Now That's What I Call Philosophy! Volume 7

Sartre - Flawed, Forgotten, But Free

Tags: existentialism, freedom, morality, sartre

Sartre’s philosophy focuses on the boundless options always available to the individual, and how this ‘radical freedom’ causes one anguish and anxiety through a burden of ‘choices’.  [1] Man is ‘condemned to be free.’  [2] It is a subjective philosophy because it grounds itself in the experiences of the individual through a rich tapestry of examples. This is, in part, because it is highly influenced by Husserl’s ‘phenomenology’.  [3] It is also an ‘ontological’ project, focusing on the act of being that all humans partake in.  [4] This essay posits that Sartre fails to convince his audience of the authenticity of his conception of freedom.  His radical freedom does not exist in the world, yet one can use Sartre to recognise when one is acting unnecessarily unfreely.  To begin, the basics of Sartre’s philosophy will be outlined, along with historic reproaches it faced.  Then an evaluation will commence, starting with the criticisms of Warnock and Warburton. Subsequent paragraphs will outline Sartrean vulnerability to determinism, Tulken’s response to this, and a rebuttal of Tulkens.  Finally, Warnock and Weberman will provide positive endorsements of Sartre, in particular, his engaging examples.


‘Existence precedes essence.’  [5] This neat reversal of Aristotelian philosophy came to embody Sartre’s existentialism.  Aristotle had assigned humanity a ‘predefined’ purpose prior to existing. [6] Sartre disagreed.  He asserted that an individual could choose what they would become and give ‘meaning’ to their own life.  [7] This self-determination, Sartre said, was in spite of their facticity. ‘Facticity’ encompasses the facts about the environment in which the individual exists.  [8] It includes one’s parents, the geographic and temporal location in which one grows up, and one’s natural attributes. It also includes the life one has led up to the present moment.  On this latter point, Sartre outlines the example of someone who has had past homosexual relationships, and questions whether this defines them as a homosexual or not.  [9] All these factors are external pressures on the individual that, left unchecked, shape their entire existence.  Sartre believes that it is possible to check these forces.  However, his rejection of divine providers of essence drew the ire of Catholicism.  It accused Sartre’s humanism of being a ‘pessimistic’ philosophy, devoid of hope. [10] The Communists took this one step further, accusing Sartre of ‘quietism’.  [11] They asserted that, as Sartrean philosophy could only leave one in despair, it was a luxurious ‘contemplative’ philosophy, only affordable to the bourgeois. [12] Sartre, in response, strongly insisted that existentialism was a vibrant philosophy of action.  ‘There is no reality except in action’.  [13]


With basic Sartrean philosophy now outlined, it shall be critically evaluated.  Warnock leads the criticisms, asserting that Sartre was wrong to ‘discount all the influence’ from one’s genetics or past.  [14] This can be backed up with scientific evidence. Maccoby notes, during a meta-analysis on the influence of genes, ‘the fact of a genetic contribution to human variability is not in doubt’.  [15] The same study also outlines that the ‘family environment does have an effect on each child’. [16] This evidence makes Sartre’s claim of an omnipresent radical freedom seem untenable. Warnock also criticises his moral relativism, saying Sartre was misguided to propose that ‘there is no such thing as actual moral right and wrong.’  [17] This aspect of Sartre’s philosophy is revealed by his attitude to ‘life’ itself: ‘it's up to you to give it a meaning, and its value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose.’  [18] Sartre later attempted to counter this criticism by positing that if one makes a choice that is truly free then this choice of the individual can be generalised to society as the morally right thing to do for everyone.  ‘When [...] man chooses himself, [...] he is choosing for all men.’  [19] Warburton notes that this would have far-reaching implications.  For example, if one chooses ‘to marry’ then they are implicitly asserting that marrying is the right thing to do for everyone in their ‘epoch’.  [20] In reply, Warnock states that Sartre only ever mentioned this idea in one lecture and that it was ‘probably produced out of [...] pressure to not appear so relativistic’.  [21] So it is questionable how strongly Sartre believed in this himself. Sartre also used this moral universalisation as a defence against the charge of subjectivism that was issued by Communism and the Catholic church.  'Subjectivism' is the accusation that a philosophy is overly inward-looking and leaves insufficient room for the consideration of other people. [22]


