What on earth is French Existentialism?

25 Apr 2022

In this piece, I will present a case for Sartre’s existentialist philosophy which will include his conceptions of Radical Freedom, Subjectivity, Abandonment, Despair, and Bad Faith. I will then summarise all these teachings, giving reasons for formally rejecting Sartre’s ideas.

In order to understand Sartre’s Existentialism, we must first begin by addressing his metaphysical commitments. Sartre treats what he deems to be the fact of atheism (‘there is no God’) very seriously, springing forth his philosophy from the consequences of this belief. He writes, ‘with his [God’s] disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven… [as well as] any a priori good.’ (Sartre, 1946, p. 28). In other words, if there is no God, there is no transcendent good. There is no image of God which humans are created in, nor is there a common purpose which humans are created for. This leads Sartre to Existentialism’s core doctrine – existence comes before essence.

Christianity, and other monotheistic religions, teach that God is the creator of human beings. In order to create something, I must conceive of its design prior to my act of creating. No man could go to his workshop and construct a chair if he had no conception of a chair.1 Likewise, in the mind of God, human beings were conceived in thought before they were physically created. If God exists, man’s essence comes before his existence. Sartre claims that this idea must be revisited as God did not create human beings. Instead, the atheistic narrative suggests that we evolved, and the classification of ‘human’ refers to a sub-group of creatures of the same development. It is only after we existed that we were classified, by ourselves, as being of the creature called ‘human’. Since there is no Designer, the existence of our kind came before we identified ourselves as human – existence preceded essence.

From this doctrine come two confronting ideas. Firstly, Abandonment refers to being utterly left on our own, being unable to rationally rely on a God for any sense of purpose. If there is no God, there is no all-knowing, all-powerful being to determine the future, nor is there an ultimate cause that may explain how things ought to be. The future is instead a ‘virgin’ one, completely within our hands, and only our hands. Further, we can reject any normative moral system that compels us to act in a certain way. Instead, we simply must choose, as the creators

Sartre’s second principle is Despair. Abandonment provides us with such a sense of Radical Freedom, that soon enough we realise that things are not that easy without God’s existence. Given that I have been promoted to the god of the future without also attaining omniscience, I only become the god of my future. Here we see a similarity to stoic thought; it is pointless for me to attempt to be master of anything that is outside my control. Sartre writes ‘he [man] is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.’ (Sartre, 1946, p. 37). Everything is irrelevant that is, not affected by me or my context of choices. This provides a sense of Subjectivity to our reality. Choices only matter in the realm of my reality. This causes the kind of despair one might feel when he has to bear the full responsibility of being the god of his world. He has the full weight of responsibility; he must bear the burden of his choices.

We have our principles that constitute a Radical Freedom, but how does it manifest in the real world? It means that I cannot keep creating excuses for myself for I am no longer the victim (the caused), but the causer. Sartre states that any attempt at transferring praise or blame from myself is an act of Bad Faith. Bad Faith consists of creating disingenuous excuses that deny the existentialist reality. All excuses are disingenuous because one necessarily conceives that Existentialism is undoubtedly true. If I deny this, I am supressing the truth, which is equally disingenuous toward myself. Thus, all denials of being radically free and responsible classify as acts of Bad Faith.

Instead, we must make decisions and choose, bearing the consequences with courage. When one reflects on what the creature ‘humans’ do, they will look at my choices and that is what we will be – responsible agents. Thus, in some sense by simply making choices you define the thing that humans do as a representative of humankind. We are completely free and there is no common essence that defines or limits what humans do, rather this definition comes from your choices. There is no human nature or any other thing that allows one to predict my behaviour. Making up explanations for why I acted in a certain way, is just Bad Faith; my behaviour is simply a result of my free choice.

I have summarised Sartre’s Existentialism to hold to the following tenets:

  1. God does not exist.

  2. God did not conceive of a common essence that defines human beings. Example: Since there is no Designer, there is no common design.

  3. Existence precedes essence. Example: Human beings exist but are only categorised as human, by humans, after the existence of humans.

  4. There is no normative system which necessarily binds humans together or causes them to act in a certain way. Example: We cannot predict behaviour by appealing to ‘human nature’.

  5. Humans are only defined by their free choices. Example: We are abandoned by any uniting quality except what we choose.

