Bob Corbett
May 2010

I have just finished reading and writing comments on Hazel Rowley’s book: TETE-A-TETE: THE TUMULTUOUS LIVES & LOVES OF SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR & JEAN-PAUL SARTRE. Just click on the title for my comments on that book.

In those notes I focused primarily on the main topic, the personal relationship of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. However, while reading the book I was taken back to a central position I have always held and deeply felt: Existentialism is first and foremost a way to live one’s life, and only secondarily a field of academic study.

I tried to do both: live it and study it. I was first drawn to existentialism by reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s BEING AND NOTHINGNESS, his novel NAUSEA and his play NO EXIT. That was about 1960 and I wasn’t teaching or even formally studying existential philosophy.

I wasn’t as interested in existentialism as a theory, but a guide to life. I had been raised a Roman Catholic, loved the religion in the main, so much so that I entered the seminary in 1957 and spent the four years of my undergraduate studies in the seminary. I was not one of those “discontented” Catholics one hears so much about. I had had nothing but good experiences in my elementary and high school days with nuns (St. James Grade School) and brothers (McBride High School).

My difficulty was with my inner beliefs. I left the seminary after college graduation in 1961, feeling very unsure about the existence of God and quite doubtful about the notion of an afterlife. However, I very much embraced much of the morality of the social gospel. I wasn’t interested in the “laws” of the church, and found the emphasis on its version of sexual morality and obedience to be rather offensive. However, I wasn’t quite ready to publically declare that I was an atheist, but was nearly obsessed with the moral question of how should I live my life.

I started reading more existentialism and thinking about it and found the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre clarified much of what I had been thinking . Things moved quickly in my life. I married in 1962, moved with my wife to the Bahama Islands to do service work teaching for the Catholic Bishop of the Bahamas in a (then) remote island elementary school. After two years we left the Bahamas with the two sons who were born to us there, and spent one year at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and ended up in fall of 1965 with me having a teaching position in philosophy at a small girls college in St. Louis, now a large co-ed university, Webster University.

I also moved in my inner life as well. By 1964 I was a declared and open atheist, and ready to name myself as an “existentialist.”

I have detailed much of my personal journey in an essay: Who Am I Becoming?

With that background, I was exited to hear Hazel Rowley tell the story of Sartre going to visit Beauvoir in southern France shortly after they had finished their successful examinations in 1929 for the agregation (this is a competitive exam which would allow them to at least teach high school philosophy in France’s public schools).

Rowley tells us:

Sartre explained to Beauvoir his theory of liberty and contingency: It was the subject on which they had written in their exams, and he had been thinking about it for some time. As he saw it, individuals lived in a state of fundamental absurdity or contingency. There was no god: life had no preexisting meaning. Each individual had to assume his freedom, create his own life. There was no natural order: people held their destiny in their own hands. It was up to them to determine the substance of their lives, even the way they chose to love. It was frightening to be free. Most people fled from their freedom. But Sartre embraced his. He was not going to allow any preestablished code to determine his life. His life was going to be his own construction. Beauvoir thought this a beautiful philosophy.

I could never have expressed it that well back in the early 1960s, but that’s exactly where I was: For me:

Like Sartre, I had a strong suspicion that many people ran to religion and other givers of values as a way to avoid the very hard task of taking responsibility to create their own values in a valueless world.

That was the real beginning of my own personal version of existentialism. However, there is serious logical tension inside existentialism. One arrives at the negation of (objective) values, yet the impossibility of not choosing values when one acts. One does CHOOSE and those choices have consequences. The position gives the starting point for the individual to begin to act existentially, but no one’s choices are the “right” ones, since “right” used in that sense of “right for all” doesn’t exist.

Sartre was a great one for me to be reading. His choice of values was extraordinarily different from mine. I was drawn to many of the values within a rather traditional Christian social morality: respect other people, treat people fairly, help those in need and so on. However, I didn’t think those things were good (for me) because the church or Bible or Jesus told me. I just thought they made very good sense in creating a world I would want to live in. Sartre seemed to me very worried about being co-opted by standard social values, and I understand that very clearly. I understood why he would be very suspicious of tradition and it’s power over many extradinary. It indeed is a danger and it does take rather strong courage to create and follow one’s own values without bowing down to the pressures of the external world.

