Existentialism Is a Humanism  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Existentialism and Humanism (or "Existentialism is a Humanism", French: L'existentialisme est un humanisme) is a 1946 philosophical work by Jean-Paul Sartre. Widely considered one of the defining texts of the Existentialist movement, the book is based on a lecture called "Existentialism is a Humanism" that Sartre gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on October 29, 1945.



Sartre asserts that the key defining concept of existentialism is that the existence of a person is prior to his or her essence. The term "existence precedes essence" subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. Put simply, this means that there is nothing to dictate that person's character, goals in life, and so on; that only the individual can define his or her essence. According to Sartre, "man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards".

Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls "deterministic excuses" and claims that people must take responsibility for their behavior. Sartre defines anguish as the emotion that people feel once they realize that they are responsible not just for themselves, but for all humanity. Anguish leads people to realize that their actions guide humanity and allows them to make judgments about others based on their attitude towards freedom. Anguish is also associated with Sartre's notion of despair, which he defines as optimistic reliance on a set of possibilities that make action possible. The being-for-itself uses despair to embrace freedom and take meaningful action in full acceptance of whatever consequences may arise as a result. He also describes abandonment as the loneliness that atheists feel when they realize that there is no God to prescribe a way of life, no guidance for people on how to live; that we're abandoned in the sense of being alone in the universe and the arbiters of our own essence.


The essay has been criticized by philosopher Thomas C. Anderson for asserting without explanation that if a person seeks freedom from false, external authorities, then he or she must invariably allow this freedom for others. Iris Murdoch found one of Sartre's discussions with a Marxist interesting, but found Existentialism and Humanism to be otherwise "a rather bad little book."

Main themes of the work

Further reading

  • Jean-Paul Sartre L'existentialisme est un humanisme Editions Nagel, Paris, 1946 ISBN 2-07-032913-5 (1996 ed., Gallimard)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre (tr. Philip Mairet) Existentialism and Humanism Methuen, London, 1948 ISBN 0-413-31300-X (1973 ed.)
  • Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism Is a Humanism (translated by Carol Macomber, introduction by Annie Cohen-Solal, notes and preface by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre) Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007 ISBN 978-0-300-11546-8

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