Existentialism in Five Minutes | Bob Shepherd


This was back in the days
Of the folk music craze. . . .
[and] parties to pay for the rent.
We all wanted to be existentialists.
None of us knew what that meant.”

–Michael Smith, “The Ballad of Elizabeth Dark”

Philosophy has never been, except in a few rare times and places, particularly fashionable. One of those exceptions was the Existentialism craze that swept Europe and the Americas in the middle of the last century. When its foremost proponent, Jean-Paul Sartre, died in 1980, 5,000 people showed up for his funeral, which is a pretty good turnout for a philosopher. The most popular magazine in America, Life, ran a long article in which it mostly clicked its tongue at his shocking communism, atheism, sexual libertinism, and assertion that life was absurd and meaningless.

If you’ve ever wondered what Existentialism is, you’re in luck, for I’m going to explain it (or at least the Sartrean variety of it) to you in about five minutes and then share a few thoughts about what Sartre got wrong. BTW, Sartre took many of his best ideas from his lifelong non-monogamous partner Simone de Beauvoir, so when you read “Sartre” below, you can mentally substitute “s&b.” And in this brief intro, I’ll be drawing quite a bit from the brilliant course in Sartre offered by Paul Vincent Spade of Indiana University, the notes for which you can find here: https://pvspade.com/Sartre/pdf/sartre2.pdf. Thank you, Professor Spade!

In The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), Sartre presents without acknowledgement an idea he cribbed from the philosopher Franz Brentano: consciousness is always consciousness OF something, of some object or objects—of the melody of an ice cream truck heading through the neighborhood, of the aroma of Lapsang Souchong tea, whatever. The technical term in philosophy for this aboutness of consciousness is intentionality. Sartre’s term for consciousness that is about something is “positional” consciousness.  He distinguishes between reflective positional consciousness and nonreflective positional consciousness.

Suppose that you are working in a fast-food restaurant at rush hour. You are crazy busy—taking orders, bagging fries and burgers, making change. We say of such situations, “I didn’t have a moment to think.” But, of course, you were thinking—you were consciousness, but it was nonreflective positional consciousness—of the order slips, the customers, the fries, the burgers. Or suppose, Sartre says, you are running after a bus. You are thinking about the bus and catching it, but you aren’t thinking about the fact that you are thinking about this. You are focused entirely on catching up to the bus. This is also nonreflective positional consciousness.

OK. You miss the bus. Suddenly, you are aware of the fact that you are thinking about having missed the bus. This is reflective positional consciousness.

So, consciousness usually has these objects, these contents. Now, Sartre says, suppose that you strip away all the objects of consciousness. What you are left with, he says, is nothing. Your consciousness, in and of itself, is no object. It’s this weird non-object, this nothingness, that is at the center of your being. Thus the title of Sartre’s big book, Being and Nothingness (1943).

Sartre explains this quite clearly in a little public lecture he gave called “Existentialism as a Humanism” (1946). In that lecture, he contrasts people with letter openers. A letter opener, he says, has a designer and a purpose. Its purpose, or essence, precedes its existence in the mind of its designer. But humans, he says, have no designer and no set purpose (Sartre was an atheist). In them, existence precedes essence. You are born. You wake up. There you are, but at your core, there is no preset self definition, no pre-existing purpose. Instead, there’s that nothingness. You want to be something, to have a purpose, but because you are, at the core of your being, a nothingness, there is no reason why you should choose any particular thing to define you. You are free to think or to do ANYTHING. You are so free that, Sartre says, you ARE a freedom.

In this respect, Sartre says, you are very different from stuff in the world. In Being and Nothingness, he cleaves the world into the being of things like rocks and car keys, which he calls being-in-itself (être-en-soi) and the being of people, which he calls being-for-itself (être-pour-soi). His basis for this distinction is the good-old-fashioned Aristotelian theory of natural kinds. According to this theory, things have essential, or defining, qualities, and non-essential, or contingent ones. If it quacks like a duck and is living and has webbed feet and so on (all those things essential to duckiness), then it’s a duck. Things, like rocks and car keys, Sartre says, are essentially not free, and so their being is essentially different from ours, for our being, our consciousness, not being a thing, is not subject to material laws, and so we are absolutely and in an essential sense, free. You know that you are a freedom because you can make choices. Things are subject to external forces. Your conscious being is not. If I wish to dance the tango, you can restrain me. If I wish to dance the tango in my mind, nothing you do (short of interfering with my consciousness) can stop this. So, my conscious being is a different sort of being than is a thing. We’ll modify this formulation later, but that’s good enough for now.

Suppose that you are having a really, really, really bad day. You are late to work, again. Your boss is sick of this and cans you. You put your things in a box and go to call an Uber to take you home, but in the trouble and confusion of losing your livelihood, you’ve misplaced your phone, on which you have your entire life. You find the phone. On it is a text message. You are being audited by the IRS. They think you owe them $10,000 due to an error made over several years by your former employer. Here’s the thing: because you are free, you could, absurdly, make the choice to feel, at that moment, joy. You are that free.