Another threat to Sartre’s radical freedom was ‘natural determinism’.  [23] Deterministic paradigms assert that the state of everything in the universe is based on previous causes that play out according to natural laws.  Thus, one cannot be free, as their state of being, thoughts and future actions are contingent on past events. Tulkens attempts to offer Sartre a way out of this problem; but to respond to Tulkens, two further ontological concepts of Sartre will need to be unpacked.  These are the being-in-itself (an unconscious material entity, such as a rock or a momentary snapshot of an individual) and the being-for-itself (a conscious entity that ‘actuates’ its ‘own being’). [24, 25] The being-for-itself is consciousness aiming for a desired target state.  It will then attempt to move towards that target and, in doing so, hope to realise this end. In the moment that the for-itself has the intention of this target state, it cannot be that target state. Thus, it desires ‘what [it] is not’. [26] The for-itself, therefore, proceeds through ‘negation’.  [27] Sartre talks about this in conjunction with nothingness.  'Nothingness' can be thought of as the blank slate of human essence, a lacking of ‘pre-ordained’ purpose.  [28] Tulkens posits that Sartre can slip the straightjacket of determinism because a ‘key idea in Sartre’s theory of action’ is the need for an ‘ontological break from being-in-itself’ [29].  He posits that the ‘non-actual possibilities’ intended by the for-itself are evidence that ‘consciousness [...] projects itself independently from the natural causal order’. [30] However, science shows that the ‘intentions’ of the for-itself (including those considered but rejected) are ‘encoded’ in the neural circuitry of the brain.  [31] The non-actual possibilities exist as nodes and connections within that neural circuitry.  Hence, they cannot exist independently from the natural causal order.


Warnock does, however, outline great strengths of Sartre’s philosophy, in particular, his examples.  The example of the homosexual’s identity is one of many that Sartre brought to philosophy, ‘certainly [...] to British philosophy’, which was otherwise littered with unrealistic thought experiments.  [32] A deeper inspection reveals why. The audience is asked to come to grips with bad faith.  This is when one fails to overcome their facticity to make an authentic choice.  They often play a ‘role’ rather than truly forging a path that harnesses the freedom available to them.  [33] The example questions whether one, having had gay relationships in the past, should label oneself a homosexual.  To not label oneself as such would be contradictory with respect to their life to date. However, a ‘champion of sincerity’, someone mandating that the homosexual label is applied, would be requesting the individual to ‘identify wholly with their factical past to the exclusion of his transcendent capacity to be other than what he has been.’  [34] This champion of sincerity is limiting the individual, asking them to consider themselves an in-itself.  Such labelling may be inconsistent with the future, or past moments, of an individual’s life.  Thus, there is no clear answer as to how the individual should label themselves; the ‘essential structure of sincerity does not differ from that of bad faith’.  [35] Sartre accepts that these kinds of contradictions and tensions exist in life, alluding to the fact that such labelling reduces one’s degrees of freedom and, hence, should be avoided.  This nuanced example shows how Sartre is convincing in the portrayal of his ideas through scenarios, even if his overall philosophy is not always so.


In conclusion, this essay does NOT find Sartre’s philosophy to offer an epistemologically sound explanation of freedom.  It has been shown that he was wrong to discount all of one’s past and genetics. Additionally, his philosophy cannot claim that the for-itself is inoculated from determinism by existing outside the natural causal order.  Most of all, his moral relativism and incoherent attempts to universalise what is chosen by the individual have diminished the legacy of his philosophy. Yet his ideas provide highly insightful ways of thinking about freedom.  His examples are rich and vivid. His methods of analysing freedom are mandatory study for the understanding of freedom itself. Perhaps his greatest legacy is ‘to open our eyes to the fact that moral philosophy could be an exciting [...] subject, involved [...] in emotional questions.’  Nonetheless, his philosophy does not suitably model what modern science knows to be reality; that is its downfall. Perhaps it is for this reason that ‘he has been forgotten and probably rightly so.’ [36] Sartre, thus, leaves a philosophical legacy that one could say is flawed, forgotten, but free.



