Existentialism is a Humanism


Sartre’s work “Existentialism is a Humanism” is a fundamental treatise, which justifies the basic principles of the existential philosophy and ethics – existence as a project, freedom, intersubjective morality, choice, personal responsibility, and abandonment. The philosopher argues that the abandonment is the crucial characteristic of the human way of life. At the same time, he presents himself as an atheistic existentialist, who does not presuppose the existence of any absolute. The correlation between these statements is controversial in the context of Sarte’s views. Sartre perceives the abandonment to be the crucial unconditioned premise of human existence but does not consider the transcendental premises of the abandonment: the God or another supreme power claiming to be on position of atheistic existentialism. Such controversy leads to the objection that appeals to the analysis of the presuppositions that underlie human existence.

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A Controversy

Sartre considers the abandonment – a notion suggested by Heidegger – to be a decisive aspect of human existence. According to the philosopher, the abandonment is a mode of existence, which requires no premises: “Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one” (Sartre, p. 8). It means that Sartre perceives the abandonment to be the starting point of any deliberation, action, evaluation, questioning, etc. The abandonment presupposes that there is no external reality, no absolute, and no eternal and ideal samples, which can be taken as guidance in the justification of the necessity to think, act, and live in a particular way. With the help of the analyzed concept, the philosopher emphasizes the intrinsically practical construction of all personal beliefs and outlooks.

As a result, the abandonment enables a human being to accept the necessity to act and choose. According to Sartre, no one has an authority to define any phenomena or values as universally morally permissible because nothing can possess an “a priory” essence. On the contrary, essence is a construct, a consequence of existence, which is a process and activity. Thus, a person has to act and via the experience of success-and-mistakes approach to the self-understanding and the fulfillment of his/her essence, which is always a consequence of the decisions and choices. Therefore, essence is always a result of existence.

Moreover, the abandonment forces individuals into making decisions and taking the responsibility for them. A human being does not have any excuses, instructions or guidance, ultimate values, etc. Therefore, a person has to invent and construct personal ideals and be responsible for such decisions. Being abandoned, a person has nothing eternal to rely on. That means that an individual has to rely on oneself only. In other words, every existence is a source of his/her decisions’ legitimation.

Even though the abandonment is a source of individualism and self-fulfillment, its experiencing by a human being leads to the feeling of despair, which means the necessity to “limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible” (Sartre, p. 10). Such definition presupposes the absence of hope in life because of the need to consider only real possibilities, which depend on person alone. However, there is still a layer of conditions, which a human being is not able to control. That means that even though the abandonment opens a limitless range of possibilities of self-realization, there is also a restriction because of the inability of a human being to control everything. Thus, the phenomenon of the abandonment, which does not possess a premise, and despair as an absence of hope are controversial in Sartre’s conception.

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An Objection to Sartre

Even though Sartre’s ideas concerning the situation of human abandonment seem to be plausible, there is a transcendental question about the possibility and the reason for such a specific human condition. Such claim means that there has to be a particular reason or premise of the abandonment. It seems that such premise is an absolute or an external substance, which ensures the necessity of every human being to start their active life with the consideration of its measures. In other words, it is not a human being who chooses to be abandoned, but a primary condition which has to possess a meaning and a cause.

Even though the abandonment makes a human being free to choose how to act and which values to consider as the most fundamental, it does not presuppose the ability of the individual to control everything. That means that there is an independent form of external reality which has a particular meaning and is a source of life that generally making every person live and be abandoned in the life. Such consideration may lead to the understanding of this substance as an absolute or God, who primarily influences the existence of the human being. Such idea is a sort of deist argument, which considers the God as not involving in the affairs of his creation after he created everything.

Sartre’s conception resembles such scenery because the philosopher does not explain the phenomenon of the abandonment and does not reveal any meaning of it. It is analyzed in the context of the human despair, which presupposes the freedom and, as a result, an active attitude towards the life and the readiness to take the responsibility for personal choices. Thus, it seems to be the source of individuation and personal success. However, the philosopher does not pay attention to another side of the problem – the relation of the abandonment to the existence of another conscious substance as a guarantee of the special human condition. As a representative of an atheistic branch of existentialism, Sartre rejects the existence of God or other supreme substance. However, his statements about the abandonment, despair, the absence of hope point at the controversy because they presuppose a supreme power. Even though it can be impersonalized, its ontological status has to be considered as a supreme towards a human being. It may not play any role in the decision-making, but it is impossible to justify the social world without any norms and a priory conditions. Therefore, this objection is strong because it deals with the question of transcendental premises of Sartre’s conception.

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A Reaction to Objection

Even though the represented objection to Sartre’s conception of the human existence and abandonment is argumentative, it can be rejected by the means of Sartre’s conception. In particular, I consider that the clearest response to the objection may be the idea that existentialism as a philosophical approach does not aim to consider the arguments for the existence of God. In other words, the representatives of the atheistic branch of existentialism do not need the notion of the supreme being to build their conceptions because they do not consider the premises of existence, rejecting the idea of “a priori” essence. On the contrary, human beings are considered as a starting point of any philosophical deliberation. Moreover, Sartre could also argue that the assumption that God exists is irrelevant to the idea about human freedom and responsibility. Even if God is real, his presence does not change anything in human status. That means that even if Sartre could found a place for the supreme power in his version of existentialism, human being would have been still personally responsible for everything that happens as a result of their actions.

However, even though the atheistic existentialism, at first sight, can cope with the presented objection, its reaction to these counter-arguments resembles the avoidance of the problem. Even though God or another supreme power cannot influence the necessity of human beings to make decision and act, it has to be justified as a source of this necessity. If something is necessary, it has to possess particular reasons. That means that the concept of God as a guarantor of the necessity and the status of the human being may be additional. At the same time, it is significant so as to justify the foundations of Sartre’s reasoning and show the coherence of his conception.


To summarize, the conception of atheistic existentialism considering human being as rational, active, free, and responsible creatures emphasizes the notion of the abandonment as a crucial characteristic of human existence. The abandonment is an unconditioned mode of existence, which does not require any premises. However, such statement provokes an objection which reveals the controversy in the justification of the abandonment. In particular, atheistic existentialists do not examine the premises of the abandonment and its conditions which ensure the specific status of human beings. In other words, stressing the absence of God, the analyzed approach does not explain the nature of the abandonment. This objection can be rejected by considering this question to be needless in the context of existentialism. However, such reaction is an avoidance of the deliberation about the premises of the necessity – for instance, the abandonment, which cannot appear by itself. On the contrary, it has to be justified and correlated with other concepts of Sartre’s philosophy.

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