Throughout much of the twentieth century, the analytic approach to philosophy launched by Bertrand Russell dominated philosophical thought in the United States, Great Britain, and other English-speaking countries. However, on the Continent—particularly in Germany and France—philosophy had a different emphasis, which emerged in the movements of phenomenology and existentialism. Phenomenology set aside questions about the so-called objective nature of things; it recommended instead that we explore phenomena more subjectively, from within our human experience. Existentialism adopted phenomenology’s subjective approach and further developed practical issues of human experience, such as making choices and personal commitments. Phenomenology was launched by Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) and modified by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Shortly after there followed a group of writers often called “religious existentialists,” including Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) and Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973). Existentialism received its definitive expression through Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961).




Husserl’s Life and Influence

Edmund Husserl was born of Jewish parents in the Moravian province of Prossnitz in 1859, the same year in which Bergson and Dewey were born. After his early education in that province, he went to the University of Leipzig, where, from 1876 to 1878, he studied physics, astronomy, and mathematics and found time to attend lectures by the philosopher Wilhelm Wundt. Husserl continued his studies at the Friederich Wilhelm University in Berlin. In 1881 he went to the University of Vienna where, in 1883, he earned his Ph.D. for his dissertation on “Contributions to the Theory of the Calculus of Variations.” From 1884 to 1886, he attended the lectures of Franz Brentano (1838–1917), who became a most significant influence on Husserl’s philosophical development, especially through his lectures on Hume and John Stuart Mill, and his treatment of problems in ethics, psychology, and logic. On Brentano’s advice, Husserl went to the University of Halle, where in 1886 he became an assistant to Carl Stumpf (1848–1936), the eminent psychologist under whose direction he wrote his first book, Philosophy of Arithmetic (1891). His Logical Investigations appeared in 1900, and in the same year he was invited to join the philosophy faculty at the University of Göttingen. It was here that Husserl spent sixteen productive years, authoring a series of books developing his concept of phenomenology. Because of his Jewish origins, Husserl was forbidden to participate in academic activities after 1933. Although he was offered a professorship by the University of Southern California, he declined the offer, and in 1938, after several months of suffering, he died of pleurisy at the age of 79 at Freiburg in Breisgau. Husserl’s philosophy evolved gradually through several phases. His early interest was in logic and mathematics. Next, he developed an early version of phenomenology that focused chiefly on a theory of knowledge. Then he moved on to a view of phenomenology as a universal foundation for philosophy and science.

            Finally, he entered a phase in which the conception of the life-world (Levenswelt) became a more dominant theme in his phenomenology. It is no wonder, then, that Husserl’s philosophy should have had a variety of influences on different scholars at various times. For example, Martin Heidegger, who became Husserl’s assistant at Freiburg in 1920, was familiar during his student days with Husserl’s work in logic and his earlier writings on phenomenology. As his assistant from 1920 to 1923, Heidegger worked closely with Husserl. Together they prepared an article on phenomenology for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Heidegger also prepared some of Husserl’s earlier lectures for publication. Even after Heidegger left in 1923 to become a professor at Marburg, he continued his close association with Husserl. As time passed, however, Heidegger found it difficult to share Husserl’s novel developments, especially those dealing with transcendental phenomenology. In his major work, Being and Time, Heidegger was critical of Husserl’s method and his distinctive view of the ego. By the time Heidegger succeeded to Husserl’s chair at Freiburg in the fall of 1928, their relationship had begun to weaken, and it eventually came to an end.

            Similarly, although Sartre was influenced by Husserl’s writings when he studied phenomenology at Freiburg, he eventually came to believe that Heidegger’s modification of Husserl’s view was philosophically more significant. Nevertheless, upon his return to Paris from Germany in 1934, Sartre called Merleau-Ponty’s attention to Husserl’s book The Idea of Phenomenology (1906–1907) and urged him to study it carefully. Merleau-Ponty was impressed by several distinctive elements in Husserl’s phenomenology and was inspired to work further in Husserl’s writings. He was particularly influenced by Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences (1936). Although Merleau-Ponty was thoroughly familiar with Husserl’s ideas as interpreted by Heidegger and Sartre, he made his own extensive study of the original documents. He even went to Louvain where he had access to the Husserl archives. These archives, which contain over 40,000 pages of Husserl’s manuscripts written in shorthand, are gradually becoming available through transcriptions and translations. What we find, then, without analyzing all the details, is that Husserl exerted a strong influence on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre, the leading exponents of phenomenology and existentialism. And even though they rejected many of Husserl’s key ideas, their finished works bear the imprint of his phenomenology.


The Crisis of European Science

Before answering the question “What is phenomenology?” it is helpful to ask, “What prompted Husserl to develop phenomenology in the first place?” His philosophy grew out of his deep conviction that Western culture had lost its true direction and purpose. His attitude is reflected in the title of his last major philosophical work, Crisis of European Sciences (1936). The “crisis” consists of philosophy’s departure from its true goal, which is to provide the best possible answers to human concerns, to deal rigorously with our quest for the highest values, and, in short, to develop the unique, broad-range capacities of human reason. He described the “crisis” as the “seeming collapse of rationalism,” and he set his lifetime objective as “saving human reason.” What human reason has to be saved from, according to Husserl, provides the background for his phenomenology. The key to the crisis of modern thought is the enterprise of “natural science.” Husserl was impressed by the brilliant successes of the sciences. In fact, his ultimate objective was to save human reason by developing philosophy into a rigorous science. His criticism was, therefore, not directed at science as such but rather at the assumptions and methods of the natural sciences. Husserl believed that the natural sciences had over the years developed a faulty attitude about human beings and about what the world is like and how best to know it. According to Husserl, the natural sciences rest on the fatal prejudice that nature is basically physical. On this view, the realm of spirit—that is, human culture—is causally based on physical things, which ultimately threatens our conceptions of knowing, valuing, and judging. The natural scientist rejects the possibility of formulating a self-contained science of the spirit. This rejection, Husserl argues, is quite naive and explains to a large degree the crisis of modern people. What makes this scientific rationalism naive is its blind reliance on naturalism, which is the view that physical nature envelops everything there is. It also means that knowledge and truth are “objective” in the sense that they are based on a reality beyond our individual selves. The problem started when philosophers and scientists departed from the original philosophical attitude developed in ancient Greece.

            Before the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, people lived very practical lives, seeing to their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. They developed mythologies and early religions that supported the practical concerns of individuals and larger groups. In this condition there was no culture of ideas in the sense of concepts that reached beyond the immediate boundaries of local experience and practical interests. Greek philosophers then entered the picture with a new kind of outlook, namely, a universal critique of all life and its goals. The positive side of this critique was its aim of elevating people through universal reason toward a new humanity, rising above the limited horizons of custom, geography, and social groups. What made this possible was a new conception of truth. This truth was independent of tradition, universally valid, and capable of infinite refinement. Here, then, is the origin of the spiritual life and the culture of Europe. The systematic formulation of this attitude is what the Greeks called philosophy. Correctly understood, Husserl writes, this philosophy “bespeaks nothing but universal science, science of the world as a whole, of the universal unity of all being.” Philosophy had a comprehensive grasp of all nature, which included the cultural as well as the physical—ideas as well as objects. In time, though, this one science—philosophy—began to splinter into several separate sciences. The dominant step in this splintering was the discovery of how the world of perceived nature can be changed into a mathematical world. This discovery eventually led to the development of the mathematical natural sciences. Ultimately, the success of the sciences resulted in the gradual scientific rejection of the spirit.

            Democritus had much earlier offered a similar view that reduced everything in the world to material stuff and physical laws. Socrates rejected this view since he felt that spiritual life existed within the context of society. Plato and Aristotle also held this Socratic view of the spiritual dimension. For, while human beings belong to the universe of objective facts, we nevertheless have goals and aims. But with the later success of the mathematical natural sciences, the scientific methods soon enveloped knowledge of the spirit. A person’s spirit was now conceived as an objective fact founded on physical stuff. So, the same causal explanations that apply to the physical world also apply to the spiritual. Husserl argues that, from the attitude of natural science, there can be no pure self-contained search for an explanation of the spiritual, no purely inner-oriented psychology or theory of spirit beginning with the ego in psychical-self-experience and extending to the other psyche. The way that must be traveled is the external one, the path of physics and chemistry. He concluded that we cannot improve our understanding of our true human purposes so long as naturalistic objectivism studies spirit according to the methodology of the natural sciences. He thus formulated his transcendental phenomenology as a way of grasping the essential nature of the spirit and thereby overcoming naturalistic objectivism.


