top of page

The Existence in Essence- On Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism"

Sarah Szabo

In Jean Paul Sartre’s speech, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he famously states that the unifying principle of both theist and atheist existentialism is the view that human beings are the beings for whom “existence precedes essence.” By this, Sartre means that human have no predetermined essence (identity, self, definition), and therefore, the are completely responsible for its construction and constitution. He continues by saying that atheist existentialists “declare with greater consistency” [than the theists] that, “if God does not exist there is at least one being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it.” (Sartre, 28) Therefore, in a sense, we are like God, because we create our definition out of nothing, yet we are nothing until we define ourselves. This becomes problematic, however, because we are not God. There must be some criterion giving us the ability to extract the essence out of the existence. And, even after one has “attained existence,” one must continue to choose, but, in a sense, because one can only define things (know their essence) by the action of each choice, one is still choosing from “nothing’.  Sartre’s self perpetually leaves the past behind, yet cannot know itself in the future, if it has not yet made the next choice. If we are forever self alienated in this way, how can we choose as a self? The purpose of this paper is to present how the theist existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard, provides resources in his theories of “self choosing,” which could better account for what is lacking Sartre. I will argue that, although Kierkegaard is a theist, his theory is actually more “consistent” because it better accounts for the “existence” in the “essence,” a unified self, from which one can choose, whether it is a choice in the universal, or a choice before God. In order to do this, I will first articulate the problem with Sartre, anticipating how I will suggest it be resolved. Then, I will show how, although Kierkegaard is thiest, his theory is still one of self constitution, such that human existence does precede essence, in order  prove that it can be applied to Sartre, without resorting to God to solve the paradox. Finally, on this premise, I will use Kierkegaard’s theory of “self choosing,” as presented in the ethical stage of “Either/Or” in order to suggest how Sartre’s self could better be accounted for, on its own terms of atheist existentialism.

I will now clarify how, in Sartre’s description of self constitution, the self is always external to itself, and why that creates a problem. First, Sartre describes the constituted self as the “sum, the organization, the set of relations...” (Sartre, 37) between a series of undertakings. He claims that man is nothing but what he has produced through his actions. There is no self outside of the actions. Sartre also says that the only way to measure the validity and strength of anything internal, such as one’s affection, sincerity, or will, is through the actions one has taken, which, is is something external, because it can be observed by others. One cannot consult a sense of one’s “instincts” or “passions” as a guide to action. They are not reliable sources to help one choose  because they are affected by the actions, and could be used as excuses for one’s actions, in the same way one could blame something external such as human nature, or an unconscious force. (Sartre, 34) Nor can we consult another, because, we choose whom we consult, how to interpret the advice, and what we ultimately decide. Yet, there is no self to consult, if the self is the action.

            Second, by nature of Sartre’s description of becoming a self, that of transcendence, one must perpetually be projecting oneself into the future, always seeking beyond, but never back into, oneself. “..Man is all the time outside himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist: and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist.” (Sartre, 45) To have transcendent aims is to embrace one’s freedom of choice, while actively and consciously aiming to “surpass,” “widen,” “deny” or “accommodate” the limitations of one’s possibilities. (Sartre, 42) In Sartre’s earlier work, Being and Nothingness, this is referred to as “transcending facticity,” the facticity being all that situates man in the world, prior to experience, such as his historical, biological, psychological, and social reality, as well as  a person’s past actions (their existence). If the self is “the heart of our transcendence,” we can never really be in our heart, because, for Sartre, transcendence is a concept of surpassing oneself, becoming oneself, but never being oneself. (Sartre, 45)

The brings me to the third reason why Sartre’s self lacks internality, which is the seeming dismissal of the reality and importance of the facticity in the project of becoming oneself. Throughout the speech, the facticity is presented as something external to the self which must be dealt with. It is a situation in which one is placed, never something that part of oneself. The “widening” of one’s limitations, mentioned in the previous paragraph, is the closest Sartre comes to idea of embracing one’s facticity. Sartre discusses the absolute necessity of a lived experience, situated, in the world, as the limitation that makes human existence possible, however, he does not give the same caliber of consideration to the necessity and value of facticity in assisting the self to take shape. It is understandable why Sartre minimizes importance of facticity--he is trying to emphasize that man has no excuse for not becoming the self that they think they could be. However, to blame and to take responsibility for are very different.

 If, to become a self one must constantly make choices, yet cannot consult anything external to the self (human nature, the unconscious, universal morals, or even the advice of another) in order to chose, yet cannot turn to oneself because the self is one’s actions, and to be a self is to be perpetually self-surpassing; one must choose oneself out of nothing, which, if one follows the argument, leaves nothing to choose from and nothing to choose with. To be fair to Sartre, it is more in what he does not say then what he does.  However, given what he does say, he, at best, leaves a less than convincing connectedness between the “set of relations,” and, at worst, if the self is what is behind the actions, could be interpreted as failing to acknowledge any self.

