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Sartre Defends Existentialism
on 11 August 2002
This book will either make you want to read more about existentialism or it will lead you into making quite the opposite choice by leaving existentialism to others possibly more patient than yourself though not necessarily more intelligent.
Whatever your choice you will nonetheless be making a choice even if that choice is not to make a choice.
Or as Sartre would put it, in a far more philosophical manner, you can always choose but you must know that even if you do not choose that would still be a choice. For what is not possible is not to choose.
This is the first book I have read about existentialism so I cannot judge whether it is a good introduction to this philosophical movement yet the very fact that the purpose of the lecture delivered by Sartre is to offer a defence of existentialism against certain reproaches laid against it, seems by itself to shape the content of the lecture into an attempt by necessity to capture the essence of existentialism. In particular, in relation to the reactions existentialism has provoked.
There are certain key ideas that are very plainly put across to the reader which may well capture one's attention and actually lead to a further exploration of other books about existentialism.
For example, Sartre after referring to the two kinds of existentialists that there are and declaring that he is a representative of atheistic existentialism explains that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, that is to say a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.
That being, of course, is man.
Thus, existence precedes essence. Man first exists and then defines himself.
Basically, in conclusion to his reference to atheistic existentialism, Sartre adds that the first principle of existentialism is that man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. Not as what he conceives himself to be after already existing but that which he wills himself to be subsequent to a necessary leap towards existence. Basically, man only attains existence when he is what he purposes to be. Whereas, before that projection of the self, nothing exists.
Doubtless this first principle of existentialism gave rise to a reproach against the subjectivity of existentialism. Other ideas and terms used are also examined always with reference made to the particular reproaches Sartre has to answer in relation to such ideas and terms.
All in all, he makes out quite a solid and intelligible defence of existentialism as he explains that the first effect of existentialism is to put every man in possession of himself with the entire responsibility of his existence being placed on his shoulders.
The emphasis in the doctrine presented by Sartre is that there is no reality except in action. Man is described as nothing else but what he purposes with his existence being attained only in so far as he realizes himself. Man is therefore, nothing else but the sum of his actions.
He clarifies further this basic idea by stating - rather poetically in fact - that for the existentialist (though also in reality) there is no love apart from the deeds of love, no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving and no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.
Throughout the lecture the basic theme delivered by Sartre is that reality alone is reliable and dreams, expectations and hopes serve only to define man negatively and not positively since man is nothing else but what he lives.
One can easily understand how a basic idea such as this could give rise to a reproach for the pessimism of existentialism. Yet, Sartre manages to turn around this reproach and to declare that what people reproach existentialists with is not their pessimism but the sternness of their optimism.
As to the structure of the book, this is divided into three parts each of which can be enjoyed in its own right even though the parts are actually interrelated. First, there is a rather helpful introduction, then the lecture itself and finally the actual discussion that followed the lecture.
An additional benefit to the newcomer to the study of existentialism is the slimness of the book. This means the entire book or any part of it can easily be read time and time again. No doubt each fresh reading will be to the advantage of the reader as it will add to his understanding of the ideas expressed while simultaneously increasing his appreciation of the manner of their expression.