Descartes and Intentionality

Having explored Husserl’s motivations for developing phenomenology, it will be helpful to look at one of the inspirations for his method, namely, Descartes. Husserl says that “phenomenology must honor Descartes as its genuine patriarch.” There were other influences on Husserl’s thought—notably, the empiricism of Locke, the skepticism of Hume, the Copernican revolution of Kant, and the pragmatism of James. In every case Husserl went beyond these and others whose insights shaped his own ideas. Nevertheless, Descartes’s influence was decisive, for it led Husserl to begin where Descartes began, with the thinking self. However, whereas Descartes sought through systematic doubt to achieve an absolutely certain foundation for knowledge, Husserl formulated the distinctive atmosphere of phenomenology by accepting only one part of Descartes’s starting point. Husserl writes, “We thus begin, everyone for himself and in himself with the decision to disregard all our present knowledge. We do not give up Descartes’s guiding goal of an absolute foundation for knowledge. At the beginning, however, to presuppose even the possibility of that goal would be prejudice.” Husserl thus takes an even more radical approach than Descartes did, for he tries to build a philosophy without any presuppositions, looking solely to “things and facts themselves, as these are given in actual experience and intuition.” Husserl made it a cardinal rule “to judge only by the evidence” and not according to any preconceived notions or presuppositions. He sought to recapture humanity’s prescientific life, which was filled with “immediate and mediate evidences.”

            Thus, whereas Descartes employed systematic doubt, Husserl simply withheld any judgment about his experiences, seeking instead to describe his experiences as fully as possible in terms of the evidence of experience itself. Experience obviously revolves around the self—the ego—and for Husserl as well as Descartes, the source of all knowledge is the self. But while for Descartes the self becomes the first axiom in a logical sequence, which enables him to deduce, as one would in mathematics, a series of conclusions about reality, Husserl saw the self simply as the matrix of experience. Husserl therefore put primary emphasis on experience instead of logic. His concern was to discover and describe the given in experience as it is presented in its pure form and found as the immediate data of consciousness. He criticized Descartes for moving beyond the conscious self to the notion of extended substance, a body, which ties the subject to an objective reality producing thereby mind-body dualism. Instead, Husserl believed that “pure subjectivity” more accurately describes the actual facts of human experience. Moreover, whereas Descartes emphasized the two terms in his famous “I think” (ego cogito), Husserl believed that a more accurate description of experience is expressed in the three terms “I think something” (ego cogito cogitatum). This is the philosophical concept of intentionality —consciousness is always consciousness of something. The clearest fact about consciousness is that its essence is to point toward, or to intend, some object. Our perception of things consists of our projection toward intended objects. Thus, Husserl believed that the essence of consciousness is intentionality.

            By intentionality Husserl means that any object of my consciousness—a house, a pleasure, a number, another person—is something meant, constructed, constituted, that is, intended by me. Pure consciousness has no segments; rather, it is a continuous stream. Our primitive perception consists of the undifferentiated world. The separate objects of perception are those parts of the stream of consciousness that we as subjects constitute by intending them. Kant described how the mind organizes experience by imposing such categories as time, space, and causality on sensory experience. Similarly, Bergson said that “in the continuity of sensible qualities we mark off the boundaries of bodies.” For Husserl, too, intentionality is the active involvement of the self in creating our experience. Indeed, for Husserl, intentionality is both the structure of consciousness itself and the fundamental category of existence. This means that, in the process of discovering reality, we should look for reality in things, since things are what we intend them to be. For example, when I look at someone, I perceive him from a limited perspective, such as seeing only his profile. I also see him in a given setting, such as shopping in a store. These perceptions are only fragments of reality, and from these our consciousness “intends” the person in question. This process of intentionality is typically not conscious but rather automatic. The self’s constitution of the world is what he calls a passive genesis.


Phenomena and Phenomenological Bracketing

The term phenomenology rests on Husserl’s refusal to go beyond the only evidence available to consciousness—namely, phenomena—which is derived from appearances. Most theories of knowledge distinguish between a knowing mind, on the one hand, and the object of knowledge, on the other. Husserl, though, sees virtually no distinction between consciousness and the phenomenon. In fact, he argues that phenomena are ultimately contained in the very subjective act of experiencing something. This stands in sharp contrast to the more natural attitude, which assumes that there is an objective world of phenomena irrespective of our consciousness of it. For Husserl, knowing something is not like the act of a camera taking pictures of things. By focusing on the phenomena of a thing available to our consciousness, we actually have a more enlarged description of it. For it now includes the real object, our actual perception of it, the object as we mean it, and the act of intentionality. This moves beyond the description of the superficial aspects of a thing’s appearances to the intricate activity of consciousness. Husserl writes, “Consciousness makes possible and necessary the fact that such an ‘existing’ and ‘thus determined’ Object is intended in it, occurs in it as such a sense.” In short, we can best understand the elements of our experience by discovering the active role of consciousness in intending and creating phenomena.

            Can we say anything about the external things themselves that we are experiencing? Husserl answers that we must put aside—or bracket—any assumptions about external things. He calls this process phenomenological epoche —where the term epoche  is Greek for “bracketing.” He writes that this method involves “detachment from any point of view regarding the objective world.” Descartes began by doubting everything, including all phenomena except his thinking self. By contrast, Husserl “brackets” all phenomena, all the elements of experience, by refusing to assert whether the world does or does not exist. He abstains from entertaining any belief about experience. Thus, Husserl brackets the whole stream of experienced life, including objects, other people, and cultural situations. To bracket all these phenomena means only to look upon them without judging whether they are realities or appearances and to abstain from rendering any opinions, judgments, or valuations about the world. We stand back from the phenomena of experience and rid our minds of all prejudices, especially the presuppositions of the natural sciences. When we do this, it makes little difference whether we deny or affirm the existence of the world. For phenomenological bracketing “discloses the greatest and most magnificent of facts: I and my life remain—in my sense of reality—untouched by whichever way we decide the issue of whether the world is or is not.” Phenomenological bracketing ultimately leads us back to the center of reality, namely, the conscious self. We discover that we ourselves are the life of consciousness through which the objective world exists in its entirety. Husserl writes, “I have discovered my true self. I have discovered that I alone am the pure ego, with pure existence.... Through this ego alone does the being of the world, and, for that matter, any being whatsoever, make sense to me and have possible validity.” Unlike Descartes, who deduced the objective world from the fact that he exists, Husserl argues that the self contains the world. In his Paris Lectures, He says:


For me the world is nothing other than what I am aware of and what appears valid in such cogitationes (my acts of thought). The whole meaning and reality of the world rests exclusively on such cogitationes. My entire worldly life takes its course within these. I cannot live, experience, think, value and act in any world which is not in some sense in me, and derives its meaning and truth from me.


Thus, the structure of thinking itself determines the appearance of all objects. He designates this immediate phenomenal world of experience as the transcendental realm, and rejects any philosophical theory that attempts to go beyond that realm. He thus rejects Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal (experience) and the noumenal (the thing-in-itself).


The Life-World

We have seen that Husserl urges us to bracket all presuppositions and essentially go back to a prescientific viewpoint, which he believes reflects the original form of human experience. This is the realm of our daily world—our life-world (Lebenswelt). The life-world consists of all those experiences in which we are typically involved, including perception, response, interpretation, and the organization of the many facets of everyday affairs. This life-world is the source from which the sciences abstract their objects. To that extent the sciences provide only a partial grasp of reality. Much of the rich and meaningful elements of experience remains after the sciences have abstracted the elements of their concern. In fact, the very nature of being a scientist is unaccounted for by science itself. Only a rigorous analysis of the way in which the life-world functions in people’s unsophisticated experience, as well as in science, will provide an adequate basis for philosophy. In the final analysis the basic justification or confirmation of truth is to be found in the type of evidence that derives from events of the life-world. The totality of these events of the life-world is what Husserl calls “our world-experiencing life.”

            Through this notion of the life-world, Husserl sought to liberate the philosopher—the phenomenologist—from a point of view dominated by the various natural sciences. For the purpose of an even more useful type of science, but especially in order to liberate the spirit, he fashioned a way of discovering what the world is like before it is interpreted by the scientific outlook. Through bracketing, the life-world emerges as a fresh terrain for the enterprise of description, opening a new way of experiencing, thinking, and even theorizing. Husserl thought he discovered that the “world” is what we as subjects know it to be.




Heidegger’s Life

Even before Martin Heidegger published anything, his reputation as an extraordinary thinker had spread among students in the German universities. What was unusual about Heidegger as a teacher was that he did not develop a “set of ideas” or a “system” of philosophy. He produced nothing in the way of a neat structure of academic ideas that a student could quickly understand and memorize. He was not interested so much in objects of scholarship as in matters of thinking. He shifted attention away from the traditional concerns about theories and books and focused instead on the concerns of thinking individuals. We are born in the world and respond to all of our experiences by thinking. What Heidegger set out to explore was the deepest nature of our thinking when we are thinking as existing human beings.