I think that once I discovered this sort of starting point for my own existentialism, I next got a great deal of help from Martin Heidegger’s BEING AND TIME and then the methods of Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (which I learned via Heidegger before reading Husserl himself).

Heidegger warned of the dangers of being untrue to oneself. However, there is a sort of confusion within the typical language for this in both French and English. Our word “authentic” (the French is about the same), clearly has the hidden notion of being better. An “authentic” painting, or document or food stuff or whatever, is almost always taken to be “better” than a “non-authentic” thing. But if one is to choose something because it is “authentic” one is sort of caught in a circle. It will be what some OTHERS have defined as authentic and then one must know whether or not they are right.

I was deeply moved by Heidegger’s analysis of the concept of being-one’s-own-self in Being and Time. Such a hyphenated notion is neither standard in English nor was his German word for it standard German. He was trying to express something not normally expressed in language. Heidegger thought he had to alter normal language to try to find a way to convey his concept. However, artificial or technical it may be, it does seem to convey an important philosophical concept.

There seems to me a huge difference in meaning between:

Authentic and non-authentic

and Being-one’s-own-self and not-being-one’s-own-self

The first connotes value, which shouldn’t be there in an existential analysis, and being-one’s-own-self connotes the notion of choosing one’s own world – which is the existential concept.

It was an easier notion for me in helping me realize I was always to be choosing not the authentic over the non-authentic (who determines which is which?) rather than being-one’s-own-self or not-being-one’s-own-self. This is the self, choosing for the self alone. The notion was just richer and clearer for me and helped me move forward. It also kept before me the huge responsibility I had to create my own life in an absurd world – i.e. a world without objective values.

However, the next problem was one of knowledge. How was one to know what was one’s own values? What sorts of considerations does one make?

There is a simply huge literature of value theory or ethics in philosophy, and much of it is extremely valuable and useful in making these critical decisions of who am I to be, who am I to make myself into, especially if I don’t think values are objective.

But that’s the rub. The bulk of the history of moral philosophy are arguments to defend the case for absolute or known moral truths, not on the basis of authority or religion or revealed texts and such, but on the basis of reason alone. However, while certainly not yet having any profound knowledge of all those challenging systems, I was fairly convinced I just wasn’t going to find knowable systems of true values.

If that was the case how was I to choose?

This was where Edmund Husserl’s method of phenomenology came in. Husserl wanted to create a method of science, as he saw it, that would allow us to attend to the objects themselves which we encounter in the world, and the processes (interactions – with people as well as other beings and objects) to get some clearer sense of not what should be, but what actually is, given to our experience of an object or process.

I could do that with human situations. Look at them with care, try to see as much as I could about them and by careful and attentive description I would, hopefully, come to more informed insights about what was going on, especially in human interactions, and then be in a better position to choose the values that would give meaning to me and guide my life. But these were going to be mine, and not necessarily yours or anyone else’s but I could, if asked on challenge, at least trace the process of arriving at these values.

Like Sartre argued, one’s values would be one’s own. Each “I” would choose it’s own set. The “I” would determine its values, not others.

Rowley, in her book describes Beauvoir’s dealing with this notion:

The underlying existentialist philosophy of Beauvoir’s memoirs -- it was also the underlying philosophy of her relationship with Sartre ---- is that it is “bad faith” to look to another, whether a human being or a god, or a sense of salvation. As individuals we are free, and act in “bad faith” when we try to avoid our freedom. It is not easy, freedom, it brings with it the anguish of choice. It comes with the burden of responsibility.

There is an ambiguity here, however, as to what it is to “look to another.” To look to another as some authority whom we follow because the other is this other to whom I give special power – yes, that is clearly a “bad faith” of not taking one’s own responsibility.

However, we are social beings, we talk with others, read what people write, hear their arguments and such. It doesn’t seem to me that to study the ideas of others and to, at times, believe that those descriptions or positions MATCH our own experience or judgment – that doesn’t seem like bad faith to me, it seems like good sense.

What is the case for any who embrace the basic existentialist tenets is that there simply are no authorities outside the self whose positions are true because THEY say so. But, for one to have heard it, or read it from another and then, with some serious attention to it, to embrace the view as one’s own, is not my, on my view, bad faith.