  1. Christian J. Onof, "Sartre, Jean Paul: Existentialism | Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy", Iep.Utm.Edu, 2010 <> [Accessed 20 February 2019].
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre and Sarah Richmond, Being And Nothingness: An Essay In Phenomenological Ontology (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 462.
  3. Christian J. Onof, "Sartre, Jean Paul: Existentialism".
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jean-Paul Sartre and Sarah Richmond, Being And Nothingness, p. 588.
  6. Nigel Warburton, "A Student’S Guide To Jean-Paul Sartre’S Existentialism And Humanism | Issue 15 | Philosophy Now", Philosophynow.Org, 1996 <> [Accessed 28 January 2019].
  7. Thomas Flynn, "Jean-Paul Sartre (Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy)", Plato.Stanford.Edu, 2004 <> [Accessed 20 February 2019].
  8. Christian J. Onof, "Sartre, Jean Paul: Existentialism".
  9. Sebastian Gardner, "Sebastian Gardner On Sartre On Bad Faith", Philosophy Bites, 2009 <> [Accessed 30 January 2019].
  10. Deirdre Pearson, "PH100: What Is Philosophy? Part 3: Introducing Philosophy Through Contemporary Thought", 2019.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Mary Warnock, "Mary Warnock On Sartre's Existentialism", Philosophy Bites, 2007 <> [Accessed 30 January 2019].
  15. Eleanor E. Maccoby, "Parenting And Its Effects On Children: On Reading And Misreading Behavior Genetics", Annual Review Of Psychology, 51.1 (2000), 1-27 <>.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Mary Warnock, "Mary Warnock On Sartre's Existentialism".
  18. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Human Emotions.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Nigel Warburton, "Mary Warnock On Sartre's Existentialism".
  21. Ibid.
  22. Deirdre Pearson, "PH100: What Is Philosophy? Part 3”.
  23. Raphaël Tulkens, Is Sartre's Notion Of Radical Freedom Coherent?, 2015 <> [Accessed 2 February 2019].
  24. "Sparknotes: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980): Being And Nothingness", Sparknotes.Com, 2019 <> [Accessed 29 January 2019].
  25. Sartre also spoke of a for-others, and how one gets a sense of self, or shame, through the gaze of other people (the look). In his play, Huis Clos, Sartre summarised the weight of this judgement exerted on the individual as ‘Hell is other people.’
  26. Jean-Paul Sartre and Sarah Richmond, Being And Nothingness, p.43.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Deirdre Pearson, "PH100: What Is Philosophy? Part 3”.
  29. Raphaël Tulkens, Is Sartre's Notion Of Radical Freedom Coherent?, 2015, p. 11 <> [Accessed 2 February 2019].
  30. Ibid.
  31. J. Poppenk and others, "Encoding The Future: Successful Processing Of Intentions Engages Predictive Brain Networks", Neuroimage, 49.1 (2010), 905-913 <>.
  32. Mary Warnock, "Mary Warnock On Sartre's Existentialism".
  33. Ibid.
  34. David Weberman, "Sartre On The Authenticity, Required If My Choices Are To Be Truly Mine", Filozofia, 66.9 (2011), 879-889 <>.
  35. Jean-Paul Sartre and Sarah Richmond, Being And Nothingness, p.88.
  36. Mary Warnock, "Mary Warnock On Sartre's Existentialism".



BBC, In Our Time - Sartre, 2004 <> [Accessed 3 February 2019]

"Kant On Free Will And Determinism", Philosophical Ruminations, 2013 <> [Accessed 3 February 2019]

Sartre, Jean-Paul, "Sincerity - A Selection From "Bad Faith" From Being And Nothingness", Dbanach.Com, 2019 <> [Accessed 31 January 2019]

Symes, Jack, "Episode 17, Jean-Paul Sartre (Part I)", The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast, 2017 <> [Accessed 14 January 2019]


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