Sartre’s Postulatory Atheism and His Ethics of Radical Freedom


                        The history of Western philosophical thought has had its share of protagonists of Idealism, Realism, Naturalism, Materialism, and Marxism.  The most influential addition to the “isms,” at least in Europe, is Existentialism.  What does this term mean?  Sartre defines this abstract English word as denoting the doctrine “that existence precedes essence, or if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”  (See Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism, p. 15)  The term Existentialism is employed almost as ubiquitously as the tern science.  The problem of definitional confusion need not deter us from our present task of shedding some light on Sartre’s philosophical ethics.


Some Major Themes of Existentialism


1.  Life versus Logic (the Purpose of Philosophy).

2.  Descriptive Metaphysics.

3.  Man in the world.

4.  Man and fellow man.

5.  Man and God (Existentialists take seriously the widespread withdrawal of intelligent men from God and religion during the past century and a half).


Situational Ethics


The need to explicate the term Situation.


1.  Kierkegaard – a human situation is really what defines how we are to understand what is said—an attack on Christianity.  The situation is everything.  Albert Camus and J.P. Sartre were both atheistic existentialists.  This is the Sociology of Knowledge thesis in its most outspoken form (cf. Hegel, Marx.)

2.  The situation as the answer.  Dewey’s pragmatism resolved the crisis at hand.

3.  The situation as the question (Paul Tillich).  Crisis is the basis for the question, not the answer.  Tillich’s method of correlation presupposes that the gospel offers the answer to despair, guilt, and suffering.  The message situation is correlated.

4.  Situation as the occasion.

5.  The situation as the obstacle – adjustment Psychology


From Atheism to Ethics:  J.P. Sartre


“In the history of Western thought there are at least four great dichotomies, and Sartre’s aim is nothing less than the overcoming of all four.  These are (1) a dichotomy of substance, mind versus mater, which has led to idealistic and materialistic attempts to subsume all reality under one category or the other;  (2) an epistemological dichotomy which has separated reality from appearance, the noumenon from phenomena, physical objects from senses, etc.; (3) an anthropological dichotomy which has split man into two compartments, e.g., a body subject to determinism vs. a free will; (4)  a methodological dichotomy, rationalism, irrationalism, where theories which stress logic and the intellect fail to do justice to the will and the motions, and vice versa.  Sartre’s claim to greatness as a  philosopher rests on his expression of the perennial quest for unification while using a modern method, phenomenology, in attempting to understand why this search has led to a dead end in the past.”


1.  The Death of God and Sartre’s Ontology.

2.  Ontology and Freedom

3.   Freedom and Ethics

                        a.  The Human Condition

                        b.  Decision and Freedom

                        c.  Conscience

                        d.  Choice and Responsibility

                        e.  Engaged Freedom and the Obstacles

                                                (1  My place

                                                (2  My past

                                                (3  My environment

                                                (4  the other (the look and the body)

                                                (5  My death

4.  The Absurd World and the Source of Significance

5.  Freedom and Bad Faith

6.  Having, Doing, and Being


Ethical Implications of Being and Nothingness


Ontology cannot formulate ethical imperatives.  Ontology does reveal to us the origin and nature of values.  Beyond Egoism and Altruism.


The Nature of Man and the World


Man creates his own essence via freedom—his own world and its significance via freedom—his own social and political world via freedom.  When the dynamic relation between Being and Nothingness ceases, then man is dead.  Death is the only obstacle in man’s world that he does not live through.  There is no Erlibbnis with respect to death.


Glossary of Vital Existential Vocabulary


Absehattungen – used by Sartre in the usual phenomenological sense to refer to the successive appearances of the object “in profile.” 

Absurd. – that which is meaningless.  Thus man’s existence is absurd because his contingency finds no external justification.   His projects are absurd because they are directed toward an unattainable goal (the desire to become God or to be simultaneously “the free” (For-itself and the absolute In-itself)

Anguish – the reflective apprehension of the Self as freedom, the realization that a nothingness slips in between my Self and my past and future so that nothing relieves me from the necessity of continually choosing myself and nothing guarantees the validity of the values which I choose.  Fear is of something in the world, anguish is anguish before myself (as in Kierkegaard).

