition fortifies Sartre’s extension of individual action to the whole, but an inescapable issue is the logical inconsistencies associated with the application of value. For example, someone can be acting in pure sincerely and authentically, but instigate extreme atrocities that others would subjectively view as completely lacking moral value (i.e. Hitler’s actions as justified wilful self-creation)[8]. Sartre’s framework only holds with the assumption that people act with rationality and logical consistency, which isn’t explicitly defined in his philosophy to have any objective value[9]. While he argues in Being and Nothingness that rationality is beyond all reason, and in the act of choosing one applies value to rationality[10], this reasoning is essentially begging the question.

Ultimately, while Sartre’s maxim of existence precedes essence was a valuable contribution to philosophy, in the sense of re-establishing the control of one’s own density and providing justification for why we should act, we are thoroughly left in the dark regarding a moral framework of how we should act.


[1] Sartre, J.P. and H.E. Barnes, Being and Nothingness. 1992: Washington Square Press. p. 16-21.
[2] Sartre, J.P., J. Kulka, and A. Elkaïm-Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism. 2007: Yale University Press.
[3] Descartes, R., J. Cottingham, and B. Williams. Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge University Press, 1996. p. 21-30.
[4] Nietzsche, F., D. Sweet, and T. Common, The Gay Science. 2008: Barnes & Noble. p. 181.
[5] Kant, I. and M. Gregor, Kant: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1998: Cambridge University Press. p. 18-79.
[6] Sartre, J.P., A. Sheridan-Smith, and J. Rée, Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of practical ensembles. 2004: Verso. p. 129-181.
[7] Heidegger, M., and J. Stambaugh. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein Und Zeit. State University of New York Press, 1996. p. 427-460. Heidegger, an early German existentialist, states that the Dasein is guided by the existential structures by which it has arrived through its historicality. It may remain hidden, but there will be a way by which it can be discovered. This draws strong parallels to the influence of genetics that we have recently discovered.
[8] Warburton, Nigel. “A Student’s Guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism.” Philosophy Now 15 (1996). p. 27-31.
[9] Anderson, T.C., Sartre’s Two Ethics: From Authenticity to Integral Humanity. 1993: Open Court.
[10] Sartre, J.P. and H.E. Barnes, Being and Nothingness. 1992: Washington Square Press. p. 479, 570.

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