Sartre’s pal Albert Camus put it this way in The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill in Tartarus. While he’s pushing the boulder, he’s not thinking about how much he hates this sh*t. It takes everything in him to push that boulder. Every time he gets to the top, the boulder rolls back down, and he has to start all over again. But here’s the thing, Camus says: at the top of the hill, Sisyphus is entirely free not to curse his fate but to feel, instead, absurd joy. Why? Because he is essentially free. He is not essentially contingent on external forces.

This freedom has a price, though, according to Sartre. Because you are essentially free, there is no reason whatsoever for you to do any particular thing or be any particular thing, and for this reason, our kind of being is not only essentially free but also essentially absurd and, in the end, meaningless. He says, “Man is a useless passion.” Cheery guy, this Sartre.

People’s freedom, Sartre says, frightens them because it puts all the responsibility on them to make choices. For example, he explains vertigo in this way: You stand at the top of the cliff and swoon. Why? Because you know that you could throw yourself off it. You are free to do this. And the fact that you could make that choice scares the beJesus out of you.

People try hard to run away, Sartre says, from their freedom. In a famous passage in Being and Nothingness, he asks you to imagine that you are in a restaurant and have a waiter, Pierre. Now, Pierre is overly solicitous. He carries the tray just so. He tries really, really hard to be the perfect waiter. Why? Because he knows, deep down, that he is not a waiter, essentially, that he’s just putting this on. He could, if he wanted, sit down at your table and demand that you get up and go get him a glass of absinthe. Pierre is not any particular thing. He is, at his core, a nothingness. But he wants to be a thing. In this place and time, he wants to be a waiter thing. It’s far, far easier than is taking the responsibility for the fact that he’s making the choice to behave as a waiter thing—something that he, essentially, is not.

The Ego, Sartre says, is a result of magical thinking—of trying to fill the nothingness that is consciousness once you strip away from it all the objects of its attention. And by magic, of course, he means fake magic, or tricks. The Ego is a pretense to ourselves, a trick we play on ourselves to fill that void. Sartre is absolutely correct about this, that the Ego is fake magic. It’s an illusion. Sartre calls this attempt to fool ourselves into believing that there is an I there with particular properties bad faith. We are attempting to fool others, most of all, ourselves, Sartre says.

So, how does this fake magical thinking that creates the Ego work? Sartre gives this example: Pierre walks into the bar. You feel a momentary repugnance for him. That feeling you then elevate, in an act of generalization, to the status of an emotional state: I hate Pierre. And maybe you carry this even further: You become an object, a thing, that is a Pierre hater. So, to recap, the momentary feeling is elevated to a state which in turn is elevated to a quality of this you, the Ego. And by this means, by such magical thinking, you create this entirely illusory construct, the Ego, to fill the void, the nothingness, of consciousness, with an I. This is what I am, a hater of Pierre (among other things).

Now Sartre thought that most people go through life acting in bad faith and fooling themselves into believing that they are Egos with these preset qualities when actually they are just making things up. And they do this because they are afraid of their own freedom and of the absurdity of their position in the world, which is the truly essential thing about them. A person, he says in Being and Nothingness, IS a freedom, and this is scary and disconcerting and can be overwhelming, creating what Sartre calls nausea (la nausée). We are, according to Sartre, condemned to be free. Most people, he says, do everything they can to run away from their freedom, from the fact that they are actually responsible for how they act and feel and think and believe and can’t blame their parents or their boss or their culture or any external circumstances.

The word person comes from the Latin persona, which was the mask worn by an actor in a play to represent a particular character.

Now, you may be wondering why Sartre would have imagined that recognition of our essential freedom would lead to nausea. Shouldn’t he have thought, instead, that this recognition is liberating? Why nausea when you can choose to feel, however absurdly, pure bliss? And shouldn’t he have thought that the fact that there is no GIVEN Ego Self is an opportunity for you get to construct one on whatever model you would like? Why not see that constructed Ego Self as an artistic creation that you work on throughout your life?

Well, he should have, but the truth is that for all his brilliance, Sartre was pretty messed up due to some unresolved Mommy issues that I won’t go into here (but see the partial autobiography The Words). My take: he really didn’t grok how very positive his philosophy was.