Appearance (apparition) – see “Phenomenon” and “Abschattungen.”

Bad Faith -  a lie to oneself within the unity of a single consciousness.  Through bad faith a person seeks to escape the responsible freedom as Being-for-itself.  Bad faith rests on a vacillation between transcendence and facticity which refuses to recognize either one for what it really is or to synthesize them.

Being (etre) – “Being is.  Being is in-itself, Being is what it is.”  Being includes both Being in-itself and Being for-itself, but the latter is the nihilation of the former.  As contrasted with Existence, Being is all-embracing and objective rather than individual and subjective.

Being-for-itself (etre-en-soi) – non-conscious Being.  It is the Being of the phenomenon and overflows the knowledge which we have of it.  It is a plenitude and strictly speaking we can say of it only that it is.

Being-for-others (etre-pour-autrui) – the third ekstasis (q.v.) of the For-itself.  There arises here a new dimension of being in which my Self exists outside as an object for others.  The For-others involves a perpetual conflict as each For-itself seeks to recover its own Being by directly or indirectly making an object out of the other. 

Cogito – Sartre claims that the pre-reflective cogito (see “consciousness”) is the pre-cognitive basis for the Cartesian cogito.  There is also, he says, a sort of cogito concerning the existence of Others.  While we cannot abstractly prove the Other’s existence, this cogito will disclose to me his “concrete, indubitable presence,” Just as my own “contingent but necessary existence” has been revealed to me.

Consciousness – the transcending For-itself.  “Consciousness is a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself.”  Like Husserl, Sartre insists that consciousness is always consciousness of something.  He sometimes distinguishes types of consciousness according to psychic objects; e.g., pain-consciousness, shame-consciousness.  Two basic:  (1) Unreflective consciousness and (2) Reflective consciousness

Engage (engager) – includes both the idea of involvement and the idea of deliberate commitment.  Thus the human being is inescapably engaged in the liberate commitment.  Thus the human being is inescapably engaged in the world, and freedom is meaningful only as engaged by its free choice of ends.

Essence – for Sartre as for Hegel, essence is what has been.  Sartre says that for all existentialists existence precedes essence.  Existence has for them also always a subjective quality when applied to human reality.

Facticity (facticite) – the For-itself’s necessary connection with the In-itself, hence with the world and its own past.  It is what allows us to say that the For-itself is or exists.  The facticity of freedom is the fact that freedom is not able not to be free. 

Freedom – the very being of the For-itself which is “condemned to be free and must forever choose itself, i.e., make itself.  “To be free ‘does not mean to obtain what one has wished’ but rather ‘by oneself to determine oneself to wish’ (in the broad sense of choosing).  In other words, success is not important to freedom.”

Historicize (state or quality, “historicity”; active process, “historization”).  To become involved as a concrete existence in an actual world so as to have a “history.”  

Metaphysics – the study of individual processes which have given birth to this world as a concrete and particular totality.  Metaphysics is thus concerned with the problem of why concrete existents are as they are.  Sartre says that metaphysics is to ontology as history is to sociology.

Nihilate (neantir) – a word coined by Sartre.  Consciousness exists as consciousness by making a nothingness (q.v.) arise between it and the object of which it is consciousness  Thus nihilation is that by which consciousness exists.  To nihilate is to encase with a shell of non-being.  The English word “nihilate” was first used by Helmut Kuhn in his book, Encounter with Nothingness.

Nothingness (Neant) – nothingness does not itself have Being, yet it is supported by Being.  It comes into the world by the For-itself and is the recoil from fullness of self-contained Being which allows consciousness to exist as such.

Ontology – the study of the structures of being of the existent taken as a totality.  Ontology describes Being itself, the conditions by which there is a world, human reality, etc..

