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Mid 20th Century Existentialism - Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus

on 4 January 2015

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Transcript of Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre
Simone de Beauvoir
Albert Camus
"Existence precedes essence"
First, essence:
But humans don't follow that.
The Stranger
The Second Sex
... what will you make of your life?
So, if there is not a preordained purpose to human existence ...
Being and Nothingness
For Our Purposes:
A philosophical and literary current, involving many different philosophers and doctrines
Mid 20th Century (post WWII)
Mainly in France/francophone countries
Believed that the essence of peoples lives is their actions, not something predetermined by a theological, philosophical, or moral doctrine
Translated philosophy into their own actions
Wrote both philosophical essays and fictional works
"condemned to be free"
Then, existence:
For most things:
cut something flat
First, existence:
Then, essence:
Their Relationship
edited each others' works, shared ideas
agreed to be each others' main, but not exclusive, partner and companion
never married or lived together
lasted as such until Sartre's death, buried next to each other
Philosophical ideas put into practice
Political Activism
Huis Clos
combined existentialism and feminism
"existence precedes essence" one is not born but becomes a woman
The idea of femininity is a societal construct.
women as "the Other", thus not able to be free
chronicles the oppression of women throughout history
"half victims, half accomplices"
Women can and should free themselves, reaching their potential as "pour-soi" and becoming equals with men.
provoked a lot of backlash; banned by the Vatican
tortures him by believing he is a coward
tortures her by not giving her attention
tortures her by not giving her attention
General Idea
3 people dead and in hell
no instruments of torture
plain hotel room, with three sofas
an immovable statue
a mirror in which they cannot see themselves
a paper cutter
an unreliable bell to call the valet
cause of death: shot by a firing squad for attempting to run away from war
"sin": having a mistress, thus abusing his wife
cause of death: gas, from the stove intentionally left on by her lover
"sin": turning a woman against her husband
cause of death: pneumonia
"sin": having affairs, drowning her baby, causing her lover's suicide
"L'enfer, c'est les autres."
("Hell is other people")
must take responsibility for your own choices
* means there is no creator (atheistic)
In some interpretations, it began with Kierkegaard, but 20th century France was where people first started calling themselves existentialists.
* only one who sees things as they are, recognizes (and embraces) her own cruelty; lived "authentically"
* and she DIDN'T go to hell for being lesbian
The Absurd
A consciousness can only observe another as an "en-soi", not a "pour soi", thus making the other an object.
The other ceases to be a subject, also becoming an object to himself.
When you notice someone watching you, you become aware of your own physical presence.
L'Être et le néant
born in 1908 in Paris to a Catholic, bourgeois family
born in 1913 in Mondavi, Algeria to a poor Catholic family
"J'ai voulu dire : l'enfer , c'est les autres. Mais 'l'enfer, c'est les autres' a toujours été mal compris. On a cru que je voulais dire par là que nos rapports avec les autres étaient toujours empoisonnés, que c'étaient toujours des rapports infernaux. Or, c'est autre chose que je veux dire. Je veux dire que si les rapports avec autrui sont tordus, viciés, alors l'autre ne peut-être que l'enfer. Pourquoi ? Parce que les autres sont au fond ce qu'il y a de plus important en nous-mêmes pour notre propre connaissance de nous-mêmes. Quand nous pensons sur nous, quand nous essayons de nous connaître, au fond nous usons ses connaissances que les autres ont déjà sur nous. Nous nous jugeons avec les moyens que les autres ont, nous ont donné de nous juger. Quoique je dise sur moi, toujours le jugement d'autrui entre dedans. Ce qui veut dire que, si mes rapports sont mauvais, je me mets dans la totale dépendance d'autrui. Et alors en effet je suis en enfer. Et il existe une quantité de gens dans le monde qui sont en enfer parce qu'ils dépendent trop du jugement d'autrui. Mais cela ne veut nullement dire qu'on ne puisse avoir d'autres rapports avec les autres. Ça marque simplement l'importance capitale de tous les autres pour chacun de nous."
"I wanted to say: hell is other people. But 'hell is other people' has always been misunderstood. People thought that I meant that our relationships with others are always poisoned, that they're always infernal relationships. But I mean something different. I mean that if our relationships with others are twisted, corrupted the other can be nothing but hell. Why? Because others are at heart what is most important to ourselves for our own knowledge of ourselves. When we think of ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, deep down we use the knowledge and opinions that others already have of us. We judge ourselves with the means that others have given us to judge ourselves. Although I talk about myself, others' judgments always enter in. That is to say, if my relationships are bad, I put myself in total dependence on others. And so in effect I am in hell. There exists a number of people in the world who are in hell because they depend too much on others' judgements. But that in no way means that we can't have other types of relationships with others. It simply demonstrates the capital importance of all other people for each of us.
