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.


2 thoughts on “From Sartre to the Social Condition

  1. In response to Iddo Tavory’s assertion that Sartre’s depiction of the human condition does not address how choices we make and the dilemmas that ensue from these choices are socially constructed, I argue that Sartre examines the social implications of our choices from another angle. Tavory points out that Sartre’s discussion of the moral dilemma that accompanies difficult decisions obscures the extent to which individual moments of choice reflect the social construction of reality. I agree that in “Existentialism is a humanism” Sartre is most invested in demonstrating how the individual constructs his own reality through the choices he makes; however, in response to the critique that existentialists place too much emphasis on individual subjectivity, he also makes clear that individual subjectivism is made possible by inter-subjectivity. Assuming an inter-subjective view of reality means accepting that “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensible to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I have of myself.” The difficult decisions we face propel us to formulate a definition of morality that can guide us in making a choice. Our ability to both interpret these decisions as moral dilemmas and subsequently grapple with them is contingent on the inter-subjective nature of our experience of reality. We often decide while keeping a view of how others have faced similar challenges in mind and have the potential to influence how others respond to these challenges in the future through our decisions. Though Sartre does not explicitly draw out the link between inter-subjectivity and the social construction of reality, his definition of inter-subjectivity can be used to develop a more phenomenological explanation of how the dilemmas we face are patterned through social

    For example, the student who must decide whether to remain with his mother or go to war is making an individual moral choice; he must decide whether his personal responsibility to support his mother is stronger than the loyalty he feels toward his nation as a patriot. If he decides to enlist, he must ask himself if his mother will be able to endure being separated from him after already losing one son and being abandoned by her husband. The profundity of the dilemma faced by the student reflects not only his awareness of these questions but also the incomplete nature of the counsel the moral doctrines of his time can afford him. If he wants to be guided by Christian values, for example, he must interpret the Bible in order to apply it to his personal situation; no ready-made solution awaits him. In a time of war, many other men his age are facing similar dilemmas. The student’s choice will be witnessed and interpreted by other young Frenchmen who also feel divided by competing loyalties. His choice therefore implies the revelation of his position to his social world. Since the course of action the student takes has the potential to affect how his comrades interpret their own situation, he cannot escape the sense of profound responsibility implied by the moment of choice. His comrades must also confront this responsibility; their dilemmas are not exclusively their own and must accept that in choosing for themselves they are “at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind.”

    The critical relationship between the decision the student makes and how his fellows perceive his decision is reflected in Sartre’s view that we arrive at an understanding of ourselves through our relationships with others. “Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence.” In choosing the student therefore puts forth a personal understanding of truth that one of his fellows may employ as a means of better understanding his own position. In this sense the difficult nature of the student’s choice reflects both the individual struggle of interpreting his relationship to a socially constructed dilemma and how his moment of choice has the potential to alter how others perceive that dilemma. In closing, I agree that asserting that the individual is completely responsible for the reality he constructs through his choices obscures how the ability to choose is contingent on a socially constructed universe; however, the social dimension of this individual dilemma can to some degree be apprehended by viewing these moments of choice through an inter-subjective lens.

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