            Born in 1889 in Germany’s Black Forest region, Heidegger received his preparatory schooling in Constance and Freiburg. He was introduced to philosophy at the age of 17 when the pastor of his church gave him Franz Brentano’s book On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. This book, though difficult, made such an impression on the young Heidegger that it launched him on his lifelong quest for the meaning of Being, or “the meaning that reigns in everything that is.” Along the way Heidegger was also influenced by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche, from whom he discovered that some concerns of philosophy are most creatively clarified by paying attention to concrete and historically relevant problems. At the University of Freiburg he began his studies in theology, but after four semesters he came under the influence of Husserl and changed his major to philosophy. Upon completing his dissertation and some further advanced studies, Heidegger became Husserl’s assistant until he was appointed in 1922 as an associate professor at the University of Marburg. Here, he pursued his studies in Aristotle, formulated a fresh interpretation of phenomenology, and was hard at work on a manuscript that was to become his most famous book. To facilitate his promotion, his dean at Marburg urged him to publish this manuscript, and in 1927, deliberately leaving it incomplete, Heidegger hurriedly published his book with the title Being and Time. One year later, in 1928, Heidigger was chosen to be Husserl’s successor to the chair of philosophy at Freiburg.

            He was elected rector of the University in 1933, and for a brief period he was a member of the Nazi party. In less than a year, in 1934, he resigned as rector and, for the next ten years, taught courses critical of the Nazi interpretation of philosophy. He was drafted into the “People’s Militia,” having been declared in 1944 the “most expendable” member of the Freiburg faculty. The French occupying forces did not permit him to return to his teaching post until 1951, one year before his retirement. Even after his retirement, he published several essays and interpretations of the history of philosophy, including a two-volume study on Nietzsche (1961) and his last work, The Matter of Thinking (1969). Heidegger died in 1976 in Freiburg at the age of 86.


Dasein as Being-in-the-World

Husserl, we have seen, argued that we understand the phenomena of the world only as they present themselves to our conscious selves. Heidegger takes a similar approach in Being and Time and attempts to understand Being in general by first understanding human beings. The notion of “human being” can be deceptive. This is particularly so since, throughout the history of philosophy, definitions of “human being” have tended to resemble the definition of things. Inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology, Heidegger avoids defining people in terms of properties or attributes that divide them from the world. Phenomenology focuses rather on the full range of experienced phenomena without separating them into distinct parts. Heidegger took seriously the meaning of the Greek word phenomenon as “that which reveals itself.” It is our human existence that reveals itself, and this is a quite different conception of “human being” than we find in traditional philosophy. To clearly separate his view of human beings from traditional theories, he coined the German term Dasein, meaning simply “being there.” People—Dasein—are best described as a unique type of being rather than defined as an object. As Heidegger points out, “because we cannot define Dasein’s essence by citing a ‘what’ of the kind that pertains to [an object]... we have chosen to designate this entity [person] as ‘Dasien,’ a term which is purely an expression of its being.” If, then, we ask what the essence of human nature is, the answer lies not in some attributes or properties but rather in how people exist. That is, what do our basic human experiences tell us about who we are?

            Our basic state of human existence is our being-in-the-world. Consider, first, our ordinary daily experiences, what Heidegger calls “average everydayness.” To be in the world as Dasein is not the same as one thing being in another thing, as water is in a glass or as clothes are in a closet. Dasein is in the world in the sense of “dwelling on,” or “being familiar with,” or “I look after something.” Here the emphasis is not on one object related in space to another object, but rather on a type of understanding. To say, for example, that “she is in love” does not refer to her location but rather to her type of being. Similarly, to say that people are in the world is not only to place them in space but to describe the structure of their existence that makes it possible for them to think meaningfully about the world.

            The central feature of our being-in-the-world is that we encounter things as “gear,” as what they are for. That is, we see things as utensils. Take, for example, a hammer. Our first encounter with a hammer is how we use it. We use it as a utensil to accomplish some purpose. The more I hammer, the less I am aware of the hammer as an object. There seems to be no distance between me and the hammer. I also see the hammer as part of a project, fulfilling its purpose within a context of various purposes included in the project. If the hammer breaks, I see it in a different way—as a thing or an object. According to Heidegger, we have a special kind of insight, called “circumspection,” which reveals the purpose of the item. We do not choose a tool or utensil by inspecting its properties first and then inferring its purpose from those properties. Instead, we see its purpose first. This means that it is not the properties of a thing that determine whether it is a utensil, on the one hand, or a mere object, on the other. Rather, we project the context within which any item assumes its unique role that explains our different views of that item. Moreover, an item, such as a hammer, has a purpose only in relation to a task that involves several other purposes. No item possesses any properties that throw light on other purposes in the undertaking; for example, no properties in the hammer show that a ladder will also be needed to hammer nails on the roof. Any particular item has meaning only as it is related to other purposes. It is this networked relation of purposes that is revealed prior to our encounter with things as utensils and that gives us the understanding of items as being utensils. It is part of our nature to develop this network or context of purposes. There can be different worlds even composed of the same things because of the different ways individuals project “their” world.

            Dasein possesses a threefold structure that makes possible the way that we project the world. First is our understanding, by which we project contexts and purposes to things. It is through these projected interrelationships that things derive meaning. Second is our mood or approach, which affects how we encounter our environment. In a despairing or joyful mood, our task will open up as either despairing or joyful. These are not merely attitudes; instead, they describe our manner of existence and the way the world exists for us. Third is our discourse. Only something that can be formulated in speech can be understood and become subject to our moods.


Dasein as Concern

For Heidegger, Dasein’s “being-in-the-world” is our most primitive and basic view of things. But this is not the whole story. More important is the fact that we become preoccupied with things that we encounter. In a sense we are consumed by things, tasks, and relationships. We have a practical concern for the tools and tasks in our environment. We have a personal concern for the community of people that surrounds us. This is so central to our identities that concern is our fundamental attribute. To understand Dasein, then, we must understand the underlying nature of this concern. Heidegger argues that there are three components of concern, each of which generates a substantial amount of anxiety within us. First, we all have simply been thrown into the world. I did not ask to be born, but here I am nonetheless. This feature of our past he calls facticity. Second, we have freedom of choice. We are responsible for transforming our lives, and we must constantly become our true selves by making appropriate decisions. This involves our future and is a feature that he calls existentiality. Third, we are fallen, in the sense that we lose our “authentic” character. My authentic existence requires me to recognize and affirm my unique self and my responsibility for my every action. As facticity and existentiality involved my past and future, respectively, fallenness involves my present situation. My drift into an inauthentic existence is subtle, but in every case it involves a tendency to escape from myself by finding shelter in a public self and an impersonal identity. I become an impersonal “one,” behaving as one is expected, rather than a concrete “I,” behaving as I ought to. I suppress any urge to be unique and excel, and thereby bring myself down to the level of an average person. I gossip, which reflects my shallow interpretation of other people. I seek novelty for the sake of distraction, and I have an overall sense of ambiguity for failing to know my own purpose. However, I cannot indefinitely avoid confronting my true self. Anxiety intrudes. For Heidegger anxiety is not simply a psychological state but rather a type of human existence. Nor is anxiety similar to fear. Fear has an object, such as a snake or an enemy against which it is possible to defend ourselves. But anxiety refers to nothing—precisely, to no-thing. Instead, anxiety reveals the presence of “nothingness” in my being. There is no way to alter the presence of nothingness in the center of my being— the inevitability that I will die. Time itself becomes an element of anxiety for me. I know time principally because I know that I am going to die. Each moment of my life is bound up with the fact that I will die, and it is impossible to separate my life from my death. I attempt to deny my temporality and to evade the inevitability of my limited existence. In the end I must affirm my authentic self and thereby see transparently what and who I am. I will then discover that, in my inauthentic existence, I have been trying to do the impossible, namely, to hide the fact of my limitations and my temporality.




Like Heidegger, other writers were also struck by the phenomenological method that placed human existence at the center of our investigation of reality. Several philosophical theologians saw interesting parallels between the existential descriptions of human nature and religious conceptions of our relation to divine reality. For example, several existentialist theologians saw a parallel between the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden and Heidegger’s conception of inauthentic existence. Just as divine salvation is the solution to original sin, so, too, is authentic life the solution to inauthenticity. It is not just that these notions parallel each other. Instead, according to some theologians, the biblical themes of sin and salvation are simply mythological ways of expressing the distinction between inauthentic and authentic life. Foremost among the religious existentialists were Karl Barth (1886–1968), Emil Brunner (1889–1966), Martin Buber (1878–1965), Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973), Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), and Paul Tillich (1886–1965). We will look at the contributions of Jaspers and Marcel.


