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The concepts of existentialism

The building of the essence

Atheistic existentialism declares that there is a being which cannot be defined before its existence, and that this being is precisely the human being, the Dasein (Da = there and sein = being, this means the lived experience and being in the world). This means that the human being appears in the world, exists and is defined afterwards. If the human being cannot be defined at the beginning of his existence, it is because he is not at first fundamentally “nothing”, and that it then always becomes as it chooses to be.

Since there is no God to conceive it, to give it a predetermined soul, since at the dawn of its existence, the human being is nothing, his future belongs to him radically, which he is, what it will be belongs to him. The human being determines his own essence, “man is nothing but what he makes himself”, the result of his project of being. He is not what he wanted to be, because wanting seems to imply a conscious will, but he is the result of his choices, so he is responsible for what he is. In this the existentialist theory is opposed to the determinist theory which precedes essence to existence. According to Plato, there would exist, in “an intelligible world”, an eternal form or essence of everything that the Creator would contemplate to shape the thing in question. For example, Plato says that there exists the Idea or the intelligible form of a horse in a transcendent world, form on which one can base oneself to create and always recognize a horse.

For Sartre, things exist first and only then, if they have the capacity to think, do they produce concepts such as the concepts of “world”, “human being”, ” thing” or “animal”. It is once invented that these concepts become an essence. So it is clear what we are talking about when we speak of a “man” but that does not mean that man exists as an absolute or as a substance. Everything exists before “being”, existence is the prerequisite for essence, thus “existence precedes essence”.


Sartrean existentialism reminds us that we define things by our minds, but only afterwards. Man himself fashions what he believes to be right or true, and, from this point of view, he alone is responsible to himself, for civilization as well as for his actions. Since there is no objective essence, then there is also no morality or even absolute truth.

It is therefore useless and harmful to hide behind any determinism: that this determinism be religious and recognize an existence determined by God – existence where one should await true life in another world without being able to act on the destiny which would determine the present life, or whether it is only psychological, even fatalistic, and that this determinism declares that “men are as they are and nothing can be changed about it” – the fact remains that man is the only true master of his thoughts and beliefs: “Each person is an absolute choice of self” (Being and Nothingness). Existentialism implies freedom and free will and therefore stands against all “material” determinism. According to Sartrean existentialism, the human being is therefore, paradoxically, condemned to freedom since: “there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom” (Existentialism is a humanism ). Sartre does not, however, refute the possibility of individual influence through the mediation of what he calls “sovereign groups”; however, these groups can only produce extero-conditioning, that is, influence, induce, not determine.


In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre explains that human beings, through their choices, themselves define the meaning of their lives (existence precedes essence). Also, the essence of the human being leading to that of humanity, the human being further defines by his choices the meaning of life in general, i.e. he engages “symbolically” also all humanity in the way he chooses. Sartre explains, for example, that the person who marries sees marriage as an attractive choice, so that, according to him, all human beings should do the same: everyone of marriageable age should be married. Similarly, the person who would stop his car in the middle of the road would thereby mean that he also admits that all of humanity should block traffic. However, he does not want it (this is his well-understood interest) and therefore does not do it.


Among existentialists, anguish does not designate a simple subjective feeling, nor is it confused with anxiety or fear. Anguish is always anguish of nothingness and also anguish in the face of one’s own freedom. It designates the radical experience of human existence. With Kierkegaard, anguish is born of freedom. It is the discovery of a freedom which, while being nothing, is invested with infinite power. For Heidegger, anguish is the very essence of human being because it is the fundamental disposition of existence and it reveals its core. In Sartre, anguish is the experience of freedom. As human existence is characterized by nothingness, it is isolation from the world and from oneself. Now, anguish is precisely this experience of the human being who discovers that his past and the possibilities to come are always at a distance from him. It is therefore the contingency of existence that is experienced as anguish.

Anguish is not fear. We are only afraid of what is outside us: the world and other people. But, we worry about ourselves. This is what the experience of vertigo reveals: I am on the edge of a precipice, first comes the fear of slipping and then the fear of death, but as long as it remains at that my anguish does not is still just anxiety and I’m still passive. I then pay attention and my possibilities of escaping the danger, like that of stepping back, annihilate my fear of falling. But then I get anguish because those reactions that my attention is fixed on are still only “free” possibilities. Nothing compels me to save my life by being careful, suicide is also one of my possible behaviors. But there again it is only a possibility, hence a counter-anguish and I move away from the precipice. I’m afraid of what I can do, of the immense power that my freedom gives me: that’s where the real anguish comes from.

