The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre
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The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre

Jonathan Webber

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The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre

Jonathan Webber

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Webber argues for a new interpretation of Sartrean existentialism. On this reading, Sartre is arguing that each person's character consists in the projects they choose to pursue and that we are all already aware of this but prefer not to face it. Careful consideration of his existentialist writings shows this to be the unifying theme of his theories of consciousness, freedom, the self, bad faith, personal relationships, existential psychoanalysis, and the possibility of authenticity. Developing this account affords many insights into various aspects of his philosophy, not least concerning the origins, structure, and effects of bad faith and the resulting ethic of authenticity. This discussion makes clear the contributions that Sartre's work can make to current debates over the objectivity of ethics and the psychology of agency, character, and selfhood. Written in an accessible style and illustrated with reference to Sartre's fiction, this book should appeal to general readers and students as well as to specialists.

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Understanding Ourselves

Character is central to our thinking about ourselves and one another. We find patterns in the thoughts, feelings, and actions of each individual that we deal with, we see these patterns differ from person to person, and we understand these differing patterns in terms of underlying properties or traits. Thus we understand ourselves and one another as being honest, cowardly, kind, selfish, prudent, spiteful, upbeat, arrogant, and so on. These terms are applied on the basis of experience and help us predict future behaviour and hence to decide how to deal with one another. Not all of our explanations of the ways in which people react to situations are given in terms of character traits, of course, since some point instead to physical or social aspects of those situations. We might say that somebody ran away because there was a lion on the loose, for example, or remained quiet because their family expected them to. But the idea that each person possesses a portfolio of character traits, which are a subset of the huge range of traits possessed by the population at large, is nonetheless fundamental to our common-sense psychological understanding of people.
This idea of character is therefore a very good place to begin an intellectual critical enquiry into the nature of our lives. We should investigate what this type of description really amounts to and whether we would be better off with a different approach. If we find that it picks out a real aspect of ourselves, then we should consider what kinds of things character traits are, how they are formed, how we find out which ones we have, and how much control we have over them. Improving our understanding of ourselves has often been recommended for its potential to enrich our lives. It has sometimes been claimed to be intrinsically good, but more often it is encouraged for the positive consequences it could have. The better we know ourselves and the better we understand one another, the thought runs, the more successful we are likely to be in our relationships with one another and in the fulfilment of our hopes and dreams in general. This is what drives the practice and development of psychoanalysis, for example: the idea is that people who are troubled by aspects of their own behaviour can be helped to either accept or alter that behaviour by coming to understand the underlying traits that it manifests. Such positive consequences need not require the specialist uncovering of hidden traits, since it may well be that a good understanding of the nature, origins, and knowledge of character is enough.
It is not only one’s happiness that could be served by advances in one’s understanding of character, moreover, since the notion of character plays a significant role in ethical discourse. Questions about how we should live our lives, which kinds of behaviour should be encouraged and which discouraged, what we should praise and what we should condemn, are often answered with some reference to character traits. For one reason or another, many philosophers recommend that ethical practice be concerned with reflecting on one’s own character and aiming to develop good traits in place of any bad ones. This recommendation can also be extended, as we will see, to matters of social policy.
Some philosophers recommend this approach to ethical practice by arguing that character is at the very heart of our ethical concerns. Honest behaviour, according to this view, is good only when it manifests an underlying trait of honesty, which in turn is a good thing in itself. Within this theory, philosophers disagree over just what makes traits good or bad. Some argue that honesty is good because it is likely to have good consequences for everyone: the more honest people there are in society, the happier all members of that society are; actions that are honest but done for some other reason, such as self-interest, are not good, because they do not manifest an underlying trait that is good for society at large. Others agree that actions are good only if they manifest good traits but deny that the goodness of traits is a matter of their consequences for society. Good traits, on this view, are rather those that contribute to the flourishing of the person whose traits they are. Given the nature of human existence, that is, we can identify ways in which people can excel at living a distinctively human life and see traits as good or bad according to whether they contribute to or mitigate against such excellence. Honesty is good, on this view, because being good at being human requires, among other things, being honest with one’s fellow humans.
Against this idea that character is at the heart of ethics stand those philosophers who see ethics as essentially concerned with action and therefore claim that any value character traits have is the result of their relation to good and bad actions. One form of this view evaluates actions according to the intentions with which they are performed, and the opposing form evaluates actions according to their consequences. But each can be coupled with the further idea that the best way to maximise the right kinds of actions and minimise the wrong ones is to develop certain character traits rather than others. Honesty is good, on this view, because an honest person will behave in the right way more often than will somebody similar in all other respects but lacking in honesty. Honesty is good, that is, because it inclines one to act with the right intentions or because it inclines one to actions that have good consequences. Either way, the ethical evaluation of character traits is dependent upon the ethical evaluation of the actions they dispose one towards.