Jaspers’s Existence Philosophy

Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) was a professor in Heidelberg and, after World War II, in Basel. He wrote in several areas, including psychology, theology, and political thought. He was influenced by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl, and his philosophical works develop phenomenological and existentialist themes. His main publication in existentialist thought is the three-volume Philosophie (1932). The human condition, he argues in this work, has deteriorated with the development of technology, the emergence of mass movements, and the loosening of the bonds of religion. Each of the sciences has carved out a special area for its subject matter, and each science has developed its own method. Just as each science functions within strict subject-matter limits, so, too, the aggregate of all the sciences is characterized by a limitation of coverage. Thus, each of the sciences is ill-equipped for dealing with the broader issue of total reality. We could not explain total reality any better if we attempted to bring together all of the sciences with their various perspectives. For the central approach to science is to access objective data, and total reality is not limited to objective data. Jaspers’s quest is for the reality that underlies human life—a reality that he simply calls Existence (Existenz). We discover this component of our existence through philosophy, not through science. There are indeed various human sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, but these deal with human nature on an incomplete and superficial level, viewing us only as objects. He writes, “Sociology, psychology and anthropology teach that man is to be regarded as an object concerning which something can be learnt that will make it possible to modify this object by deliberate organization.” Jaspers does recognize the value and usefulness of each of these sciences in the context of their respective narrow goals. His argument, though, is that the task of philosophy is not the same as that of science. Thus, when studying Existence, philosophers must not mimic the sciences by treating Existence as an object of thought; this would simply turn Existence into one among many beings. Thus, although Jaspers does not reject the technical knowledge of science, he insists that the “practice of life” requires that we bring to this knowledge some additional reality. All the principles and laws of science, he insists, are of no avail “unless individual human beings fulfill them with an effective and valuable reality.” The piling up of knowledge cannot by itself assure any particular outcome for us. He writes, “Decisive is a man’s inward attitude, the way in which he contemplates his world and grows aware of it, the essential value of his satisfactions—these things are the origin of what he does.” Philosophy, therefore, must be existence philosophy.

            The main task of existence philosophy, then, is to deal with Existence, and to do this philosophers must consider their own immediate inner and personal experiences. Under these assumptions philosophical thinking cannot set out “to raise philosophy to a science,” as Hegel had. Instead, philosophy must reaffirm that “truth is subjectivity” and that philosophizing means communicating not about objects or objective knowledge but about the content of personal awareness produced by the individual’s inner constitution. Existential thinking, Jaspers says, is “the philosophic practice of life.”

            Jaspers does not offer any systematic definition of existence philosophy. Nevertheless, he gives some of its characteristics. Primarily, existence philosophy is the manner of thought through which we seek to become ourselves. It is a way of thought that does not restrict itself to knowing objects but rather “elucidates and makes actual the being of the thinker.” It does not discover solutions in analytic reflection but rather “becomes real” in the dialogue that proceeds from one person to another in genuine communication. Existence philosophy does not assume that human existence is a settled piece of knowledge, since that would make it not philosophy but, once again, anthropology, psychology, or sociology. There is the danger that existence philosophy may lapse into pure subjectivity, into a restrictive preoccupation with one’s own ego, into a justification for shamelessness. But Jaspers considers these possibilities as aberrations. Where it remains genuine, existence philosophy is uniquely effective in promoting all that makes us genuinely human. Each person is “completely irreplaceable. We are not merely cases of universal Being.” The concept of Being, for existence philosophy, arises only in the consciousness of each concrete human being.

            If existence philosophy can be said to have a “function,” it is to make our minds receptive to what Jaspers calls the Transcendent. The human situation involves three stages. First, I gain knowledge of objects. Second, I recognize in myself the foundations of existence. Third, I become conscious of striving toward my genuine self. At this last stage I discover my finitude. There are certain “limiting situations” that I face, such as the possibility of my own death. However, when I become aware of my own finitude, I simultaneously become aware of the opposite, namely, Being as the Transcendent. This awareness of the Transcendent, which traditional theology calls God, is a purely personal experience incapable of specific delineation or proof. It is simply an awareness that everything, including myself and all objects, is grounded in Being. Central to my awareness of the Transcendent is my concurrent awareness of my own freedom. In my striving to fulfill my genuine self, I am free to affirm or deny my relationship to the Transcendent. Authentic existence, however, requires that I affirm it. I stand in the presence of a choice—an either-or—without the help of any scientific proof or even knowledge, only an awareness. In the end I must express a philosophical faith, which signifies a union with the depths of life.


Marcel’s Existentialism

Like Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) centered his existentialist philosophy on the problem of Being, particularly the human question “What am I?” The central notion of Marcel’s thought is his distinction between a problem and a mystery. He argues that it is not possible to answer the question “What am I?” by reducing it to a problem, analyzing its parts, and then producing a solution. A problem implies that we lack some information or knowledge and that all we need to do is look for it, engage in “research,” and thereby overcome our temporary ignorance. A problem usually revolves around an object or a relationship between objects. Information regarding objects and their relationships can be gathered and calculated. But the question “What am I?” cannot be reduced to a problem, because the I is not an object or an it. Although I am some sort of object, since I do have a body, my being is a combination of subject and object. Because the subjective part of myself can never be eliminated, I cannot be reduced to a mere object, and therefore, the question about my existence is not merely a problem: It is a mystery. Mysteries, then, are certain kinds of experiences that are permanently incapable of being translated into objects “out there.” These experiences always include the subject and are, therefore, matters of mystery. Marcel believed that the element of mystery is virtually irreducible precisely because human existence is a combination of “being and having.” When we have things and ideas, we can express these in objective terms—for example, “I have a new car.” However, being is always a subjective matter.

            In the end human existence derives its deepest meaning from the subjective affirmation of Being through fidelity. Marcel writes that “the essence of man is to be in a situation.” He means by this that a person’s relation to Being is different from a stone’s. For one thing, we are the only beings “who can make promises,” a phrase of Nietzsche’s that Marcel wanted to underscore. To be able to make a promise places us in a unique relationship with another person, a kind of relationship that could not possibly exist between two objects. This moral aspect of existence led Marcel to believe that the ultimate character of a person’s relationships involves the element of fidelity. Fidelity offers a clue to the nature of our existence, since it is through fidelity that we continue to shape our lives. We discover fidelity through friendship and love, which gives us the power to overcome the “objectivity” of other people and to produce a new level of intimacy. We commit ourselves to them, such as we do with our spouses. Making commitments, though, creates a new problem. The future is always uncertain, and we do not know for sure what other people might do. Our spouses, for example, might just pack up and leave some day. Should we then just naively go into these relationships? The way out of this problem is to put a higher and more absolute faith in a divine and mysterious order. This has a kind of trickle-down effect and supports our more routine faith commitments between people. Although Marcel was in no sense a traditional theologian, he nevertheless found in the Christian faith the basic spirit of his philosophy, and he converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of 39.




Sartre’s Life

Born in 1905, Jean-Paul Sartre was the son of Jean-Batiste, a naval officer, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a first cousin of the famous theologian and jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer. Sartre was educated at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, exhibiting at an early age his precocious gift for literary expression. While at the École Normale, he was attracted to philosophy by Henri Bergson, whose Time and Free Will (1889) left him “bowled over,” feeling that “philosophy is absolutely terrific, you can learn the truth through it.” He spent the years 1934 and 1935 at the Institut Français in Berlin, where he studied Husserl’s phenomenology. Sartre wrote his Transcendental Ego (1936) in Germany while at the institut, and, as he says, “I wrote it actually under the direct influence of Husserl.” It was in Berlin also that he worked on his novel Nausea, which he considered his best work even at the end of his career. In that novel Sartre deals with the pathological feeling we have upon experiencing through intuition the accidental and absurd nature of existence, the feeling that human existence is “contingent” and without explicit purpose. Because he could not find words adequate to describe this philosophical insight to the reader, “I had to garb it in a more romantic form, turn it into an adventure.”

            During World War II, Sartre was active in the French Resistance movement and became a German prisoner of war. While in the prisoner-of-war camp, he read Heidegger and “three times a week I explained to my priest friends Heidegger’s philosophy.” The notes he took on Heidegger at this time influenced Sartre very strongly and were, he says, “full of observations which later found their way into Being and Nothingness.” For a brief period he taught at the lycée at Havre, the lycée Henry IV, and the lycée Cordorcet, afterwards resigning to devote himself exclusively to his writings, which ultimately numbered over thirty volumes. As a sequel to Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre wrote another major work titled Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). His last book was a three-volume work on Flaubert (The Idiot of the Family, 1971–1972). Although Sartre was influenced by Marxism and continued to be politically active, he was never a member of the Communist Party. While some commentators sought to moralize about Marxism, they were not very successful, Sartre says, “because it was pretty hard to find much in Marxism to moralize about.” His own criticism of Marxism was that it provided no explicit role for morality and freedom. Nor should we consider, Sartre says, “that morality is a simple superstructure, but rather that it exists at the very level of what is called infrastructure.” Because of his activism, he resisted personal acclaim, and when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964, he refused to accept it on the grounds that he did not want to be “transformed into an institution.”

