Home > Determinism, Existentialism, Philosophy > Existential Compatibilism Part I: Sartre and Freedom

Existential Compatibilism Part I: Sartre and Freedom

October 13, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In “Existentialism,”, published in the wake of some of the greatest works in Existentialist literature, F.C. Copleston makes two claims. First, (1) that the uniting feature of existentialist thought is the focus on man as a “free, self-creating, self-transcending subject,” and (2) that all existentialists revolt against any view of man as “an item in the physical cosmos” and therefore against any theory of materialistic or psychological determinism.[1] While (1) is fairly unproblematic, I argue that the philosophies of both Nietzsche and Camus contain elements of, and responses to, the problem of Free Will in the Theory of Determinism. These elements placate the metaphysical necessities required for a robust philosophical system, necessities which Sartre ignores in favor of ontological considerations. In this first post, I would like to begin by setting the stage for the discussion at hand, expound upon Sartre’s concept of “existence-precedes-essence,” and demonstrate how the subjectivity of this viewpoint grants freedom but leaves traditional metaphysical concerns of causality vs. free will unanswered. First, though, a brief discussion of the manner in which I shall approach such a compatibilism.

The compatibilist who accepts determinism seeks a way to both affirm causality but also avoid the meaninglessness that accompanies it as well as finding some sort of freedom contained within it, however thin a conception it might be. Moral responsibility is also a strong concern of the compatibilists, but is sadly beyond the scope of this post. In this post I make use of the terms determinism, compatibilism, and freedom. For the current purposes, I treat these terms fairly loosely for the sake of space. Here I use ‘determinism’ merely to refer to the basic theory, capable of being explained numerous ways, that given the fixed state of the universe at any given moment and all the laws of this universe, any event which occurs is the only event which could have occurred.[2] This entails, therefore, that there are no “could have done otherwise” scenarios.

There are many compatibilist theories, some attempting to offer “could have done otherwise” scenarios, and some attempting to redefine what freedom means. My use of the word ‘compatibilism’ refers only to a theory that recognizes that (1) determinism is true (2) there is some sense of freedom to be had within such a deterministic world and (3) the sense of freedom outlined in (2) does not undermine (1). Given this loose definition, one of the goals of this two-part post is to analyze the way in which Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus utilize the concept of freedom in their philosophies and whether any of their theories can constitute the type of compatibilism outlined above. With this brief set-up, I shall now discuss Sartre’s concept of “existence-precedes-essence” and how this factors into his theory of complete freedom.

Sartre: “Existence Precedes Essence” and Freedom

The basis for Sartre’s philosophy, in fact what he sees as the primary tenet of existentialism itself, is the belief that, for man, our existence precedes our essence. This concept is in direct contrast to what Aristotle named the “formal” and “final” causes i.e. an artisan conceiving of the intended purpose or “essence” of an object.[3] In this way, the essence of any created object is pre-determined before it even comes into existence. Sartre says in Existentialism is a Humanism, “Let us say, then, of the paper-knife [or any manufactured object] that its essence, that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible, precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes.”[4] The existence of an object, then, is determined by its purpose, its essence; a paper-knife exists to open letters and so on, and this essence is present long before the paper-knife comes into existence. Sartre believes similarly that conceptions of God as the creator of man also lead to a view that essence precedes existence, since God must have known what he was creating prior to creating it, i.e. the essence of man would be present before man existed.[5]

However, one must not believe in a deity to attempt to provide man with an essence prior to his existence; any conception of human nature (rational being, etc.) also attempts to prescribe man’s essence before he exists. Rather, for Sartre, existence precedes essence:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards… Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.[6]

Man creates his own essence, and this is the source of his freedom. Rather than being rooted in rationalizations, Sartre’s treatment of freedom on focuses on ontological questions of being and identity.[7] This is reflected quite strongly in his treatment of freedom and choice in “The Flies” where choices give freedom and essence to human life.

At the opening of “The Flies,” the hero Orestes has returned home to Argos, having followed a myriad of different roads, and finds himself lost, without an identity or essence. There he finds the populace enslaved by Zeus and Aegisthus under a yolk of guilt. As the narrative progresses, Orestes wrestles with his identity, failing to find it in any set of memories or even his identity as heir to the kingdom of Argos.[8] However, Orestes finds his freedom in a choice, and also creates his own essence based on this choice:

Orestes: I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt…I have done my deed, Electra, and that deed was good…Only yesterday I walked the earth haphazard; thousands of roads I tramped that brought me nowhere, for they were other men’s roads. Yes, I tried them all: the hauler’s tracks along the riverside, the mule-paths in the mountains, and the broad, flagged highways of the charioteers. But none of these was mine. Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path.[9]

The content of this freedom is distinct from the freedom important for Compatibilists, since it has no considerations for any deterministic elements. Rather, Orestes’ freedom comes from embracing a choice as his own and thereby creating his own essence rather than lying on a pre-ordained or determined essence set out for him by nature, God, or the order of the cosmos.