Bad faith

Bad faith is first and foremost a flight from freedom. If our consciousness is first of all a fact (without this fact, it disappears, in sleep for example), it is a fact which is certified before its essence is certified (existence precedes essence). Consciousness has no determined foundation in the world. It will constantly have to justify this groundless (and therefore always radically contingent) place it occupies in the world. But any justification can only be arbitrary: a conscience can only justify its situation in the world by being in bad faith. To take oneself as an object, such is the act of the conscience which is a conscience of bad faith. To make consciousness “in-itself” is the intentional project of bad faith, and this bad faith is a necessary consequence of our contingency. For example, it is contingent to be born bourgeois or worker. It is not a chosen condition. Bad faith will therefore consist in playing the bourgeois, the worker or the waiter, in making it my being. I play at being when it is not a being. I play at being bourgeois like an ashtray is an ashtray. But the ashtray is in itself. It is a thing which consciousness is not and cannot be.

In Being and Nothingness, chapter “bad faith”, Sartre exemplifies this behavior by observing that the waiter he observes has a particular behavior, he plays a role, and precisely that of waiter.

More generally, in Sartre, every man essentializes/objectifies (in himself) his freedom (for himself) of action by acting. The fact of considering that the action done is determined is qualified as “bad faith” or “spirit of seriousness”.


Existentialism seems to entail a very pessimistic view of human relationships. Indeed, Sartre thinks that man is forced to live with others in order to know himself and exist, but he also thinks that life with others deprives everyone of their freedoms. The man desperate for his own banality has built his own illusions to believe he can annihilate others in order to be above them and thus escape from society. This vision of the relationship to the other as a permanent source of conflict is specific to the philosophers of the 20th century: Thus Malraux thinks that men try to give meaning to their existence by being “more than a man in a world of men (André Malraux, The Human Condition). For Sartre, who was greatly influenced by Hegel, it is the gaze that reveals the existence of others. The gaze is not limited to the eyes because behind the gaze there is a subject who judges. Initially, it is I who look at the other, in such a way that he appears to me as an object. In a second time, it is others who look at me, in such a way that I appear to others as an object. For Jean-Paul Sartre, seeing a man inevitably means not considering him as a thing, otherwise we would not see a man but one more thing among things. To distinguish it from things is to establish a new relationship between it and things, it is more simply to deny oneself as the center of the world. The mere distinction and perception of the other as a thinking subject forces me to question myself, myself and the whole universe that I have built for myself, the whole order that I had established between things and me; the egocentric system that I had created suddenly collapses by the mere existence of a being who, being as capable of thinking, is as free as I am and therefore also has every chance of having a vision of the world which opposed to mine.

To be seen is also to be judged. If others look at me, I am immediately modified, altered by their gaze: I am looked at, concerned to the core of my being. To be watched is to act in relation to the other, to be frozen in a state that no longer leaves me free to act. The Other makes us be. The problem is that the other makes us be at his convenience, so he can also deform us at will. This is the drama of the characters in No Exit who, without a mirror, can only see themselves in the distorting mirror of the eyes of the other. Thus is constituted the dialectic of the gaze which governs all concrete relations with others. It is the relation in-itself, for-itself that dominates. If the object is in itself: it does not think the external world and does not think itself, it is enclosed in itself. Man is both in-itself and for-itself: for he thinks, sees himself and sees the world and, consequently, he judges the world and judges himself. If the man lived alone, it would be no problem because the world would only exist for him. But there are the others and we must take their thoughts into account. The way I look at the world is contradicted by the way others look at it. Between my thought and that of others, a conflict is established: our visions of the world making the world exist differently, the freedom of the other tends to suppress mine by diverting things from the meaning that I give them, by granting them another.