            While a student at the elite École Normale Supérieure, he met a fellow student, Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong companionship. This was no ordinary relationship. Both were brilliant students. Although she was of immense assistance to Sartre in his prolific literary work, Beauvoir herself achieved great fame as a writer. Sartre never published anything without having Beauvoir read it critically and approve it. While Sartre was honored by the Nobel Prize Committee, Beauvoir similarly moved to first place among women of letters. At the time of Sartre’s death, she was considered France’s most celebrated living writer. Her novel The Mandarins won the Prix Goncourt. Her book The Second Sex, in which she wrote the often quoted words “one is not born a woman but becomes one,” won her recognition as a feminist. Her literary works gave her money, fame, and independence. Although Sartre and Beauvoir never married during their fifty-one years together, they had a strong relationship of loyalty and love. There were, however, complications along the way. In one of her memoirs, Beauvoir says, “I was vexed with Sartre for having created the situation with Olga.” This event became the theme of Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay, about the fictional character’s relation with another woman. This made Beauvoir say about her own situation, “From now on we will be a trio instead of a couple.” Sartre said earlier that Beauvoir was his “privileged,” but not his only, female companion. Sartre once said philosophically that “one can always be free”; Beauvoir asked, “What is the freedom of the women in a harem?” They were a rare couple—she was tall and strikingly beautiful while Sartre was short and homely. Together their fame reached around the world. Sartre lived simply and with few possessions, finding fulfillment in political involvement and travel, and needing only a small apartment on the Left Bank in Paris. In declining health and virtually blind, he died on April 15, 1980, at the age of 74.


Existence Precedes Essence

Sartre’s name became identified with existentialism primarily because of the lucid, accessible manner in which he wrote. What appeared first in the heavy language of Husserl and Heidegger now came forth from Sartre’s pen in the open, captivating style of novels and short stories. His principal contribution to existentialism is undoubtedly his lengthy Being and Nothingness. However, for some time his views were best known from his brief lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism, published in 1946. Sartre later rejected this piece and defined existentialism in somewhat different terms. Nevertheless, in this lecture he presents his classic formulation of the basic principle of existentialism: Existence precedes essence. What does it mean to say that existence precedes essence, and how does this formula bear on our understanding of human nature? Sartre argues that we cannot explain human nature in the same way that we describe a manufactured article. When we consider, for example, a knife, we know that it has been made by someone who had in his mind a conception of it, including what it would be used for and how it would be made. Thus, even before the knife is made, the knife maker already conceives it as having a definite purpose and as being the product of a definite process. If by the essence of the knife we mean the procedure by which it was made and the purposes for which it was produced, we can say that the knife’s essence precedes its existence. To look on a knife is to understand exactly what its useful purpose is. When we think about human nature, we tend to describe ourselves also as the product of a maker, of a creator, of God. We think of God most of the time, Sartre says, as a heavenly artisan, implying that when God creates, he knows precisely what he is creating. This would mean that in the mind of God the conception of human nature is comparable to the conception of the knife in the mind of the artisan. Each individual, on this view, is the fulfillment of a definite conception, which resides in God’s understanding. Some philosophers of the eighteenth century, including Diderot, Voltaire, and Kant, either were atheists or suppressed the idea of God. Nevertheless, they retained the notion that people possess a “human nature”—a nature that is found in every person. Each person, they said, is a particular example of the universal conception of Humanity. Whether someone is a primitive native, in the state of nature, or in a highly civilized society, we all have the same fundamental qualities and are, therefore, all contained in the same definition or conception of Humanity. In short, we all possess the same essence, and our essence precedes our individual concrete or historical existence.

            Sartre turned all this around by taking atheism seriously. He believed that if there is no God, then there is no given human nature precisely because there is no God to have a conception of it. Human nature cannot be defined in advance because it is not completely thought out in advance. People as such merely exist, and only later do we become our essential selves. To say that existence precedes essence means, Sartre says, that people exist, confront themselves, emerge in the world, and define themselves afterward. First, we simply are, and then we are simply that which we make of ourselves.

            Perhaps our initial reaction to this formulation of Sartre’s first principle of existentialism is that it is highly subjective—that we can presumably set out to make of ourselves anything we wish. However, his main point here is that a person has greater dignity than a stone or a table. What gives me dignity is possession of a subjective life, meaning I am something that moves myself toward a future and am conscious that I am doing so. The most important consequence of placing existence before essence in human nature is not only that we create ourselves but that responsibility for existence rests squarely on each individual. A stone cannot be responsible. And if human nature was already given and fixed, we could not be responsible for what we are.


Freedom and Responsibility

What began in Sartre’s analysis as an amoral subjectivism now turns out to be an ethics of strict accountability based on individual responsibility. If, that is, we are what we make of ourselves, we have no one to blame for what we are except ourselves. Moreover, when I choose in the process of making myself, I choose not only for myself but for all people. I am, therefore, responsible not only for my own individuality but, Sartre says, for all people. This last point seems to contradict the line of reasoning that Sartre has so far been developing. For, before I can choose a course of action, I must ask what would happen if everyone else acted so; this assumes a general human essence that makes my type of action relevant to all people. Sartre does in fact say that, even though we create our own values and thereby create ourselves, we nevertheless create at the same time an image of our human nature as we believe it ought to be. When we choose this or that way of acting, we affirm the value of what we have chosen, and nothing can be better for any one of us unless it is better for all. This all sounds very much like Kant’s categorical imperative. But Sartre does not wish to invoke any universal law to guide moral choice. Instead, he is calling attention to one of the clearest experiences of human beings. That is, all people must choose and make decisions, and although we have no authoritative guide, we must still choose and at the same time ask whether we would be willing for others to choose the same action. We cannot escape the disturbing thought that we would not want others to act as we do. To say that others will not so act is a case of self-deception. The act of choice, then, is one that all of us must accomplish with a deep sense of anguish, for in this act we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for each other. If I evade my responsibility through self-deception, I will not, Sartre argues, be at ease in my conscience.

            Although Sartre’s moral language sounds at times very much like traditional moral discourse, his intent is to spell out the rigorous implications of atheism. He accepts Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead” and takes seriously Dostoyevsky’s notion that “if God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” In a Godless world our psychological condition is one of abandonment, a word Sartre takes from Heidegger. Abandonment means for Sartre that with the dismissal of God there also disappears every possibility of finding values in some sort of intelligible heaven. Again, there cannot now be any “good” prior to our choice since there is no infinite or perfect consciousness to think it. Our sense of abandonment is a curious consequence of the fact that everything is indeed permitted, and as a result we are forlorn, for we cannot find anything on which we can rely, either within or outside ourselves. We are without any excuses. Our existence precedes our essence. Apart from our existence there is nothingness. There is only the present. In his Nausea Sartre writes that the true nature of the present is revealed as what exists, that what is not present does not exist. Things are entirely what they appear to be, and apart from them there is nothing. To say there is nothing besides the existing individual means for Sartre that there is no God, no objective system of values, no built-in essence, and, most importantly, no determinism. An individual, Sartre says, is free; a person is freedom. In a classic phrase he says that people are condemned to be free. We are condemned because we find ourselves thrown into the world, yet free because as soon as we are conscious of ourselves, we are responsible for everything we do. Sartre rejects the notion that we are swept up by a torrent of passion and that such passion could be regarded as an excuse for our actions. He also rejects Freud’s view that human behavior is mechanically determined by unconscious and irrational desires; this provides us with an excuse to avoid responsibility. For Sartre we are responsible even for our passions, because even our feelings are formed by our deeds. Kierkegaard said that freedom is dizzying, and Sartre similarly says that freedom is appalling. This is precisely because there is nothing forcing us to behave in any given way, nor is there a precise pattern luring us into the future. Each of us is the only thing that exists. We are all free, Sartre says, so we must choose, that is, invent, because no rule of general morality can show us what we ought to do. There are no guidelines guaranteed to us in this world.


