Most philosophies can be found in books in university libraries, or in the heads of philosophers, but not far beyond. At least not in any explicit form. How many of your friends are self-identified metaphysical materialists? Or conceptual relativists? Or moral realists? Not that many, is my guess. Philosophies like these, whatever their merit, tend to be perceived as dry, academic business. Many people just rather spend their weekends drinking wine in a bar than reading up on metaphysics, and who can blame them?
But once in a while, a philosophy suddenly catches on and becomes fashionable. This was certainly the case with existentialism in the years around WWII in Paris. Jazz bars were full of self-proclaimed existentialists in black turtleneck jumpers, who smoked heavy tobacco while they discussed nothingness, anxiety and sex. And the appeal of existentialist philosophy hasn’t worn off. Particularly young, politically engaged people tend to be attracted by its emphasis on freedom and responsibility, or find themselves in the idea of existential anxiety and the meaninglessness of life. And as with most fashions, for some the imagery of sex, tobacco and turtlenecks may have been sufficient to jump on the bandwagon. This article, that appeared in the Guardian recently, lists ten reasons to become an existentialist.
Part of the appeal of existentialism, no doubt, is the fact that it makes immediate appeal to one’s attitude. It invites you to take responsibility for your life. You can read a lot of metaphysics without really being affected by it – your life won’t change if you read today that reality consist of ideas – but it is impossible to read existentialism and not feel addressed.
In an earlier class, we discussed whether it is possible for us to have a free will if we live in a world that is determined by causation. Sartre’s answer to this question is a wholehearted ‘yes’. Whilst it is true that our current position is determined by our history, our environment, our stimuli, our biology and other contingent facts, which Sartre calls our ‘facticity’, we are not reducible to these contingent facts. What defines our human existence is the fact that we transcend our facticity. So much so, that we are always living in a moment of choice. We are, as it were, doomed to make choices. There is no escape.
Imagine you walk home in the dark, after a boozy night in a Parisian jazz club. You’re tired and your turtleneck smells of tobacco. But then you are interrupted by a woman with a gun. She points the gun at you and demands: “your money or your life!” Many (philosophers and non-philosophers alike) would argue that, if you did indeed give her your money, you should not be held responsible for it, since you didn’t really have a choice. Technically, you have a choice between two alternatives: your money or your life, but realistically, you can’t be expected to give up your life, so that option is not a real option. Hence, you are forced to give your money, and you are not responsible for doing so.
Sartre would disagree. According to Sartre, the gunwoman situation is unfortunate, but there is nothing about it that affects your freedom. You are as free as ever, even if you’re held at gun point. The decision to give your money to the gunwoman is still your decision, a choice you make. Therefore, you are responsible for giving your money to the gunwoman.
This reveals a controversial point in Sartre’s philosophy. There is a glaring problem with holding the victim of a gunwoman responsible. It seems not only a merciless case of blaming the victim, but it also seems to fail to explain what oppression really means, and how oppression curbs someone’s freedom.
But in a more charitable reading, Sartre is not out to blame any victims. His idea of freedom is not designed to make the victim of the gunwoman feel guilty or embarrassed about giving his money to an armed robber. Sartre can very well concede that giving his money was probably, given the circumstances, the best choice to make. But it was a real choice all the same. Sartre stresses this, because he contends that the victim would be better off, particularly given the pickle he’s in, to have at least his humanity acknowledged. And his humanity transcends his particular situation. He is still a free human, whatever armed robbers do to him. Read in this way, it is a real consolation.
But is it really a consolation? Sartre observes that the tendency to deny ourselves this freedom is widespread. We often deflect our responsibility by blaming our facticity (our circumstances, other people’s expectations, our habits or other factors), thus explaining ourselves as not really having made a choice. Sartre calls this ‘bad faith’: an existential condition whereby we try to make ourselves less human by deflecting the responsibility for our lives. A life lived in bad faith is, in Sartre’s eyes, a life with less meaning. We give meaning to our lives, for ourselves, by taking responsibility for it. That allows us to say: the life I live may not be perfect, but it is truly mine.
Sartre does understand why people suffer from this existential condition of bad faith. When we are faced with the radical freedom we have, when we realise we can’t hide behind our facticity, when we realise we are by nature doomed to make choices, all the time, then we are overcome by a great anxiety. An anxiety grounded in the realisation that life has no meaning other than that given by the choices we make, for which we are solely responsible. Without making choices, we are nothing. This anxiety in the face of our own nothingness explains why we are drawn to bad faith. Sartre’s aim is to make us look nothingness square in the eye, so we can give meaning to our lives and avoid living a meaningless life.
There are lots of resources, books and blogs about Sartre and other existentialists. This episode of Philosophy Bites is but one.