Before I can suggest how Kierkegaard’s theory might assist with these problems, I must first explain why, although it is theist, it fulfills the qualifications of what Sartre describes as “existence precedes essence.” I will argue that, even if one must turn to God, the teleology of Kierkegaard’s theory is precisely to make the full cultivation of self’s essence possible.  In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the dialectic of the “Condition of Self”: a synthesis, a relation, between the opposing forces of the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, and freedom and necessity, which relates that relation. (The Sickness Unto Death, 43)  To become imbalanced in one or the other is to despair, to lose one’s self. And, Kierkegaard argues that despair is like a sickness, in the sense that, one who believes oneself established, can only make oneself more sick because they want to get out of themselves (because they are despair), but it is themselves that they want to be. If one recognizes it is God who established the relation, one can want to be oneself, but a self that is somehow outside and inside them, not in despair. A self out of despair can relate to itself and want to be itself because it is “grounded transparently in God,” (The Sickness Unto Death, 44).  It seems that this  would solve the paradox in Sartre, because God allows for the self to simultaneously be ahead of but still inside of itself, such that it can become concrete and unified. Even if one accepts God as the establisher of this relation, in order to resolve this paradox of self-becoming, this still does not negate the proposition that we are self-constituting.. Kierkegaard makes such a solution more plausible, because God is possibility, and this proposition does not have to be rational. Man is still choosing, and choosing--between freedom and necessity. If Kierkegaard’s God dictated the essence, freedom would be an illusion, and there would be no synthesis to balance to become oneself. This is not a predetermined essence.

Through the use of pseudonym personas, Kierkegaard presents a philosophy of three “spheres of existence,” or, self contained “life views,” each a stage in the cultivation of self. The first two stages, the aesthetic and the ethical, are presented in Either/Or, and the third, the religious, is presented in Fear and Trembling. The first two attempt to constitute themselves without “grounding” themselves in God. They are critiqued, on their own terms, on their existential viability, which, consequently, presents the necessity for the religious in order to truly become an individual whole. I would like to emphasize that, for Kierkegaard, this is a process of self-cultivation, for which the human is responsible. Even if the first two spheres are not yet whole selves, they are still creating an orienting “life view,” which God is not controlling. And one must go through this process in order to be able to recognize the necessity for God in themselves, not have it told to them, because, to be told is not to exist in a sphere. One must experience it for oneself, from within, in order to understand it. In order to recognize oneself in God, one first “becomes conscious of himself as an individual human being” (The Sickness Unto Death, 151). I will now describe how one comes to this consciousness.

A person in the first sphere of existence, the aesthetic, attempts to cultivate himself by “laughing” at the despair of disunity. The prescriptive norm is to enjoy life in the immediate. He avoids commitment and responsibility to himself and to others because that could minimize enjoyment. He embraces the accidental with enthusiasm, but can never, wholeheartedly, invest himself in anything because he cannot be invested in himself. He is dependent on the temporal and finite to define him, and therefore, cannot truly become a self.  In the ethical, man takes possession his existence and turns it into essence. He internalizes and transforms all that encompassed the “aesthetic” way of being by choosing himself, eternally and infinitely. The finite now exists relative to the ‘perimeter’ of his sphere, which he chosen infinitely by choosing himself. One does this by choosing ones duties as an individual, in relation to the universal, recognizing that what is “universally human” is to have one’s duty. (Either/Or, 554)

According to Kierkegaard, the ethical is still in despair, because, one must relate to the universal, which, therefore, limits possibility, and therefore is not satisfying for the full realization of self. Somehow, the individual, a particular, must be higher than the universal, which is contradictory, and therefore, “absurd.”  Hence, the necessity for a “leap of faith”--selectively choosing to suspend the ethical before God, by trusting in oneself to trust in God. Here, we see, God is again used to resolve a paradox. Arguably, if to have a self is to be able to choose, even if the persona of the ethical realm is in despair, they must have a self, in order to leap. One cannot reach the religious stage without having passed through the ethical. In order to choose, one must be able to commit to choosing, and, if one does not understand the ethical, one cannot know what it is to choose to suspend it. So, if to have a self is to choose, one must first have a sense of self, even if it is not a complete and fool-proof self. I conclude, even without God, Kierkegaard’s theory provides a framework for self constitution, from which I will now compare Sartre, leaving the religious sphere aside.