Nothingness and Bad Faith

There is an element of despair in human existence, which comes, Sartre says, from the realization that we are limited to what is within the scope of our own wills. We cannot expect more from our existence than the finite probabilities it possesses. Here Sartre believes that he is touching on the genuine theme of personal existence by emphasizing our finitude and our relation to nothingness. “Nothingness,” he says, “lies coiled in the heart of being, like a worm.” Heidegger located the cause of human anxiety in our awareness of our finitude when, for example, we confront death—not death in general but our own death. It is not only people who face nothingness, Heidegger says; all Being has this relation to nothingness. Human finitude is, therefore, not simply a matter of temporary ignorance or some shortcoming or even error. Finitude is the very structure of the human mind, and words such as guilt, loneliness, and despair describe the consequences of human finitude. The ultimate principle of Being, Heidegger says, is will. Sartre concurs by saying that only in action is there any reality. We are only a sum of our actions and purposes; besides our actual daily lives we are nothing. If I am a coward, I make myself a coward. It is not the result of my cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum. I am a coward because I made myself into a coward by my actions.

            Although there is no prior essence in all people, no human nature, there is nevertheless, Sartre says, a universal human condition. By discovering myself in the act of conscious thought, I discover the condition of all people. We are in a world of intersubjectivity. This is the kind of world in which I must live, choose, and decide. For this reason no purpose that I choose is ever wholly foreign to another person. This does not mean that every purpose defines me forever but only that we all may be striving against the same limitations in the same way. For this reason Sartre would not agree that it does not matter what we do or how we choose. I am always obliged to act in a situation— that is, in relation to other people—and consequently, my actions must not be capricious, since I must take responsibility for all my actions. Moreover, to say that I must make my essence, or invent my values, does not mean that I cannot judge human actions. It is still possible to say that my action was based on either error or selfdeception, for if I hide behind the excuse of following my passions or espousing some theory of determinism, I deceive myself.

            To invent values, Sartre says, means only that there is no meaning or sense in life prior to acts of will. Life cannot be anything until it is lived, but each individual must make sense of it. The value of life is nothing else but the sense each person fashions in it. To argue that we are the victims of fate, of mysterious forces within us, of some grand passion, or heredity, is to be guilty of bad faith (mauvaise foi) or self-deception, of inauthenticity. Suppose, Sartre says, that a woman who consents to go out with a particular man knows very well what the man’s cherished intentions are, and she knows that sooner or later she will have to make a decision. She does not want to admit the urgency of the matter, preferring to interpret all his actions as discreet and respectful. She is, Sartre says, in self-deception; her actions are inauthentic. All human beings are guilty, in principle, of similar inauthenticity—of acting in bad faith, of playing roles, and of trying to disguise their actual personality behind a facade. The conclusion of Sartre’s existentialism is, therefore, that if I express my genuine humanity in all my behavior, I will never deceive myself, and honesty will then become not my ideal but my very being.


Human Consciousness

Underlying Sartre’s popular formulation of existentialism is his technical analysis of existence. He argues that there are different ways of existing. First, there is being-in-itself (l’en-soi), which is the way that a stone is: It merely exists. In one respect: I am no different from any other kind of existing reality. I exist, just the same way anything else is, as simply being there. Second, there is being-for-itself (le pour-soi), which involves existing as a conscious subject, which is what people do and things like rocks cannot do. As a conscious subject I can relate to both the world of things and people in a variety of ways. At one level I am conscious of “the world,” which is everything that is beyond or other than myself and which, therefore, transcends me. At this level I experience the world simply as a solid, massive, undifferentiated, single something that is not yet separated into individual things. Sartre describes this type of consciousness in Nausea where the character Roquentin is sitting on a park bench. He looks at all the things before him in the park, and all at once he sees everything differently, everything as a single thing—“Suddenly existence had unveiled itself.” Words vanished, and the points of reference that people use to give meaning to things also vanished. What Roquentin saw was existence as “the very paste of things”: “The root [of the tree], the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked.” Only later, when we reflect, does the world become our familiar one. But, Sartre says, “The world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence.” At the level of Roquentin’s experience, the world is the unity of all the objects of consciousness. Sartre agrees with Husserl that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which means that there is no consciousness without affirming the existence of an object that exists beyond, that is, transcends, our consciouness. As we have seen, the object of consciousness can be “the world” as simply “being there.” But in addition to the world as a single solid mass, we speak of specific objects like trees, benches, and tables. Whenever we identify a specific object, we do this by saying what it is not—we differentiate a thing from its background. When a chair appears as a chair, we give it that meaning by blacking out the background. What we call a chair is fashioned or drawn out of the solid context of the world by the activity of consciousness. The world of things appears as an intelligible system of separate and interrelated things only to consciousness. Without consciousness the world simply is, and as such it is without meaning. Consciousness constitutes the meaning of things in the world, though it does not constitute their being.

            When we view the world as being-in-itself, as simply being there, Sartre says that “the essential point is contingency. I mean that by definition existence is not necessity. To exist is simply to be there.” Contingency means that when something exists, it does so by chance and not because it necessarily follows from something else: “Existences appear... but you cannot deduce them.” The world we experience is “uncreated, without reason for being, without any relation to another being; being-in-itself is gratuitous for all eternity.” The meaning anything will have in the world will depend, Sartre says, on the choices people make. Even a table will have alternative meanings depending on what a particular person chooses to use it for—for example, to serve dinner or to write a letter. A mountain valley will mean one thing to a farmer and something else to a camper. Here consciousness shifts us from being-in-itself (simply being there) to being-for-itself, where consciousness dramatically differentiates the objects of the world from the conscious self as subject.

            The activity of consciousness is at this point twofold. First, consciousness defines specific things in the world and invests them with meaning. Second, consciousness puts a distance between itself and objects and, in that way, attains freedom from those objects. Because the conscious self has this freedom from the things in the world, it is within the power of consciousness to confer different or alternative meanings on things. The activity of consciousness is what is usually called “choice.” We choose to undertake this project or that project, and the meaning of things in the world will depend to a considerable extent on what project we choose. If I choose to be a farmer, then the mountains, the valley, and the impending storm will have special meanings for me. If I choose to be a camper in that valley, the surroundings and the storm will present different meanings.


Marxism and Freedom Revisited

Although Sartre believed that Marxism was the philosophy of his time, he was aware of a striking contradiction between his existentialism and Marxist dialectical materialism. Sartre’s existentialism strongly espouses human freedom. By contrast, Marxist dialectical materialism emphasizes that all the structures and organizations of society and the behavior and thinking of human beings are determined by prior events. On this view freedom of choice is an illusion, and we are simply vehicles through which the forces of history realize themselves. Whereas Sartre argued that it is human consciousness that “makes history” and confers meaning on the world, Marxism holds that the social and economic structures of history direct its own development. Rather than conferring meaning on the world, our minds, the Marxist says, discover this meaning within the historical context as a matter of scientific knowledge. One reason Sartre never became a member of the Communist Party is, he says, because “I would have had to turn my back on Being and Nothingness” and its emphasis on human freedom. In his earlier writings Sartre focused primarily on the individual and freedom. Later, in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, he focused more specifically on the historical and social context in which people find themselves and that has an effect on their behavior. He thought that Marx succeeded more than anyone else in describing how social and economic structures develop and how they bear on human decisions. Sartre accepted increasingly the limitations on human choice—the limitations of birth, status in society, and family background. Earlier, he sought to describe how individuals are capable of deceiving themselves by making excuses for their behavior, as if they were not free to have behaved otherwise—a form of self-deception. He never did depart from this emphasis on the freedom of the individual. But he did adjust his thinking under the influence of Marxism by facing the fact of people’s social existence, or their relationship to other people, especially as a member of a group—for example, a labor union. Acknowledging the influence of group structures on human behavior and consciousness, resulting particularly in labor’s sense of alienation, he revised his optimistic view of human freedom to some extent. In 1945 Sartre wrote that “no matter what the situation might be, one is always free.” As an example he states that “a worker is always free to join a union or not, as he is free to choose the kind of battle he wants to join, or not.” Recalling this statement some years later, in 1972, Sartre says that this “all strikes me as absurd today.” And he admits, “There is no question that there is some basic change in [my] concept of freedom.” In his lengthy work on Flaubert, he concludes that although Flaubert was free to become uniquely Flaubert, his family background and his status in society meant that “he did not have all that many possibilities of becoming something else... he had the possibility of becoming a mediocre doctor... and the possibility of being Flaubert.” This means, Sartre says, that social conditioning exists every minute of our lives. Nevertheless, he concludes that “I am still faithful to the notion of freedom.” It is true, he says, that “you become what you are in the context of what others have made of you”; nevertheless, within these limitations a person is still free and responsible. This is Sartre’s way of reconciling the fact that historical conditions affect human behavior with his intuitive certainty that human beings are also capable of shaping history. In doing this, Sartre sought to overcome with his existentialism what he considered the major flaw of Marxist philosophy, namely, its failure to recognize the individual as a “real person.”