One question you might have: if you are Self-creating, as Sartre argues, what, then, is authenticity? Traditionally, it was defined as being true to one’s Self. In the 1960s, hippies used to speak of “finding yourself,” as though you were a lost sock. But you are not a lost sock. So, if there is no pre-existing Self to find or be true to, what could authenticity possibly mean? Aren’t we stuck back with Sartre’s nausea and bad faith? Well, no. What authenticity really means is a) taking responsibility for one’s Self and b) remaining true to that creation. You are the artist of yourself, and authenticity is artistic integrity. No, you say, I cannot do that. It would compromise the Self I have been, am, and will be creating, as a cliché compromises a poem, as a stylistically inconsistent motif compromises a dance or a piece of music. The fact that the Self is not predefined for you and that you are free to decide how you are going to feel, think, and act emphatically does NOT condemn you to a meaningless life. Quite the contrary. You create your own meaning and purpose, and the process of doing so, like any process of artistic creation, is engaging, purposeful, and meaningful. (For more on this topic, see the following: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2019/03/17/three-meanings-of-meaning/).

So, that’s one thing that Sartre got wrong. Here’s another: While you are not pre-determined, you do operate within a great many constraints on what you can create. Maybe your physical and intellectual endowments are such that, however hard you might work at it, you will never be a principal dancer in a ballet company or win the Field medal in mathematics. You can think of these biological constraints—your genetic inheritance, as like keys on a piano. You can’t make the piano sound like a tuba, perhaps, but you can play an astonishing variety of types of music on them, if you work at it. (Sartre does acknowledge these limitations in B&N, and he has a term for them. He calls them your “facticity.” But he doesn’t think that they matter much.)

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre promised to create, in the future, an Existentialist ethics, but because he believed that life was fundamentally meaningless, and because he didn’t recognize important facts about our facticity that have ethical implications, he was never able to do that. But that’s a subject for another essay.

Copyright 2016. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Imagine That. Drawing by Robert D. Shepherd. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

For other essays (and cartoons!) by Bob Shepherd on philosophical subjects, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Existentialism in Five Minutes | Bob Shepherd

  1. bethree5 says:

    Thanks for this wonderful lesson, Bob.

    I guess I would say at this point in my life that though I like some features of Sartre’s philosophy, and credit him for innovative concepts on the nature of consciousness, I am more interested now in how his philosophy fits into the XXthC historical narrative. (I feel the same way about Freud—though I credit him with far vaster impact on the historical narrative.)

    I prefer Sartre’s novels to his philosophical works. They walk you through what it feels like— no longer just an intellectual exercise. (Always good to read, as companion, Camus. Not just L’Étranger, but earlier works, especially “Les Noces/ L’Été.”). “La Nausée” sticks out in my mind. You enter a world where, as opposed to your 19th/early-20th C narrative ‘everything happens for a reason,’ there are no longer any ‘reasons.’ Things just happen. *You* just ‘happened.’ This divorces you from your past and your future. You are imprisoned in the present moment. Why do you feel nausea? Because the release—the absolute freedom—is accompanied by the realization that there is no faith-based or even socially-accepted grounding you can trust/ believe in that might provide you impetus for your next move. It’s not the freedom of, say, sky-diving, where gravity and wind play roles, and you just let them take you where they will. It’s the freedom of being a conscious point in a void.

    I’ve been reading novels written in a post-modernist vein. So far I’m getting most of my philosophical theory of it from Alain Badiou’s “Le Siécle” [the XXthC] – modernism as encompassed by the “short century,” i.e., 1914-1989 (after which, post-modernism). Existentialism is very much part of the modernist XXthC.

    Chronologically, existentialism is toward the end of that period, yet it shares that peculiar [1914] “threshold” quality of being poised at the end of one era where everything is “known” (or will be known) [XIXthC, continuing Enlightenment thought] and a new era sensed in the disruption of colonial empires, with concepts of “the new man,” “progress”– a new historical narrative entering the void created by the disruption/ destruction of old ways.

    Existentialism can be seen as a throwback to that “threshold” time conceptually, but informed by the brutal consequences of “the new man”/”progress” concept [World Wars, Stalinism et al excesses of communist Asia & rw dictatorships worldwide ]. But it’s not yet “post-modernism.” There is an awareness of opposite forces, but no synthesis. I see existentialism more as a mirror-image of the ‘new man’/ ‘progress’ concepts that led to the extraordinary brutality of the XXthC. There’s an understanding there that that wild sort of faith that Badiou calls “passion for reality,” which mows down individual consciousness, demanding sacrifice to the national or global “we” necessary to implement some concept/ narrative of future possibility—is false. So it posits the opposite. Nothing exists for any individual except “I”, one’s individual consciousness—as it reacts to the features of its personally experienced present moment. It is false, just like its opposite number.

    I like Sartre’s existentialism for its exploration of the freedom of consciousness. That was a salutatory measure during a time when most folks were feeling overwhelmed by historical forces. The concept has more to do with psychology than history [though I think it was a necessary juncture, historically]. It’s a challenge to Freud, or perhaps a continuation of that discussion. It could even be seen as opening the way for new-agey “you create your own reality” concepts, which I think on the whole provide needed & humane relief from the sense that one is a pawn of unsurmountable forces.

    Liked by 1 person

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