If the religious man becomes transparent to himself by “grounding” himself in God, the ethical man becomes transparent by “grounding” himself in the world in which he lives. The ethical tries to embrace the infinite with himself, in order to bring unity in his relation the finite. For the ethical persona, to live an existentially fulfilling life is to become satisfied as an individual, a particular, in the universal, recognizing that what is universally human is that everyone is particular, “everyone is an exception,” (Either/Or, 589) For Sartre, to embrace one’s freedom as such is how one becomes a self. One takes responsibility for it; one makes a project of oneself, realizable in the universal, but not constrained by it.  We are freedom and freedom is the infinite. Sartre’s description of self differs, however, because it lacks a home for its infinitude. In his previous work, “Being and Nothingness,” Sartre admits that, because we cannot get our facticity to coincide with our transcendence, self-alienation belongs to the human way of being. Within Kierkegaard’s Dialectic, one could say that facticity is necessity and the finite, and transcendence is possibility and the infinite. So, in a sense, Sartre is accepting the despair, however, this creates the problem of always being outside of oneself, which I expressed in the beginning of this paper.

The ethical realm of Kierkegaard better resolves this problem because it creates a unified internal scheme behind the actions. It provides an account of self awareness from and for which to choose. At one point, Sartre does briefly mention absolute truth as one’s “immediate sense of self,” however, he quickly abandons this idea (Sartre, 34). What the persona of the ethical sphere might suggest, instead, is “the eternal sense of oneself.” And this is acquired by bettering accounting for the process of becoming and being a self, which is not to become a something from nothing, or to choose from nowhere. By transforming the “outwardness into inwardness,” Kierkegaard’s self does not become a self from nothing.  By internalizing his existence, by accepting himself in all his traits, his history, his passions, he can become with himself, because his in continuity with it. “He has his place in the world, with freedom he himself chooses his place, that is, he chooses this place.” (Either/Or, 542)  To be alienated from oneself is not to be oneself.  If one cannot be at home in oneself, one cannot be “at home in the world,” but in order to be at home within oneself, one must find ones place in the world. Such a person has embraced his facticity, but he does not worry that it will limit his freedom, or become an excuse, because he trusts in the fact that has chosen himself eternally by choosing himself ethically. In the same way the “universal man” trusts that he will not be limited in choosing his duty in the universal; one does not fear complacency with their facticity, because in choosing oneself all finitude is “translated from necessity to freedom.” (Either/Or, 542) One trusts the possibility of their inner infinitude.

In choosing the ethical, he has created a realm, a “perimeter,” which governs his actions. And, if he acted outside of his realm, he would know it, from inside. It would not change who he is if has chosen himself, if he has an inside from which to discern that he stepped outside his government. If we only consider the “sum of actions” that Sartre describes, this would not be possible. If the ethical realm is a sphere with the aesthetic inside it, Sartre’s description is more like a void with many spheres, none of which we can ever really be inside, because we are only the connection between them. By accounting for this sense of a self in the eternally, temporally specified, one can find a sense of trust in themselves. There is a self to consult.

If one chooses themselves in this way, one also can recognize the necessity, the “facticity”, of having emotion and passion from which to will oneself into taking action. The concept of the “aesthetic sphere” being incorporated into the ethical allows for an articulation of this process. If one has accepted the aesthetic, one has come to decide the purpose of one’s passions. They are no longer accidental if we choose them as essential. What, in the purely aesthetic realm might be called pure “sensual passion,” such as an animal experiences, can be transformed into love, which only man can create. When one feels at home in oneself, and at home in the world, one has a sense of place from which one can reveal oneself. When one is able to reveal oneself, one can love, and “...he who cannot reveal himself cannot love and he who cannot love is the unhappiest of all.” (Either/Or, 462) For Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere, just as one must be revealed to oneself before revelation to others, to love oneself is to be able to love others; to have confidence in one’s love is how one can  find unity, because, if one has confidence in that love, one trust oneself, and only then can one choose.

In conclusion, it is deeply problematic for an ontology of the self to lack inwardness, because, in order to choose for oneself, one must have a self to chose from. To be self-alienated is to feel outside oneself, and, according to Kierkegaard, this inability to find unity is despair. If one aims to try to make life existentially satisfying, without turning to god to solve the paradox, one must be able to turn to themselves. If Sartre had better acknowledged the facticity, the “unifying power of personality,” and the validity of one’s aesthetic self, once transformed in the ethical, he could have more convincingly created a self from which to choose. (Either/Or, 479) It may seem paradoxical, or at least problematic, to weld a theistic conception of self to Sartre’s stolid atheistic position.  Yet, with or without God, Kierkegaard offers a way out of a trap that Sartre set himself.  Indeed, without such an amendment, the very possibility of action by the self is imperiled, an irony insofar as Sartre posited action and volition at the heart of his philosophy.


Kierkegaard, Sören (1989); tr. Alastair Hannay. The Sickness Unto Death.  London:  Penguin Books, 1989; First Danish Edition 1849.

Kierkegaard, Sören (1993); tr. Alastair Hannay. ed. Victor Eremita. Either/Or A Fragment of Life.   London:  Penguin Books Limited Edition, 1992.

Priest, Stephen. (2001) Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings. New York: Routeledge.

bottom of page