Merleau-Ponty’s Life

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was born in 1908, and from 1926 to 1930, he studied at the École Normale Supérieure. The philosophy curriculum at that time was steeped in both rationalism and idealism. Merleau-Ponty says of his teacher, Leon Brunschvicg, that he “passed on to us the idealist heritage.... This philosophy consisted largely in reflexive effort... [which] sought to grasp external perception or scientific constructions as a result of mental activity.” Merleau-Ponty was one year behind Sartre, who also attended that school. An interesting interview between Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir describes the relation between the two at that time. Beauvoir: “You were standoffish with people you did not like. Merleau-Ponty, for example. You were on very bad terms with him, weren’t you?” Sartre: “Yes, but even so I once protected him from some men who wanted to beat him up.” Beauvoir: “You were singing obscene songs; and being pious, he wanted to stop you?” Sartre: “He went out. Some fellows ran after him—there were two of them—and they were going to beat him up because they were furious. So I went out, too. I had a sort of liking for Merleau-Ponty.... [I said] Leave him alone, and let him go. So they didn’t do anything; they went off.”

            In 1929 Merleau-Ponty came under the influence of Gustave Rodrigues, director of the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly where Merleau-Ponty was fulfilling his student teaching assignment. Merleau-Ponty, the young Catholic, found Rodrigues, an atheist, to have an “extraordinary character,” leading Merleau- Ponty to say that “an atheist resembles other men.” In 1936 he broke with Catholicism as he worked through his version of phenomenology in his first work, The Structure of Behavior. He saw active duty during World War II, in 1939 and 1940. He taught at the Lycée Carnot in Paris during the German occupation and at this time composed his greatest philosophical work, The Phenomenology of Perception.

            From their early days at École Normale Supérieure, the lives and careers of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty unfolded as a stormy relationship during which they would be alternately friends and enemies. With the help of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre organized a resistance network in the winter of 1941, called “Socialism and Liberty.” Their goal was to bring about a form of political society based on a harmony between a socialist economy and freedom for the individual. In a collaboration that lasted from 1945 to 1952, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty published Les Temps Moderne, a journal aimed at political commentary. While engaged in the journal, Merleau-Ponty taught at the University of Lyon and then the Sorbonne, and in 1952 he was appointed chair of philosophy at the Collège de France, a position that he held until his death.

            Merleau-Ponty’s political views were progressively becoming less sympathetic toward the former Soviet Union. In 1950 he wrote an editorial denouncing the labor camps there:


If there are ten million concentration camp inmates while at the other end of the Soviet hierarchy salaries and standard of living are fifteen to twenty times higher than those of the free workers—then... the whole system swerves and changes meaning; and in spite of the nationalization of the means of production, and even though private exploitation of man by man and unemployment are impossible in the U.S.S.R., we wonder what reasons we still have to speak of socialism in relation to it.


These labor camps, Merleau-Ponty said, were “still more criminal because they betray the revolution.” Around 1952, while Sartre was moving toward closer ties with the Communists, Merleau-Ponty left the editorship of Les Temps Moderne. A few years later, Merleau-Ponty wrote a book, Adventures of the Dialectic, in which he included a chapter analyzing in detail Sartre’s relationship with communism. The chapter “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” ends with this critical sentence: “One cannot at the same time be both a free writer and a communist.” Actually, both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty ultimately became disenchanted with communism. As we saw earlier, Sartre never became a member of the Communist Party because that would have forced him to give up his strongly held position that people are free. With his philosophical work still far from complete, and at the height of his creativity, Merleau-Ponty died on May 4, 1961, at the age of 53.


The Primacy of Perception

In The Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty offers a theory of perception in reaction against both dualist and realist theories. Intellectualists (or dualists), such as Descartes, argued that not only are our minds distinct from our bodies but our mental concepts and processes have priority over the sensory data that we get from our bodies. Our minds interpret sensory information, fill in the gaps, and make it meaningful. Descartes vividly espouses this view here: When looking from a window and saying I see men who pass in the street, I really do not see them, but infer that what I see is men.... And yet what do I see from the window but hats and coats which may cover automatic machines? Yet I judge these to be men. And similarly solely by the faculty of judgment which rests in my mind, I comprehend that which I believed I saw with my eyes. Realists took the opposite view that we receive perceptions of the world exactly as it is and that our minds do not organize our perceptions any further. Merleau- Ponty strikes a middle ground: The perceptual nature of our bodies constructs and shapes sensory data; our higher mental functions play no such role. In fact, even our higher intellectual thought processes are grounded in the perceptual framework of our bodies. He writes, “All consciousness is perceptual, even the consciousness of ourselves.” The main theme of this theory, then, is the primacy of perception:


            By the words, the ‘primacy of perception,’ we mean that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us.... It is not a question of reducing human knowledge to sensation, but of assisting at the birth of this knowledge, to make it as sensible as the sensible, to recover the consciousness of rationality. Merleau-Ponty was particularly influenced by the early-twentieth-century theory of Gestalt psychology, which held that our perceptual experiences are shaped by inherent forms and structures that give sense, meaning, and value to our experiences. For Merleau-Ponty these structures are embedded in bodily perception.

            Merleau-Ponty encapsulates his position in the notion that “I am my body,” thus denying that I can somehow separate myself as a mental subject from myself as a bodily object. The two components of myself are united in my lived experience through my body. By identifying the self as a body, Merleau- Ponty is not espousing the materialist views in the tradition of Democritus and the atomists. According to traditional materialism, I am essentially a physical machine, and the mental components of my life are more or less explained away by the machinery of my body. Instead, for Merleau-Ponty, the mental aspects of me are embedded in my body; I am a body-subject, rather than a thoughtless and mechanical body.


The Relativity of Knowledge

Merleau-Ponty says that “in the final analysis every perception takes place within a certain horizon and ultimately in the ‘world.’” This follows from the fact that perception results from a person’s bodily presence in the world. A bodily presence already means that as a subject each of us is situated in the world at a certain time and with a unique perspective. The ideas we ultimately have reflect this partial view and our experience in time so that “the ideas to which we recur are valid for only a period of our lives.” The thing we perceive is not a complete thing or ideal unity possessed by the intellect, like a geometrical notion; “it is rather a totality open to a horizon of an indefinite number of perspectival views.” This means further that “the things which I see are things for me only under the condition that they always recede beyond their immediate given aspects.” For example, we never see all sides of a cube or a lamp or any other thing. Similarly, other observers will see things from their perspectives. Moreover, our perceptions occur during the ticking away of time, even though we are not aware of this sequence of the segments of time. At this point, Merleau-Ponty asks,


Can I seriously say that I will always hold the ideas I do at present—and mean it? Do I not know that in six months, in a year, even if I use more or less the same formulas to express my thoughts, they will have changed their meaning slightly? Do I not know that there is a life of ideas, as there is meaning of everything I experience, and that every one of my most convincing thoughts will need additions and then will be, not destroyed, but at least integrated into a new unity? He concludes that “this is the only conception of knowledge that is scientific and not mythological.” It means, moreover, that “the idea of going straight to the essence of things is an inconsistent idea if one thinks about it.” The most we can get from our perception of the world is “a route, an experience which gradually clarifies itself, which gradually rectifies itself and proceeds by dialogue with itself and others.”


A dialogue with “others” assumes that everyone can in some way share a similar experience of the world. But can Merleau-Ponty’s theory, which concentrates on each subject’s internal experience of the world, explain how two people can have a coherent conversation? Perceptions are relative to each person as a result of our unique perspectives, since “our body... is our point of view of the world.” Merleau-Ponty tries to solve this problem by using the concept of an “a priori of the species.” As members of a single species, all human beings perceive certain forms in a like manner. He says that “as Gestalttheorie has shown there are for me preferred forms that are also preferred for all other persons.” I will, of course, “never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it. But our first reaction to this separation of our consciousnesses is to “believe in an undivided being between us.” As I perceive another person, “I find myself in relation with another ‘myself,’ who is, in principle, open to the same truths as I am.” Even though there are two of us looking at the world, it is not the case that because of our different perspectives there are “two numerically distinct worlds.” There is, Merleau-Ponty says, a demand that “what I see be seen by [you] also.”


Perception and Politics

We might think that Merleau-Ponty’s account of the relativity of perceptual knowledge would not be well suited to deal with the problems of political, social, and economic order. After all, these subjects call for permanent and stable notions of “justice” and “freedom,” which Plato’s or Kant’s theories might better explain. This would contradict the existentialist notion that there are no essential and timeless values, that there is no essential human nature to be fully realized, and that people must create their own values. Merleau-Ponty has an answer to this. Right off, he rejects the lofty claims of abstract theories of politics, justice, and morality. Although Plato and others claimed that such values are based on “timeless” notions of the human good, these values in fact are simply reflections of the present circumstances of a particular culture. So-called universal political values were imposed on us by people who themselves had not participated in creating those systems of government; as such, such values are not a blessing but represent the heavy hand of oppression. Invariably, the so-called universal values turned out to be to the advantage of special groups. This was one reason Merleau-Ponty found in Marxism a congenial type of thought. Marxism, while abstract up to a point, was nevertheless embodied in an actual system, the communism of the former Soviet Union.