The phrase ‘virtue ethics’ often used in discussions of moral philosophy is therefore very misleading if it is supposed to refer to a particular approach to ethics, since we can easily distinguish four very different kinds of mainstream ethical theory that praise some character traits as good and condemn some as bad. There are two that evaluate actions in terms of the traits they manifest and disagree over how to evaluate traits. And there are two that evaluate traits in terms of the actions they lead to and disagree over how to evaluate those actions. All four of these theories have the right to the traditional labels of ‘virtues’ for good traits and ‘vices’ for bad traits. What is more, within each of these four camps there is plenty of room for disagreement over just which traits are to be considered virtues and vices. If any of these views is to be accepted and translated into action, however, then we need to understand what character traits are, how we can identify our traits, and whether or how we can change them.
We also need a good understanding of character if we are to make properly informed decisions about certain social and political issues. Many educational theorists recommend that we pay close attention to character development in the formulation of the school curriculum and the methods used to deliver it, for example. Many legal theorists similarly recommend that the state should aim at rehabilitating offenders rather than, or as well as, punishing them. Aiming seriously at improving the characters of children and adults requires a clear idea of whether and to what extent this is possible. Perhaps it is the case that although we can foster the right kinds of traits among children, adults are set in their ways. Perhaps, on the contrary, adults can develop their traits. Or perhaps neither children nor adults can do so. Perhaps the issue is more complicated, and some kinds of traits are set from birth or early life whereas others are not. If it is possible to deliberately inculcate any kind of character traits, moreover, then we need also to know how best to go about doing this, and this will depend on exactly what character is, how it is formed, and how it is best determined.
Similar issues arise on an international scale. One influential Aristotelian thought is that if we are to aim to promote opportunities for human flourishing around the world, then we need to understand the nature of character in order to understand what human flourishing consists in. Moreover, the promotion of peace and prosperity around the world requires decisions about which political and economic systems to encourage in which areas, how best to encourage those systems, and how best to oppose the forces that lead to violence, poverty, and injustice. These decisions need to be informed by many areas of thought, of course, but among these is thought about the nature, origin, and knowledge of character. For it may be important whether there genuinely are such things as national or ethnic characters, whether such traits as greed or selfishness are widespread, perhaps even universal, the extent to which political and economic systems need to reflect the characters of those within their ambit, and the extent to which those characters are partly formed by such political and economic systems.
It is not just character itself that is relevant here, but also the ways in which people tend to think about character. It has been argued that people generally possess the trait of misconstruing their own character traits and those of others. There are various forms of this claim, but if there is indeed a significant gap between the traits people possess and those that most people ascribe to them, then this widespread error in trait-ascription needs to be acknowledged in our social and political outlook. We might find, for example, that racism is sometimes grounded in the idea that behavioural traits are partly a matter of ethnicity, and we might find that this idea is empirically false. But if we also found that people would inevitably hold this false idea, because it follows from erroneous but universally employed heuristics for ascribing character traits, then we would need to recognise the inevitability of such forms of racism. Alternatively, we might find that such forms of racism were consequences of common, though by no means necessary, thought patterns. In which case, fostering more rational approaches to understanding the characters of those around us may seem the most effective way of reducing the prevalence of such attitudes, indirect though this strategy might seem.
These issues surrounding the notion of character and its place in our ethical, social, and political thought are central concerns of Sartre’s philosophy. The account he provides in Being and Nothingness is one that developed out of various difficulties with his earlier writing on issues in philosophical psychology, as we shall see over the next couple of chapters, and one that he continued to refine and apply until his death nearly four decades later. Character is not a given that determines our actions and destiny, according to this theory, and is therefore neither the inevitable result of one’s genetic make-up nor the outcome of the contingencies of one’s formative years. An individual’s character rather consists in the projects that individual has freely chosen to pursue. This does not mean that each character trait is itself a project, as if someone could only be jealous or cowardly by aiming to be so, but rather that the distinctive patterns in the ways in which that individual sees, thinks about, feels about, and behaves in the world are due to the total set of projects that they are pursuing and need not be pursuing, whether or not they acknowledge these projects to themselves.
Sartre is not content merely to provide a theory of what character is, however. He aims also to show that the reason why people in our culture do not already hold this theory is no accident: we are motivated, he claims, to pretend that our characters are fixed aspects of ourselves beyond our control. We are already in some way aware, that is, that our character consists in projects that we can change, but we hide this truth from ourselves so effectively that our thought and talk about ourselves and one another is at odds with it. We have covered over the truth through our strategies of bad faith. This leads us, he claims, to conflictual and frustrated relations with one another, the only escape from which involves embracing the honest attitude towards character that he calls ‘authenticity’.
