Sartrean Existentialism (Part 2 of 3)

Now that I’ve quickly sketched out some main themes in Sartre’s thought, I think it’s safe to begin a critique. I say “begin” because I don’t intend on dragging this out into a long response to everything with which I either agree or disagree. These are simply some quick thoughts.

Atheism. First, Sartre never truly argued for his atheism. In fact, as I mentioned in part 1, he would have preferred God’s existence over his nonexistence. Why? Then at least it wold mean that someone, somewhere, has imbued the universe with some cosmic significance. Yet, strangely, Sartre taught that if God did exist, his constant gaze would turn us into objects, would dehumanize us. This was too much for the brand of subjectivity Sartre so highly prized. But again, just because the notion of an all-knowing, all-perceiving God bothers Sartre and caused him great unrest doesn’t mean that this God doesn’t exist any more than saying that because it bothers me that when I eat chocolate I tend to gain weight means that chocolate doesn’t exist. Neither my, nor Sartre’s, likes or dislikes determines what exists apart from our preferences. This is all to say that Sartre never sought to argue for atheism per se, he simply assumed it. And that’s a huge deal, because so much of his system (though he would never have called it that) is dependent upon atheism’s truth. Take that away and, for all his positive insights into human interaction, etc, what we’re left with is a few floating truths here and there, not a coherent worldview.

Morality. My second critique is built off of what I began to say in the last post, namely that combined with a lack of belief in objective ethical norms Sartre’s notion of authentic living mix to make a dangerous and deadly combination. In Sartre’s scheme, no one can say that torturing babies for fun is wrong, no one can say that Hitler’s actions against the Jews was evil, and no one can say that the slavery of Africans was reprehensible. All we can say is we don’t like those choices. That’s a nice little bit of autobiographical information, but that’s hardly a denunciation of evil. Hitler was simply being the person he wanted to be, he was “authentic.”  And, if Hitler rejected passing the buck for his actions, then he was living in good faith. Therefore, he passes both of Sartre’s litmus tests and is therefore a perfect Sartrean existentialist!

Authenticity. Sartre, as I mention earlier, gave pride of place to his notion of authenticity, of “good faith.” I see a major problem here. In order to “be all you can be” we need to know what we’re supposed to be. That is, the notion of authenticity, rather than existing within a framework where essence is excluded, actually presupposes the notion of human essence. If not, on what basis on Sartre say that a person is living inauthentically? I can only know if person A is not living according to the way they should if I already have an idea of how they should be living.

Rules and norms. Likewise, and this touches on Sartre’s rejection of moral norms, it is arbitrary to oppose any rules given his rejection of a Creator God and human nature. You cannot say on the one hand, “there are no rules that bind our conscience,” and then, on the other hand say, “but you must live authentically and in good faith.” Given Sartre own philosophy this reduces to a power play, a way of him imposing his own philosophic “laws” on us while ruling out the authority of any others. It’s purely arbitrary and thus without warrant.

Next I’ll develop both my critique of Sartre’s doctrine of radical responsibility and offer some thoughts based on a Christian worldview.


Posted on March 27, 2008, in Existentialism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Joe,
    I enjoyed these three outlines of Sartre. They are quite well written.

    I do want to point out that Sartre did give an argument for his atheism. Granted, it’s not the kind of long-winded analysis given by a Dawkins or a Harris – frankly it’s rather short, and for the non-philosopher familiar with his jargon, probably incomprehensible. According to Sartre the Universe is filled with being-in-itself, and being-for-itself. Something (person or non-person) cannot be both. However, god is defined as a being-for-itself, and a being-in-itself; and in Sartre’s universe that is a contradiction.

    I’m not sure that’s an entirely convincing argument against a deity; it probably isn’t, but it’s the one I am familiar with Sartre actually presenting as an argument; not a blunt statement of ‘i am an atheist just because I can’t believe.’


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