Orestes proclamation of freedom is representative of Sartre’s rebellion against a metaphysical worldview of universal laws and metaphysical explanations. Having been rebuked by Zeus for his actions, Orestes responds, “I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way.”[10] Similarly, metaphysical considerations represented by the world of Zeus are seen as phantoms and shadow figures unable to harm the one who has become free.

As Zeus tells Aegisthus, “Orestes knows that he is free…Once freedom lights its beacon in a man’s heart, the gods are powerless against him.”[11] But Sartre’s rejection of metaphysics goes further than just considerations of freedom and extends to existence itself. In Nausea, Roquentin reels from an experience of seeing existence absent of the essences he had formerly been applying, focusing his insight on a tree root. As with “existence-precedes-essence”, the name ‘root’, its function, and biology cannot explain its existence. The root simply is. For Sartre, existence goes beyond any metaphysical musings or rationalizations:  “Evidently I did not know everything [about the root], I had not seen the seeds sprout, or the tree grow. But faced with this great wrinkled paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge was important: the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence.”[12] This passage is especially indicative of Sartre’s skepticism of metaphysic explanations of reality.

Despite building a robust conception of essence and personal choice creating meaning and freedom, Sartre’s antithetical existence-precedes-essence philosophy is perhaps overly subjective and leaves many metaphysical questions unanswered, many nauseating stones unturned. For example, there is no reference to or defense against the traditional deterministic argument against freedom with respect to Orestes’ actions. Rather than Orestes being free simply from feeling as though he made a choice, it is entirely conceivable that due to the state of the world at that moment, and given the fixed laws of the universe, Orestes could not have made any other choice than to slaughter his mother and her lover. In this instance, Orestes would not be free since his essence would have preceded his existence due to the determined nature of the universe. Indeed, Sartre seems almost recalcitrant to address what appear to be fundamental metaphysical issues, instead focusing on ontological discussions of being.  In contrast, Nietzsche recognizes determinism as a legitimate metaphysical mode of thought and attempts to formulate a manner of freedom within a deterministic worldview.

In part II, I shall introduce how Nietzsche maintains a deterministic viewpoint but allows for the development of free will, and how this concept of freedom despite limitations is continued in a different sense by Camus in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. Lastly, I shall discuss how Camus’ sense of freedom offers a thin ledge from which a form of existential compatibilism might be developed, and coagulate a sense of meaning and purpose of which determinist theory has hitherto been devoid.

**NOTE: In my ongoing effort to thwart would-be plagiarists from pilfering my pitiful writings, I have omitted publication information for my sources. Should you have a legitimate need for these sources, please do not hesitate to e-mail me and we can discuss. Thanks!**

[1] “It is actually true of all the existentialists, therefore, including Heidegger that they take man as the central theme of philosophy, and that by man they mean the free, self-creating, self-transcending subject. Looked at under this aspect existentialism may be regarded as a revolt against absolute idealism…and as a revolt against positivism, materialistic determinism and psychological determinism, against any form of philosophy which would reduce man to an item in the physical cosmos, so far as this would imply determinism.”

F. C. Copleston, “Existentialism,” Philosophy, pg 22.

[2] As will be discussed later, Nietzsche gives a concise exposition of such determinism in Human, All Too Human (57).

[3] Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

[5] Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] For the purposes of this post I shall use ‘identity’ and ‘essence’ interchangeably with regards to Sartre.

[8]Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Flies,” 58.

[9] Sartre, “The Flies,”105.

[10]Sartre, “The Flies,”119.

[11]Sartre, “The Flies,” 102.

[12] Sartre, Nausea, 129.

  1. October 13, 2011 at 8:18 PM


    You lost me at ‘existentialism’. God! how I hate existentialism!

    • October 13, 2011 at 8:29 PM

      Surely you have felt the same pang, that hunger for meaning amidst the collision of atoms? 🙂

      I admit, I find some of the work of Kierkegaard and Sartre in particular distanced from a naturalist/physicalist position by an almost impassable gorge. While their writing certainly plays into the very human desire for meaning, self-evaluation, etc. I have been discouraged by the sometimes complete disregard or disdain for confronting or discussing metaphysical issues in their works. That is why I have a fondness for Nietzsche and Camus (you might like part II a little more) as they at least admit, if not fully incorporate, a determinist outlook into their search for meaning.

      I have an earlier (albeit terrible) post about meaning and determinism with regard to Derk Pereboom’s book “Living Without Free Will” which I would like to return to and fix one of these days.

      Out of curiousity, why do you hate existentialism so much?

      • October 13, 2011 at 11:49 PM

        Please do not take my comments as combative or personally insulting. If you find merit in existentialism, as you ostensibly do, then let a thousand flowers bloom. I am merely (hopefully adequately) expressing my distaste for existentialism.