Possible – a noun almost equal to possibility.  Sartre generally prefers possible which signifies a concrete action to be performed in a concrete world rather than an abstract idea of possibility in general.  The For-itself by choosing its possibilities and projecting itself toward those preferred.

Project – both verb and noun.  It refers to the For-itself’s choice of its way of being and is expressed by action in the light of a future end.

Situation – the For-itself’s engagement in the world.  It is the product of both facticity and the For-itself’s way of accepting and acting upon its facticity.

Temporality – subjective process whereby the For-itself continuously lives its project of nihilating the In-itself.  Through temporality the For-itself sets up its own measure for the duration and self identity of things.  Time is not in things but flows over them.  The For-itself as what it has been (past) is a flight (present) toward what it projects to be (future).

Value – in general value arises as the For-itself constitutes objects as desirable.  More specifically value is the “beyond of all surpassings as the For-itself seeks to be united with its Self.  It is what the For-itself lacks in order to be itself.




Douglas, Kenneth, A Critical Bibliography of Existentialism (The Paris School), Yale French Studies Special Monograph No. 1, New Haven, CT, 1950).


Primary Sources:


“Legende de la verite,” Bifur, 8 June., 1931.

“La transcendence de l’ego, esquisse d’une description phenomenologique,” Recherches Philosophiques, 6: 1936-37.

L’imagination, Paris, 1936.

“La structure intentionelle de l’image,” Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, 45: 4, Oct. 1938.

“Une idée fondamentale de la ‘Phenomenologie’ de Husserl,” Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 52: 304, Jan. 1939.

Esquisse d’une theories des emotion, Paris, 1939 (English translation The Emotion, Outline of a Theory (NY, 1948).

“M. Jean Giraudoux et la philosophie d’Aristote.  A propos de ‘Choix des elues’” Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 54: 318, March, 1940.

L’imaginaire, psychologie phenomenologique de l’imagination, Paris, 1950 (English translation, The Psychology of Imaginationm (NY, 1948).

L’Etre et le Neant, essai d’ontologie phenomenologique, Paris, 1943.

“Materialisme et revolution,” Les Temps Modernes, 1.9 June, 1946.

Descartes (Introduction toDescartes’ Work, edited by Sartre, Paris.

L’existentialisme est um humanisme, Paris, 1946 (English translation Existentialism (NY, 1947).

Reflexions sur la question juive, Paris, 1946 (English trans. Anti-Semite and Jew (NY, 1948)

Baudelaire, precede d’une note de Michel Leiris, Paris, 1947 (English, London, 1949).

Situations I, Paris, 1947;Situations II, Paris, 1948;  Situations III, Paris, 1949.

(“Qu’est-ce que la literature?,” a part of Situations II has been translated into Entlish as What Is Literature? (NY, 1949).

Critique de la raison dialectique, preceded by Question de methode Vol. I, Theories des ensembles pratiques, 1960.


Secondary Sources:


Bochenski, I.M., Contemporary European Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1961.

Collins, James. The Existentialists (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery Co., 1952).

Desan, Wilfrid. The Tragic Finale (Harper Brothers, 1954).

Greene, Norman N.  Jean-Paul Sartre, The Existentialist Ethic (Grand Rapids, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Jeanson, F. Le Probleme moral et la Pensee de Sartre (An Introduction to Sartre) (Paris, 1946).

Levi, A.W. Philosophy and The Modern World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1959).

Michalson, Carl, editor. Christianity and the Existentialists (NY: Scribners Sons, 1956).

Natanson, Maurice. A Critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Ontoogy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press).

Roberts, David E.  Existentialism and Religious Belief, Roger Hazelton, editor (NY: Oxford University Press, 1957).

Spiegelberg, H.  The Phenomenological Movement , volumes I and II (Sartre in volume II).

Wild, John.  The Challenge of Existentialism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1955).


                                                                                                                        Dr. James D. Strauss

                                                                                                                        Lincoln Christian Seminary

                                                                                                                        Lincoln, IL 62656