Thus, by looking at me, the other judges me, and makes me the object of his thoughts. I depend on him. His freedom reduces me to the state of an object, of in-itself. “I am in danger. And this danger is the permanent structure of my being for others” (Being and Nothingness). In a certain sense, I could enjoy this slavery under the gaze of others because I lose my position as a free subject, I have become an object, deprived of freedom and consequently also of responsibilities. But this is only an illusion because I cannot escape my position as subject. My reduction to the state of an object does not allow it. Worse, it even solicits this position of subject because, while the other judges me and makes me his object, I also judge him, that is to say that I make him my object, I am therefore also his topic. By thinking of me, the other establishes a judgment on me, which I will take into account from now on in order to know myself. In other words, the other forces me to see myself through his thought, just as I force him to see himself through mine. I depend on the other, who depends on me. It is a constant deformation of others according to the will of each one. The more a conscience feels guilty, the more it will tend to charge others to defend itself from its judgment. The executioners of Morts sans sepulture, for example, want the victims to believe that they are guilty.

It is possible to envisage an ideal situation where the conflict between the freedoms of each would be defused. This situation could be love. Indeed, this feeling makes it possible not to fear the gaze of others. I want to be the object of the other since I want him to love me and moreover, by loving me, the other makes me a sublimated object. Thanks to him, I escape my freedom and my responsibilities. So I want him to be my subject. But the other also wants me to love him, to make him my object. When I agree to lose my prerogatives as a subject by becoming an object, the other who does the same, accepts that I am his subject. Thus lovers being two subjects each accepting their objectification, existence without conflict is possible. But, this is only an illusion, because as the two lovers want to be the object of the other, they experience the other as being the subject of which they are the object and not the reverse. In other words, a solitary couple can, on the lie, build a more or less stable balance. But with a third person, the illusion necessarily dissipates, as the trio in No Exit illustrates: love is impossible for three. Thus, real love can only oscillate between two extremes: masochism (where one makes oneself an object), or sadism (where one makes oneself a subject). “Normal” desire is always sadomasochistic. For Sartre, indifference is also an illusion. Indeed, this feeling tries to make us believe in our superiority over the other. But in reality indifference does not liberate the other, and this because thought alone makes the presence of the other an object. Even by striving to annihilate the other third, man cannot help thinking of the other, of remaining a subject who considers him as an object. Hatred is the opposite feeling, it aims to suppress the other as a thinking subject. But, to hate is also to recognize that one cannot suppress the other, that this other is a subject against which one can do nothing but raise cries, curses. Violence is the admission of the inability to really make it disappear.

So the illusion is general. Neither love, nor hate, nor indifference can bring men out of the hell in which they are all plunged since there are others, since account must be taken of their presence and their judgments.

Sexual desire would remain the only means of living in perfect communion with the other. But this is again a manifestation of bad faith and a tool of narcissism, yet it too is doomed to failure. Desire is the fall into complicity with the body, it is the unveiling of its existence. We let ourselves be invaded by the body, we stop running away from it. It invades the consciousness which slips into a state quite similar to sleep. Now passive, it submerges it, invades it, makes it opaque to itself and thus compromises the individual. Indeed, it is flattering to be desired, to attract sexually, but one is then by the very desire of the other immediately reduced from the state of a person to the state of a body and then, to defend oneself, we make respect an essential essence of the partner, who, in bad faith, becomes obligatorily respectful towards us as the table necessarily has legs. Desire is desire for the other, desire to become its object, woman or man-object, desire therefore automatically requires the other even if the latter is absent. We want the other as a subject but we only have his body, his consciousness is elusive, and this is why it is certainly possible to grasp the eyes of the body but not the gaze of the partner. We can then freely choose to be overwhelmed by the flesh, to want the body of the other, but then the body of the other is no longer an Other, it is a body, which alone is no longer there for nothing. Thus, unlike hunger or thirst, which are needs that disappear at the same time as they are fulfilled, sexual desire is always disappointing and Man remains unsatisfied, always in search of the satisfaction of a contradictory need, which it is impossible to fully satisfy.

Death is, in Sartre, the reverse of freedom. Sartrean death is practically nothing. Worse, it is the triumph of others! Once dead, we no longer exist except through the other as long as he still thinks of us and, at the same time, he makes us an object. Dead, I am nothing more than an in-itself delivered to the other. The worst thing is that the other himself also only has an existence doomed to disappearance. To die is therefore to barely exist in another who, by disappearing, will cause the shadow of existence that still remained to us to disappear. Death is nothingness. The anguish does not even belong to him because it is to be free which is much more agonizing. Death suppresses everything, like a stupid cataclysm. It is exterior and contingent and it makes life absurd: “Everything existing is born without reason, is prolonged by weakness and dies by chance”.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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