Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism was released in 1946 and consists of a lecture given to a room of critics regarding his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. One of the lead critics of Sartre’s atheistic take on Existentialism were subscribers of the Marxist worldview, stating that this lack of purpose in the world allowed for inaction and what they would deem as quietism. These initial perceptions on the seemingly mysterious philosophy would prove to be wrong as the idea of essence being after existence prevailed and was explained in more detail. In this view, humans are given choices and are responsible for themselves. Sartre's moral subjectivity premise is best defined as the idea in which all humans start off in a subjective state as essence (personality) is gained through no previously designed model, making it the fundamental idea of Existentialism. Examples of this can be easily seen in everyday life with birth and death.
Existentialism can best be described as the philosophy of “stern optimism” where “There is no reality except in action.” (Sartre, 1946) . It is the search for and defining a personal essence that gives people their unique qualities. Existence must proceed with this however, as individual people can be looked at as blank sheets of paper and being slowly filled as time goes on. Moral subjectivity is simply another phrase describing this existence over essence relationship. Morals, along with personality, describe the person as an individual. Existentialism is built upon the core idea that humans have an endless need to fill up the individual's sheet of paper which presupposes that life lacks true meaning. Extrapolating on this idea could lead to quietism as mentioned or even nihilism. However, Sartre encouraged others to operate at their full potential to work towards ridding ourselves of anguish (a byproduct of infinite choice in every situation). If moral subjectivity were removed from Existentialism it would cease to exist as essence preceding existence gives the world a more theistic bend necessitating a god to create the essence. This underlying search for purpose and struggle is null and void. Using birth and death as scenarios to display Existentialism, it will be clearly shown that the idea of existence over essence is vital to the philosophy, and getting rid of the idea or even adjusting it will give out dramatically different results and meaning.
Birth is a prime case to study that will show the true importance of subjectivity in our lives. When we are born, we have no recollection of our own birth let alone memories for some time after this. During this time our existence is filled with little to no essence. When we are born we must be taught everything from how to walk to even form a complete sentence. Our personality is nothing more than an amalgamation of our surroundings, parents, and many other random variables. Over time, our metaphorical blank sheet of paper began to burst with character and as time went on the true absurdism of life began to take place forming us to what we are, whether good or bad. It is the choices given by the world that truly trouble us. Let us say that essence precedes existence in this situation and we find ourselves being stuck in lives we have no control over. Like mentioned previously, presupposing essence hints at a god suggesting that if you are born as a poor rice farmer then you may be destined to continue this. In a way, it seems as if control is taken out of the hands of yourself as a reactive force of the world but is instead placed at the mercy of a god. True freedom comes from the choices we make in reactions to our world and is supremely lacking in the idea of a god crafting you before anything.
Like birth, death is a regulatory measure of nature displaying some of the same issues if it does not follow the Existentialist framework. Death is inevitable and while others are allowed to live long healthy lives, some will be inevitably cut short. In an existence over essence view, you are born to random circumstances and are expected to power through the anguish you experience while trying to find your essence and yet again fill your metaphorical paper and project what you want from others through what you attempt (Sartre, 1946). If death were to occur, it would be nothing more than life being absurd and unpredictable. However, if essence if determined first then one would wonder if there is anything in the essence that has made them predisposed to an early death. And if death is predetermined then like stated before, we lack significant freedom and we are then nothing more than what an all-knowing god created, which makes change impossible.
Sartre’s additional contributions to Existentialism has made it a much more modern and even pleasant philosophy to govern ourselves in a modern, increasingly secular world. The ideas of personal responsibility are very significant in western countries which include self-improvement, individualism, and the move away from group identity. Existentialism, specifically displayed by Sartre, allows for all of these ideas without religious undertones that were much more prevalent before. Though a continuing struggle against equality and stripping people of their fear of going without will truly let people experience what life is and avoid living in bad faith.
Rishabh Goswami is an undergraduate computer science student at Ashoka University. Rishabh previously worked with Mahmudabad Estate and currently working as a data analyst intern at Adobe Inc.