In “Existentialism is humanism,” Sartre concisely attempted to make his existentialism clear. The authentic human condition is a marked by choices, and by the realization that these choices are man’s, his/hers alone. In one of the most memorable parts of the treatise, Sartre tells of a student he had, confronted with a dilemma that had no easy solution:

He lived alone with his mother, his father having gone off as a collaborator and his brother killed in 1940. He had a choice – to go and fight with the Free French to avenge his brother and protect his nation, or to stay and be his mother’s only consolation. So he was confronted by two modes of action; one concrete and immediate but directed only towards one single individual; the other addressed to an infinitely greater end but very ambiguous. What would help him choose? Christian doctrine? Accepted morals? Kant?

Sartre’s important insight is that no single answer exists. The human condition is precisely that of being thrown into the world along with its dilemmas. We alone are answerable for our choices, and cannot forego the social responsibility that they entail. There is something both hard and alluring in this depiction of the human condition. Thrown into the world, we are “abandoned” to our own choices.

We may argue about the possibility of the kind of rugged philosophical authenticity that Sartre advances in his work, and about his rejection of the routines and small moments of life. And yet, there is something that rings true in his depiction of the moment of choice, and the resolution of open-ended moral dilemmas, as a formative moment of the human condition. What is more “ours” than the hard decisions we face? What defines us more than the solutions we find to the existential problems that we encounter in our lives?

From a sociological standpoint, however, there are some things that such a depiction misses. Even if we focus on moments of choice, we may note (like good constructionists) that people need to identify the choice qua choice. It is only in a certain world, in which “nation” is connected to selfhood, and in which mothers should be provided for, where such a choice is presented. We see the world, and its dilemmas, through socialized eyes.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of our human condition, what makes it truly a social condition, is that such moments are seldom unique. Sociologists have made much of the social construction of reality, and the social effects of social positions and processes. And yet, one of the most striking aspects of our existence as social beings is that the existential dilemmas and choices we have to make are themselves patterned.

We can take a simple example, from a universe of possibilities. Think of our relationship to our work. At a certain point in the 20th century, at least ideally, people expected to remain in their jobs (think, for example, of life-employment in the Japanese labor market of the 1970s and 80s). This notion of work and life, as many sociologists have noted, is quickly eroding. For a growing majority of workers, living in a fluid economy in which jobs appear and disappear at short intervals, this is far from being the case. Rather, they need to constantly, and proactively, seek their new job, their new project, their new definition of self.

NYPL: SIBL--Sign of the Times © utopianbranchlibrary | Flickr
NYPL: SIBL–Sign of the Times © utopianbranchlibrary | Flickr

The kinds of existential dilemmas that face workers in the two kinds of work regimes are also quite different. Those who lived, and the few of us who still live, in the regime of stable expectations, are confronted with the worth of their work, as defining their lives: is the job that defines me truly worth doing? Am I wasting away my life? Can I live with the boredom I may feel? This is an existential dilemma, entailing both action and definitions of selfhood. It is also not a dilemma that could be answered in the same way: for some such jobs are havens of security; for others, the coordinates of their suffocation. Some would completely identify themselves with their job; others would leave it; still others would find enclaves of creativity that belie their workplace self-definition.

On the other hand, in the new “regime of the project,” in the fluid world of short-time projects, jobs, and definitions of self, a very different set of existential dilemmas and angst emerges: can we stand the constant reinvention of ourselves? Can we continuously re-imagine our work, yet keep other aspects of our lives (our love lives perhaps) constant? Are we giving up on ourselves if we settle into a routine job that we don’t expect to leave? Again, the solutions are varied. Although people may answer these dilemmas in similar ways, there is a realm of creativity that makes these answers personal.

One way to think about the differences between these different dominant regimes is to think precisely in terms of the dilemmas they entail. As people live through their social world, they find themselves “set up” in certain ways that evoke different kinds of dilemmas, existential choices and angst. Their condition as social beings living in a specific world is never smoothly laid out before them, but presents patterned, predictable, problems they face.

It may be true that our resolution of the existential dilemmas we face, as Sartre noted, has much in common with the work of the artist. And yet, the materials and artistic choices the artist must solve are given to her by her time. The human condition, then, is social not only since the definition of choice comes largely pre-constructed, but also since — like actual, rather than idealized, artists — people are handed the coordinates of their moments of choice. It is this social dimension of the existential that we term the social condition.