  2. October 13, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    Re: ‘Surely you have felt the same pang, that hunger for meaning amidst the collision of atoms?’

    In all honesty, I have never felt any such thing. In fact, I have never understood what ‘meaning’ could ever amount to- in this context, at least. Even now I haven’t a clue what an answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of my own existence?’ could possibly look like. To me, it is a meaningless question.

    My misgivings with existentialism are threefold. First, I fail to see the impetus for the entire program (if we can identify an ‘existentialist’ program) of existentialism. Second, too many so-called existentialists seemed to me to be little more than cafe intellectuals who offered superficial and intellectually irresponsible lip service to defunct ideologies (I have in mind here Kierkegaard’s Christianity, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair with Marxism, and Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism). Third, so-called existentialists (with- at times, at least- Nietzsche) seem to me to be given to purposeful obfuscation; it is as if they wrote as if they were trying to hide the fact that they had nothing of any importance to say (Camus and Paul Tillich seem good examples of this phenomenon, though really no more so than Sartre and de Beauvoir).

    • October 15, 2011 at 6:50 PM

      No offense taken at all! I, too, see several shortcomings in the existentialist movement, some outlined in the post, others not.

      As for ‘meaning’, I believe the best way to explain what I mean when I use the word (since I would not dare presume what existentialists mean when they use the term) is Sartre’s “existence precedes essence.” On the first prong of the problem, if my essence or my purpose is such that I determine it rather than am determined by some outside standard overlayed upon me, then by what method am I to express, find, or choose my essence if not my some ideology internal or external to myself? This is the criticism I lodge against Sartre’s sense of freedom and self-creation, that he fails to even acknowledge the possibility of determinative elements in the process. If I am motived by a religion, or an ideology, or an idea, or a feeling, what is the source of this motivation? What is the source of my inclination toward one over the other? “The Flies” is a great example of this – Orestes believes he can make a radical choice, but why? What motivates his anger, or what would have motivated his desire not to kill? It is a line of causation extending past him, past his radical choices, and on beyond his existence.

      The second prong of the problem is the potential for alienation if our essence precedes our existence. For, as Christopher Hitchens points out, we are in a cruel position indeed if the God of the Bible truly does exist: he is a jealous, violent, retributive God who demands to be worshipped and punishes for eternity all those who refuse to obey. Born into such a universe but wishing not to submit to such a ruler, what manner of existence would that be? Bound by a standard one does not accept, and forced to live with a purpose one does not want – this is the complaint often leveled against determinism. Those who utilize such a complaint assume that the lack of absolute freedom (perhaps even the types Sartre refers to of radical self-creation and choice) means our choices are not our own. But, as the preceding paragraph hopefully shows, this problem plagues every worldview we might possibly adopt.

      So, if I accept that my actions and inclinations are merely products of brian states, which are products of phsyiological and environmental factors outside of my conscious and rational control, then how should I feel about this? Are they mine because they radiate from my person? Are they mine only if I ‘own’ them? These are the questions I see a robust existential consideration addressing, and I would have to say that (of what I have read) Camus does a decent job of this. At least, more so than Sartre.

    • October 15, 2011 at 6:57 PM

      I know it is far, far, off topic (although you did mention Heidegger, so maybe not that far off) but what are your thoughts on Realism? Especially with regard to morality or aesthetics?

      I have never understood why one cannot maintain Realism across the board while simplying denying that objective morality or objective beauty exist. I do not see that as a non-realist position, since we need not affirm the existence of all objects n order to maintain Realism, so why not abstracts as well? It might be more of a problem of classification than an actual issue, but I was just curious what you thought.

  3. October 15, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    Standardly, moral realism states that moral claims report statements of fact- i.e., moral facts- such that moral facts make moral propositions either true or false. (Likewise for aesthetic realism, scientific realism, mathematical realism, causal realism, realism regarding the existence of mind independent physical objects, etc.)

    Now, as commonly conceived, one can be a realist in one respect and an anti-realist in another without too much difficulty. Which is to say that there is no necessary connection between moral and aesthetic realism.

    Personally, I see no good evidence for moral facts or aesthetic facts, so I am not a realist with respect to morality and aesthetics, but I still consider myself a realist regarding physical objects.

    Have I addressed your curiosity?

    • October 16, 2011 at 12:17 PM

      I do understand the common distinction between realism and non-realism with respect to abstracts. The question I suppose I was really trying to ask is whether you believe there is even a point in saying one is a “moral non-realist” if one is only truly positing the non-existence of moral facts of the universe. It would seem to me that non-realism is a negative definition, much like atheism, in that it is a statement of non-existence rather than existence.

      And yes, you did satisfy my curiosity regarding your personal view (though I suspected as much re: physical objects and morality)

  1. October 15, 2011 at 8:09 PM
  2. July 21, 2012 at 11:52 PM

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