In Being and Nothingness, Sartre talks about how humans are "condemned to be free". But I was wondering if, because Sartre's philosophy is phenomenological ontology, what this really amounts to is that humans are condemned to appear free to themselves. Since Sartre tries to be ametaphysical, is it possible that we metaphysically do not have free will, but have the phenomenological appearance to ourselves of free will in the sense that Sartre means it?

  • *Note that I am not really talking about compatibilism in its normal sense at all. Apr 19, 2014 at 16:36

2 Answers 2


Sartre's claim that we are condemned to be free can be understood on a phenomenological level without reference to whether or not we would actually prove free on a final analysis. The important thing to remember here is that Sartre is actually responding both to the phenomenology of Husserl and to the Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel.

I'll begin with the older text. In Hegel's Phenomenology, freedom and necessity are both truth of the human self. We are free insofar as we are rational beings engaged in thought (ala Kant), but we are determined on several levels: physically, psychologically, and spiritually*. I mark spiritually* with a star because the standard English word is misleading about what that means. First, it does not necessarily mean a religious sort of spirit (nor does it mean a non-religious one though). Second, it also refers to a certain mode of thought which, ,spoiler alert, refers to our acts of consciousness. But these acts of consciousness and their progress to their ultimate form are for Hegel necessitated. As in, he believes we will ultimately improve in these things and arrive at a rational community. Note, that Hegel's version is explicitly metaphysical (in contrast to Kant's skepticism about metaphysics) with metaphysics located on the plane of reason (= spirit) rather than the understanding.

Moving from the direction of the Husserl and Brentano strain of phenomenology, we can suspend questions about the metaphysics of things. Note that this is confusing in two important respects. First, this is not identical to a total agnosticism about metaphysics. Rather, it is a reordering of the question. Second and consequently, this does not entail a disbelief in metaphysics. Instead, what it does entail is an overturning of the dictum that we should only believe that for which we have sufficient evidence and its replacement with we should believe we are seeing what's appearing to us.

This brings us to Sartre. For Sartre, the most real element of our experience is that we are free. In fact, he strongly agrees with Hegel that we are free in the use of our reason on the basis of our own experience --we constantly experience ourselves as choosing. What we don't get from Sartre is a belief that this choosing fates us to something better or is a tool of hyper-advanced reason. Instead, Sartre believes that we can be deeply mistaken in our reason but guided to that place by our freedom.

Moreover, while the Hegelian account of reason turns out to be social, the Sartrean one focuses on the need for the self to abandon some of this freedom and to be made an object for others to enter community. For Hegel, freedom is naturally limited and subordinated to reason (and the two are brought together as necessity and probability to produce actuality). For Sartre, there are no phenomenological limits on freedom, but that also means there's nothing that insures that freedom is well-used. Moreover, freedom turns out to be a burden because nothing forces to choose anything.

Is this good phenomenology? I don't think so at the end of the day. But if you look at the examples and experiences on which Sartre builds his phenomenology the result is not surprising: being a peeping tom, being hated by others, using others as sexual objects, struggling with the other to dominate identity.


Loved this discussion at uni because it has no conclusion. I think that's the way Sartre wanted it. His idea is that there is no core to our being human; specifically there is no soul. Our being is defined by our doing. At any and every moment in our lives the very next thing we do is up to the private choice we make at that moment. Nothing is pre-ordained even though we might sometimes wish it to be so. Our character is but the sum of the choices we have made up to this point in time and nothing real can prevent us choosing differently next time and thus out of character, with the result that character can change eventually. At least this is what I understand by phenomenological ontology, because since ontology is the study of the human soul and Sartre doesn't believe in the human soul, then the phrase must Refer to an explaining away of the soul rather than just an explanation of the soul. So both yes and no phenomenologically we have the experience (or perhaps would like to convince ourselves of the experience) that certain features in our character are bound by the genetic prescription we are born with, or lie in the configurations of stars or some other deterministic invention, all the while we are 'condemned' to not only to appear to ourselves as utterly free, but are in fact utterly free.

To be is to do - Rene Descartes

To do is to be - Jean Paul Sartre

Do-be-do-be-do-be doo - Frank Sinatra

  • 1
    It really does have a conclusion -- Sartre is a pessimist about human nature combined with a phenomologist about human freedom.
    – virmaior
    Apr 21, 2014 at 14:50
  • Yet in Sartres own Words: Thus, I think we have answered a number of the charges concerning existentialism. You see that it can not be taken for a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man in terms of action; nor for a pessimistic description of man—there is no doctrine more optimistic, since man’s destiny is within himself; nor for an attempt to discourage man from acting, since it tells him that the only hope is in his acting and that action is the only thing that enables a man to live. I'm not at all sure the discussion has a conclusion.
    – Thuba
    Apr 21, 2014 at 22:35
  • @virmaior But can't you separate his different views and claim that one is not a necessary conclusion of the others? Nov 6, 2015 at 13:51

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