            Further, Merleau-Ponty argues that “things” are not all that we encounter through perception. Values are just as specifically perceived and have the same status as other aspects of the world. Values are significant, Merleau-Ponty says, “because they are apprehended with a certainty which, from the phenomenological viewpoint, is a final argument.” In addition, perception provides us with the important element of meaning. This is particularly significant when our perceptions encounter the actual ways people live among each other. From these actual living and working arrangements, Merleau-Ponty says, we can discover certain background meanings that reveal the changes and movements of specific groups of people. These changes are not simply facts, but they reveal the direction of history. This is another reason why Merleau-Ponty was attracted to communism, for here was a system and theory that could be observed concretely as the bearer of meaning located in the aspirations of the whole class of workers. Thus, in the absence of any viable abstract theories of justice, Merleau-Ponty looked to the only sure source of political knowledge, namely, perception. Here he felt that he discovered not the universality of an idea but the universality of the proletariat, which is the bearer of the meaning of history.

            Both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were drawn to communism after World War II for similar reasons. It represented the chief alternative to the status quo, and the turbulent events of the time called for a new philosophical basis for political action, which they felt existentialism and phenomenology could provide. But they did not always agree with Marxism or with each other’s views of Marxism. Their prolonged and heated disagreements ultimately led in 1952 to the termination of their friendship and affected their views on communism. As Sartre wrote in 1961, “Each of us was conditioned, but in opposite directions. Our slowly accumulated disgust made the one [Merleau-Ponty] discover, in an instant, the horror of Stalinism, and the other [Sartre] that of his own [bourgeois] class.” Merleau-Ponty held that it is possible to perceive in actual society the developing consciousness of the working class. He saw a relationship here between the individual, the institutions of society, a scale of values, and reality. Most importantly, he thought he perceived that the developing consciousness of this class was the bearer of a rather specific meaning, a meaning that was growing steadily stronger and was shaping the direction of history. At the center of this overall perception was the urge on the part of this class to resolve the contradictions of the workers’ conditions and to organize a humane appropriation of nature. It also meant “as a universal class... to transcend national and social conflicts as well as the struggle between man and man.” This was the heart of the promise of communism, which Merleau-Ponty originally thought was corroborated by his own perceptions. But he was willing to admit that Marxism would be refuted if the proletariat could not overcome the strong structure of capitalism, if it could not eliminate violence, and if it could not bring about humane relationships among people. “It would mean,” Merleau-Ponty says, “that there is no history—if history means the advent of humanity and the mutual recognition of men as men.”



Phenomenology avoids questions about the so-called objective nature of things and instead explores phenomena more subjectively from within one’s human experience. Existentialism adopts this phenomenological approach and further emphasizes the importance of making choices and personal commitments. According to Husserl, philosophy in his day was in a state of crisis by adopting the naturalist view that physical nature envelops everything there is; this resulted in philosophy’s rejection of the realm of spirit (i.e., human culture). His solution to this crisis is phenomenology. Inspired by Descartes’s systematic doubting process, Husserl argued that we should disregard all our present knowledge and build a philosophy from our subjective experiences without any presuppositions. The foundation of the self’s subjective experience is intentionality: consciousness is always about something. Thus, any object of my subjective consciousness, such as a house or a person, is constructed by (or “intended” by) me. Our perceptions give us only fragments of reality, such as seeing a person’s profile, and our consciousness automatically constructs the person. This ability of the self to construct the world is what he calls “passive genesis.” In this process of constructing the world, I do not have access to any external things-in-themselves behind the world that my mind constructs. The only thing I have access to is the phenomena as it is constructed and intended by my subjective consciousness. Thus, he argued, I must “bracket” or ignore questions about whether my experiences are grounded in an external world. In this way, my subjective self contains the world and is the center of reality. The realm of the daily world that I construct and experience, before it gets interpreted by science, is what he calls the “life-world.”

            Inspired by Husserl, Heidegger argued that any study of the world requires that we first understand our human existence, which forms our conceptions of the world. He calls this fundamental human existence “Dasien,” which is German for “being there.” Our first and most primitive state of human existence is what he calls “being-in-the-world”: we encounter things in the world as utensils or tools that serve purposes, such as with a hammer. The different purposes of various objects overlap and interconnect and create a network of purposes. A second aspect of human existence is what he calls “concern”: we are concerned about many things. There are three components to this: (1) facticity, insofar as I have been thrown into the world without choice; (2) existentiality, where I have the freedom to transform my life; and (3) fallenness, where I lose sight of my unique and authentic character and fail to take responsibility for my actions. When acting inauthentically, I behave as expected, gossip, seek distractions, and deny the fact that I will someday die. This creates anxiety, which in turn awakens within me the need to live authentically.

            Religious existentialists held that religious themes of sin and salvation are only mythological ways of expressing Heidegger’s distinction between inauthentic and authentic life. Jaspers refers to our authentic and genuine life as “Existence.” We achieve this by becoming aware that everything is grounded in Transcendent Being (which is traditionally called God), and I affirm my relation to the Transcendent through an act of philosophical faith. Marcel argued that human existence derives its deepest meaning through acts of fidelity, which gives us a greater sense of Being.

            According to Sartre, the basic principle of existentialism is that existence precedes essence. That is, human beings are not defined by a preestablished human nature (i.e., an essence), but instead we first act and exist within the world, and define ourselves from that. This gives each of us responsibility for who we are, and we cannot blame our human nature or circumstances for what we do. We make our choices with a sense of anguish since, if I act immorally, I cannot escape the disturbing thought that I would not want others to act as I do. I choose, then, not only for myself but for all people. Sartre argued that there is nothing besides the existing individual: no God, no objective system of values, and no built-in essence. There is also no determinism, which means people are “condemned” to be free because of the responsibility that this imposes on us. If I am a coward, I am such because of my own actions. All human beings are guilty of acting inauthentically in bad faith, by which we play roles and disguise our actual personalities behind a facade. Sartre distinguishes between two ways of existing. There is unconscious being-in-itself such as with the existence of a rock; it is simply there. Then, there is being-for-itself, which is the existence of humans whereby our consciousness (1) defines specific things in the world and gives them meaning, and (2) puts a distance between myself and objects, thereby giving me freedom from those objects. Later in his life Sartre adopted Marxism and its view that social conditions shape who people are; however, Sartre still maintained that people are free within those limitations.

            Merleau-Ponty offered a theory of perception in reaction against both dualist thought, such as Descartes’s, and realist thinking, which holds that we perceive the world exactly as it is. There is, he argued, a “primacy of perception,” by which he meant that perceptual experiences are shaped by perceptual structures within our bodies. Knowledge is relative in that it results from a person’s bodily presence in the world at a particular point in time and space. Although we each see things from our own unique perspective, as members of the same species, we also perceive certain forms in the same manner; he calls this the “a priori of the species.” Merleau-Ponty argued that we perceive moral and political values the same way that we do other aspects of the world, specifically when we encounter social classes and the values they hold.


Study Questions

            1. Compare and contrast Descartes’s and Husserl’s respective views of the self as the foundation for our knowledge of the world.

            2. Explain Husserl’s notion of phenomenological “bracketing” and what he believes it accomplishes.

            3. Using some examples in your daily life, explain Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world” and how we develop a concept of the world as a network of tools with overlapping purposes.

            4. According to Heidegger, the most fundamental aspect of our existence is “care.” Discuss what that means for him.

            5. Religious existentialists have frequently drawn upon Heidegger’s distinction between authentic and inauthentic existence. Examine the religious notions of sin and salvation as metaphors for inauthenticity and authenticity.

            6. Discuss what Sartre means by the notion that existence precedes essence and whether you agree with him.

            7. Free will is commonly defined as the ability to have done otherwise. Suppose that you are a determinist and believe that we do not have the ability to have done otherwise with any of our actions. Discuss whether there might be a way of reinterpreting Sartre that would be compatible with determinism.

            8. Explain Sartre’s distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself.

            9. Kant argued that we experience and construct the world around us through a lens of mental categories. Merleau-Ponty argued similarly, but held that our physical lived body is the lens, not mental categories. Using examples from your daily life, explain what he means and how this differs from Kant’s position.

            10. Contemporary philosophy is often seen as a conflict between analytic and Continental approaches. Select a philosopher from each group, such as Russell and Husserl, and compare and contrast their philosophical approaches.