~ Jean-Paul Sartre, about
Huis Clos
Also, Sartre explained that death in
Huis Clos
is symbolic. The dead characters represent people who are stuck in their habits and who are victims of others' judgements but don't try to change that.
father died in WWI in 1914
With the economic crisis following WWI, her family lost money, which meant she couldn't get a good dowry for marriage. This gave her the opportunity to get a good education.
As a teenager, de Beauvoir became an atheist.
She studied at the Sorbonne and wrote a graduate "diplôme".
He studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. He failed the "agrégation" exam on his first attempt, but he got 1st place on his second attempt.
As a child, Sartre was often bullied. He was short and had a "lazy eye".
enrolled at the University of Algiers in 1933
Camus loved soccer, but he had to stop playing because he had tuberculosis.
earned a graduate degree in philosophy in 1936
considered himself primarily a writer
had a personal philosophy, not a systematic, formal philosophy; thought was grounded in reality as opposed to being abstract
didn't identify as an existentialist, but still associated with the movement
earned Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957
"l'être en-soi": being-in-itself, a physical/material thing
"l'être pour-soi": being-for-itself, a consciousness, not a thing, thus no-thing/nothing/nothingness
to exist, must perceive a thing ("en-soi"), must continually be conscious
something; if not conscious of something, the "pour-soi" ceases to be
The Other
being able to choose and not being able to avoid making choices
born in 1905 in Paris to a bourgeois family
Sartre's father died when Sartre was two.
lived in France when it was occupied during WWII
after liberation, founded the political journal
Les Temps Modernes
supported Communism
supported Communists in China, Vietnam, etc.
against racism and imperialism
supported Algerian independence (so much so that someone bombed Sartre's apartment)
To prepare for the agrégation, she couldn't formally enroll in the École Normale Supérieure, so she sat in on the classes, where she got to know Sartre and other students. She got second place on the agrégation, only behind Sartre, who had failed it on his first attempt. At 21, de Beauvoir was the youngest person the ever pass the philosophy agrégation.
Other Works
The Mandarins
: a novel about intellectuals in post-WWII France, awarded the Prix Goncourt
La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age)
: about the societal fear of old age and the oppression of the elderly, similar to
The Second Sex
La Longue Marche
: about the Long March in China
L’Amérique au Jour le Jour (America Day by Day)
: a critique of the United States, concerning racism, class tensions, etc.
a series of autobiographical works
moved to France in 1943 and joined the resistance, wrote for the political journal
associated with communism, the people's party, and anarchism at different points throughout his life
against French colonialism in Algeria
advocated for human rights
definition: the collision of the human search for meaning with the universe's indifference to human suffering
3 possible reactions:
suicide: a cowardly escape
religious solace: evading truth and reason; "philosophical suicide"
accepting and embracing the absurd: the only viable option, life can "be lived all the better if it has no meaning"
"The example par excellence of this option of spiritual courage and metaphysical revolt is the mythical Sisyphus of Camus’ philosophical essay. Doomed to eternal labor at his rock, fully conscious of the essential hopelessness of his plight, Sisyphus nevertheless pushes on. In doing so he becomes for Camus a superb icon of the spirit of revolt and of the human condition. To rise each day to fight a battle you know you cannot win, and to do this with wit, grace, compassion for others, and even a sense of mission, is to face the Absurd in a spirit of true heroism."

~ David Simpson,
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Works Cited
the story of an unemotional man, Meursault, who is sentenced to death for committing murder
told in first-person, in a very cold, detached manner
guilt vs. innocence:
committed the murder somehow apathetically, disoriented because of the sun
unclear whether he is guilty (an unfeeling, murderous man) or innocent (committed the crime in a state of disorientation and confusion)
Discussion Questions
How do the philosophies of Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus provide a positive outlook on life, despite not saying anything definite about its purpose?

How might the two World Wars have influenced these philosophies?

What do you like about these philosophies, and what do you dislike about them?
Full transcript