  6. Humans are 100% responsible for their free choices. Example: We bear this burden (a cause of our despair) since God does not exist (since we are abandoned by God).

  7. Since these are necessary truths which we are all confronted with, denying any of these truths in order to excuse you from your responsibility is an act of Bad Faith. Example: You are either supressing these truths and showing Bad Faith toward yourself, or know these truths making any excuses disingenuous.

As we can see, Sartre promotes a Radical Freedom that presents itself as coherent. In order to show the insufficiency of Existentialism we must either (i.) prove that these ideas do not follow from one another, or (ii.) challenge the truth of one or more of these propositions.

Proposition 1, the existence of God, could be easily challenged and is the cornerstone of Sartre’s whole argument. However, Sartre has little interest in debating the non-existence of God, and would never get around to defending Existentialism if he had to prove this point every time. Understanding this, I will present a tension between proposition 1 and 7, before offering a generous way of understanding Sartre’s argument. My first objection is that Sartre defines Bad Faith as denying the blatant truth of his propositions, including the non-existence of God (proposition 1). Is Sartre being so bold as to say that all theists, who will obviously deny Sartre’s atheistic Existentialism, are supressing the truth of the non-existence of God? On these grounds, it seems equally rational for me to say, to Sartre, that he is supressing the truth of the existence of God. Sartre writes, ‘the one who practises bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth.’ (1995, p.408). If I were to suggest that Sartre is hiding the displeasing truth of God’s existence, which could rightly be displeasing if it subjects one to damnation, on what grounds is his claim more compelling than mine? For us to be lying to ourselves (showing Bad Faith), it must be more self-evident that God does not exist than that he does. Sartre’s argument in light of anthropology creates a growing tension between propositions 1 and 7. As for the alternative, it is best to consider Sartre’s argument without debating the existence of God. We should instead state that: if God does not exist, then the six other tenets of Existentialism are true. It would be to Sartre’s benefit if we excluded proposition 1 from the effects of the tenet of Bad Faith, adjusting it accordingly:

  1. Upon the acceptance of the non-existence of God, since propositions 2-6 are necessary truths which we are all confronted with, denying any of these propositions in order to excuse you from your responsibility is an act of Bad Faith.

This reading of Sartre is beneficial to him as it grants him freedom from the God debate. It seems reasonable to suggest that as long as human beings were not created, proposition 2 is undeniable and proposition 3 is certainly true within the domain of living creatures. Proposition 4, however, is radically undermined by psychology and anthropology. It is no secret, that if behaviour could not be predicted, then the practice of examining patterns on behaviour that is so essential to the social and psychological sciences, must be to Sartre, an anomaly that cannot be explained. Further, anthropologists examine cultural universals. Cultural universals are sets of beliefs, values or morals that are common to all societies. For example: all people naturally have supernatural beliefs, and all people feel the weight of injustice when they are oppressed. (Brown, 1991). If proposition 4 is true, then if I was to create a society on another planet, it would be irrational for me to predict that human beings would be religious or have a sense of justice. After all, there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ that makes these things necessarily so.

Since Sartre’s claim (that there is no normative system like human nature that causes humans to act) is based upon the idea that existence precedes essence, evidential studies do not disprove proposition 4. However, these studies cause us to ponder the following questions: (a) why does it appear like there is a human nature? (b) does the appearance of human nature make it more likely that there is a common design and therefore, more self-evident that God exists? (c) does the appearance of human nature make it seem like Sartre is the one with Bad Faith since he is denying this (d) and, finally, what exactly about the non-existence of God determines that there is no common denominator that can be used to predict our behaviour (undermining proposition 5)? These are not easy questions to explain away. Since propositions 1-3 logically proceed from atheism, any atheist that wished to assert that there is no such thing as human nature will have to face these questions with Sartre. If they concede that there is such thing as human nature, they must equally explain how it is that human nature is conceivable in an atheistic world.

A secondary critique that stems from this line of thought is that Sartre seems to be in some sense advocating a normative code of ethics. Sartre says ‘you are free, so choose… No general code can tell you what you ought to do.’(Sartre, 1946, p.33). One could argue that there is a subtle contradiction in this sentence. Sartre says that you should choose unguided by any form of normative statements, except his normative ethical statement; that you should choose unguided by normative ethical statements. By telling you to not go seek counsel from a code of ethics, Sartre is at the same time prescribing you with a positive action. That action is to choose without the influence of a code. Whether you deem this argument as more an issue in semantics, it is noteworthy that Sartre seems to want a person in a moral dilemma to abandon systematic ethics.

