One of the most famous doctrines of existentialism formulated by Jean Paul Sartre is that we are absolutely free.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness)

This seems to contradict modern notions of the absence of free will, at least when Sartre's doctrine is interpreted metaphysically. However, existentialism still seems useful to me as a form of "life philosophy". It seems to me that the recognition of the absence of free will is good, especially in policy making, but that we, as individuals, must still lead our lives as if we have free will.

My question is: has anyone "merged" existentialist thought with the idea of absence of free will?

  • See related limited free will where existentialism was touched in some answers.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 9:21

3 Answers 3


Has anyone "merged" existentialist thought with the idea of absence of free will?

Yes, Sartre.

Sartre was a Marxist and he took up positions close to those of the Communist Party, though Marxist determinism was not easy to reconcile with the absolute libertarianism that was the keynote of existentialism. In an effort to resolve this tension he wrote a Critique of Dialectical Reason in 1960. It was difficult to reconcile his emphasis on the individual with Marxism's emphasis on the group, his assertion of human freedom with Marxism s assertion of determinism, his conviction that our fundamental problems are existential and therefore irradicable, that is, they arise from our human nature with Marxism’s view that they are socioeconomic and therefore that if the modes of production and exchange are sufficiently altered a utopia on earth is possible.

Critique of Dialectical Reason is the product of a later stage in Sartre's thinking. It puts forward a revision of Existentialism, and an interpretation of Marxism as a contemporary philosophy par excellence, one that can be criticized only from a reactionary pre-Marxist standpoint. Conscious human acts are not projections of freedom that produce human 'temporality', but movements toward 'totalization', their sense being co-determined by existing social conditions. People are thus neither absolutely free to determine the meaning of their acts nor slaves to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Social life does not consist only of individual acts rooted in freedom, since it is also a sedimentation of history by which we are limited and a fight with nature, which imposes further obstacles and causes social relationships to be dominated by scarcity. Every satisfaction of a need can cause antagonism and make it more difficult for people to accept each other as human beings. Scarcity deprives people of the ability to make particular choices and diminishes their humanity. Communism will restore the freedom of the individual and his ability to recognize the freedom of others.

Leszek Kołakowski believes that the Critique of Dialectical Reason represents an abandonment of Sartre's original Existentialism, and depicts Marxism as "invincible", something he finds absurd. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for failing to explain how Communism could restore freedom. In his view, Sartre gives such a generalized account of revolutionary organization that he ignores the real difficulties of groups engaging in common action without infringing the freedom of their individual members. Kołakowski criticizes Sartre for introducing many superfluous neologisms, writing that aside from these it does not contain a genuinely new interpretation of Marxism. According to Kołakowski, neither Sartre's view that freedom must be safeguarded in revolutionary organization nor his view that there will be perfect freedom when Communism has abolished shortages is new in a Marxist context, and Sartre fails to explain how either could have been brought about.

Another one is Nietzsche. (Wellspring of Existentialism)

Nietzsche is in some sense a free will skeptic, but he is also opposed to the thesis of determinism and the concept of an “unfree will” too:

[…] Suppose someone sees through the boorish naivete of this famous concept of "free will" and manages to get it out of his mind; I would then ask him to carry his "enlightenment" a step further and to rid his mind of the reversal of this misconceived concept of "free will": I mean the "un-free will," which is basically an abuse of cause and effect. We should not erroneously objectify "cause" and "effect" like the natural scientists do (and whoever else thinks naturalistically these days -) in accordance with the dominant mechanistic stupidity which would have the cause push and shove until it "effects" something;we should use "cause" and "effect" only as pure concepts, which is to say as conventional fictions for the purpose of description and communication, not explanation. In the "in-itself" there is nothing like "causal association," "necessity," or "psychological un-freedom." There, the "effect" does not follow "from the cause," there is no rule of "law." We are the ones who invented causation, succession, for-each-other, relativity, compulsion, numbers, law, freedom, grounds, purpose; and if we project and inscribe this symbol world onto things as an "in-itself," then this is the way we have always done things, namely mythologically. The "un-free will" is mythology; in real life it is only a matter of strong and weak wills. It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in a thinker when he senses some compulsion, need, having-to-follow, pressure, unfreedom in every "causal connection" and "psychological necessity."[...]

Beyond Good and Evil §21

  • (I asked a question about what Nietzsche was getting at, but I think I figured it out while asking the question.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 16:53
  • Great answer. I always found Nietzsche to be way more of a humanist than people gave him credit for.
    – dgo
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 22:22

I fail to see what the "modern notion of abscence of free will" is.

I am extremely wary of scientists/peudo-philosophers who run arround and claim that free will doesn't "really" exist. Their argument often runs along the lines of :

(1) Physical systems are deterministic

(2) The brain is a physical system

(3) Consciousness is produced by the brain

(4) Free will is a conscious perception

It follows that free will is "determined", therefore it doesn't exist...

(2) is often discussed, but in my opinion the problem with this argument is a misuse of premise (1) which rests upon a misunderstanding of the notion of causality.

Wittgenstein famously states that "Superstition is the belief in the causal nexus", since the only existing necessity is logical. Causality is an extremely useful tool, which rests on a powerful a priori intuition, but it is unwarranted to conflate it with an absolute metaphysical determinism. Besides, one runs into several problems if we look at the implications, because it implies that everything in the world is necessary. This is very similar to Leibniz' theodicy of "everything is for the better in the pest possible world), which tried to reconciliate the apparent evil in the world with his idea of an all-good and all-powerful God.

Confronted with this idea, Sartre would undoubtedly say that the free-will denier is trying to escape his or her condition of being for-itself and the anxiety associated with freedom (être en-soi) by objectifying( chosifier) oneself into a being in-itslef (être en-soi).

It is also clear that the idea of absolute determinism denies the value of political engagement, and might be advanced by those who have an interest in keeping things as they are.

  • 1
    "It is also clear that the idea of absolute determinism denies the value of political engagement" is grossly false. There is of course a value for people to collectively fight in order to improve their condition, even if they are fully determined to do so by the harshness of said condition. The value being that their life will be better than if they didn't. Determinism or free will are irrelevant here.
    – armand
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 10:38
  • @ armand If absolute determinism were true, every event of the future could theoretically be inferred directly from the events of the past. Therefore the outcome of a any political struggle would be pre-determined. Politics always presupposes a form of choice. Besides, the idea that one's life is necessarily improved through political engagement is false. It can lead to immense suffering.
    – user50380
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 19:23
  • 1
    Let me add that I think that it is absolutely obvious that external circumstances affect our lives and behaviours. However, claiming that the world is absolutely determined because of the supposedly immutable and all-explanatory laws of physics is unreasonable
    – user50380
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 20:43

The absence of free will is strictly incompatible with existentialism. There does not exist any modern notion about a such absence because consciousness is a metaphysical entity of which neuroscience has no clue by definition of its field. In fact freedom of will are nor provable nor refutable scientifically and so is its absence. Policy making accepts that people be not fully responsible of their acts for reasons that has nothing to do with the absence of free will but with the theory of options and choice.

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