Commentators interpret Sartre’s writings on these topics in a wide variety of ways, however, and most of them tend to underplay his theory of character, present an account of his philosophy that leaves no room for it, or even claim that he thinks there is no such thing as character. As a result, the theories of bad faith and interpersonal relations that he develops in Being and Nothingness are widely misunderstood and his recommendation of the virtue of authenticity seems at best rather puzzling or at worst entirely unjustified. We will see that these accounts of Sartrean existentialism are mistaken. The central aspects of this philosophy are all rooted, as we will see, in a general theory of the nature of character and of our aversion to facing the truth about it, even though he rarely uses the terms ‘personality’, ‘character’, or ‘trait’. This philosophy of character in Being and Nothingness, moreover, underpins his voluminous writings across a wide range of literary genres for the rest of his career.
Philosophical debates over character and virtue do occasionally refer to Sartre’s idea that people are commonly in ‘bad faith’ about their own traits but because the larger theory of character of which this is a part has been overlooked by commentators on Sartre’s works, this larger theory has not made an impact on philosophical debates over character, and the notion of bad faith that is borrowed from it is not fully understood. Indeed, the very idea that character might be rooted ultimately in projects freely undertaken simply does not feature in these debates, with or without Sartre’s name or other ideas attached. This book aims not only to uncover the true structure of Sartrean existentialism, but in so doing aims to make this theory of character and the distinctive perspectives it affords available to the general debate over the nature and knowledge of character, with the aim of considerably enriching that debate.
We should distinguish at the outset between the broad outline of Sartre’s theory and its details. The broad outline is presented in Being and Nothingness and remains unchanged in subsequent work, although the details evolve within this outline. What is more, the logical space enclosed by the outline is not replete with Sartre’s own ideas: further Sartrean positions can be formulated, just as there are Aristotelian theories of character and virtue other than Aristotle’s own. Debates about character could benefit from Sartre’s work in either of two ways. One is to investigate the development of his own ideas over the decades after Being and Nothingness. The other is to think independently within the broad framework of Sartrean existentialism. This book will facilitate both projects, by detailing Sartre’s own philosophy of character and sketching ways in which further theories can be developed within the Sartrean picture, while drawing out the distinctive contributions that these projects can make to debates over character and virtue.
If Sartre really has so much to offer the debates over character, one might well ask, then why are participants in that debate not already drawing on his work? There are a number of reasons for this. One is Sartre’s idiosyncratic vocabulary of ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’, ‘in-itself’ and ‘for-itself’, ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence’, ‘possibility’ and ‘potentiality’, and so on. Like many European philosophers of the twentieth century, Sartre takes ordinary language to have developed a set of meanings that are insufficient for expressing his new and innovative philosophy. So he uses new and unfamiliar terms. He also uses terms that might seem familiar, but are thereby misleading because he does not use them with meanings that we ordinarily associate with them. The complexity of this terminology means that somebody picking up Being and Nothingness for the first time may well find whole swathes of it impenetrable. The more time one spends with Sartre’s texts the more familiar these terms become, of course, but this can just mean that one has become better at using them rather than that one has come to understand them well enough to define them accurately. In these respects, Sartre’s terminology is like any language, though with a restricted application. We would do well to think of it as such, to keep it at arm’s length, and dub it sartrais.
Sartre’s applications of his theory of character, such as his discussion of anti-Semitism, for example, or his analysis of the bizarre personality of Baudelaire, although written within a few years of Being and Nothingness, are refreshingly free of sartrais. But understanding these applied works requires understanding the theory they apply and the motivations for holding it, and these are provided in abstract theoretical works largely written in sartrais. This may well lead to bafflement on the part of people interested in theories of character when they pick up Sartre’s theoretical writings for the first time. And it certainly does lead to differences of opinion over exactly what Sartre’s view is among those who have spent a considerable amount of time reading and discussing his works, disputes which further complicate the difficulties faced by someone reading Sartre for the first time. The strategy of this book is to avoid sartrais as much as possible and to provide translations of key terms of it where necessary.
Sartrean terminology is not the only barrier to the use of this theory in mainstream philosophical debates over character and virtue, however. Another is that certain misconceptions of Sartre’s philosophy are widespread. These misconceptions are due in part to the sheer scale of the philosophical system that Sartre develops in Being and Nothingness, which need not be too problematic were it not for his tendency to present any given aspect of it against the backdrop of many other aspects of it and his fondness for weaving together his treatments of a variety of related issues. These strategies are presumably intended to highlight the systematic nature of his theory, but can give the misleading impression that one cannot accept his comments on character without accepting certain other aspects of his philosophy too. This impression can be encouraged, moreover, by his habit of exaggerating the importance or range of some strand of his philosophy when discussing that strand. This impression generates two major obstacles to using Sartre’s philosophy in debates over character and virtue. One of these obstacles is quite general, the other more specific.
The general obstacle is due to Sartre’s presentation of his philosophy within the confines of his general ontology of being and nothingness, object and consciousness, being in-itself and being for-itself: his writing can easily give the impression that one cannot consider his theory of character without also accepting his vast and abstruse metaphysical system. Philosophers concerned with character and virtue might simply not want to unravel this system just to see whether it holds within it anything of use to their debates. Or they might even actively resist the suggestion that any theory based on such a system can be of any use to anyone who does not accept that kind of metaphysics. Although this ontology is part of the way Sartre motivates and presents his philosophy of character, however, there is no reason for us to consider it a necessary condition of the truth of that theory. This book aims to show that Sartrean existentialism is essentially a philosophy of the nature and knowledge of character that is ...