Proposition 6 is essential to Sartre’s conception of Radical Freedom. We are reminded of (d), causing us to ask similarly: What exactly about the non-existence of God means that we are 100% responsible for our actions? Does no God mean no cause? Let us unpack Sartre’s presuppositions. It seems that he believes that if God exists, then we can attribute praise or blame to our ‘human nature’ and escape responsibility. In the background, Sartre’s atheism also enables us to escape God’s sovereignty. This means that we cannot appeal to determination to excuse ourselves from responsibility. In other words, in order for us to be 100% responsible, Sartre’s criteria is that there is no God, which entails that there is common human nature, and that there is no determinism. Unfortunately, causal determination is now embraced by atheists and theists alike. It seems unreasonable to believe that Sartre was not aware of people like A. J. Ayer, who argued against hard determinism and did not limit the belief to be necessarily theistic (Ayer, 1994). Thus, Sartre has not sufficiently demonstrated that he has beaten the thing that prevents him from his Radical Freedom, namely atheistic determinism.

Our second problem is that Sartre suggests that the mind is uncaused, and hence we are fully responsible for our actions. If the mind is uncaused, surely, we could say that no code of ethics could have caused us to behave in a certain way? If no code of ethics could cause our choices to change, then Sartre does not need to so dominantly declare that we should not subscribe to a general code of ethics.2 After all, any general code of ethics has no causal connection to any choice I might make. Alternatively, Sartre could claim that choices can be influenced, but only the will has true causal power to create the choice. Under this redaction, the will is an influenced faculty. The problem is not solved as ‘influence’ is just another word for ‘causation’. If the will is influenced, I could simply say that my will is influenced by God or determining factors, like a drunkard might blame his alcohol. I can say I was ‘under the influence’, and hence not bear full responsibility. Consequently, we either have to say that the will is caused or uncaused. Both answers nullify a substantial part of Sartre’s Existentialism.

My final objection lies directly upon proposition 7 regarding Bad Faith. Sartre’s chapter Bad Faith articulately describes not only what Bad Faith is, but inherently implies that it is bad, or negative. My question to Sartre is: why is Bad Faith bad? In other words, who cares that someone either deceives themselves or others? Sartre, in order to defend his position, must tell us precisely what is wrong with deception. The problem is that requesting advice from Sartre on the morality of deception is at the same time seeking to subscribe to his normative ethical stance against lying. If I wanted to know that lying or deception is wrong, I could equally consult a priest; an idea that Sartre would blatantly oppose. Sartre states there is no set of transcendent morals that makes something inherently wrong. Consequently, Bad Faith is not really bad for any reason. Any attempt at justifying his position would be him offering moral advice. If Sartre were to concede this point, it seems to me he would have to admit that his paper is of little use. Sartre obviously believes that there is something bad about Bad Faith, making any prescription of proposition 7, a contradiction to proposition 4.

My objections to Sartre’s Existentialism reveal many logical problems. The two criteria (i. and ii.) I outlined to refute Sartre’s argument, have been sufficiently exploited. Firstly, propositions 1, 4, 6, and 7 conflict with one another. Secondly, proposition 5 does not necessarily proceed proposition 1 (atheism). This challenges Sartre or his followers to provide further explanation to substantiate proposition 5. For the reasons that I have provided, I in good conscience cannot agree with, or recommend Sartre’s formula for Existentialism.


Brown, D. (1991). Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Robb, D. (2020). Moral Responsibility and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Section 4.3.1. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/alternative-possibilities/.

Sartre, J.-P. (1995). Bad Faith, Being and Nothingness. Norwalk, Conn. : Easton Press, 47-49.

Sartre, J.-P., Cohen-Solal, A., Elkaïm-Sartre, A., In Kulka, J., & Macomber, C. (2016). Existentialism is a humanism: (L'Existentialisme est un humanisme);including, a commentary on The stranger (Explication de L'Étranger. Winnipeg : Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning. 28-37.