However, it is crucial to understand that existentialism, as a movement cannot affirm a single value as “true.” None. Not even the views of the famous writers like Sartre, Heidegger and so on.

Sartre is the person normally cited as the writer who brought existentialism to public attention in post-WWII France and who put it on the intellectual map. His views were noted for being very much in conflict with standard culture, most particularly his sexual mores. However, in one of his first public lectures after his fame was considerable, he recognizes that his values were not “existentialist” values, but the values of the existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Rowley writes about that lecture:

In truth existentialism was neither a pessimistic nor a negative philosophy, Sartre told the audience. Its doctrine was that since God does not exist, man makes himself. There is no a priori human nature or essence. We are not born cowardly or lazy; we choose to be these things. ‘Man is responsible for what he is . . . We are alone, without excuses. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.’

If many people dislike this philosophy, Sartre went on, it was because they preferred to make excuses for themselves, to tell themselves that circumstances were against them. ‘I have not had a great love, or a great friendship, but it’s because I did not meet the right man or woman,’ they would say. ‘If I had not written very good books, it’s because I haven’t had the leisure time to do it.’ According to Sartre, they were lying to themselves about their freedoms. This was ‘bad faith.’

Existentialism was not about possibilities or intentions, Sartre said, but about concrete projects. No one was a genius unless it was expressed in his or her works. The same applied to love. ‘There is no love except that which is manifested in a loving relationship.’ Hence the existentialist slogan: ‘Existence precedes essence.”

Existence precedes essence. That is, one is born, lives, chooses, makes decisions, changes one’s mind, makes other decisions and so on, and what one is CREATING is one’s essence, one’s essential person. But, while one is alive one is still in the process of becoming. One is not yet “finished,” not yet an “essence.” Existential living is the process of creating one’s self over a life-time.

Since Sartre was so central to the early popularity of existentialism many people, not understanding the nature of existentialism, assumed that the values of Sartre were the values of existentialism. And they often didn’t like what they saw.

Rowley writes:

Ignored in 1943, BEING AND NOTHINGNESS now became a fashionable book, especially among the young, where Sartre had a cult following. The communists said Sartre was a nihilist, who ‘wallowed in nothingness.’ Conservatives saw him as godless and depraved.

And people thus decided existentialism was nihilist and godless and depraved and so on. Indeed, many famous existentialists are certainly atheists, and don’t believe in objective values at all. On the other hand there are existentialists who are theists, even some major theologians like the Christians Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth, and the famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber, among many others.

I have been what I would call a “practicing atheistic existentialist” for about 50 years now. My life, like a huge number of self-proclaimed existentialists, has been dominated by the search for values, and the attempt to bring my acts and life into close conformity with my values. I think I am more typical of practicing existentialists than not. This near obsession with trying to bring a stated and pronounced set of values into conformity with our actions in the world puts us in a very similar camp of those religious believers who took their religion so seriously that they would have described themselves as seeking to be saints. After all, what is a saint if not one who has worked hard to bring his or her life actions into sync with his or her values in a conscious manner?

To the issue: well, Corbett – what are your values? In an important sense, in relation to existentialism, this is a rather irrelevant question. Again, existentialism is a theory of how to live one’s own life. One does not have a list of “accepted” or “canonical” values. Rather, the task is to take one’s life seriously and create one’s values by living them in one’s everyday world, changing as the conditions of one’s life leads one to change. It’s a process of becoming.

I continue to “become.” I continue to change. I continue to be aware of the gaps between what I would state as my values and meanings of human existence and how I live. I am my existence, my process, my becoming. Once I am “finished” living, i.e. dead, then my essence can be described. I will be what I have done, the sum of all my acts.

So I continue on with my process of becoming, serious about human existence and the hard questions of how should I live in the world and why this way rather than that. I have no authorities at all. I have people whose lives, models and writings I have learned from, some I even admire and have chosen to try to make their model something I want to incorporate into my life. Not because it was theirs, but because the vision they brought to my attention has made sense to ME. But it has become my value by my choice and by my actions.

This struggle to create myself, my values, and bring my life closer and closer to a model I can confirm NOW, even though I may change next week – this is the essence for me, of living existentialism.

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Bob Corbett