Existential Compatibilism Part I: Sartre and Freedom
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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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!**
 “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.
 As will be discussed later, Nietzsche gives a concise exposition of such determinism in Human, All Too Human (57).
 Andrea Falcon, “Aristotle on Causality,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
 Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
 For the purposes of this post I shall use ‘identity’ and ‘essence’ interchangeably with regards to Sartre.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Flies,” 58.
 Sartre, “The Flies,”105.
Sartre, “The Flies,”119.
Sartre, “The Flies,” 102.
 Sartre, Nausea, 129.