Jean Paul Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’: A Critical Reading

It may seem unfair to read Existentialism is a Humanism as a canonical example of Sartrean philosophy – although it is always the first thing anyone reads by him, and it thus, holds a decisive sociological status.  And, he did choose to present the text in the form of an address.  Indeed, much later, he disavowed this text.  Yet, the text was performed in public in 1946 and constituted the first post-War international philosophical event.  This novel and international character became explicit with Heidegger’s response to Sartre in ‘Letter on Humanism’ later that year.  In this way, regardless of Sartre’s later disavowal, it is important that the text be understood, since, if for no other reason, this is the text, or something similarsartre, with which Heidegger engaged.  Yet, the text is important in itself, especially if read in tandem with Being and Nothingness.

In the following, I would like to undertake a critical reading of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism against the background of the persistent question of subjectivism.   Indeed, this is one of the primary charges against his philosophy with which he begins his address.  To this extent, Existentialism is a Humanism could be seen as an attempt to clarify and address criticisms of Being and Nothingness (1943), which had found many enemies amongst the public.  It could be argued that this attempt was obviously a failure and served to distort rather than clarify Sartre’s philosophy as presented in Being and Nothingness.  The dissemination of a philosophy is often fraught with misunderstanding, as it, as Nietzsche writes, wanders the earth as a fear inspiring grotesque.

To read the rest of the essay, please visit Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism: A Critical Reading


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