As my current work leaded me to analyse existence from the systemic point of view, I've decided it's time to read Sartre and about existentialism, which I've long time postponed. So I've started with Nausea and Existentialism is Humanism.

Minutes after starting, I've found Sartre is brilliant, but for creating mental melodramas. I couldn't finish reading, despite the small truths and lovely phrases, I see a global fallacy, a rhetoric construction, the same stuff humorists do, but excluding humour. Hope being wrong and finding the vein that will help me understanding Sartre.

What I don't get is Sartre builds the full exposition body based on implicit assumptions. What is the formal definition of existence, God, (human) essence, for Sartre, for existentialists? Can anyone give me some hints about this three concepts on existentialism?

  • Sartre is inverting a specific trope in classical philosophy: essence before existence; instead he says, existence before essence; ones essence is a creative activity that one must create. – Mozibur Ullah Nov 8 '16 at 6:15
  • Sartre was muddled so expect to end up the same. He has admirers but it is difficult to see what he contributed to our understanding of existence. As you seem to say, it's not even clear that he addressed the issues. – PeterJ Aug 7 '17 at 11:50

I don't think that Existentialism is an artistic affectation, or 'a mood', nor even that it is particularly subjective. But its objectivity is psychological. It can be achieved only by visiting a lot of emotional states that humans share and building an understanding, rather than starting from a conceptual summary.

The whole approach looks back at older philosophy and notes that most formal definitions take place in bad faith. So there is a good reason for Sartre, or anyone representing him never to answer your question. And I am not even going to try.

Good faith requires negotiation of the situation, so setting an understanding down in stone is simply manipulation done beforehand. What you consider melodrama is meant to be an honest picture of human thought in extreme circumstances, where these negotiations have urgency. (Only the objective circumstances in which they take place conspicuously lacks actual urgency, so we are watching real life in slow motion.)

As a mathematician and an engineer, used to getting to the point quickly, I also find him exhausting to read. It is annoying to be pushed back and forth by his scenarios and negotiations, but that just means that people like us are withholding the patience that we would easily afford someone who wrote the way we like. That does not make our bad taste his flaw.

What you don't get is that all human interactions are based on implicit assumptions, even those that pretend otherwise. Philosophy is a human interaction. So get used to it, instead of putting a value judgment on an inescapable fact of life.

  • upvote about the definition, but don't agree about your ending: the implicit assumption is causality, and ontop of it we build our knowledge. Taking the whole body of discussion as an assumption is OK for religion, but not for philosophy. We need a logic infrastructure based on causality. In this case, I still need the concept of existence on existentialism: Is existence thinking? is it experiencing society? Having a physical volume? Persisting in time? Interacting with others? Loving? Otherwise, existentialism is a religion. – RodolfoAP Nov 5 '16 at 4:36
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    I don't care if you personally accept the last sentence. It is true for Sartre, and that is what matters, since that is the context here. If definitions are negotiated, a la Wittgenstein/de Sassure/Lacan, who are sources for Sartre, then you know existence when you see it. If it helps, it is human existence and not other existence that he is talking about. So you could say existence is consciousness, but how would that improve anything? – user9166 Nov 5 '16 at 5:01
  • And you don't get to define what is a philosophy, the philosophical community does, so no one cares whether you think this is not a philosophy. The same standard would rule out a number of prominent thinkers, including Nietzsche (what is power, after all) and probably Heidegger (what is experience) By my standards, it surely does not have enough content or tradition to be a religion. – user9166 Nov 5 '16 at 5:02
  • "so you can say existence is consciousness" then (causality) --> consciousness precedes essence. I reserve my opinion, since apparently I'm wrong and should follow what the philosophical community does, ad populum. Thanks anyway for addressing me on your answers, ad hominem, but I prefer keeping objective. – RodolfoAP Nov 5 '16 at 5:34
  • OK, if you are free to dismiss the opinions of anyone you choose, including Sartre, and everyone who studies him, then you should be less of a jerk when equally dismissive assertions are presented to you. If you were objective, you would see that. So if you are going to keep objective, maybe get there first. – user9166 Nov 5 '16 at 15:12

Precisely: his rhetoric is exactly what humorists do. Existentialism is a mood - the world according to Sartre, Camus, etc.; how they choose to view and order the world. One can be an existentialist at breakfast, a Marxist at lunch and an Platonist at dinner with equal epistemic merit: none. Sartre presents his weltanschauung not an hypothesis. Would you ask of Richard Pryor his formal definition of social ontology?

To answer your questions, you could read all his writings, the writings of other existentialists and get a historical sense of his circumstance and yet your answer would be a matter of agreement or disagreement, not the confirmation of hypothesis.

Towards an understanding of Sartre's thoughts on existence, God and essence, you might like this 1946 public lecture by him.


For Sartre, essence of a man is everything he can currently know or judge about himself, it is "who/what/how I am", it is simply (current) self-concept or self-awareness - a reflective understanding.

Existence for Sartre is the current choice (of a possibility, which brings in meanings and attaches it to the essence) made by a man pre-reflectively, plus the immediately following reflective opening that (by virtue of the choice) he has broken away from his essence and is no longer what he "is"; it is the intuition that what I am is actually what was, and that this my essence is a pursueing demander, not a sanctuary. Here Anxiety stems from. It also stems from the fact that the freely selected choice does not be, it is only about a possibility, therefore it isn't a sanctuary either. That's Sartre's structure of existence as what always runs a step ahead of essence. That advancing is what produces true time, i.e. temporalizes one's experience. (True or "primeval" time shouldn't be confused with psychological time, of which objective physical time is only a logically "rectified" subtype.)

So, in short, and how I understand Sartre, existence is the process of how I appear not what I am, or turn out to be unequal to myself. As we know, the lack of identity with any state/status (being) in man was Sartre's principal idea.

See also Sartre on essence question.

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